Jost embraces leading the seminary to new future
At an installation service Nov. 2, Lynn Jost was publicly affirmed for a role he never really asked for—that of president of MB Biblical Seminary (MBBS), the North American school for Mennonite Brethren graduate-level theological education. It’s a role he’s been filling since September 2008, first as acting president, then as the seminary board’s choice for president beginning in June 2009.
“I was just the next person standing there, and they grabbed me and put me into the spot,” Jost says.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Jost was serving as academic dean when President Jim Holm resigned, so Jost was the logical choice to take the helm. But Jost also is well qualified. Through years of ministry and teaching in the Mennonite Brethren church he has developed a love for the denomination and a wide net of connections.
Jost holds degrees from Tabor College, the MB liberal arts college in Hillsboro, Kan., and MBBS, as well as a doctorate from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He has worked as a short-term missionary in Madrid, Spain, as a pastor in Hesston, Kan., and Kingsburg, Calif., and as a professor at Tabor College and MBBS. He has served the larger MB family in a variety of leadership and board positions, especially those charged with theological tasks.
Nonetheless, Jost says he faces a very steep learning curve adjusting to the new assignment. He sees himself as primarily a pastor and teacher rather than an administrator. “Running an organization has been a major adjustment, but one to which I have found myself increasingly open.”
Jost steps into the presidency at a critical moment in the seminary’s history, charged with the daunting task of reshaping the seminary for the future. He describes the task as both overwhelming and necessary. Just prior to his inauguration, CL editors Connie Faber and Myra Holmes talked with Jost about the job before him and the future of the seminary. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation.
CL: Do you come to this role eagerly or reluctantly?
LJ: Very reluctantly. I’m overwhelmed by the task. Denominations in general and the Mennonite Brethren church specifically are facing a lot of fragmentation, regionalization, localization and distrust of institutions. Those complicating factors have contributed to probably a 20-year decline in MB pastoral prospects moving to Fresno—or any of our campuses.
While serving as acting president the past year, I became very anxious and started worrying a lot. I know the Bible says not to worry, but I was just not able to be obedient to that. I was in a deep, dark hole for a while. That’s just a reflection of how personally I was carrying this and how poorly suited my nature is to this.
CL: Are you feeling better now?
LJ: Yes. I thank God for all kinds of ways of bringing healing. Lots of people have assured me of their prayers; I don’t discount that for a moment. And I think one of the ways God answered prayer is to give me a doctor who could figure out what kind of medication to give me. And I’m really grateful for that. I’ve also learned about managing the task and feel more confident with the kind of personnel resources that are available to me.
CL: What excites you about this role?
LJ: Serving the church. Knowing that the church continues to need pastors who are prepared to think theologically. Seeing many excellent students continue to come to Fresno and to our Canadian sites to study as well as some who are finding ways to do what we offer from a distance. Seeing the strong faculty we have who are doing a fine job of preparing women and men for Christian service. That is really exciting.
CL: There are also challenges facing MBBS today. Tell us about those.
LJ: Our full-time equivalency (FTE) is down. The FTE is steady on the Langley, BC, campus. We’re still quite small in Winnipeg, Man. In Fresno, Calif., we’ve experienced a decline from 115 FTE to 65 FTE in about six years and it’s been very painful to try to adjust quickly. It’s just not viable to run an institution like that. We just don’t have enough income to provide for current levels of staffing.
In Fresno, at least, our system as currently structured is not sustainable. It’s not good use of the church’s resources to have fewer than 10 students per faculty member. And doing what we’ve been doing is going to give us the results we’ve been seeing.
CL: How are you and the board addressing these challenges?
LJ: Maybe it’s part of my baby-boomer mentality, but my first priority coming into this job was to face facts. I came with a sense of a mandate to look actively for partners. So we immediately began conversations with Tabor College and Fresno Pacific University. And we started talking with Fuller Theological Seminary. We asked all of them what kind of partnerships they could imagine.
About 41percent of schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools are in some kind of financial crisis, and ATS believes that the ones who survive will be ones that are affiliated either with a university or with the large national seminaries
CL: How are these discussions progressing?
LJ: MBBS was quite hopeful that negotiations with Fuller Seminary would result in a new partnership that would enable better distance education. We had begun to share this possibility with our stakeholders. Many were concerned about a loss of Mennonite Brethren ownership and identity, but negotiations with Fuller’s president, board and provost were very promising. Only at the eleventh hour did we become aware that Fuller’s faculty resisted this change—and Fuller withdrew their contract offer.
Our yearlong negotiations with Fuller have had the unexpected effect of rekindling ownership by our constituents and made us as a seminary community more open to change. It has been a delight to discover how many loyal supporters we have across the continent. Our students are excited—and scared—about how new partnerships will invigorate the seminary. Although we have concluded that the current way of doing things is not sustainable, the board and I are charged up about our future. I am encouraged by the good will that MBBS enjoys with the presidents of FPU and TC, Merrill Ewert and Jules Glanzer. I expect to see some kind of partnership with those MB schools.
CL: Where do talks regarding partnerships with Tabor and Fresno Pacific stand?
LJ: After Fuller’s withdrawal, we were pleased that both Tabor and Fresno Pacific are very willing to again consider how best to work in concert with MBBS. It is too soon to say if and how we will work together. Proximity is an advantage in conversations with Fresno Pacific. FPU has a very strong reputation—or brand—among Fresno evangelicals. We may be able to share some services. Tabor has continued interest in preparing ministers for the church. We will explore how we might work with the college and with the university in extending MB graduate theological education across the continent.
CL: How have you been gathering feedback from constituents in this process?
LJ: We’ve done quite a bit of testing. We’ve talked with our students and with district groups and regional pastoral groups. We’ve been in conversation for almost a year now with the national boards and leaders. In early September we gathered 17 MB leaders, mostly from the U.S., and tested with them various scenarios.
The former MBBS presidents have also been a valuable resource for testing new ideas. A consultant from the seminary board association tells us that partnerships and mergers are becoming more and more common and has given us some creative new program ideas.
I think it’s critical for people to understand that MBBS is making changes, but MBBS will not go away. It will continue with its mission and is looking for renewed resources to do that. We will streamline our program while we discern together new curriculum, programs, delivery options and degrees.
CL: What does the seminary have going for it in this stormy time?
LJ: We’ve got really great students. We’ve recognized the problem and we’ve done some things to become more efficient; I think that’s good. And we’ve got the loyal support of our churches. We received over $1 million last year from individuals and churches in the most terrible year possible—that’s a lot of support. We’ve got satisfied students. People that graduate are fans of this place. That’s all very good stuff.
CL: How do you hope that constituents will support you and the seminary in the next months?
LJ: If we could have the same kind of loyal support that we’ve had for the first 50 years of the seminary’s life for the next period, that’s all I ask. The church has been very supportive. The seminary has been valued. It’s been evidenced by prayers and financial gifts. We’re going to need them.
Support includes prayer and financial gifts, as I just said. Perhaps most important is encouraging men and women with pastoral potential to consider God’s call. One of the best ways to test the call of God is by attending MB Biblical Seminary. We want to serve the church by helping prepare pastors and by helping reinforce the evangelical Anabaptist theological identity of the Mennonite Brethren church.