Changing presidents at a local seminary

In his 15 years as president of Emmanuel School of Religion, Robert Wetzel saw how seminary education must include more than simply learning theology, history and ministry methods in a classroom.

Intellectual rigor and academic discipline are crucial to Wetzel, but the education must “make it more than that. It must be head and heart.”

Wetzel retired this week after a five-decade academic career. On Monday the seminary, perched on a bluff above Milligan Highway, will have a new president, Michael Sweeney.

Sweeney worked in Papua New Guinea as a Bible translator for 15 years before coming to Emmanuel three years ago to teach courses in world mission and New Testament. He is the fifth president in 44-year history of the seminary, which mainly serves Christian churches and churches of Christ. (Wetzel also served on the mission field, leading a new theological college in England for 11 years.)

“What we do best is prepare people for ministry in community, and so we want to model what it means to be the church,” Wetzel said. “The early days of Emmanuel were very ‘heady,’ influenced by the Enlightenment. It’s not that we’ve abandoned that, but we put more emphasis now on helping students create and experience a sense of community.”

Perhaps the most visible symbol of that emphasis, and the most tangible legacy of Wetzel’s presidency, is the Emmanuel Village. The student-housing project was designed to emulate a small English village – complete with stone “cottages,” winding streets and a community center – not because Wetzel is an Anglophile, but to nurture a community that would be absent in cookie-cutter apartments.

There’s literally a price to be paid, however, particularly when seminary enrollment nationwide was stagnant. Emmanuel, with a $3.5 million annual operating budget, carries an $8 million debt, mostly in a $7.5 million, 20-year bond program that funded the last phase of the village and other projects. The past year’s economic downturn took a toll as well. Although no faculty members were released, several staff members were laid off. The actions were painful, Wetzel said, but the school has kept its strong donor base and holds $24 million in assets.

Sweeney knows he takes office during difficult financial times and a changing church atmosphere.

“Colleges and seminaries aren’t as influential as they once were,” Sweeney said. “The most influential leaders now are ministers of large churches. In (many congregations), degrees don’t mean as much as they once did. A lot of people just want to take a class or two. So we must relate more closely to the churches and be aware of issues they contend with and help the ministers develop the gifts they have.”

The school launched the Emmanuel Institutes in 2005 to do just that, offering workshops in local churches or engaging them in research projects on topics ranging from church finances to studying the effects of marketing. Emmanuel will also increase its online offerings.

While the school will aim to increase its traditional enrollment – Sweeney thinks Emmanuel’s headcount can grow by 100, to about 250 – its job description is expanding.

“Our biggest challenge is to revamp what and how we teach, to serve churches in their situations,” Sweeney said. “There’s a role for seminaries to fill.”

Both men are convinced that seminaries like Emmanuel, even as they reinvent themselves, are vital for the health of churches they serve and, by extension, the society where they operate. Wetzel and Sweeney are disturbed, for example, about theological shallowness among large numbers of churchgoers and even entire congregations.

“Americans assume success is a fundamental value that is generally unquestioned,” Wetzel said. “So I’m concerned that churches are going on models of success: They do what they do to bring in crowds. They’ll say, ‘We’re trying to meet the culture where it is.’ We can thank God there are churches with thousands of people, but there’s a tension in providing better solid biblical teaching.”

Sweeney agreed and then pointed to a silver lining.

“There’s a lack of depth, but it’s an opening for seminaries, to address that need (for theological teaching),” he said. “We’re in a cultural shift. People aren’t asking the same questions in seminary as I was. Much of my seminary experience was about engaging in fun, intellectual discussions. It’s not that anymore. Theology needs to be a way of thinking how I carry on my life. If it’s not, people aren’t interested.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 30 May 2009.