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Trinity School for Ministry is at Forefront of Transforming Christian leaders for Mission

Trinity School for Ministry is at Forefront of Transforming Christian leaders for Mission
The world of theological education is shifting, says new president

David Virtue recently interviewed the Rev. Dr. Laurie Thompson on his appointment as the new Dean/President of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.

By David W. Virtue, DD
December 23, 2016

VOL: First of all congratulations on becoming the next Dean/President of Trinity School for Ministry. Will you feel the added weight going from seminary professor to being senior administrator and chief academic officer of the seminary as well as being responsible for all of the daily operations and fundraising efforts? How will your work load increase if you remain a teacher at the same time?

THOMPSON: Thank you, David, and yes, I do feel the burden of additional responsibility, along with the joy and privilege of leading the most powerful group of educators and formational mentors anywhere in the world. I quipped with Mary, my wife, that my shoulders felt heavier as soon as the board told me of my new calling and role. I also felt the amazing team of others lifting my arms even as Moses had his arms lifted. I believe Trinity is better positioned to make a difference for the kingdom of God than ever before as we teach biblical theology, proclaim and teach the great commission, and form leaders who plant, renew and grow churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.

VOL: You said that, "The world of theological education is shifting and Trinity is at the forefront of transforming the way Christian leaders are trained for Mission, I am so excited to be a part of it!" How exactly is it shifting?

THOMPSON: When Justyn Terry began to work with the Trinity Dean's cabinet to define and articulate a strategic plan in 2008, the words nimble and lean arose quickly. We knew that the cost of theological education was becoming an enormous problem. We sensed intuitively that the delivery of theological education needed to be more versatile and able to reach a wider audience. We were not sure what nimble looked like as we began. One faculty member groaned: "We do not want to make any changes that threaten our Cadillac of formation -- residential education." Another faculty member retorted, "That may be so. But darn it -- most of us cannot afford more than a Ford Fiesta!" Since that time we have grown in our understanding of how many people want and need spiritual and theological formation that cannot be gained in the local congregation alone. We are learning to be more comprehensive and nimble in getting this formation beyond our walls, while still inviting people to experience the richness of a profound learning community.

VOL: You said, "Every prayerful moment in recent months has confirmed in my heart and mind that God is calling me to this ministry and I am thrilled and honored to accept this appointment." Were you confident then that the job was yours even though the search committee cast its net abroad looking for a candidate?

THOMPSON: I was part of the search committee last spring, and I understood the delicate balance between the need for leadership that understood and embraced what the Evangelical Anglican tradition at Trinity has always stood for on the one hand, and on the other hand opening ourselves to a fresh and new approach into which Justyn Terry led us to getting our message to a wider audience of a younger and different generation.

VOL: You played an important role in the "Reach for the Harvest" campaign which raised $15.4 million for various strategic initiatives. That's a lot of money. Can you tell us in a little more detail how you plan to spend that rather large sum?

THOMPSON: The words of your question are a bit startling to me. First, the campaign laid out four specific categories: Formation in Community, Global Mission, Parish Resources and Media & Publishing. Our printed reports spell out specific investments in each of these categories. The largest portion was set aside to help fund scholarships for student tuition in the residential program. The rest is devoted to making us lean and nimble in delivering formation and education to a much wider community. For example, we are beginning a Diploma of Anglican Studies completely in Spanish; our only concern is that it will grow too quickly. The development of on-line curriculum is happening rapidly as the demand is growing. Lastly, as our residential program is also growing, we have been concerned to avoid deferred maintenance, a source of great pain for other seminaries. Our building and facilities are in good repair, and are all cost efficient. Please note that none of the campaign goes to our annual operating fund. For this we still depend on the grace of God and the largesse of our donors who support our day-to-day operations.

VOL: What is TSM's relationship to The Episcopal Church now that TEC has moved away from biblical teaching on sexuality and many of its bishops like Spong, Robinson et al can no longer say the creed without crossing their fingers?

