Illustrations by Andrei Cojocaru
Bill Florin is 58 and remembers an Easter Sunday service from his childhood when an overflowing congregation sat on folding chairs in the narthex and in the corridor outside the sanctuary. Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Dobbs Ferry, NY, also held separate Sunday school classes for each grade. As he recalls, the church was “rocking and rolling.”
Today, his parents, both in their 80s, still attend Aldersgate where, Florin says, they are lucky to see 20 people on a Sunday morning.
Florin has a disarming manner and quick and gentle sense of humor, qualities that serve him well in his professional work as an independent consultant who conducts corporate training on time and stress management and collaboration.
He also is now part of an emerging new wave of pastoral church leaders in the United Methodist Church (UMC). He is not a fully ordained minister with a Master of Divinity degree, the traditional pathway for pastors in the church. Rather, he is a Licensed Local Pastor (LLP), who worked his way through a series of UMC-sponsored certificate programs with the dual purpose of satisfying his yen for learning and certifying him to conduct the duties of a minister, save for the sacraments of communion and baptism.
“I’ve always been an avid learner, and in 2018, I started pursuing some of the different lay servants’ educational opportunities through the UMC,” he says. “I went for the first-level certification – a basic lay servant class plus one advanced class. No problem; got that. And then I went for the certified lay speaker program, which incorporated planning and leading, worship and preaching skills, and spiritual gifts. After that it was an easy next step to earn the certified lay minister credential.
“And about 12 minutes after the ink was dry on the certificate they asked me if I would be willing to take on a church assignment. I said, ‘Yes, absolutely; that’s why I did all this work. If there’s an opportunity to lead I am happy to serve.’”
He began his new duties on July 1, 2023, as an assigned pastor to First United Methodist in Shelton, Conn. He serves a congregation of 40-50 people each week, and conducts two services each Sunday. Like his childhood church, First United has seen a dramatic decline in weekly attendees over the past several decades, and the congregation is mostly elderly now, he says; there are four children in Sunday school.
He points out that the First United Methodist now has five new members. “Everybody calls me Pastor Bill. I lead worship and deliver a sermon every Sunday,” he says. “And I’ve buried three people – not literally, but you get the idea. My first funeral came within my first 10 days; that was a little challenging. I re-learned that there’s no such thing as being overprepared.
“And the family was very happy.”
Whither the M.Div.?
Bill Florin’s experience and enthusiasm are glimmerings of hope for the UMC. It is no secret that over the past two decades, a steady decline in North American religious life and practice has created an existential threat to religion broadly and in the UMC particularly.
According to a July 2023 report by PBS NewsHour, more than 6,000 UMC congregations – one fifth of the U.S. total – have received permission to leave the denomination amid a schism over theology and the role of LGBTQ people (the UMC forbids the marriage or ordination of “self-avowed homosexuals” but growing defiance of those bans in the churches and the conferences has led many congregations to leave). What began as a trickle in 2019 – when the denomination created a four-year window for U.S. congregations to depart – crested to its highest levels last year.
The dissolution of congregations is underway in other dominations, as well, and has had a cascading effect on theological education: the demand for the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree has declined significantly (see Enrollment Trends), the applicant pool has been shrinking, while “denominational bodies that have traditionally organized and financially supported both master’s level and non-degree pastoral education face significant reductions in size, mission and funding.” That’s how Wesley Theology Seminary and the Joe and Lois Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University described the quandary in a successful 2022 joint proposal to Lilly Endowment Inc.’s “Pathways for Tomorrow” Phase III grant.
“Because of the M.Div.-centric business model that drives nearly all seminaries, most schools do not have the resources to offer or see the value in offering, pre-degree, post-degree, and master’s alternative course and credentialing options,” the application states. “The greatest competition for most seminaries is not other seminaries, but no seminary education at all. To be faithful to our missions, we have an obligation to make our theological education accessible to a new majority of non-degreed clergy and lay leaders.”
The application emphasizes that underserved communities, multi-vocational clergy, and congregational lay ministers “often cannot access theological education – particularly not an expensive and time-intensive Master of Divinity degree.” It proposes pre- and post-degree alternatives that would expand the breadth of theological education.
Florin is one of the early beneficiaries of that vision; his class in the New Testament is the first course in the Ministry Certificate program developed with the support of the $5 million Pathways Phase III grant to bring students into ministry. The longer-term hope and intention are that they will serve as tributaries into master’s degree programs, shore up dismaying trends of declining enrollment, and address the growing need for a multiplicity of ministries in short-handed congregations.
Two schools, one mission, many unknowns
Rev. F. Douglas Powe, Jr., Ph.D., is the James C. Logan Professor of Evangelism at Wesley in Washington, DC; since 2017 has served as director of its Lewis Center for Church Leadership, which seeks to “advance the understanding of Christian leadership and promote the effective and faithful practice of Christian leadership in the church and the world.”
Powe earned his Ph.D. at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University; his research interests include church revitalization, urban theology, and Methodist theology, and he currently serves as managing director for The Institute for Community Engagement and director of its Urban Ministry Program.
He also is one of the authors of the Lilly Endowment proposal; he continues to steer the successful $5 million grant in collaboration with the Perkins School, the embedded school at Southern Methodist University.
“There are different pathways in terms of how someone can pastor a congregation,” he says. “The traditional route – that we all love dearly, of course – is the Master of Divinity program. But in the United Methodist Church, we also have something called the Course of Study, a non-degree offering almost like a certificate program where you’re taking 20 classes over the life of the program that help train individuals to go into ministry.
“In more recent times, you also have individuals who have an interest in ministry and are willing to preach or help out but aren’t going to go to seminary for a Master of Divinity and aren’t going to go into the Course of Study. That number is going to grow, given the trajectory. So the growth is going to be in those congregations that are going to be under 50 (congregants) and even under 25.”
Powe observes that the types of students being targeted by the Lilly project will be non-traditional; that is, they may or may not have a baccalaureate degree, and if they do would not necessarily move directly into seminary education upon graduating. Through Perkins, students would include Hispanic people (a growing sector of the Church in Dallas and many other UMC conferences in the United States).
“We’re looking at people who may or may not have gone to college, working full-time jobs; the ministry work they’re doing is a passion, something that they believe in strongly, but they don’t have a lot of time to put into it,” Powe says.
Powe’s counterpart at Perkins is Andrew Keck, who serves as chief of staff. A librarian by academic training (he holds a Master of Library Science degree from Clarion University as well as a Master of Theological Studies from Boston University School of Theology), he led early planning into certification programs with the support of a Lilly Pathways Phase I grant, which funded (among other items) a retreat with independent consultants to identify future directions for the School.
“One of the things that came out in our retreat was the sense that – and I’m going to state it bluntly – the future of theological education may not be at the graduate level,” Keck says. “We’ve seen explosive growth in people who are not assigned to be pastors, who do not have a formal theological education. And through the Course of Study, that’s always been an alternative path; in some conferences today the licensed local pastors are now the majority.”
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Perkins program is a focus on Hispanic congregations and ministry. Language is a consideration, as are cultural norms that require creative approaches to students from congregations with distinctive cultures.
Keck notes that Perkins, which was an original part of SMU’s founding in 1915, has a successful history as a “gateway” provider of certificate programs that sometimes will lead students to pursue degrees.
“Institutionally, I think our greatest hurdle is that we’re built to do degrees,” Keck says. “We live and die by the credit hour. We charge tuition. We count how many three-hour courses our faculty teach. So to ask faculty to teach a certificate course, what do we pay them? Is that part of their teaching load? Do we give them residuals for a video?”
Keck also notes that people studying in certificate programs are not officially SMU students, and thus do not have access to some of the resources, such as databases, available to those with student status. One of his challenges is determining if licensing resources might be an opportunity to support learning and research among the ministerial certificate cohort.
Another is pedagogy. “Doug (Powe) and Wesley, I think, push us a little bit more into the online space. As we look across the online education landscape, we think ‘Well, online is great but wouldn’t it be nice if we could get these folks together, maybe for an initial retreat?’ We see high attrition rates, and we wonder if there’s a component of in-person that would help that.
“We’re trying to think about how we can continue what we consider traditional theological education, but understanding that model may not be sustainable as it now stands. We have to be able to think creatively about how we can move forward and be a seminary that includes both.
“It is very exciting, but as excited as I am, there are many unknowns.”
Gladly learn, and gladly teach
Pine Island United Methodist Church in Bokeelia, Fla., is nestled in the Pine Island Sound between Fort Meyers on the mainland and Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico. The congregation once numbered 600; today there are approximately 190 congregants during the winter months and about 65 in the summer.
The Rev. Kaylee Vida, fresh out of the M.Div. program at Perkins, arrived here in 2021 to pastor her first church. She is positive, energetic, and highly motivated about shaping the future of the church and has worked diligently with her leadership team to shape new directions for vision and mission.
So motivated, in fact, that when she learned about a curriculum titled, “Discovering God’s Future for Your Church,” offered by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership (the same Lewis Center shepherded by Doug Powe), she jumped at the opportunity.
There are five classes in the program, and Vida has completed two. The classes are offered online, each module exploring a unit in the curriculum, with readings and video instruction, Zoom sessions with the instructor that provided interaction with other students, and discussion boards. She acknowledges that she would have appreciated an in-person connection.
