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Peru seminary program to serve Andean region

Members of the Peru Theological Education Commission tour a computer lab at Colegio America in Callao, Peru, site of the new Seminario Teológico Wesleyano.
A UMNS photo courtesy of the Peru Theological Education Commission.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

Dec. 5, 2008

A new theological program based in Lima, Peru, will provide pastoral training for Methodists in the Andean region of Latin America.

The program, which will include a seminary and a Center for Wesley Studies, was conceived by the Wesley Heritage Foundation of North Carolina and the Methodist Church of Peru, with support from The United Methodist Church. Classes are expected to begin in August or September of 2009, according to the Rev. Mark Wethington, the foundation’s president.

The seminary is the response to the Peruvian church’s desire for a stronger theological program, he said. Involvement from the United Methodist boards of Global Ministries and Higher Education and Ministry helped expand the vision to include Methodists in the Andean region.

Andean Methodist leaders are working with United Methodists and representatives of other Methodist denominations in Latin America and elsewhere on this program, said the Rev. Edgar Avitia, an executive with the Board of Global Ministries. Church leaders in the region are from Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and emerging churches in Venezuela and Colombia. Also involved are representatives of the Methodist Seminary in Brazil and, on an informal basis, Korean Methodists.

While Methodist theological students do attend ecumenical seminaries, Avitia explained that the denomination has "a challenge in the whole region in regards to … Methodist studies and pastoral training."

The Board of Global Ministries is particularly interested in mission training for pastors at a grassroots level. He noted that the new theological program touches on all aspects of The United Methodist Church’s four areas of ministry focus—leadership development, congregational development, health care and poverty.

Plans move forward

Plans for the Seminario Teológico Wesleyano moved forward during an Oct. 22-25 consultation of the Peru Theological Education Commission at Colegio America, a Methodist-owned school in the Lima suburb of Callao, where the seminary will be based.

The program received a major financial boost when directors of Global Ministries approved a $104,000 grant in October. The grant came from the Olive B. O'Conner Fund, a mission fund managed by the agency and started years ago in honor of the Rev. L. Elbert and Lois Wethington, now retired and in their mid-80s, who were missionaries in the Philippines

Elbert Wethington guided the Wesley Heritage Project—the Spanish translation, publication and distribution of all works of Methodist founder John Wesley. He retired as the foundation’s first president in 2005, and Mark Wethington is his son.

The Rev. Edgar Avitia

"In a lot of the Latin American Methodist churches, Methodists have lost their identity," Mark Wethington told United Methodist News Service. "They have become more generic as Christians." The foundation’s goal over the years "has been helping churches in Latin America to reclaim that identity."

The Board of Higher Education and Ministry contributed $30,000 to the foundation to assist with the seminary’s initial costs.

"The development of the seminary in Peru is central to the delivery of theological education in the region," said the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, who leads the Division of Ordained Ministry for that agency. "Building a community of scholarship and practice will provide needed leadership for the Methodist churches in Latin America."

A major problem is lack of ordained pastors, Avitia pointed out. Venezuela, for example, has no ordained pastors, while Peru only has 12 ordained elders and 150 lay pastors. In Bolivia, only 15 of 70 pastors are ordained. "There’s a great need for credentialing in the region," he said.

The Rev. Saul Espino, an executive with the Board of Higher Education and Ministry and participant in the October consultation, agreed. "Most of these countries are lacking in pastoral leadership," he said. "The establishment of a seminary would be a wonderful thing."

Ties to Peru

Wethington has long ties to the Methodist Church of Peru. About 20 year ago, while serving as a pastor and teaching part-time at Duke University, he helped the North Carolina Conference establish a mission covenant with the Methodists in Peru. At the time, the church there was small, had few funds and had lost some of its key leadership, he said.

"Many pastors and leaders need a Wesleyan and Methodist education—not just a workshop but a deep study of Wesley." – Johnny Llerena
"They haven’t had a seminary in the Lima area for a little over 10 years," he added. "For that reason, they haven’t had many pastors to be trained or ordained for leadership in the church."

Students attending the new seminary will have access to a library, computer lab and "state-of-the-art" classrooms at Colegio America. Serving primary through high school grades, the school’s regular student body is largely composed of middle- and upper-class Roman Catholics and Protestants, Wethington said.

A Peruvian Methodist pastor, Johnny Llerena, who is on staff at the school, produced a brochure about the seminary. Rebeca Luza-Salazar, also a Colegio America staff member and a Christian educator with the Methodist Church of Peru, is chairwoman of the Peru Theological Education Commission.  

Llerena noted that since the closing of its seminary, Comunidad Bíblica Teológica, the Peruvian church has only three regional programs of theological education "with some problems" regarding quality and continuity.

"A good level for theological education means—for me—a systematic education in a formal institution with educational approved standards, conducive to the obtaining of a professional degree under national laws, with a curriculum adapted to the Peruvian and Latin American reality and with an academic staff with high education," he wrote in an e-e-mail to UMNS.

Llerena believes that theology is reflected in the church’s pastoral action, guiding Christians "in the walk towards the kingdom of God." Because of the world’s changeable realities, "our pastors-theologians have to be well prepared to understand the word of God and communicate it to the church," he added.

It’s also important to avoid "fundamentalist and sectarian positions" that are in opposition to a Methodist identity, according to Llerena. "Many pastors and leaders need a Wesleyan and Methodist education—not just a workshop but a deep study of Wesley," he said.

"At this time, comprehension of Wesley is just from one perspective, but not holistic, not integral," Llerena said. "Seminario Teológico Wesleyano will be a center for a serious study about Wesleyan theology. That is what we need."

Recruiting faculty

A curriculum design for the seminary is under way. "We’re beginning to recruit faculty," Wethington reported. "All classes will be held within that facility, late afternoon and into the evening." The schedule is designed to accommodate both the regular school hours and the fact that many seminary students will be working earlier in the day. "It fits a pattern of life that’s conducive to Latin America," he said.

Because it is not quite full time, the seminary course of studies will run for five years, including an internship, at a cost of about $3,800 a year. The Wesley Heritage Foundation has established a scholarship fund for seminary students that allows for contributions and even the "adoption" of a particular student. "They (donors) can follow that student and build a relationship with that student through the course of the studies," he said.

At the Center for Wesley Studies, some of the seminary faculty will focus on writing and research and will encourage the more advanced students "to do higher education beyond seminary."

Miramar Methodist Church in Lima has offered part of its building for a 32-bed dormitory to house seminary students living outside the city. Wethington is lining up U.S. work teams for the dormitory project, who will begin to make renovations at the church in January. The church’s location is especially convenient. "It’s on a direct bus line—about a 30-cent ride from there to the school," he explained.

More information about the seminary project and the scholarship fund can be found online at www.wesleyheritagefoundation.org.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Audio: The Rev. Edgar Avitia

”We have very well established seminaries…”

“We really need to be more intentional…”

“The intention of the initiative…”

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Board of Higher Education and Ministry

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