Generation Wesley – John Wesley Fellows keep founder’s flame alive

John Wesley is long gone, but a fellowship program bearing his name is going strong and helping to keep his approach to theology alive.

Since 1977, the John Wesley Fellowship Program has provided grants each year to about 20 United Methodist seminary students as they pursue doctoral degrees. As part of the Fellowship, the students take part in an annual Christmas Conference along with Fellows from years past.

The Rev. Zhenya Gurina-Rodriguez (standing) recently attended her first Christmas Conference as a John Wesley Fellow. The Russia native is a doctoral student at Brite Divinity School and hopes to teach full time at the Russian United Methodist Theological Seminary in Moscow. PHOTOS COURTESY OF A FOUNDATION FOR THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION

This year, the program will mark a milestone: Two of the earliest Fellows will become the first to retire, concluding a generation of influence by the John Wesley Fellows.

And that influence runs deep. The fellowship program has nurtured some of Methodism’s most high-profile scholars; created a go-to pool of candidates for seminaries looking to hire top United Methodist professors; fostered a network connecting United Methodist faculty from different seminaries around the U.S.; forged links between the academic world and the local church; and hosted a sort of intellectual support group for Wesleyan scholars in seminaries, local churches and the denomination.

“It’s been more wildly successful than [the founders] could have imagined,” said the Rev. Jason Byassee, senior pastor of Boone United Methodist and a John Wesley Fellow. “It’s a model for, if you want to change the world, do something really narrow and deep, instead of trying to do everything.”

Methodist stars

The list of John Wesley Fellows reads like a roll call of United Methodist luminaries: the Rev. Richard B. Hays, current dean of Duke Divinity School; the Rev. L. Gregory Jones, Duke Divinity’s dean from 1997-2010; the Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean, a Princeton Theological Seminary professor and leading authority on youth ministry; the Rev. Doug Strong, dean of Seattle Pacific School of Theology; Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Conference; the Rev.

Two John Wesley Fellows, the Rev. Emily Peck-McClain (left), a student at Duke Divinity School, and the Rev. Jung Choi, a student at Harvard Divinity School, chat during a break.

Tom Albin, dean of the Upper Room Chapel; the Rev. Ben Witherington, author and Asbury Seminary professor; the Rev. Steve Rankin, chaplain of Southern Methodist University; the Rev. Ted Campbell, associate professor of church history at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology; and the Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, executive director of the Connectional Table.

(John Wesley Fellows are like the Marines—there are no “former” Fellows. Those who received the scholarship and then graduated become “senior Fellows”; those who are students are called “currently funded Fellows.”)

There are now 145 John Wesley Fellows; about a third of them serve on the faculties of theological schools such as Duke, Wesley, Asbury, Princeton, Garrett-Evangelical and Perkins.

“The Fellowship was one of the places where I would turn when recruiting new faculty,” said Dr. Gregory Jones. “That’s where many of the most talented United Methodist scholars can be found.”

John Wesley Fellows share a meal during the 2013 Christmas Conference, held Jan. 4-6 at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

Dr. Jones became the new executive director of A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE), the non-profit organization that provides the funding for John Wesley Fellows, on Jan. 1, succeeding Paul Ervin, who retired after five years.

AFTE is independent of the denomination, with an official mission of strengthening “the classical Christian witness within the United Methodist Church.” The organization has an endowment of $1.6 million, but most of its $350,000 annual budget comes from a few hundred individual donors—many of them John Wesley Fellows. More than $200,000 of that goes to scholarships; the remainder covers the Christmas Conference and occasional gatherings of Fellows at events such as the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting.

Keeping Things Wesleyan

A Foundation for Theological Education, which funds the John Wesley Fellowship Program, affirms the following, which it calls “Core Wesleyan Doctrines”:

• The divine inspiration and ultimate authority of the Scriptures in matters of faith and practice;

• The incarnation of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human;

• The necessity of conversion as a result of repentance from sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ;

• The church is of God and is the body of Christ in the world;

• The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are means of grace.

The organization defines its mission this way: “to create, support, and nurture a fellowship of transformational scholars committed to the renewal in the United Methodist Church and the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

More than $3 million in grants have been awarded since 1977. Each year, AFTE awards up to six Fellowships to United Methodist doctoral students; the grant runs for four years (typically, $12,500 per academic year per student), so about 20 John Wesley Fellows receive stipends each year.

Reclaiming Wesley

AFTE was established in 1977 by the late Albert Outler and the late Edmund Robb Jr. The two were a bit of a theological odd couple: Outler was a Perkins professor, an Ivy League educated academic with impeccable credentials and the pre-eminent Wesley scholar of his time; Robb was a fiery traveling Methodist evangelist and a sharp critic for what he perceived as the denomination’s liberal leanings.

The Rev. L. Gregory Jones (left), a John Wesley Fellow and AFTE’s new executive director, talks with Paul Ervin, who recently retired as executive director.

Both, however, were convinced of the need for the United Methodist Church to reclaim its Wesleyan heritage as the key to revitalizing the denomination. While the AFTE’s description of core Wesleyan doctrine might read conservative to some—there’s no mention of social justice, for example—Dr. Gregory Jones says there’s no theological litmus test for selecting Fellows.