“What was overwhelming at the beginning (of her tenure at Pine Island UMC) is that I thought I needed to figure it all out,” she says. “The classes have helped me understand that I didn’t have to; it was very much a process. It also gave me material that I can take and use with my leadership team here, helping them to also begin to develop vision.
We’re looking at people who may or may not have gone to college, working full-time jobs; the ministry work they’re doing is a passion...
“I discovered there is something out there that already provides a good model of how to do this work, and I don’t have to have all the answers. My leadership team and I can then discover the answers together. We work at it, bit by bit, trusting God and the process.”
Vida’s class was taught by Lovett Weems, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor emeritus of Church Leadership at Wesley, former president of St. Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas City, MO, and the founding director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, established at Wesley in 2003 to promote effective leadership in the church and world (the Center is named for G. Douglass Lewis, who retired as Wesley’s president in 2002 after 22 years of service).
Weems’ class is an antecedent to the emerging certificate programs envisioned in the Lilly Pathways III grant. It begins, he says, with a course on strategic planning, and includes courses on leadership; each class meets for six weeks, content is synchronous and asynchronous, and weekly readings, video presentations, and writing assignments are supported by an online platform.
“Within six weeks we’re moving through a set of steps that, in a more formal strategic planning process would take longer, but nonetheless provides some foundational experience,” he says.
He based the class on the church leadership theories of Scott Cormode, Ph.D., a member of the faculty at Fuller Theological Center and a widely respected scholar who, according to Weems, defines leadership as “helping God’s people to discern the next fateful step.”
Weems’ colleague, Laura C. Sweat Holmes, Ph.D., is a professor of New Testament at Wesley, and taught the first class in the new Ministry Certificate program created through the Pathways III grant (Bill Florin was among her students). An ordained Methodist minister, she understands the needs of churches, and embraces her role in helping busy people with full lives pursue their passion for ministry.
“The laity are all supervised by a clergy person, and they can be given a lot of responsibility with minimal resourcing,” she says. “We wanted to use my course as an experiment, to see what works. I mean, we did the whole New Testament in four weeks; I usually have two semesters with our graduate students.
“So this was just a taste, an experience. The deliberate design was to help them see the depth of the context in these texts and to help them encounter fruitful interpretations and start to recognize work they can do on their own, with some basic resources to enliven, enrich, and connect Scripture with a sermon in ways with which they might not have felt equipped.”
Into the great wide open
The Wesley-Perkins Pathways III effort began in Fall 2023 with the Ministry Leadership Certificate out of Wesley; in Spring 2024 Perkins will begin a Spanish language cohort for the same program. There’s a bit of “flying the plane as we build it” to the development, as Laura Sweat Holmes likes to say, but that approach has been purposefully baked into the development.
“At this point, I think we’re maybe a year-and-a-half away from learning things about the program and what is realistic and what is not,” Powe says. “I’m positive there will be, but we haven’t quite gotten to that point yet.”
As Powe looks to the future, he acknowledges there is much work to do, that the journey afforded by the Lilly Pathways III grant will continue to unfold with new challenges – and new opportunities. Pricing is one of them. Identifying key performance indicators, assessing them over time, and adjusting will also need to be explored. Expanding the reach of successful initiatives and finding the determination to adjust or eliminate those that don’t find traction will almost certainly occur as the new initiatives are tested and evaluated.
Such are the challenges of all disruptive ideas. From the very beginning, Powe says the Pathways III Working Group (see list below), leaned on the late Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation in business, along with the precepts of design teaching. Christensen posited that disruption occurs when a new technology or approach disrupts existing markets by providing simpler, more accessible, and more affordable solutions that eventually outperform established products or services. The theory has held up in industries as disparate as transportation, media, health care, tech, and education.
“We’re trying to think about how we can continue what we think of as traditional theological education, while understanding that the model isn’t sustainable as it is,” Powe says. “We have to be able to think creatively about how we can move forward and be a place that is both traditional and a model for innovation, where we’re doing multiple things in ministry, and creating revenue streams. It’s very exciting, but also very frightening at the same time.”
Wesley Seminary and Perkins School of Theology Core Leadership Group
Perkins School of Theology
Rev. Dr. Craig C. Hill, D. Phil.
Professor of New Testament and former Dean
Rev. Andy Keck, M.T.S.
Chief of Staff
Rev. Dr. Hugo Magallanes, Ph.D.
Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Director of Hispanic Latin Ministries Programs
Rev. Dr. Beth Ludlum, D.Min.
Vice President, Strategic Initiatives
Rev. Dr. David McAllister-Wilson, D.Min.
Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr., Ph.D.
Director of the Lewis Center
James C. Logan, Ph.D.
Professor of Evangelism