THOMPSON: Our position on marriage and sexuality is clear and written out in the Community Covenant which all who share in our learning community are expected to sign. Likewise, our theology is plainly stated in our statement of faith and our allegiance to the 39 articles as clear explanations of our faith. All faculty and board must sign these documents ex animo, from the heart, with every annual renewal of contract. We welcome TEC students and churches who understand this and honor our stand; we want to support them and form leaders for their contexts. This was true when the seminary was founded; it is true today. All that has changed is the fact that we are reaching a broader audience, which now includes Lutheran, Presbyterian and a wide array of Anglican expressions, the ACNA most notably.

VOL: Trinity School for Ministry (www.tsm.edu) is an evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition. It was begun in 1976 and has trained more than 1,200 graduates and many others who serve in ministries all over the world. As a global center for Christian formation, Trinity continues to produce outstanding leaders who can plant, renew, and grow churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ. How do you anticipate that growing in the coming years?

THOMPSON: Our first priority is the development of good and effective on-line materials as mentioned above. Our second priority is the development of curricular materials that can be used by laity in parishes. Our third priority is to open up new elective curricular areas such as urban church planting, youth leadership and patristic studies. We want to work toward these foci with care to remain tethered to our biblical theology foundation and the solid foundation of Reformation studies which has always inhabited our identity.

VOL: Some time ago TSM dropped the "E" (Episcopal) from its name. What sort of a signal were you sending the Episcopal Church? Does TEC still recognize TSM as a legitimate Episcopal seminary?

THOMPSON: That is old news, David! Of the 10 Episcopal Church seminaries (two reside on one campus) only Episcopal Divinity School Retains the title Episcopal. Episcopal Divinity School just announced that they will not be offering degrees after 2017. So no seminaries in TEC use the title in their name. We continue to attend the Council of Deans for TEC, but we also share with the growing group of seminaries and schools affiliated with the ACNA who meet by phone on a regular basis.

VOL: Are you still training ordinands for The Episcopal Church (as well as ACNA and the Lutheran Church)? What other ministries are you training people for?

THOMPSON: Last year we had a call from the national church headquarters of TEC asking us if we had any Episcopal students. We explained that our only means of answering this would be students who self-described themselves as Episcopalians. When we reviewed our numbers, we found a total of 51 students. The person speaking with us from New York said that made us one of the larger Episcopal enrollments. We also have growing enrollments of ordinands from The North American Lutheran Church, as well as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. We get students from other denominations ranging from COGIC (Church of God In Christ) to the Roman Catholic Church (we just enrolled a D Min student recently). Our international students also range geographically from the Arctic in the North to Chile in the South, from Singapore in the East to Nigeria in the Western portion of Africa. Here again, our on-line capacities are opening new opportunities for us to reach across continents and provide formation for global leaders.

VOL: Are there any other denominations seeking you out to train their seminarians or to train as missionaries and church planters?

THOMPSON: Yes, there has been much interest. At this moment we are concentrating on strengthening our Lutheran and Evangelical Presbyterian tracks. We are not thinking of adding any other tracks at this point as we want to maintain our primary focus on being the Evangelical Seminary in the Anglican tradition. We recently had a meeting of Non-Pale (Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Episcopalians) students. They gave us helpful suggestions to their formation, but they expressed no need for further denominational specialization.

VOL: Liberal and revisionist Episcopal bishops have said privately that they will not send potential ordinands to TSM because of its orthodoxy and its biblical stand on sexuality issues. How has that affected you, if at all?

THOMPSON: Well, to be honest, those bishops who say such things frequently call me in the spring asking if we can fill their pulpits and altars. The bishop of Iowa said a few years ago that he did not always agree with the theology of the TSM graduates, but he could drop a TSM graduate in a cornfield in Iowa, and when he returned three years later there would be a healthy growing church. We have a small growing number of TEC bishops expressing interest in our program who previously had no association with us. Last year we admitted a student from Idaho; he is the first student ever from that diocese.

VOL: Of the 11 episcopal seminaries, only three, TSM, Nashotah House and Virginia Theological seminary seem to be viable for the long term. Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass, is closing, General Theological Seminary in NY City is on the ropes and Bexley/Seabury seminaries recently united and are now in Chicago, basically handing out on-line degrees. Do you see a continual contraction of TEC seminaries?

THOMPSON: I am aware of the pressures on all of these institutions, but I am eager to learn more about what they are doing through the Council of Deans. But to answer your question indirectly, the Southern Baptist denomination feels they are over-served with six residential seminaries and they have 16 million members approximately. If we use the figure of 1.4 million members, a number such as ten/eleven seminaries does not sound reasonable. For me, the more important question that must be addressed is how on-line training can be synergistic with residential communities.

