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Seminary in crisis?

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Lynn Jost takes on the challenge

On Nov. 9, Lynn Jost was publicly affirmed as president of MB Biblical Seminary (MBBS). It’s a role he’s been filling as acting president since Sept. 2008, then as the seminary board’s choice for president beginning in June 2009.

Jost was serving as academic dean when president Jim Holm confessed to an affair and resigned, so Jost was the logical choice to take the helm. But he also is well qualified, and has developed a love for the denomination and a wide net of connections.

Jost holds degrees from Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., MBBS, and a doctorate from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. He has worked as a missionary in Madrid, Spain, as a pastor, and as professor at Tabor College and MBBS. He has served the larger MB family in a variety of leadership and board positions, especially those charged with theological tasks.

Nonetheless, Jost says he faces a very steep learning curve adjusting to the new assignment. He sees himself as primarily a pastor and teacher rather than an administrator. “Running an organization has been a major adjustment, but one to which I have found myself increasingly open.”

Jost steps into the presidency at a critical moment in the seminary’s history, charged with the daunting task of reshaping the seminary for the future. He describes the task as both overwhelming and necessary. Editors of the USMB publication, the Christian Leader, Connie Faber and Myra Holmes talked with Jost about the job before him and the future of the seminary.

CL: Do you come to this role eagerly or reluctantly?

LJ: Reluctantly. Denominations in general and the Mennonite Brethren church specifically are facing a lot of fragmentation, regionalization, localization, and distrust of institutions. Those complicating factors have contributed to probably a 20-year decline in MB pastoral prospects moving to Fresno – or any of our campuses.

CL: What excites you about this role?

LJ: Serving the church. Knowing that the church continues to need pastors who are prepared to think theologically. Seeing many excellent students continue to come to Fresno and to our Canadian sites to study, as well as some who are finding ways to do what we offer from a distance. Seeing the strong faculty we have who are doing a fine job of preparing women and men for Christian service.

CL: There are also challenges facing MBBS today. Tell us about those.

LJ: Our full-time equivalency (FTE) is down. The FTE is steady on the Langley, B.C., campus. We’re still quite small in Winnipeg. In Fresno, Cal., we’ve experienced a decline from 115 FTE to 65 FTE in about six years and it’s been very painful to try to adjust quickly.

In Fresno, at least, our system as currently structured is not sustainable. It’s not good use of the church’s resources to have fewer than 10 students per faculty member.

CL: How are you and the board addressing these challenges?

LJ: Maybe it’s part of my baby-boomer mentality, but my first priority coming into this job was to face facts. I came with a sense of a mandate to look actively for partners. So we immediately began conversations with Tabor College and Fresno Pacific University (FPU). And we started talking with Fuller Theological Seminary. We asked all of them what kind of partnerships they could imagine.

About 41 percent of schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools are in some kind of financial crisis, and ATS believes that the ones who survive will be ones that are affiliated either with a university or with the large national seminaries.

CL: How are these discussions progressing?

LJ: MBBS was quite hopeful that negotiations with Fuller Seminary would result in a new partnership that would enable better distance education. Negotiations with Fuller’s president, board, and provost were very promising. Only at the 11th hour did we become aware that Fuller’s faculty resisted this change – and Fuller withdrew their contract offer.

Our year-long negotiations with Fuller have had the unexpected effect of rekindling ownership by our constituents and made us as a seminary community more open to change. It has been a delight to discover how many loyal supporters we have across the continent. Our students are excited – and scared – about how new partnerships will invigorate the seminary. I am encouraged by the goodwill that MBBS enjoys with the presidents of FPU and Tabor, Merrill Ewert and Jules Glanzer. I expect to see some kind of partnership with those MB schools.

CL: Where do talks regarding partnerships with Tabor and Fresno Pacific stand?

LJ: After Fuller’s withdrawal, we were pleased that both Tabor and Fresno Pacific are very willing to again consider how best to work in concern with MBBS. It is too soon to say if and how we will work together. Proximity is an advantage in conversations with Fresno Pacific. FPU has a very strong reputation, or brand, among Fresno evangelicals. We may be able to share some services. Tabor has continued interest in preparing ministers for the church. We will explore how we might work with the college and with the university in extending MB graduate theological education across the continent.

CL: How have you been gathering feedback from constituents in this process?

LJ: We’ve done quite a bit of testing. We’ve talked with our students and with district groups and regional pastoral groups. We’ve been in conversation for almost a year now with the national boards and leaders. In early September, we gathered 17 MB leaders, mostly from the U.S., and tested with them various scenarios.

The former MBBS presidents have also been a valuable resource for testing new ideas. A consultant from the seminary board association tells us that partnerships and mergers are becoming more and more common and has given us some creative new program ideas.

I think it’s critical for people to understand that MBBS is making changes, but MBBS will not go away. It will continue with its mission and is looking for renewed resources to do that. We will streamline our program while we discern together new curriculum, programs, delivery options, and degrees.

CL: What does the seminary have going for it in this stormy time?

LJ: We’ve got really great students. We’ve recognized the problem and we’ve done some things to become more efficient; I think that’s good. And we’ve got the loyal support of our churches. We received $1 million last year from individuals and churches in the most terrible year possible – that’s a lot of support. We’ve got satisfied students; people that graduate are fans of this place. That’s all very good stuff.

CL: How do you hope that constituents will support you and the seminary in the next months?

LJ: If we could have the same kind of loyal support that we’ve had for the first 50 years of the seminary’s life for the next period, that’s all I ask. The church has been very supportive. The seminary has been valued. It’s been evidenced by prayers and financial gifts. We’re going to need them.

Perhaps most important is encouraging men and women with pastoral potential to consider God’s call. One of the best ways to test the call of God is by attending MB Biblical Seminary. We want to serve the church by helping prepare pastors and by helping reinforce the evangelical Anabaptist theological identity of the Mennonite Brethren church.

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