“We have some pretty interesting and vigorous theological disagreements [among the Fellows],” he said. “That’s part of the richness of the program.”

Bishop Scott Jones says that the Fellowship has helped re-focus the “Wesleyan center” of the United Methodist faith in seminaries and ultimately in the denomination.

“There is a diversity of theological perspectives [among the Fellows], but there has been a shared, Wesleyan approach to things,” he said. “I think AFTE did bring greater balance and church-relatedness to theological education.”

Dr. Byassee says he initially had reservations about the Fellowship, which helped him earn his Ph.D., at Duke Divinity in 2005.

“I was deeply suspicious, because AFTE used a lot of belligerent language at the time about ‘taking back the seminaries,’” he said. “There was an impression that the Fellowship program was a kind of conservative Trojan horse.”

But AFTE has since toned that down, Dr. Byassee says, and he’s indebted to the program.

“This is a group that has no official United Methodist money or representation, and it’s doing better than [any other group] in forming the United Methodist identity of future scholars,” he said.

Financial support

Without the John Wesley Fellowship, Dr. Dean says she wouldn’t have been able to complete her Ph.D. For Dr. Strong, the Fellowship meant that he didn’t have to work long hours in a job while pursuing his Ph.D., at Princeton

The Rev. Matthew Sigler, a John Wesley Fellow and music director at the Church of the Cross, an Anglican congregation in Boston, gives others at the Christmas Conference an update on his career.

Theological Seminary. Ms. Valdez Barker says the Fellowship is allowing her to pursue her doctorate at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary without taking on a heavy load of debt.

But all agree the Fellowship’s benefits extend beyond the financial.

“I can say without question that, other than the college where I teach, my closest colleagues in my professional life have been my John Wesley Fellowship friends,” Dr. Strong said. “Whenever there’s an issue I need some counsel on, or I need the name of a good speaker, I call [a John Wesley Fellow] and ask their opinion,” he said. At academic conferences, where anxiety levels are often high, he added that the presence of other John Wesley Fellows has been a source of support.

“You walk in, you see somebody you know, who’s there for you and you’re there for them, it’s very encouraging,” Dr. Strong said.

Those connections not only facilitate academic work, but also filter down to members of local United Methodist churches, Bishop Jones says. He noted that when the Rev. Craig Hill, a John Wesley Fellow, produced a video-based curriculum series for use in churches while a professor at Wesley Theological, he turned to other John Wesley Fellows to enlist presenters and ideas. In 1994, Bishop Jones collaborated with another John Wesley Fellow, the Rev. Michael Cartwright, as part of a larger group that crafted the denomination’s mission statement, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

“AFTE created this network, and then allowed things to bubble up out of this network,” said Bishop Jones. “It’s an informal collaboration, rather than a tight-knit organization.”

Dr. Gregory Jones adds that many Fellows remain connected to local church ministry, something he witnessed on a recent visit to Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas.

“Ted Campbell was leading an adult Bible study in one side of the hallway, and Steve Rankin was leading one on the other,” he said.

Fellows follow the example of John Wesley, who was both a pastor and an Oxford don, according to Dr. Dean.

“That’s part of the ethos that’s encouraged,” she said. “There’s not a sharp line between the pastoral and scholarly identity.”

Dr. Byassee said, “I think the John Wesley Fellowship strengthens our calling to be in service to the United Methodist Church and not just to our careers. It made me a better citizen of the Methodist church.”

For the Rev. Amy Wagner, pastor of Coraopolis United Methodist in Coraopolis, Pa., the Fellowship kept her rooted in Methodism while she studied in the doctoral program from 2006 to 2008 at Loyola University, a Roman Catholic institution.

“I have a better grounding in Wesleyan theology, a stronger understanding of our unique theological tradition, because of those Christmas conferences,” she said, and that still informs her preaching.

John Wesley Fellows who’ve gone on to teach in seminaries “are pretty much everywhere,” according to Ms. Valdez Barker, “and those professors are teaching with a keen sensitivity to our Wesleyan heritage.” Pastors, in turn, are trained by those professors and are taking that Wesleyan sensibility to their local churches.

“I think this has definitely been a group that ties us back to our Wesleyan heritage, which is why I was drawn to it,” Ms. Valdez Barker said. “What the [John Wesley Fellowship program] has done is held onto the story and inspired people to re-live the narrative.”

The Rev. Zhenya Gurina-Rodriguez, a doctoral student at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, attended the Christmas Conference, held Jan. 4-6 at Duke Divinity School, for the first time as a John Wesley Fellow. A native of Russia, she hopes to one day teach full time at the Russia United Methodist Seminary in Moscow.

“I thought, ‘Wow, there are people who are concerned with Wesleyan theology and who see the church through the Wesleyan lens,’” she said.

As she listened to one of the presenters at the conference, Ms. Gurina-Rodriguez realized she had been reading the work of the speaker—in fact, she had three of his books in her library.

Bishop Jones was one of the senior Fellows at the Christmas Conference. After hearing presentations from young scholars, like Ms. Valdez Barker and Ms. Gurina-Rodriguez, Bishop Jones said he left with a “deep sense of hope.”

“I saw a new generation of people prepared to do the hard scholarly work,” he said. “The John Wesley Fellowship is continuing to gather interesting and smart people together for the good of the church.”


Mary Jacobs

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