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Asbury Seminary begins new era

Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore begins a new school year with a new president.

Timothy Tennent, 49, started July 1 as the seminary's eighth president. He came to Asbury from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., where he was professor of world missions and Indian studies since 1998.

Asbury, with its Wilmore and Orlando, Fla., campuses, as well as an extended-learning campus that offers classes via the Internet, is one of the largest seminaries in the country. In the fall of 2008, it reported an enrollment of more than 1,600, according to the Association of Theological Schools. The seminary is interdenominational but trains many Methodist ministers.

Tennent and his wife, Julie, have a son, Jonathan, 24, and daughter, Bethany, 22.

He sat down with Herald-Leader staff writer Greg Kocher for a chat.

Kocher: Why are you the right leader for such a time as this at Asbury Theological Seminary?

Tennent: I think I bring a number of pieces together that they (the seminary's board of trustees) were looking for. One, they were looking for an academic, someone with a Ph.D. My area of Ph.D. studies is in non-Western Christianity, which is the second thing they were looking for — someone who really knew the world and who was connected to global Christianity. I've been involved in India for many years. And they, of course, wanted someone who is familiar with the changes in theological education. I'd published a book on some of the challenges facing seminaries today, and some of the needs to negotiate those challenges.

So I think I fit a lot of things they were looking for. I'm not an Asbury graduate. So in some ways I'm an outsider, though I've loved the seminary from a distance all my life. But I'm not someone who was shaped and formed here. So I'm an outside voice with an outside perspective, and yet I'm United Methodist, and I'm within their tradition.

Q: Theologian John Wesley declared in 1739, "I look on all the world as my parish." You note in your writings that Christianity is growing in Africa and Asia, but is ebbing in Europe and North America. In layman's terms, explain how that relates to the seminary's mission and work.

A: Well, we have a study that was done a year ago that looked at Asbury's graduates. And we discovered that, to no one's surprise, 97 percent of our graduates are white, Anglo people. So this seminary has traditionally served people from European heritage. And that's largely because in rural America, in Kentucky, this is our constituency in the South.

But half of all the children under 5 years old are non-Anglo in America today. The demographics are such that by the year 2025, basically half of our student body will probably be or should be non-Anglo just to keep pace with what's happening in the country. So the seminary has to adjust to that reality and to be prepared to build bridges and be a hospitable place for people from a wide range of backgrounds.

The other big reality is that Christianity itself is changing in terms of where Christians are: 67 percent of all Christians live outside the West. So that means we have to do a much more intentional job of connecting with global institutions and other seminaries. We have a campus that extends our teaching anywhere through the Internet. We have to develop those resources so we can better reach and train the people who need to be trained.

Q: Seminaries are tightening their belts, and Asbury Theological Seminary has not been immune to that. It has seen a decline in its operating budget, and its cost-cutting efforts included a workforce reduction of 16 people in April. What is the seminary's financial status now? Do you foresee any other cuts to weather this period?

A: Like every seminary, we have challenges, and we're going to have to be very careful about what we do. But we don't anticipate laying more people off. We have a very generous scholarship program, which we will continue to do this year. Part of my job, of course, is to go out and talk to people and to raise funds for the seminary. So I've already been moving around five states and talking to a lot of people. I feel positive about our future financially. I just think we have to get into a stable situation. The school's been through some transition and we just need to get ahead of that curve.

Q: Do you have a sense of what Asbury's enrollment will be this fall?

A: We think we'll be about 3 percent below what we were last year, which is what we were expecting. ... It looks like it's going to be a pretty modest decline.

Q: Your curriculum vitae says that you have taught each year in India since 1988. Could you describe that experience and how it has informed you?

A: Well I've gone to India for several months a year for 21 years. This is the first summer I've not been there.

In the process of doing that, I have learned a lot about Asian Christianity. People here prepare primarily assuming that they have a church that's out there waiting to hire them and to get a salary, a pension plan, a parsonage, or whatever. In India, we are training way up in northern India, where there are very few churches, so they are preparing for ministry knowing that they have to go into a village and start from scratch to plant the church that they will pastor. That changes the preparation a lot. So the emphasis on how to evangelize and in church-planting is much stronger. I think one of my concerns here in America is that people need to learn how to re-evangelize, how to plant churches, as opposed to just assuming that there are all these churches out there that want to hire you to be their pastor. We have to change our whole DNA.

Q: What can people in the pews do to help the seminary and its mission?

A: No. 1, people can be committed to pray for the seminary. I think that oftentimes, the church has been disconnected unduly from the life of a seminary, even though they get the results of it from the pastors that come their way.

Secondly, it's so important for people in the pews to see the value of good, solid theological education for preparation of a lifetime ministry. If you approach seminary education as just "how to preach a sermon" or "how to counsel somebody," you don't have the same preparation for a lifetime. The society is changing so rapidly, that if you don't prepare people deeply, then their education is only good for five years. So to prepare somebody for a lifetime ministry involves a much more rigorous, robust, muscular Christianity. So I'm hoping to maintain a real commitment to classical education that is rooted in the disciplines, and yet is fully engaged in the challenges that people face in their everyday lives.