Funding the formation of the called

Robert Dilday’s article on the educational indebtedness of the church’s future ministers published last Friday by Associated Baptist Press, along with the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education paper “The Gathering Storm: The Educational Debt of Theological Students” referenced in the article, should be pondered deeply by anyone who cares about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and its future.

The CBF owes its very existence to concerns about the sort of theological education that would be received by the future ministers of moderate-to-progressive Baptist congregations that did not identify with the hard-right turn of the Southern Baptist Convention. During CBF’s first decade the Fellowship increasingly lent financial support to what it now describes as “the 15 seminaries, theology schools or Baptist studies programs in CBF’s network of ministry partnerships.”

As a teacher of theology in CBF partner schools, I’m grateful for the financial support my students have received from Fellowship Baptists. But in light of the realities described in Dilday’s ABP story, I’m convinced that it’s time for us to give renewed attention to increasing scholarship funding of students who receive theological education at our partner institutions.

I propose four ways we can do this, starting with the grassroots of CBF local congregational life:

1. Each CBF-affiliated congregation can fund a scholarship at a CBF theological education partner school. This might be the school nearest geographically to the church, or perhaps the school that educated its ministers or in which members are currently pursuing degrees. Each of the 15 divinity schools, seminaries, and Baptist studies programs has its own unique channels through which scholarships may be funded. The deans, presidents, or program directors of partner schools will be glad to supply information and guidance for next steps.

2. Individual members of CBF-affiliated congregations with the means to do so can fund a scholarship at a CBF theological education partner school. Some potential donors may happen to read this blog post. Other potential donors may come to the minds of other readers who can make them aware of this way to make a significant difference in the life of the church.

3. State CBF organizations can increase their scholarship funding for students attending CBF theological education partner schools. My own state organization, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, has long provided scholarship funds for students from its churches and in recent years has increased this funding. But in North Carolina, where there are more CBF theological education partner institutions than in any other state, other sources of scholarship aid available to students in the early years of these schools are now being phased out, and students are bearing ever-larger portions of the cost of their theological education, often in the form of debt—the repayment of which will be more expensive as the interest of loans for graduate education is no longer federally subsidized. In North Carolina and beyond, the health of CBF life at the state level will depend in no small measure on funding the theological education of the particular ministers most likely to serve churches in their states.

4. CBF national can increase its funding for scholarships for students attending its theological education partner schools. As I’ve written in a previous ABPnews Blog post, I’m enthusiastic about the direction of CBF national life under the leadership of our new Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter. The near future of CBF is one of re-visioning, reorganization, and realignment of resources. It represents a timely opportunity for all involved in the renewal of CBF life at the national level to recover a sense of the importance of theological education to the future of CBF and to address as an urgent matter the funding of students preparing for ministry.

In recent years many have spoken and written of the need to create a “culture of call” to cultivate the ministers the church needs to lead it into God’s future. If that culture is to be sustainable, it must be supported by renewed efforts to fund the formation of the called.

Steve Harmon

Author's Website
About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Read more posts by