Over Cuban coffee and a meal, theology professor Benjamin Wayman discussed recent developments in theological education—particularly among Latino pastors—with church historian Justo González at his home in Decatur, Georgia. Acknowledging past and present failings of theological education in the North Atlantic, González identified promising paths for reaching more pastors on a demographic and global scale.
Could you describe the nature of your work for the church here in Decatur, Georgia, and abroad?
I consider myself first of all a pastor, even though I don’t pastor a church. I try to write as a pastor, pastoring both the church and other pastors. I quit teaching full time in 1977; I taught 16 years before that. My main occupation since that time has been twofold. One has been to write; the other has been to try to develop agencies and systems to support the theological education of Hispanics and Latinos.
What is the main focus of the Hispanic Theological Initiative?
The Hispanic Theological Initiative is mostly concerned with producing people who are capable of teaching and reading at the highest level of theological education (PhDs or similar degrees). It has been very, very successful. When I went to [American Academy of Religion conferences] back in the ’70s and the early ’80s, it would be a great joy to see friends I didn’t see frequently. We were a handful. When I resigned from teaching, I was the only Latino faculty member at any Protestant seminary in the country. When I go now, the joy is to see so many people I don’t know, Latinos I don’t know, mostly the result of the HTI. The HTI has made a tremendous impact.
There’s still a lot to do. I think the statistic is that approximately 4 percent of the faculty of seminaries in the US, including Puerto Rico, are Latinos and Latinas. Now, the Latino population is between 16 and 17 percent in the country. The representation is about one-quarter what it ought to be. Christianity is probably more central to the identity of Latinos, and so it should be even more, but 16 percent should be the goal. So, the HTI is very important.
How has your vocation as a writer shaped your work?
Most of the things that I write are addressed to people in the church, or at least leaders in the church, but not peers. Sometimes I’ve been surprised by some of the things I did. Some years ago, a retired United Methodist missionary went to Peru and asked them, What is it that you really need here? Oddly enough, somebody there said, “We need the works of Wesley in Spanish.” What surprised me was I thought we were doing this for libraries and a few seminaries, and so I expected them to purchase a few hundred copies or so. The first edition was exhausted in a few months. It’s a sign of the thirst of the people. Wesley is not easy reading. And somehow people wanted this sort of material.
The book of mine that has sold most is called in English The Story of Christianity. That was originally written in Spanish in ten little books. My goal was, there are all these pastors and leaders in Latin America who do not have to read church history, who ought to know something about church history, but they’re not going to read any big book or anything that somebody tells them, “you have to read this.” So, I wanted to write a history for these people that they’ll start reading and get interested, and people read it.
Your Story of Christianity is great, and it does history from the margins too, from “above and below,” as you put it.
Part of what I wanted to do was bring the history of world Christianity together—that’s the history of Christianity. It’s not the history of what happened in Europe. There were several agendas in that book written for Latin America. One was what you just mentioned: from the margins—a gospel that invites change. That calls for action in society and so on. Another was an ecumenical agenda—I wanted all these Protestant pastors to admire and learn about the martyrs, about Augustine, about Chrysostom, and about the bad things too—about their whole inheritance. Basically, what I have tried to do in most of those things is to make things as popular as possible without oversimplifying them.
What do you make of the current challenges facing theological education in the United States?
There is a tremendous crisis in a number of Association of Theological Schools accredited seminaries. They tend to think the crisis is financial, but I don’t think so. Especially with denominational seminaries, I think the crisis is demographic. What’s happening is that the churches that have traditionally required seminary for ordination are not growing. The only such church that’s growing is the Catholic church, and that has nothing to do with educational processes; it has to do with immigration. But demographically, the historic Protestant churches in this country are not growing. You have all these institutions that were built in the ’50s. For a time, they were growing, and now they’re competing with one another. That’s a crisis.
They’re doing some things to try to deal with the demographic issue. They have Hispanic programs and Korean programs, and some have African American studies. Obviously, we have a couple of very important seminaries that are mostly African American, but in general, the seminaries that belong to the white traditional denominations are having to subsist and to find ways of serving a population that is no longer of that denomination, or to reduce their services and classes enormously.
