Training Leaders to the Glory of God

Asbury Seminary President Dr. Timothy Tennent serves Communion to students. (Courtesy of Asbury Theological Seminary)

Despite being raised in an Anglican family and traveling to the New World on mission, John Wesley realized he was yet unsaved. But in 1738 in London, Wesley experienced a transformative touch of the Holy Spirit when his heart was "strangely warmed" during a Christian meeting he had reluctantly attended.

That spiritual fire fueled Wesley, who co-founded Methodism with his brother Charles, for the rest of his life. Today, Wesley's influence is alive and well in places like Asbury Theological Seminary (ATS), described on its website, asburyseminary.edu, as "a community called to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, Spirit-filled men and women to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world through the love of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God the Father."

Led by Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, who taught for eight years at Toccoa Falls College and 11 years at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, ATS has two campuses, two extension sites and a distance-education program. In recent years, the multidenominational seminary has enjoyed near-record-high enrollments, which currently stands at about 1,660 students from more than 90 denominations and faith traditions. These include Free Methodist, Pentecostal, Christian & Missionary Alliance, Nazarene, Baptist and Presbyterian.

The school also affirms women as full leaders in the church and encourages their ordination. As such, ATS has more than 500 women students across its campuses.

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ATS is "committed to the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition in a way which is globally engaged, spiritually formative and missionally alert." These are the three defining themes in the seminary's 2023 strategic plan.

Global Engagement

At ATS, the doctoral programs in biblical studies and intercultural studies particularly draw internationals. But what many do not know about ATS hospitality is "we prioritize international students in both those programs, so we have a lot of leaders from all over the world who've been trained through our global partnerships," Tennent said. "We have signed partnership agreements with sister schools in India, Kenya, Nigeria, Philippines, the U.K., Korea, Costa Rica and so on, so we are able to share in helping them to train their students. They send students to us. Their faculty come here."

ATS also assists students and faculty overseas with library resources.

"We have a high-tech scanning center where we can scan materials from our library and share them digitally around the world with material that's not under copyright protection."

Tennent, who previously worked with the founder of New Theological College in North India, which trains young leaders for church planting and pastoral service, wholeheartedly subscribes to the need for strategic international work.

ATS has "a goal to train 1,000 new church planters by 2025, so we have a lot of work around the world," he said. "We offer six modules in church planting, and we're doing that at sites around the world. That, to me, is one of the most exciting things in our strategic plan."

Asbury also emphasizes the value of the fivefold ministry in starting new congregations. The school's strategic vision asserts that "only through the full recovery of the fivefold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers can we effectively strengthen and extend the church of Jesus Christ."

From its inception in 1923, the seminary has used the motto "The Whole Bible for the Whole World," also incorporated in the original school seal. Tennent believes it remains an accurate description of the seminary's motivation.

"We continue to use it to this day because the phrase 'whole Bible' emphasizes our commitment to the full method of salvation, not just justification but also the work of sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit," he said. "Our mission statement declares that we'll send out students who are Spirit-filled and sanctified, so that's a big part of our identity, the whole teaching of the Bible, not just being justified but getting to the full life of Christ in the Holy Spirit."

Many seminaries "have drifted from the authority of God's Word," Tennent said, but Asbury continues to affirm the primacy of the Scriptures.

The motto also reflects the school's global outreach.

"Then 'the whole world' stands for our global vision, to train men and women across the world," Tennent said. "From the very beginning, we only had three students when we first started, and one of them was international. Mostly because our founder was connected to the mission board of the OMS, we had a lot of connections in China and the Far East."

As part of its practice of hospitality, ATS reserves housing for international scholars.

"Let's say they never finished their dissertation or their Ph.D. or they need to write a book, they can come here," Tennent said. "We give them housing and a meal card at no cost to them. They live here; they work here; they're able to do their writing. It's a huge blessing."

At the main campus in Wilmore, Kentucky, 150 family housing units have been built in the last few years.

"If you go there in the evening and see the children playing in Kalas Village, you'd think you were driving through the United Nations," Tennent said. "It's unbelievable, young kids from every country in the world playing out there. It just kind of symbolizes that whole-world emphasis we have."

The seminary's alumni director, Tammy Cessna, who earned her master's at ATS and is pursuing a D.Min. in organizational leadership there, appreciates the ways the school promotes global engagement. She enjoys this experience "through being taught by faculty from different countries, through the wonderful international students with whom I share class and life, through knowing and hearing from alums who are serving in different corners of the world and through the international travel I have personally been able to experience because of Asbury."

Emmanuel Jatau, a Nigerian student who has master's degrees in Spiritual Formation and Intercultural Studies and is pursuing his doctorate in Intercultural Studies, values the seminary's emphasis on global outreach.

"Asbury Seminary's focus on global engagement has enriched my life personally through interacting with so many international visiting scholars on campus—a direct result of Asbury's partnership with theological training institutions across the globe," Jatau said. "A thorough theological education in this globalized age must include an emphasis on the contributions of Christian scholars from various nations."

Spiritual Formation

Knowing that the relationship between academic and spiritual formation is crucial, Asbury makes services available to students to cultivate their spiritual development.

"If students do not graduate holy and Spirit-filled, then we have not fulfilled our mission," Tennent said.

Such opportunities emphasize spiritual development, sacrificial service and holiness.

"Spiritual formation is embedded in the culture of Asbury Seminary," Cessna said. "When I read the history of Asbury, I realized that spiritual formation has been a cornerstone of this institution throughout Asbury's almost 100 years of existence. Formation happens around the lunch table, during the devotional given by a professor, through the prayers of a staff member, through the biblical preaching in chapel, in small covenant groups of students, with an alum who is a mentor, during worship in chapel and through meeting with a spiritual director. All the intellectual accomplishments of a theological education amount to nothing without the accompanying work of the Holy Spirit through spiritual formation. This is a truth that I have experienced here."

Students are formed spiritually through days of prayer, daily Eucharist and chapel services.

The fact that Asbury has an executive position dedicated to formation reveals the school's commitment to this defining value.

"I have a vice president of formation, Donna Covington, who oversees a whole group of dedicated professionals who assist in the formation of our community, so we have all kinds of opportunities for people," Tennent said. "We actually call it community formation, not student formation. We have a vision that we want to see the whole community formed, so we have programs for the children of our students; we have programs for the spouses of our students; we have a huge summer programs just for our kids. So we have formation happening, actually from the trustees, administration, staff, faculty—everybody is formed here."

As part of spiritual formation, ATS has a structured field-education requirement where local pastors and leaders mentor students. The seminary also has a faculty-led initiative called Sozo, which means healing in Greek.

Mentoring is "part of the ethos of Asbury," said Tennent, who himself benefited from a three-year mentor project in academic leadership developed by the Lexington Seminar, a Lilly endowment.

Missional Alertness

Asbury Seminary is committed to the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), which includes making disciples of all nations.

"We are forming leaders who are prepared to go out—whether that is going out overseas to preach the gospel or going out into their communities," said Debra Adams, ATS director of communications. "These are people who are actively discerning what God is doing in the context of the community they are living in, and they are joining Him in His plan, whether that is East Texas or northern Nigeria. It's the mindset of 'What is God doing, and how can we join Him?'"

Along with its global outreach, ATS equips students to reach people for Christ who are closer to campus. Acknowledging North America's "post-Christendom context," diverse, missionally oriented ATS students are trained for effective church renewal and church planting in settings that are not as faith-friendly as they once were.

Asbury sees North America as "the fastest-emerging mission field in the world." In that light, the school has developed an extension campus in partnership with a key church in Memphis, Tennessee.

"We really wanted to have a much larger impact on the African-American community, so Wilmore, Kentucky, is not the best place for that," Tennent said.

ATS partnered with Christ Church, a United Methodist congregation where Maxie Dunnam is minister at large. Dunnam was president of Asbury from 1994 to 2004 as well as world editor of The Upper Room devotional guide.