VOL: How many students do you have living in Ambridge; how many on-line do you serve?

THOMPSON: We had a successful year in new recruitment, matriculating 115 new students. Of these, 35 were full time residential (last year we had 41 new residential students). 21 new students came through our partnership programs, 53 new on-line students, 16 new students were non-matriculated guests, and seven new Doctor of Ministry students. The total student enrollment is 285. The majority of students is Anglican (71%), followed by Lutheran (10%), Presbyterian (8%), Non-denominational (6%) and other (5%). This is the highest enrollment on record.

VOL: Do all your graduates find jobs?

THOMPSON: In a word, yes, they do. There is a marked change in attitude among our students. Honestly, they are less concerned with finding a job, and more concerned with finding their vocation. They seek vocations in dynamic communities where their gifts can used and the ministry supported by trusting and functional leaders. They are increasingly wary of a job description unless they know a certain ministry has a reputation for reliability and integrity. I also observe a growing passion for reaching the downtrodden and marginalized in our North American society. Recently, a dean's hour speaker, Mr. Paul Hertnecky, the author of Rust Belt Boy and occasional speaker on National Public Radio (NPR), engaged our students, and they engaged him back. They wanted to be guided in building credible relationships into the blighted corners of a mill town.

VOL: What portion of your students are second career types? Do older students make for better pastors?

THOMPSON: 50% of our students are under the age of 30. We do have second career types, and many of them continue in their secular callings while adding to that the role of Christian leader. For example, my weekly men's group has one friend who is a key engineer for the fracking program at Consol Energy, while the other has just left to direct the Nurse Practioner program of Nemours hospital in Delaware. They both continue to pursue their ministry as ordained priests, while serving the secular contexts of their callings; both graduated in recent years from TSM. Another example would be my dentist, who has enrolled in our Master of Arts in Religion, and is already 50% through and is entering into a discernment process. She discusses Aorist verb tenses while gluing in my new cap!

VOL: What is the cost of a theological education at TSM. How much do you subsidize students who come to you?

THOMPSON: Our cost, like all institutions has gone up, and we are now hovering at the price point of $499 per credit hour for master's level and diplomas. Our doctoral programs are $525 per credit hour. At this point we only provide scholarship support for full time residential students who express need. We are beginning to form merit scholarships, and we hope these will cover more than tuition in the future.

VOL: Do you warn potential TEC seminarians that they might not easily find jobs in liberal dioceses or is that not an issue?

THOMPSON: No. I warn bishops that students may not want to interview in the jobs they offer unless their track record is known and trusted.

VOL: It might not be a turnaround for the Diocese of Pennsylvania after Charles E. Bennison, but the new bishop, The Rt. Rev. Daniel G. P. Gutierrez, did his liturgics at TSM when he was sent there by the late Bishop Terence Kelshaw. At the walkabout for the job, he downplayed his association with TSM so as not to offend the diocese's overwhelming liberals. Were you surprised or offended by that? Or is it a hopeful sign that he might be lenient in his approach to the dwindling conservatives in the diocese?

THOMPSON: Bishop Gutierrez is coming for a visit in April. We look forward to welcoming him. He was gracious in welcoming me when I went to his consecration in Germantown this past summer. I was impressed by his quiet dignity, affable character and simplicity in liturgical style.

VOL: By any measure, the Episcopal Church is dying. Each year the numbers show decline in all dioceses. VOL did a survey and found that two-thirds of the church's membership are women over 60. What is the future for ordinands leaving your seminary or any Episcopal seminary with debt and churches that can no longer financially support them?

THOMPSON: I think the future is very promising. First, students at Trinity are doing better than the national averages at avoiding debt. I spoke with a couple this past week, and they assured me they will graduate this year with no debt at all. This is a value among our students and we encourage careful financial planning. Many come already well-trained in stewardship. One of our recent graduates who now serves at St. Peter's in Tallahassee, told me that he intentionally stayed in a local community college for his undergraduate work so that he could afford to come to us as his seminary. He was planning ahead. This is happening more often. Second, students today are more adept at finding part-time revenue streams. Many serve as baristas at the local coffee shops so that they can help fund a church plant. Thirty years ago this was almost unheard of. Now it is considered somewhat normal.

VOL: Could TSM survive without TEC and its potential ordinands? If TEC becomes less than viable as a denomination in the next 15 to 20 years, who then would be your constituency?

THOMPSON: Our constituency is getting broader. While we remain heavily Anglican in identity, we see that identity filling a much wider formation needed for the universal church beyond TEC or ACNA. As I have tried to suggest in my comments above, students are coming for ordination, some for teaching in schools, some for business leadership, some for the medical industry, some for work in the non-profit sector. What all share in common is the desire to be formed as a leader in their vocations. However, I still think that ordained ministry will be our largest portion of students. As to the question of denomination, much is changing rapidly, not only in TEC, but in the collaborative synergies of various groups coalescing in common mission. The names may change, but the need for well-formed leadership never will.

VOL: The new presiding bishop, Michael Curry, is talking up the Jesus Movement. What do you take this to mean and how do you see it impacting TSM if at all?

THOMPSON: I have heard Bishop Curry address the gathering at Bishop Sumner's consecration, and I believe he spoke at Bishop Gutierrez's consecration. But I could not put a finger on what he was casting as a vision. I did not object to most of what he said, but I was not clear on the content of his vision. He seemed less exclusive and polemical than his predecessor.

VOL: America is now a nation of Nones. Millennials are not going to church. They have little or no faith. Protestantism is fast dying in America and the Roman Catholic Church is in trouble as well. In Philadelphia where I live, the Archdiocese has closed 60 churches and the Episcopal Diocese of PA has sold its own headquarters. The diocese is also closing non-viable parishes. The future looks bleak for organized religion in America. How can TSM be an agent of change or transform that?

THOMPSON: I serve part-time at the Church of the Incarnation in the strip district of Pittsburgh. We worship on Sunday in the Union Gallery above Bar Marco, one of the 50 most exciting restaurants in the USA in 2015 according to Bon Appetit. In our first weeks there, I spent a good deal of time downstairs, trying to get to know the staff. One was a young man who saw me coming and tried to avoid me. When I finally engaged and asked about their relationships that drew the staff together, his answer: "Drinking. I work six days a week and it is all focused on drinking. Today is my day off, and what am I here doing? Drinking. Get it, Father?" His words still linger in my head. But I have had many meaningful connections. One day at lunch, I discovered that young woman who was the wait person -- excuse me, she corrected me and said sommelier (she was working for her level 3 -- the level James Bond hit to identify the vintages of the sherry he was drinking!)- was also an Oxford graduate who did her Master's thesis at Oxford on the topic of Henry Vaughn. I could go on forever. But many are open to our outreach, although we do not draw many into worship yet.

VOL: Many now believe that the culture is changing so rapidly, that orthodox Christians (call them evangelical, conservative or even fundamentalist) are diminishing at a very fast rate. Do you believe or seriously have hope for America?

THOMPSON: My hope is in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. My passion right now is to equip the students to cultivate Kingdom in context. I do not think that will look like the church of the 1950's that I knew in Perrysburg, Ohio. Instead, it will be thoughtful missioners who will establish outposts in a decaying culture that bring direction, strong values and hope through the Grace of God. To say it simply, I do not know what to expect of the institutional church; that will surely change and we see that already as you indicate. What I do know is the message and the call of the New Jerusalem will beacon more clearly than ever.

VOL: The Second Great Awakening was a Protestant religious revival movement during the early 19th century in the United States. Some now believe there might be a Third Great Awakening on the horizon. Do you believe that?

THOMPSON: I predicted early on in my life that I would be a stock broker. Then I predicted that I would be a parish priest until I died. I knew I would never be working in an academic setting. Then when I came here, I thought I would do nothing but field education. Then nothing but doctoral work. Then nothing but oversee administration. Then Advancement work and the development of a hotel. Then I was called to help with a capital campaign. I have never gotten a prediction correct about my own life. So how could I predict a third great awakening? On the other hand, Ambridge is starting to look a bit like the village of Old Economy in the 1820's as they waited for our Lord's return. Who knows...?

VOL: Thank you, Dr. Thompson.

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