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American Baptist Seminary of the West President: Rev. Keith A. Russell

( [email protected] ) Apr 16, 2004 11:38 AM EDT

The ecumenical movement within the U.S.churches and seminaries has undoubtedly changed the face of American Christianity in the past several decades. The Graduate Theological Seminary (GTU) in Berkeley, CA has been a prime example of seminaries working ecumenically to achieve a greater goal of unity in diversity and in providing a more comprehensive education for the future ministers of America. In many cases, however, this strong emphasis in diversity has overshadowed the necessity of purity in biblical teaching as the backdrop to unity.

The American Baptist Seminary in the West (ABSW), the most evangelical school in the GTU, has been able to achieve the great characteristics of both the ecumenical and evangelical schools of thought. Despite boasting the most multi-cultural and diverse student body, the seminary still maintains the evangelical call to purity. The ABSW, with its 130-year history represents over 1,000 American Baptist Churches USA and Progressive National Baptist Convention churches.

On April 15, some members of the Christian Post staff were able to speak about the strength and trends within the evangelical-ecumenical seminary, with the ABSW president, the Rev. Keith A. Russell, D. Min.

What are the strengths of the ABSW?

We are the most multi-racial and multi-cultural school in the bay area, with a 50% African America and 25% Asian American and Pacific Islander population. Our students are primarily adults who attend the school at night. So we have constructed a program that is quite accessible for working adults, which is very much focused on ministry of churches. Our curriculum is very textual while the churches give a very laboratorial learning.

Will you elaborate on ‘laboratorial learning?'

Each year, our students are involved in different congregation and ministries. They learn how to understand the ministries of big churches, white churches, churches pastored by women, and by men; we let the students understand the life of church. For example, last year, the project in our ministry curriculum was based on the area of church. They had to be related to ministry, campus ministry or some kind of outreach program to churches. This is something we do more than any other seminary in the bay area.

As a member of the GTU, what events or features do you have in common with the Union?

Every school is independent, and we have our own degree program. We have in common, however, a library and MA and pHD degree programs, where all our faculty teach. We also have cross-registration between the GTU seminaries, so we have mixtures here and there. The faculties meet once a month, and the presidents meet several times to counsel with each other.

What are some of the differences between the ABSW and the other GTU schools?

Of the GTU schools, we are the most evangelical; therefore we have a niche in the GUT. We are evangelical but ecumenical, so we are a little unique. Comparatively speaking, our students are more theologically conservative than the other students at GTU.

What sets the ABSW apart from other evangelical schools that strive to be ecumenical, such as Fuller Seminary in Southern California?

One major difference is that the ABSW is ecumenical in context. You cant be a student here without rubbing shoulders with other Christians. The context is the difference. We don’t necessarily have a curriculum that deals with other people’s point of view, saying, “You must love the Presbyterians or the Episcopalians." Just by context, we are far more ecumenical because there is cross-registration with nine other schools.

Because we have nine other schools, we can rely on each other’s strengths; there is a lot more you can do with nine other schools cooperating than if you were by yourself. For example, we do not have a professor of social ethics, but seven other GTU schools have a professor of social ethics. So our students can take courses from those schools instead.

Also, with nine schools, I think we have more theological diversity. Even though we represent the Baptist tradition, there are also Franciscans and Dominicans in the nine schools. We jest tend to be the most evangelical among these schools.

With so much theological diversity, what, then, would you say is the glue that binds the GTU together?

The primary thing that holds us together is our commitment to a worldclass library in the GTU, to the cross registration of teachers and to a common creed. We together offer the MA and PHD program, which any one of us alone would not be able to offer. We each offer the Master of Divinity degrees by ourselves and provide a basic training, but the programs beyond that is offered together. Therefore, it is the educational mission that holds us together. We have a good deal of doctrinal disagreements, but we are common when it comes to pursuing an educational mission.

In terms of enrollment, will you tell us about the demographic trends and rates? In many of the other GTU schools, the majority of students are actually female. Has this been the case for the GTU?

Female attendance across the nation has been on the rise, and many have involved themselves in this movement. Seminaries have many times opened up in response, as have our school. Now, our school is about 50/50 enrollment. Our faculty is also half male and half female.

And in terms of the rate of enrollment, has there been an incline or decline in the past few years?

There is a sort of cyclical trend the enrollments follow. I would have to say that the enrollment hit its peak at the 1950s, and had been on the decline through the 60s and 70s. There has been some increase in this year.

Has the ABSW been working to recruit members?

Definitely. At various times, we invite perspective students for openhouse. We’ve done a number of events with the UCs and with student Christian groups. We make regular appearances in all of the regions that we represent. We go to LA, Seattle, Portland, Denver and other cities in the bay area. We also have a webpage that is in design, so we've done a lot of work to focus on recruiting, and we're open to students coming and looking at us.