“Healthy” discussion focuses on process, lack of Midwest partnership
By Connie Faber
“I know this has been a tremendous time of change,” MB Biblical Seminary board chair Jack Falk told U.S. delegates Friday during the afternoon Conection 2010 business session, “and that your transition is different than the Canadian experience.”
Although their questions were unique to their respective conferences, Canadian and U.S. delegates came to Vancouver in July with a common concern for how the recent decision to transfer MB Biblical Seminary-Fresno to Fresno Pacific University will impact theological education and pastoral training.
While the seminary reported Thursday afternoon of Celebration 2010 to a joint gathering of Canadian and U.S. delegates, the report was discussed and action taken by each national conference during its Friday business sessions.
U.S. delegates were not invited to address the transition on the convention floor. Instead, those who wished to discuss the changes did so during lunch. Ed Boschman, U.S. Conference executive director, moderated the lunchtime discussion, which was attended by 43 people.
Seminary president Lynn Jost fielded most of the questions. Also present were Merrill Ewert, FPU president, Jules Glanzer, Tabor College president, and two U.S. MBBS board members, Russ Isaac of Garden City, Kan., and Willard Dick of Bingham Lake, Minn. Juggling two simultaneous conventions proved a challenge for Falk, who was unable to participate in the U.S. Conference lunch because the Canadian Conference morning discussions went longer than anticipated.
While the atmosphere was congenial, the questions were at times pointed—and so were the responses. But in the end, the conversation was affirmed for being a healthy one. “We’ve experienced family here,” said Dennis Fast, pastor of Reedley (Calif.) MB Church. “Many of us here have had feet in these different institutions. We all feel this together.”
Emotions ran highest when people talked about how this decision impacts Tabor College and the process used in deciding to transfer MBBS-Fresno to FPU. The discussion began with questions about why this was not a three-way partnership between MBBS, FPU and Tabor College, the denomination’s school located in Hillsboro, Kan.
Jost responded that while a three-way partnership was ideal, it proved difficult. “We decided to do the merger with Fresno Pacific first and include Tabor next. To our disappointment, at this point we have not worked out a way to involve Tabor,” he said.
President Ewert spoke of the need to develop a partnership model that differentiates between issues concerning facilities and grounds and those related to curriculum and training.
When Boschman said that a partnership with Tabor College remains part of the dream Gaylord Goertzen, pastor of Ebenfeld MB Church, Hillsboro, Kan., responded, “Let’s make it more than a dream. Let’s make it an agenda and a priority.”
Participants were interested in hearing from Tabor College leaders. “On the West Coast we hear about unhappiness at Tabor,” said Elmer Martens of Fresno, Calif. “What is your disposition?”
President Glanzer responded by affirming the college’s intention to work with the other educational institutions. “The seminary board gave this to FPU and we want to bless them,” said Glanzer. “If there is some way to work together, we would love to be a full partner.” However, Glanzer’s frustration with the decision-making process became evident as the questions and answers continued.
The process was an issue for others as well. “The brouhaha on the street is the process,” said Brent Warkentin, pastor of First MB Church, Wichita, Kan.
“Many in the Southern District Conference are feeling there was no ability to speak into the decision-making,” said Warkentin.“There are hurt feelings and a sense of betrayal that the same voice was not given to this decision as to the process on the Fuller issue. The end result might not have been different but the process should have been more community based.”
Last summer Jost had come to the Southern District Conference convention to hear feedback on the proposal that MBBS partner with Fuller Theological Seminary of Pasadena, Calif. Jost and others at the seminary were talking with a variety of national and district leaders regarding a partnership with Fuller and sought council from the USC Leadership Board. When Fuller withdrew its offer in early November 2009, the seminary immediately began looking for partnerships within the denomination. Within 50 days of initiating talks with FPU, negotiations with the university were finalized, approved by the U.S. and Canadian Conference executive boards and an announcement of the transfer was made Feb. 5, 2010.
“There was a sense of urgency,” said MBBS board member Russ Isaac. “We did act rapidly.”
Jost and Ewert agreed that the seminary’s situation required swift action, citing several reasons why.
Jost said those involved with the search for potential seminary partners—himself, Falk and John E. Toews—“had about used up our gas.”
Jost said, “We saw an urgency and did the best we could at the time.” Given his familiarity with Tabor College as a former board and faculty member, “I am grieved that as a leader I didn’t do a better job of avoiding that consternation at Tabor,” said Jost.
“Lynn is understating the urgency of the moment,” Ewert said. “Potential students were sitting on their hands. Current students were looking at other schools. There was concern that other institutions were looking at our faculty.”
Boschman said, “It was intended to be a good decision for a national ministry.”
Specific questions surfaced about how this new arrangement for a national ministry will play out. Some regarded financial arrangements. “MBBS assets transferred to FPU will exclusively be devoted to MBBS ministry and mission,” said Jost in answer to one inquiry.
Ewert provided additional details about how assets were divided and then said, “We accept the property; we accept the mission. We hold the assets in trust to carry out the mission.”
Other questions focused on theological integrity. Under this new model, “is the seminary doing theology with the conference?” asked Harold Enns, Fresno, Calif. “Who holds Fresno Pacific accountable?”
Jost responded that, “questions of confessional integrity will continue to be directed to the U.S. Conference and the national Board of Faith and Life (BFL).” While this is the agreement between BFL and the seminary, Jost said BFL is currently talking with FPU and the Pacific District Conference, which owns the university, to affirm this arrangement.
Jost reported that MBBS faculty members are asked to “enthusiastically” support the MB Confession of Faith. Given the recent response to books published by MBBS faculty, Jost noted the intention of seminary faculty to “screen more carefully” what is published by colleagues. Referring to current discussions on atonement issues, Jost said he is willing to talk with pastors and other constituents about their concerns. Such a discussion is scheduled Sept. 10-11 in Oklahoma, said Jost.
The discussion also touched on the importance of developing curriculum that utilizes both online and intensive on-site course work and exploring the partnership models currently being used by MBBS at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man., and ACTS in Abbotsford, BC.
While participants affirmed the value of a denominational seminary, questions still remain. Among the final comments was a challenge from James Bergen, pastor of North Fresno (Calif.) MB Church, to Midwest pastors and supporters of Tabor College. “Lean in on the seminary,” said Bergen. “The viability of the seminary is still in question. I invite your personal buy-in.”
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