Seminary dean seeks to build bridges


Brensinger aims to connect heart and mind, church and seminary

By Myra Holmes

Terry Brensinger talks a lot about “wedding the heart and the mind.” It’s especially important to him in his new role as dean and vice president of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary (FPBS), as he thinks about training pastoral leaders and connecting the seminary to the church.

FPBS, a school of Fresno Pacific University (FPU) in Fresno, Calif., is the Mennonite Brethren seminary for graduate-level theological education. Brensinger began teaching there in 2011 as professor of pastoral ministries and transitioned Aug. 1, 2013, to the dual position of dean of the seminary and vice president of FPU.

The role brings together Brensinger’s own education, experience and passion. He has a doctorate in Old Testament, a master of philosophy in biblical studies and a master’s degree in ancient near Eastern archaeology, all from Drew University, Madison, NJ. He holds a master of divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky., and a bachelor’s degree in history and religion from Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Brensinger has completed several additional doctoral seminars and graduate courses and a two-year program in spiritual formation. In addition, he has written or edited four books, with a fifth in process, and has authored dozens of articles, reviews and scholarly papers.

He also has a heart for pastoral training. “Pastors and the church are certainly at the heart of my calling,” he says. Brensinger has pastored three very different congregations, so he has a firsthand understanding of the joys and challenges of ministry leadership.

He has traveled around the world training pastors and teaching with the Brethren in Christ, a sister denomination to the Mennonite Brethren. He and his wife of 36 years, Debra, have served in a variety of cultures, including Toronto, Canada; Bogota, Colombia; Chomba, Zambia; Delhi, India; and Bethlehem, Palestine, just to name a few.

Brensinger points to the Great Commandment, which charges God’s people to love the Lord with heart, soul and strength (Deut. 6: 5), and argues that both heart and mind are essential—especially when it comes to training leaders for the church.

“This world is complex,” he says. “To promote a gospel and a God who is trivial and trite and unable to make heads or tails of this fast-growing world of ours is inexcusable. So we need to train people who are thoughtful and biblically trained…. We need pastors who can think like Christians.”

At the same time, “we need pastors and people who are madly in love with Jesus, deeply committed to the church, longing to live under the teaching of Scripture, who have a faith that’s real and profound and heartfelt,” he says.

He finds that on an institutional level, heart and mind—academy and church—have often been in tension. But, he says, “I think we need each other.”

Brensinger sees his role and his strength as that of bridge builder. “There’s a lot of significant ministry for all of us to do if we can work together, and the seminary could be really helpful to the church in that way.”

One of the ways he hopes to increase connection is through personal presence at national, district and local events. Even before he took the helm at the seminary, he presented a paper at the study conference on peacemaking and citizenship, led by the USMB Board of Faith and Life and held in January 2013. He was present at both the Pacific District and Central District conventions last fall, and he has been invited to lead a workshop at the national denominational gathering, Conection 2014, to be held in July.

He also enjoys visiting local churches. He has recently preached in USMB congregations not only in California, but also Oregon, Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota. “Those are huge connections,” he says.

He recognizes that because Mennonite Brethren are diverse, the seminary can’t appeal equally to all. But he says, “I would like to see the seminary be a strong presence at the core of the church and to work with the denominational leaders and congregations to prepare pastors for this pretty complex world of ours.”

For FPBS, as for other seminaries, it’s a challenging time. Many seminaries are closing, and those that remain struggle to clearly identify goals and vision, adjust to a drastically changing world and think strategically about new delivery models—all with limited resources. FPBS faces the additional challenges of broadening horizons while strengthening Mennonite Brethren connections and of continuing to clarify the seminary’s relationship with FPU. The seminary, formerly MB Biblical Seminary, merged its Fresno operations with FPU in 2010.

Despite such challenges—some quite daunting—Brensinger says the seminary intends not merely to survive but to move forward and make significant impact. “I’m not interested in maintaining the place,” he says.

“There is a lot of energy and excitement here. So it’s a matter of harnessing that in the right time sequence and finding the resources to make that happen. The seminary here is not lacking in imagination.”

He dreams about exploring new delivery options—perhaps a hybrid residential/online model or a variation on medical residency, which would cooperate with strategic local congregations to give students both education and experience with little or no debt. Perhaps these “hubs” could even extend to overseas locations to help train leaders globally.

He looks forward to developing FPBS’s urban presence and to training leaders to serve in urban areas. Statistics say the world’s population is moving toward the cities, he points out. “It would seem shortsighted if not foolish for us here at the seminary not to take the call to prepare people for urban contexts seriously as well.”
He says, “We have a lot of wonderful challenges ahead of us.”

Brensinger says God continues to work in his heart as he faces the challenges of his new role at the seminary. He talks about a “dismantling” and “rebuilding” process in recent years as God prepared him for this transition. He talks about learning new dependency, like Peter walking on the water and reaching out for Jesus’ hand.

“It feels like he’s inviting me to ‘fall recklessly into his hands’ in ways that I’ve not before,” Brensinger says, quoting a favorite line.

And with that glimpse into his heart, Brensinger shows that faith is more than an academic exercise or intellectual pursuit for him personally as well as institutionally.

Photo courtesy of FPU


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