The problem I see in all this is that most seminaries are doing this on the cheap. What they’re doing is putting together these students [who have decades of pastoral experience] with the MDiv students whose setting or place in life is very different. That’s the next crisis I see coming for seminaries that are following that pattern.
You have written that very few mainline Christian universities and seminaries are embracing Latinos into their communities of education. Why do you think that’s the case?
That’s beginning to change. The last three or four years, Latino enrollment in colleges has skyrocketed in the sense of percentage. It’s still very small, but compared with what it was a few years before, there’s been a big difference.
For a number of reasons, the vast majority of Latinos in the country do not have the exact academic requirements that colleges, universities, and seminaries require. First of all, a BA is a very expensive proposition. Secondly, if you’re from a Latino family and you get a BA, you’re probably the very first one in your family who gets it. And probably in order to do that, there have been many people that have made great sacrifices. At that point you cannot tell [your family], “Well, you know, you’ve made all these sacrifices but I’m going to go to seminary for three more years and then I’m going to be a pastor and I’m going to make such and such a salary, [so] I’m not going to be able to help my sister go through college.” There’s a certain [family] obligation, and seminaries do not want to accommodate that kind of situation, and very often they can’t.
We want to give people the opportunity to come to seminary who, for a number of reasons, can’t get a BA—they don’t have one and can’t get one. And the church needs trained pastors. The best way to provide these pastors with training is to develop this juncture.
What role does elitism play in these institutions in refusing the gift of Latino students?
What you see mostly is in the lines of admissions and recruitment. If you’re going to recruit students for seminary, you go to colleges. With Latinos, you will have to recruit in churches. That’s where the people really are. You have to be able to work with their issues: “Okay, I’m working, I have a job, I cannot move.”
Obviously, there’s a question of what do we (the seminary) have to offer? In other words, you bring Latino students, [but] you have no Latino professors. The other side of that is if you do have a Latino professor then there’s a question of any issue that has to do with Latinos at all ends up at your desk. I’ve had that experience myself. Any minority, in my case, who had any question, ended up on my desk and I had to get involved. Mostly because you are more believable to the people who are feeling diminished or excluded or treated unjustly. And also, because if there’s something harsh that has to be done and you do it, then they cannot say racism. But that professor does not have the time to really do what other professors need to do at the school.
What’s the current shape of theological education?
The church is doing more in other countries than it’s doing here—or in Europe, even less. And yet so many of the academic and educational resources are still in the North Atlantic: the big libraries, the big publishing houses, the big networks of communication. All that is basically still in the North Atlantic. If you are a person in Congo who has finished all of the theological education that is there and you really want to learn more theology, you need to go to Europe or the US. It’s beginning to change, but you have to do that. And there’s a sense in which that does make sense still, but the question is how is that asymmetry going to affect each of the two sides? What happens when Yale, Harvard, and so on have the good libraries, but don’t have the students?
Do you have any final remarks about theological education from the perspective of a professor of the church?
I think that theological education is becoming less standard. All kinds of options are open. And that’s scary, dangerous, and wonderful. It used to be that all seminaries had were all three-year programs, and they all came after the BA, and then you had to do all the things to get in there. Now you have all kinds of diverse things popping up everywhere. I say scary because some of the things I find on the internet are horrible. And people can take horrible courses. But it’s also tremendous. I think in some ways what is happening is part of what happened in Europe around the Reformation. This machine has just been invented that can produce thousands of books and now people can have books and people can read them on their own and you can no longer control them. A lot of junk was published too; the cheaper the press became, the more junk was published. Well, the same thing is happening with the internet. And how do we react to it? You cannot suppress it; you cannot make a list of forbidden books. The only option we have is the other option: to offer a better use of the internet. To be able to develop a serious, acknowledged, recognized, and at the same time creative, enjoyable, and applicable theological education by distance is fantastic.
Benjamin Wayman is the James F. and Leona N. Andrews Chair in Christian Unity and associate professor of theology at Greenville University, as well as lead pastor of St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church in Greenville, Illinois.