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New administrative team begins year at Midwestern

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–A new administrative team is in place as Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary begins the school year. Midwestern’s new president, R. Philip Roberts, has been joined on the Kansas City, Mo., campus by newly named vice presidents Malcolm Yarnell of academic affairs, Mike Wilson of institutional advancement, and Alan Branch of student development.

All four new administrators bring a commitment to practical ministry to the seminary, based on their experience in the pastorate and in missions. Amid different models of theological education, Roberts insists that missions and evangelism be an integral part of the education Midwestern provides. “I think that comes the closest to giving a person all the tools they need for the long run,” Roberts said.

He bases his approach to seminary education on a biblical pattern. Just as the disciples spent three years studying with Jesus, and Paul consulted with other disciples while in Arabia, Roberts is convinced that training is necessity for anyone called to ministry. “God doesn’t call the prepared. He prepares the called,” he reminded.

The new administrative team is focusing on the characteristics that should mark Midwestern Seminary, including biblical orthodoxy, ethical integrity, evangelism and missions. A final element out of which all of the others grow, Yarnell said, is personal spiritual discipline. “If we can hold those four things together,” he said, “I think the Lord’s going to really bless this place.”

As dean of students, Branch is eager to create an atmosphere on campus conducive to growing men and women of God in those four areas. “The easiest place in the world to backslide is seminary,” he admitted. “We realize that we are sending out from this school folks who are going to serve in the local churches. Their level of leadership will never rise above their personal time with God.”

Through Roberts’ vision for integrating prayer in every facet of seminary life, Branch is convinced the seminary will realize its goal of producing God-called men and women for ministry in the Heartland and around the world.

From his own experiences in North Carolina and Georgia, Branch knows that the educational backgrounds of students who come to seminary range from high school diplomas to graduate-level degrees. His own study of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary founder James P. Boyce helped him determine that theological education is not just for the elite few, but for all who are called to ministry. And from studying the influence of John Broadus at Southern, Branch was reminded of the importance of ministers being grounded in the Word of God.

Ever aware that the seminary was established by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to help build churches, Yarnell said Midwestern must have a symbiotic relationship with local churches. “The churches will give us their students and we will give them back” as they graduate equipped for ministry, he said.

Academic excellence will remain at the forefront of Midwestern Seminary, Yarnell said. “We can have right doctrine and academic excellence at the same time that we are focused on building churches through evangelism and missions,” he said, crediting the conservative resurgence within the SBC for a return to the dual emphasis.

Professors model ethical integrity for their students, Yarnell explained, by being accountable for correct doctrine. He acknowledged that seminaries have at times divorced themselves from the churches by intentionally speaking on a level that church members couldn’t understand. Instead of the old adage that professors must “publish or perish,” he said they learned to avoid putting their opinions in print lest they “publish and perish.” Consequently, he said, “Doctrine began to go flat and church staffs were educated by liberals who did not have the integrity to lead.”

Roberts credited his predecessor, Mark Coppenger, with putting a faculty in place to provide “a solid foundation for orthodoxy.” And the size of the school allows professors to form personal relationships with students. “We’re still at the size where we can not only teach them, but we can encourage, disciple and mentor the students,” Roberts said. “I don’t know how big a school can become and still do an effective job at pastoral training.”

In addition to drawing students with an outstanding faculty, the Kansas City region is a great place to live, Branch said, noting, “There is tremendous opportunity to minister in this area.”

“Midwestern provides the perfect laboratory for growing the kind of leadership that can go on from here to anywhere in the continental United States,” Roberts said, reflecting on the priority Southern Baptists are giving to reaching urban areas. “We have a non-southern atmosphere in a major urban setting. If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere, including the South.”

Wilson’s experience in preparing volunteers for missions service gives him an enthusiasm for encouraging students to take the gospel across the Midwest. “God has strategically located us to make an impact on the whole nation,” he said. “We may not have masses of people, but we have the mass of land in America and need to be preparing people to go out into this vast land with the gospel.”

Wilson has directed evangelism at the Baptist Convention of Maryland /Delaware and the Colorado Baptist General Convention, and served in several churches, sometimes in a bivocational role. “If we turn out graduates who don’t have a passion for evangelism and missions, we have failed,” he said. “We don’t just produce scholars. We produce men and women who can go out and make a difference.”

In 2 Timothy 2:2, Wilson looks to the example of four generations of Christians and finds his motivation to help Midwestern produce men and women who will train others. “If we do that, we’ll see the multiplication of discipleship and evangelism truly work. That’s what it’s all about in expanding the gospel.”

Yarnell sees the pastoral and missionary experience of Midwestern’s administrators as advantageous in making theological education practical. “Theology that is cerebral and not practical is useless,” he said, “and it is not good theology.”

Branch hopes to encourage students to learn patience in the process of ministering to local churches. “I want to help them understand that you don’t grow a church by going for two years and leaving. The most dramatic changes at my last church took place in the last two years, not in the first two.” Furthermore, Branch said, young pastors need to learn “some wisdom about what hills to die on. They need to keep that to a short list.”

The failure to emphasize the shepherding part of a pastor’s role has contributed to some of the conflict young ministers experience, Wilson said. “The pastor is first and foremost a shepherd — and a shepherd knows his sheep by name. Until you know your people, you’re really not their shepherd.”

Wilson recalled hearing longtime pastor W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Church in Dallas relate that until a pastor has been at a church long enough to have seen church members’ children grow up and get married, the members will not call him their pastor. “You have to cry with people and bury their loved ones, and then they love you as their pastor,” Wilson said. “But most never stay anywhere long enough to truly say that.”

In addition to the emphasis on orthodoxy, missions and evangelism, ethical integrity and personal spiritual discipline, Roberts recognizes that Midwestern faces many practical issues that will affect its future. “We have this beautiful piece of property here in Kansas City,” he said, referring to the 200-acre wooded site. “How do we utilize it in the best possible way?”

Roberts said the new administrative team has “only one chance to carve a future” and build new resources to sustain it. “I don’t want to be slothful or wasteful,” he said, noting that one of the reasons for emphasizing prayer throughout the coming year is the need for God-sized answers to the seminary’s future.

“We need to keep focused on the goal and be persistent in the direction we’ve taken,” Roberts said. “My dream was to have folks around me who have that same dream and vision, with the same commitment to the Lord and his truth, to the institution and to our working together as a team.”

Roberts is convinced that the new vice presidents strengthen the case for Midwestern having a strong faculty. “Alan’s Ph.D. in ethics, Malcolm’s Ph.D. in theology and Mike’s degree in Christian leadership show that they have the academic credentials. But they all have the practical experience as well,” he added, referring to Branch’s background in pastoral ministry, Yarnell’s work in church planting and Wilson’s experience in evangelism.

Yarnell said he was impressed to move from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s faculty because of his belief that God’s hand is on Midwestern’s president. “I want to be a part of that,” he said. Comparing his sense of anticipation to the feeling of preparing for a plane’s takeoff, Yarnell said, “Here’s this incredible force like a jet engine going down the runway. I said, ‘Lord, if you will do something great at Midwestern, if you will be glorified because right biblical doctrine is taught, moral integrity is exemplified, it explodes in evangelism and missions, and churches are planted all over because of what Phil Roberts is going to do there, then I’ll go.'”

The inauguration of Roberts as the fourth president of Midwestern Seminary will take place Oct. 21-22 at First Baptist Church of Raytown, Mo. In addition to the new team of administrators, Mike K. Whitehead returns to the role of vice president for business affairs after serving as interim president and executive vice president.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MALCOLM YARNELL, MIKE WILSON, and ALAN BRANCH.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter