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TSM DEAN & PRESIDENT REFLECTS ON THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION IN A TIME OF COVID

TSM DEAN & PRESIDENT REFLECTS ON THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION IN A TIME OF COVID

By David W. Virtue, DD
www.virtueonline.org
August 19, 2020

Virtueonline has obtained an exclusive interview with the Very Rev. Dr. Henry "Laurie" Thompson III, President and Dean of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.

VOL: Thank you for your time, Dr. Thompson. Your seminary serves four groups of students from four different denominations; TEC, the ACNA, EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian) and the NALC (North American Lutheran Church). How is that working out at a practical level?

THOMPSON: It is working well both in theory and practice. In respect to vision and values, the Board of Trustees has worked with me to adjust the articulation of who we are, in order to state clearly that our first priority is the Anglican Church in North America, serving their lay and clergy leadership. In practice this is expressed in many ways. The Book of Common Prayer 2019 is the instrument of our liturgical norm, and this has been enthusiastically embraced by faculty, staff, and students. Another evidence of our ACNA identity is the enrollment itself. Most of our master's degree level are from the ACNA. Discussion continues with our Board of Trustees who are enthusiastic about our alignment with the ACNA and want to further strengthen this identity and alignment.

Although it would seem counterintuitive, we have found that by drawing more closely to the ACNA, we have been able to offer a more harborous hospitality to our ecumenical partners. Thus, for example, in our worship, we are pleased to invite the Lutherans from the North American Lutheran Church to lead our chapel services one week each semester using Lutheran liturgy, giving us a chance to get to know their patterns and emphases. Their new bishop, Dan Selbo, and their new seminary president, Eric Riesen, have quickly become wonderful friends and colleagues. Our partners from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church are less concerned with the order of worship as they are with how we teach homiletics and preaching. Dean Weaver, recently appointed as the stated clerk (the equivalent of archbishop for Anglicans) for the EPC, is supportive of Trinity School for Ministry. We gain from their passion for Expositional preaching of the biblical text. Our dean of students is a Byzantine Catholic priest whose concern for spiritual formation strengthens our ability to teach Benedictine and Ignatian patterns of spirituality. So, having a clear sense of our identity allows us to welcome the gifts from others to make a stronger and more comprehensive training for our students. It is working well both in theory and practice

VOL: You are The Episcopal Church's only evangelical seminary that does not condone homosexuality or homosexual marriage. Are you getting pushback from any TEC bishops for your stand? Are any of TECs progressive bishops allowing potential ordinands to study at your seminary?

THOMPSON: We are getting less and less pushback from TEC bishops; those who know of us are aware of who we are and for what we stand. Some appreciate the gap we fill in what we can offer their ordinands and clergy. Recently, we graduated a student from a very progressive diocese who knew little about us. The student did well, and the bishop told me that the student received an outstanding formation that he could not have gotten elsewhere, and which was affordable.

A few of the more conservative dioceses still reach out to us on occasion. The Diocese of West Virginia recently recruited our assistance in helping teach their Iona formation program. We have a student from the Diocese of Dallas who has been an exceptional student. The Council of Deans for TEC still invites me to participate once a year in their gathering of seminary deans. Having said all of this, the resolution regarding marriage in the 2018 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, as well as the recent trial of Bishop Bill Love, has indicated the opposite directions of the ACNA and TEC. However, I want to be clear--we remain consistent with our vision and values.

VOL: The advent of COVID is changing everything for almost everybody. How many students from each group are enrolled at TSM for the fall? Will you have a fall lineup similar to previous years?

THOMPSON: Yes, COVID-19 has changed everything--and yet it has not. Our faculty was remarkably resilient in shifting to virtual education last semester, and they are working hard to combine the best of residential and online learning practices as they plan for the fall. We have 18 new residential students coming in this fall who are enthusiastic about being on campus. This number is a bit less than we would hope for (36-40 would be our ideal), but we are grateful for God's mercy this fall, as it allows us to use our spacious smart classrooms with sensitivity to social distancing. We simply do not have the density that many institutions face in their classrooms as well as dining facilities. Our two, newly equipped, smart classrooms allow the faculty to consider several models of combining face-to-face settings with virtual participation. Our chapel services will be held concurrently in the chapel and two other classrooms so all can share--but there will never be more than 20 in any room or space. Our biggest concerns relate to families and spouses. How do we include them as the traditional expressions of socialization such as potluck dinners, tag football games, local mission projects, etc. may not be appropriate? We have a student task force brainstorming this as of this moment.

VOL: Seminaries and religious studies departments of major universities are laying off staff owing to decreased income from fewer returning students, according to a recent report in Christianity Today. It's affected conservative colleges like Calvin College, Taylor University, and John Brown University to name just a few. Five evangelical Christian colleges and universities have eliminated more than 150 faculty and staff positions this spring. Are you experiencing the same issue? Eliminating positions may, in some cases, mean laying off faculty or staff. Will you be forced to lay off or furlough some faculty?

THOMPSON: We have not laid off any faculty, and we do not plan to do so. The seminary has a strong group of 13 full time faculty. We have a bigger number of trusted adjuncts that we use, and their participation in classes are scalable to need and circumstance. Sadly, we had to close 4 1/2 positions on our administrative staff this past May. However, I am pleased that this has given us a solid budget for the coming fiscal year, and we were able to end last year in positive numbers. In truth, I think the generosity of our donors has put us in a more stable position than we have known during the 23 years I have been on the faculty. We still remain dependent on God's mercy and on our donors' generosity, but I believe us to be healthy and in a responsible posture of stewardship.

VOL: In this time of COVID, how much education will be online vs face to face teaching?

THOMPSON: It will be a mixture of both. We are eager to see our online presence grow, but the large majority of our students still prefer to come residentially when they are able to do so. See my earlier comments about our improvements related to smart classrooms.

VOL: Are your students going into debt studying at TSM? What are you doing about the cost of getting an education at TSM?

THOMPSON: We have worked aggressively in this area to make sure we minimize student debt. Our residential students typically leave with little to no debt accumulated during their time of study with us. We have a generous scholarship program for fulltime residential students, and the cost of housing is extremely low (perhaps one of the lowest in the USA). We have a different financial structure for our online students, and they typically pay full tuition, although they do not have to worry about housing costs. We do have some unique scholarship opportunities such as the recently donated Roemer endowment to assist with African American students who show strong leadership potential.

VOL: What percentage of your student body is going into full time ministry?

THOMPSON: Of the students who are currently studying with us, I can say confidently that 100% are looking for full-time ministry. I am not confidant of my metrics on this question as they relate to ordination. The reasons for this are several. Some students come to us not seeking ordination and intend to do lay ministry, but oftentimes, during their time of study, they will discern that they do have a call, and a bishop picks them up and ordains them. Others may decide in the other direction. In the past the assumption was that discernment was done before coming to seminary. Now a great deal of discernment happens during a course of study. Likewise, the volatility of available positions has been dramatic. The need for leadership in ministry is infinite, but the available salaries for full-time positions swings up and down.

VOL: With churches getting smaller, how many graduates can find full time ministry opportunities once they leave your seminary? Will debt force them into a mix of secular and sacred roles?

THOMPSON: This is a good and yet, difficult question, to answer. Permit me to take some time on this question. The concern about getting full-time salaries is real. While one can hope the trend will reverse after COVID-19 season (whenever that may be!), even an optimist, such as myself, must hesitate. However, to this concern I would offer two thoughts. First, the demise of churches could be described as tragic. Christians are called to face the tragic, and not seek to avoid it. Ephraim Radner has recently written about this . Radner cites Ulrich Simon's book, Pity & Terror. Simon was born as an ethnic Jew before eventually becoming an Anglican priest and subsequently dean of King's College in London where he taught theology. His family had been forced to scatter. He lost his brother to a Stalinist purge in Russia; his father was lost to a Nazi cleanup effort in Holland. He knew firsthand the tragic dimension of life, and he faced it through the lens of Christ's death on the Cross. For Simon "the death of Jesus is not only meaningful but it is the meaning of human existence...." He goes on to argue that Christians, from the start, beginning with the apostles, embraced the tragic dimension of life (and ministry) rather than sought to flee from it.

This leads to my second comment, and that is that the tragic in life and ministry brings opportunity for mission. I am not suggesting that the lack of full-time salaries for clergy is in and of itself tragic. What I am suggesting is that all of life is in a sense tragic, including the church, but the tragic aspect can be seen as the door of opportunity for mission and ministry. One does not read of the Apostle Paul complaining about his disappointments, but rather we observe how he engages every moment as a new opportunity for mission. My favorite example is the character of Trophimus. I conjecture that as an Ephesian he was present to observe Paul getting beaten in Acts 19. By Acts 20 he is a disciple and loyal friend to Paul, and by Acts 21:29 the two are creating quite a stir together as they face a hostile crowd.

Will debt force students into a mixture of sacred and secular roles? My rather prolix answer is this: I prefer to see such challenges as opportunities unfolding for leaders in mission. God calls leaders to face many complex circumstances in diverse and creative ways.

VOL: Are your ACNA, EPC and Lutheran grads able to find churches? Are you able to help them find postings?

THOMPSON: Yes. Some come very quickly and the leading of a graduate to a church is straightforward and simple. However, there are other times where it takes long times of networking, patience, waiting, and prayer. I have a special sensitivity to this, for when I graduated from seminary, I was the last one in my class to be placed. I was told that I was the only one in my class who said on my resume that I was willing to do youth work. When I received the call to Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli in 1979, the rector stipulated only one thing: I was to avoid interfering with the youth ministry. All of my classmates did youth work. I still chuckle at God's wonderful sense of humor, while at the same time remember the agony of discerning where God would use my gifts before that call came.

