Seminary hopeful for OK to continue educating UM clergy

By John W. Coleman

Representatives of Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University, in St. Davids, Pa., emerged optimistic from a hearing on Thursday, Jan. 24, in Atlanta, Ga., after defending its right to continue providing ministerial training to United Methodist students. Many Eastern PA Conference clergy have earned their theological degrees there.

The denomination’s Commission on Theological Education had recommended that the seminary, attended by many working students and part-time local pastors in the Philadelphia region, “not be approved for listing for preparation of candidates for ordination in The United Methodist Church, effective July 1, 2019.” Its pending status for the past year has been “Approved with Public Warning.”

The commission cited “non-compliance” with its policies in its recommendation to the UMC’s University Senate, its parent body, which grants and supervises the denomination’s official relationships with higher learning institutions.

Palmer Dean Dr. David Bronkema (right) responded to that recommendation with a detailed, six-page letter that expressed “shock and puzzlement” in light of ongoing efforts the seminary has made recently to strengthen its United Methodist presence and influence on campus.  He responded in person at a Jan. 24 interview before the commission, joined by the Rev. Bron Yocum, Director of Methodist Student Advising and Ethos, and Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson who participated by video remote.

Bronkema sent a letter to Palmer alumni Jan. 18 explaining the crisis and appealing for supportive prayers. He updated them in a letter on Monday, Jan. 28, saying that “the time spent with the Commission on Theological Education was extremely productive.

“At least one of the senators had a major mistaken understanding that we had been out of compliance since 2013, which was never the case,” wrote Bronkema. “We were able to correct that misunderstanding.”

He reported that the Palmer team sought to correct other “misperceptions” about the seminary’s many efforts to respond to university senate concerns in recent years. Also confirmed was the new memorandum of understanding Palmer has with Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Col., that is awaiting likely approval by the University Senate. The United Methodist seminary would offer the required United Methodist history and doctrine courses online, while Dr. Bron Yocum would teach United Methodist polity.

The University Senate requires that an approved seminary have on its faculty a fulltime, PhD-level, United Methodist clergy member to teach the required denominational courses or partner with one of the 13 UM seminaries to provide those courses taught by such a faculty member.  

Yocum (right), a Palmer alumna, retired clergywoman and former district superintendent with a doctorate in ministry (D.Min) degree, works part-time developing United Methodist programming and services for students at the seminary. She cites about 20 students there who either are United Methodist or have indicated strong interest in becoming so.

Bronkema reported sharing with the Senate’s theological education commission “our excitement around our current state of Methodist ethos, environment, and denominational relationships that are so much a part of who we are as a seminary.” He described the interview as collegial and candid, expressed thanks for “the tremendous support offered by Bishop Johnson in her remarks,” and credited Yocum with “playing a key role” as well.

Yocum admitted Palmer’s several relocations made some Senate members “tentative,” especially in light of other concerns and misperceptions. “Now we’re firmly established on Eastern University’s campus (since 2016), and we’re in very good shape” she said in an interview. “Enrollment is up, and we returned to the university close to a million dollars. We’re very pleased with where we are.”

She, Bronkema and Bishop Johnson emphasized steps the seminary has made to increase United Methodist presence and influence in its campus activities, including:

  • weekly chapel services with local UM speakers;
  • an on-line UM student forum inviting students to reflect on topics of denominational interest;
  • plans to live-stream the Special General Conference in February with a debriefing afterwards with the Eastern PA Conference delegation and bishop; and
  • plans to host and also provide teachers for major conference and district educational events, including the South District’s Tools for Ministry event March 2 and the Academy for Laity in August.

“I’m also thrilled that Bishop Gregory Palmer (a Philadelphia native and United Methodist episcopal leader of the Ohio West Area) will be the commencement speaker for the seminary,” said Yocum.

“One of the things I pointed out to the University Senate folks was the racial make-up of Palmer.  At our St. Davids campus, a majority of our students are people of color, and over 50 percent are African American. That, plus the large number who work while attending Palmer part-time, make Palmer unique among seminaries in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.”

Now the seminary and its supporters must wait—possibly up to two weeks—for the University Senate to decide whether Palmer can continue educating United Methodist candidates for ordained ministry.

“It is now in God’s hands,” wrote Bronkema in his latest letter, while asking for continued prayers of support.