In his new book, A New Church and a New Seminary: Theological Education is the Solution, President McAllister-Wilson explores how formative theological education can be part of the solution to the challenges faced by The United Methodist Church. Given the current situation within the denomination, McAllister-Wilson is not concerned with just how the church will survive for generations to come but how it will thrive.
“What it will take for the church to thrive, a lot of that can be gained through theological education,” McAllister-Wilson says. “It takes countercultural, in-depth reflection, which includes countering the culture of the church as it is now.”
With a chapter called “It’s Just Not Working Anymore,” the president takes on the need for an overhaul of the system of denominationalism while maintaining what is essential. “Whatever went wrong went wrong some years ago,” he says. “Now we must set our sight back on Jerusalem.”
Kenda Creasy Dean, Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, agrees. “With glittering metaphors and his signature “let’s talk in my kitchen” prose, “A New Church and a New Seminary” establishes Wesley Theological Seminary president David McAllister-Wilson as a truth-teller among mainline Protestant leaders,” she says. “He lays down the gauntlet in the very first chapter: mainline churches don’t struggle because of “issues,” or because young people are no longer as religious as they once were, or because of any of a dozen problems we have discussed to death. We struggle because our churches don’t matter. This book reimagines leadership for a church that makes an unmistakable dent in the universe—and it’s a book that is long, long overdue.”
Throughout the book, which was released in April 2018, McAllister-Wilson draws on his decades-long relationship as a member of the administration at Wesley and as president since 2002. The book is addressed to people who are interested in the future of mainline Protestantism and the mission of theological education.
“In an era when some people are challenging the idea of going to seminary for three years in favor of online education or congregation-based education, David makes the case that there is more to forming someone for ministry than just on-the-job training,” says Ann Michel, associate director for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. “Being in community is deeply formative. He’s making a case for the idea of place-based learning where you can create community.”
A prominent theme is the cultivation of wisdom and courage as the church and seminary move into the future.
“Wisdom is not just in terms of text and tradition, but it involves a deep understanding of who we are and where we are in history,” McAllister-Wilson says. “Wisdom means having a sense of the river and where the river is going, how to read the signs. All of that includes seminary education but also stepping outside yourself to see how things are and how things could be. And that leads to courage.”
The president uses the concept of disruptive innovation to illustrate the kind of courageous action necessary for developing a new church and new seminary. When discussing innovation as “disruptive,” McAllister-Wilson refers to changes that lead to more effectiveness in pursuit of mission while retaining a certain sense of gravity and balance. There is a difference between destructive and disruptive innovation, he says. He cites three main sources of disruptive innovation that will lead to a new church and new seminary: the leadership of Millennials, the “eternally disruptive” message of the Gospel, and the mission of the Body of Christ in the church and the world.
Wesley’s unique programs are prime examples of innovation that effectively move the organization forward by drawing on the sources above. A current example is Wesley’s Innovation Hub, which launched in Fall 2017. The program brings together diverse congregations throughout the Washington, D.C. metro area, over a two-year period to learn and practice ministry innovations that engage young adults for social change.
“The program itself is our attempt to disrupt,” McAllister-Wilson says. “It’s experimental and one of many attempts by Wesley to introduce potentially transformative change in the system.”
Even as Wesley innovates, the mission to prepare the next generation of leaders for the church and the world remains the same. The seminary accomplishes that mission by generating knowledge among faculty and students and disseminating best practices for leadership to help form a new kind of church.
“A lot of what we do in seminary is more necessary now than it’s been for a very long time because we’re in a period when nobody has to go to church anymore,” McAllister-Wilson says. “Very few people go to church now out of habit, so now the church has to make sense and matter to people in a new way. And to do that theological education and the church have to be grounded in and reflect a living faith.”
As The United Methodist Church and other Protestant denominations experience change, McAllister-Wilson remains optimistic about the role theological education, and Wesley specifically, will play in the future.
“This is a great time to be in theological education because you can start asking how the church matters beyond just how to attract new members,” he says. “Now we can ask what it means to be faithful in our time and place.”
Editor’s Note: President McAllister-Wilson’s book is available for purchase online here.