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Less Than a Year In, Gordon-Conwell Seminary President Resigns

Schools debate relationship between cultural relevance and academic study.

James Emery White resigned May 16 as president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, effective June 30. White, whose term began July 1, 2006, said unforeseen family circumstances made it impossible for him to move to the seminary's main campus in Massachusetts.

White lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, near a Gordon-Conwell satellite campus. His contract required relocation, said Thomas Colatosti, chairman of the board of trustees. The board was pleased with White's work, Colatosti said, and had discussed extending his one-year appointment.

White founded Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte and will return to his post as senior pastor. For the past year, he had continued to serve the church, which has more than 5,000 active attendees, as teaching pastor. White will also resume teaching on Gordon-Conwell's Charlotte campus, where he had earlier worked as an adjunct professor, as a professor of theology and culture.

Gordon-Conwell, formed in 1969, chose White in 2006 as the seminary's fourth president. White holds a Ph.D. and has written 13 books, but he is not a scholar like his predecessor, Walter Kaiser Jr. Much of his writing calls Christians to a work of cultural transformation. A number of faculty members were concerned about White's appointment.

"There were some who would have liked more of an academician," said Rodney Cooper, professor of discipleship and leadership development at the Charlotte campus. "Those of us in the ministry department were delighted to have a person who brought that experience to the seminary."

Gordon-Conwell has traditionally sought a reputation among evangelical seminaries for an emphasis on academic rigor. Ivy League colleges surround the seminary in the northeast United States.

"There is a feeling that if we move too far away [from classical study], we'll lose the influence in this region that we have because of our strong academic background," Cooper said.

Seminaries across the country are debating the relationship between academic study and cultural relevance, said George Brushaber, president of Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. But any dichotomy between the two concerns is false, he said.

"There's a lot of speechifying but no serious engagement" between the sides, Brushaber said. "It's got to be a both/and, not an either/or. But the camps are lined up on opposite sides of the street, waving their placards and shouting."

Though Gordon-Conwell focuses on educating ministers and missionaries, a smaller percentage of graduates now pastor churches, said Walter Kaiser Jr., who led the school for nine years before White's appointment. A disconnect has developed between the seminary and churches, he said, and that can lead to a funding problem.

The board believed White's background in the church rather than the academy would help reconnect with churches and that he could attract donors with his popular appeal, Colatosti said. He noted that White's books are aimed at a general audience and sell much better than academic works.

During Kaiser's presidency, Gordon-Conwell's endowment grew from $20 million to $42 million. Enrollment more than doubled, from 900 to more than 2,000 students. With that momentum, Kaiser said the school hoped to enroll 4,200 students within 10 years.

The board has formed a presidential search committee and appointed Haddon Robinson as the interim president. A Gordon-Conwell professor of preaching since 1991, Robinson previously served as the president of Denver Seminary. Robinson teaches at the main campus near Boston.

Gordon-Conwell will be competing for qualified candidates. Other leading evangelical seminaries, such as Trinity Evanglical Divinity School, Bethel Seminary, and Asbury Theological Seminary, are also looking for new presidents.

Related Elsewhere:

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has a press release on the transition and more information on White, White's appointment as president last year, and Robinson.

White blogs at SeriousTimes.com.

Blogger Eric Welch has a letter from White on his resignation.

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