"We've had a long connection to Christ Church in Memphis," Tennent said. "It's a church that's one of the leading churches in the city for racial reconciliation and for helping to create conversations that are healthy and also just active things they're doing to help people's lives. They have a television talk show [We Believe in Memphis] that they're part of."

Christ Church had a Cokesbury Christian store on campus, but when Cokesbury closed all its stores in 2013, the space opened up for another use. Asbury asked if the congregation would allow the seminary to move into that space, and the two parties signed an agreement.

"It's been a great, great relationship with that church," Tennent said. "I'm just so delighted in what they're doing. We now have a nice program being offered in a very racially complex city with a lot of opportunities doing some great work in education and just helping churches understand how to connect with communities in transition."

In Memphis, students take classes through cohort model-based learning in a spiritually transformative community. Students can complete up to 49 percent of their degree on the Asbury Memphis campus. An ATS faculty member who is local or travels from either the Kentucky or Florida campus, teaches the classes, which meet two weekends in a semester.

The Memphis campus is focused not on those seeking ordination or church credentialing but on people who want to work in broader ministry or in public forums. Their concerns might be "justice issues and racial issues and other kinds of ways in which the church needs good reflection," Tennent said.

Each campus and extension site has its own specialization. The Florida Dunnam campus, which started in 1991, is also set in an urban context, but one that attracts a significant number of tourists and internationals.

The Orlando area also draws Spanish speakers from nearby Puerto Rico and Cuba and from any number of other Latin countries, so ATS leadership thought it helpful to launch a Hispanic Initiative at the Florida campus.

"We have a whole range of ministries where we focus on Hispanics," Tennent said. "We have various certificate programs. We have entire programs just in Spanish. We have a hybrid program where we have alternating English and Spanish. We have a lot of programs for Hispanic leadership, and of course, Hispanics are one of the fastest-growing church groups in America, so there's a lot of need for leadership in that area."

Cessna captures the importance of the defining value of missional alertness at ATS.

"Professors are diligent in teaching the need to assess and evaluate current cultures in different global contexts in order to make the gospel accessible and relatable to diverse populations," she said. "At Asbury, I have learned the value of being incarnational in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Continued Growth

Asbury will soon add a Tulsa, Oklahoma, extension site, so that will contribute to even higher enrollment. Tulsa's Asbury United Methodist Church will host the site, which will open this fall with a soft launch.

"They've also been very generous in opening up their doors to us," Tennent said of the church. "They have a building that they're no longer using, so they've offered it to us."

The site will afford ATS the opportunity to locate a bit farther west for students in that region who may not want to come as far as Kentucky for classes.

"We've never had a Western outlet to Asbury, so it's a long way from California and other places like that to Kentucky," Tennent said. "So we really wanted some place farther out west. We think this is going to be a really good development for us."

The longtime ExL, or extended learning, program continues to draw online students. ATS was an early adopter in the 1980s as the recipient of a generous grant from the Ralph Waldo Beeson family to launch the distance education program. ATS now prefers a hybrid model where the ExL student visits the main campus and gleans the benefits of engaging with professors and students face to face for a short period of time.

"It helps people actually thrive better online when they go back home," Tennent said.

When a student graduates from Asbury Theological Seminary, receiving a degree is not the end of the relationship.

"We've long resisted the idea at Asbury that seminary education is a place where you spend three years and then, to use an analogy, you pack your bags for a lifetime journey and that's it," Tennent said. "So we see a need to stay in touch with our alumni throughout their whole career."

ATS does this through a program called Asbury for Life, which provides graduates with a wide range of resources as well as support and encouragement. Asbury for Life provides the opportunity to submit prayer requests; offers networking for career assistance and invites alumni to events such as the New Room Conference, which draws thousands; and encourages Lifelong Learning through webinars, seminars, conferences and retreats.

The seminary's centennial anniversary is fast approaching.

"Our goal is in 2023, which is when we turn 100 years old, Asbury as a whole would be 1,750 students," Tennent said. "That's where we're going at this point. We have a strategy to get there."

Christine D. Johnson is editor of Ministry Today. Reach out to her at chris.johnson@charismamedia.com.

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