So, who’s training tomorrow’s 'mainline' Protestant pastors?

Seasoned by a religion bachelor’s from the University of Chicago and a Harvard divinity degree, John Lomperis now monitors his United Methodist Church for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. This small, controversial D.C. think tank, devoutly conservative in both theology and politics, follows developments in U.S. “mainline” Protestant denominations, which others often ignore nowadays.

A Lomperis item for spotted hopeful signs for fellow conservatives, leading off with this: “Far more American United Methodists ordained last year graduated from [Asbury Theological Seminary] than seven of the UMC’s official seminaries combined. This continues a longtime trend of Asbury contributing an outsized pipeline of new, evangelical clergy coming into United Methodism.”

There’s a much broader Protestant story here awaiting development.

Independent evangelical seminaries that have grown exponentially since World War II affect not only conservative groups but the pluralistic or liberal “mainline” denominations where minority evangelicals exercise minimal influence on national programs but persist at the local level. These schools have built a reputation for training pastors in effective sermonizing, pastoral work, and outreach.

Asbury’s equivalent for the Presbyterian Church (USA) is independent Fuller Theological Seminary, which currently has the largest enrollment among U.S. divinity schools. Fuller says in some years it trains more PC(USA) seminarians than any of the official PC(USA) schools.

But is that now changing with recent turmoil in the  PC(USA)?  Fuller’s “Office of Presbyterian Ministries,” in operation for 40 years, says Presbyterians  -- including the PC(USA) and four smaller conservative bodies -- form the largest category in its student body and the faculty (30 professors, including the former president.

Another place to check out would be the largest independent based in the East,  Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. (Full disclosure: The Guy’s daughter is studying there part-time.)  It seems likely this seminary’s graduates would have regional impact on congregations in the American Baptist Churches and United Church of Christ, if not other groups.

Another large independent, Dallas Theological Seminary, probably sends relatively few pastors into “mainline” churches. Other schools could be part of the picture.

Back to the Methodists. Lomperis claims there’s a “dramatic reformation” toward orthodoxy that’s “nothing short of miraculous” at one official Methodist campus, United Theological Seminary in Ohio.

How come? That, too, seems worth a journalistic look. If Lomperis is right, is such a rightward trend occurring at any other seminaries operated by these denominations?  After all, U.S. “mainline” Protestantism has declined steadily since the mid-1960s while U.S. evangelicalism has largely expanded or at least held its own.

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