Tulsa seminary gets modernized mission statement
BY BILL SHERMAN World Religion Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2012
7/14/12 at 4:15 AM
Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa's only mainline graduate-level seminary, has adopted a new mission statement and new educational focus as it adapts to what President Gary Peluso-Verdend believes are epic shifts in the American religious landscape.
"We seem to be in the midst now of the biggest set of changes in western Christianity since the Reformation," Peluso-Verdend said, referring to the revolution inspired by Martin Luther that launched Protestantism five centuries ago.
"The model of church as a place you go to at a particular hour ... grew out of the Reformation. ... It's a very expensive model," he said.
Just as the invention of the printing press was key to the Reformation, the digital revolution is boosting the changes now going on, he said.
"People don't need to be in the same place any more in order to be in relationship and to know what each other are thinking," he said. "What it means to relate, to be engaged with each other, has changed. That's having profound effects on what community means."
He said his older faculty members still prefer face-to-face communication, but his younger faculty members say their relationships with people they know online are just as strong as their relationships with people they know in person.
Shifts in society also are forcing changes in how people are trained for the ministry, Peluso-Verdend said.
Fifty years ago, most congregations recognized the need for trained ministers and supported their education, enabling them to graduate with little or no debt.
Now, many ministers are coming out of graduate seminary with large debt, often compounded by debt carried over from undergraduate school.
And they are taking positions in churches that pay in the upper $20,000s to lower $30,000s, inadequate to service that level of debt.
One study showed that the number of master of divinity students who graduated with $30,000 or more of debt jumped from 1 percent in 1991 to 21 percent in 2001. Nearly half of the graduates in 2001 were $10,000 or more in debt, up from 22 percent in 1991.
The number of graduates from North America's 270 accredited seminaries has dropped steadily over the past 50 years. Membership in mainline churches also has declined.
Young people are increasingly turned off by the institutional church and by the behavior of Christians, but they are not turned off by Jesus, Peluso-Verdend said.
At the same time, he sees a growing hunger in society for Bible knowledge, theology and training in daily Christian living.
With all these changes in mind, Phillips 18 months ago began to assess where the institution is and where it needs to be going, Peluso-Verdend said.
That process, completed this spring, produced a new identity statement for the seminary, and a variety of new programs to be initiated, beginning with the fall semester.
The identity statement says that the seminary will offer "theological education dedicated to learning the way of Jesus in order to cultivate vital communities, vital conversations and the public good."
He said the word vital carries the meaning of energy for living joyfully and also carries the meaning crucial, as in: "Your life depends on it."
Phillips will continue to educate full-time ministers but will add programs to educate lay people interested in personal spiritual enrichment.
Ten six-week "Interreligious Understanding" courses will be offered this fall, each taught by a local faith leader. Judaism classes, for example, will be offered at Temple Israel by Rabbi Charles Sherman.
The seminary also will offer "FaithLife Connections" at seven cities in several states for lay people and clergy, a weekend intensive workshop taught by Phillips faculty members on a variety of topics such as the Book of Revelation, the Bible and social issues, and laity and work.
Over the next year, the faculty will revise the master of divinity curriculum to conform to the seminary's new emphases.
"Phillips Theological Seminary offers theological education dedicated to learning the way of Jesus in order to cultivate vital communities, vital conversations, and the public good."
"The seminary's mission is to learn and teach how to be: attentive to God; responsible biblical and theological interpreters; faithful individuals and communities acting with God to transform the world."
Original Print Headline: Updated identity
Bill Sherman 918-581-8398
Phillips Theological Seminary President Gary Peluso-Verdend has led an 18-month re-evaluation of the school's mission. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World file