Beyond the Nursery

Bill, Spencer, Glenn, Phil and I were all in the Ashland Seminary graduating class of 1958. No, let me rephrase that. We were the class of ‘58 – all five of us. Typical of the time, we were all in the same denomination, all white, all males, all married, receiving the same degree (B.D., now M.Div.), and all headed for pastoral or missionary service.

Last year Ashland Seminary graduated 183 in the class of 2012. At the time of this writing the student body numbers about 750 from around 70 denominations and parachurch groups. Ethnically diverse, with slightly more women than men, they study in a full dozen diploma and degree programs, all toward a variety of vocational possibilities.

Is this the same seminary? Obviously no, but I also say yes.

Seminarium is Latin for a seed-plot or plant nursery. The term connotes growth and development. It implies supervision and nurture. Its goal is maturity and fruitfulness.

Most theological seminaries are church-related schools for upper-level training of Christian leaders. Church and school usually cooperate based on values they have in common.

Ashland Seminary declares four values assumed from its birth in 1906, values that shaped the classes of 1958 and 2012: Scripture, spiritual formation, community, and academic excellence. The catalog calls them venues for accomplishing the school’s educational philosophy. Ashland’s values are the soil in which the vine of Christ is nurtured with the goal of lifelong learning, service, and fruitfulness.

Some people see seminary as mere job training for the purpose of securing employment. They assume that once seed-plot time is finished, they have all they need. But ongoing care and discipline are crucial if there is to be long-term growth and productivity. That will mean enlarged understanding of the written Word, transforming engagement with the living Word, shared life in comradeship around the Word, and active critical thinking in the service of faith.

From 1836 to 1872 Williams College in Massachusetts was led by a polymath, President Mark Hopkins. An alumnus of the school, he was a trained physician, a Congregational minister, professor of philosophy and rhetoric, and author of books on apologetics and theology. (One text remained in print for 65 years.) Although not educated as a lawyer, Hopkins owned lifelong interests in both law and missional outreach. At home he and his wife Mary parented ten children. At work he embraced a relational style of teaching which stressed self-learning, personal piety, social morality, and intellectual achievement.

US President James A. Garfield, an ordained minister who graduated from Williams College, once addressed an alumni gathering. “Give me a log hut,” he said, “with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.” Garfield’s words often appear in compact form: the ideal college or university would be Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.

Love Yahweh God completely — with heart and soul, with might and mind — and love your neighbor as yourself. Hold to the values of relational teaching, self-learning, piety and morality, intellectual achievement . . . Scripture, spiritual formation, community, and academic excellence. The visions are similar. The venues run parallel. The goal is lifelong learning, ongoing maturity for service to Christ in the church and the world.

What nurtures the plant in the nursery is still needed after transplanting occurs. What nourishes the seedling in the seminarium is even more vital in “the real world.” Ashland’s values are not realized on graduation day. They have begun, they have been nurtured. The seed-plot has done its work. As I follow through with them, what will be the fruit in my life? And if I don’t follow through, what then?

About the Author
  Jerry Flora, Ph.D.

Dr. Jerry Flora is well-known for teaching with academic vigor and pastoral sensitivity. His genuine care for others is always evident, as he dispenses the gentle encouragement and wisdom of a pastor who has seen many faces and seasons of ministry. Dr. Flora taught for many years at Ashland Theological Seminary and is now Professor Emeritus of Theology & Spiritual Formation.