VOL: What are the alternative ministries your graduates are looking at if the pastoral ministry is not open to them.

THOMPSON: There is a wide variety of answers to this question. I know one graduate who played a significant role developing the Utica Shale fracking as a geological engineer while also pastoring a small Anglican parish in the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Another is currently in charge of one of the largest nurse practitioner programs at Nemours hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, while also ministering as a priest in Wilmington. Another graduate served as a barista at Starbucks until the full-time pastorate opportunity arose. Another is teaching at a Christian school, while another one founded a school and serves at its headmaster in Beaufort, South Carolina. Another graduate leads a teen Challenge ministry to addicted teenagers. Rosie Phyfe, graduate from two years ago, is now the General Secretary for CMS in New Zealand. As I attempt to answer your question, I am in awe thinking about the remarkable and creative ways ministry is being done by our graduates.

VOL: Does TSM have a global outreach? If so where and how?

THOMPSON: Our passion for mission in East Africa began with the initial connection from Alf Stanway 44 years ago. It expanded into worldwide connections to theological institutions in Holy Cross in Yangon, Myanmar (still in early stages), The Christian Institute in Jos, Nigeria (well-developed), The Alexandria School of theology in Alexandria, Egypt (well-developed), the Arthur Turner Training School in Iqaluit, Nunavut (small, steady & strong), The Centro de Estudios Pastorales in Santiago, Chile (still in early stages), Lahore Theological College (very strong), Mukono, Uganda (longstanding relationship) and Kabare, Kenya (strong and getting stronger). In addition to these partnerships, we have numerous links with missions agencies both domestic and global, the strongest of these being SAMS, housed in one of our campus buildings. These partnerships have been managed well with improving depth and efficiency. Our students are required to do a significant cross-cultural immersion for their degrees, and this requirement is welcomed, even though it is demanding. I had the joy of sharing in a mission trip to Ethiopia this past January. As I participated in the mission with Bishop LeMarquand and the team, I was deeply moved and inspired by what I experienced and learned. I shall not easily forget the Morning Prayer procession in Axum from the home of the Ark of the Covenant (Tabit) to the village square with at least 2000 other worshippers at 4:00AM!

Trinity School for Ministry is indeed a global center for Christian formation of outstanding leaders. Bishop Alf Stanway and Bishop John Rodgers made sure that was part of our core DNA, and it has remained such since 1976.

VOL: New forms of technology including social media and COVID are changing the way we do church. Prognosticate for me how you see the future of theological education fitting into these new paradigms and narratives.

THOMPSON:There is so much to say about this. Recently I was driving home from West Virginia with my wife, Mary. We went to the Trinity website menu on our iPad and found the podcasts section; we selected a teaching from Mike Henning on Prayer & The Character of God given by Mike in 1982. As we listened to his anointed teaching on the importuning widow of Luke 11:1-13, I was startled by a thought. Not only was technology driving us into new possibilities for the future, but it was connecting us to the teaching of the past! Our audio engineer is converting and reformatting some of our past lectures and making them available to our constituents.

We are also renovating our new facility on 899 Maplewood Avenue in Ambridge (I am hoping we will call it the Trophimus Center or St. Trophimus!) that will sit 420 people for worship, conferences, and special ministries. In addition to the expected traditional dimensions of corporate worship, we have shared with the architects our concern for the capacity to effectively invite our worldwide constituency to participate through high quality video and audio recording, and livestreaming. Thus, partners on the other side of the globe can minister and teach us, even as we attempt to minister and teach them.

We also are thinking and planning for ministry among special cultures, such as the Deaf Church, which has been starting to enroll in Trinity classes. Technology will be extremely helpful in this aspect. We are planning some special initiatives in this project as well regarding the needs of catechesis and the teaching of children. We are extremely excited. Just a few houses away from our new "old" building is the headquarters for the ACNA. I have heard rumors that they are planning some future conferences with the nearby facility in mind. We are excited about what the Lord holds for us in the future days.

VOL: Thank you Dr. Thompson.

FOOTNOTES

1. The term has been used to depict Cranmer's vision for the Church of England in the 16th century. Cf. Williams, Leslie Winfield. Emblem of Faith Untouched: A Short Life of Thomas Cranmer. Eerdmans, 2016.
2. Radner, Ephraim. "'Running Away from Sorrow: Pneumatology & Some Documents (Ch. 12).'" In The Third Person of the Trinity: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders,. S.l.: Zondervan Academic, 2020.
3. Simon, Ulrich. Pity and Terror: Christianity and Tragedy. 1st edition. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989. Page 44

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