Passing the Torch

This morning, in my 2009 journey through the Bible, I found myself reading the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes. I’m an optimist, so I often find myself arguing with the man who wrote this book. I know why it is in the Scriptures but I still wish the author had been a bit more hopeful.

And then this morning I read his particular fears about what would happen to his work after he was gone. He decided that he hated all of his labors because “I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)?

Suddenly I felt very sorry for the writer. I would be sad, too, if I were worried about the person following me in this position. The past nearly three years have been demanding in so many ways. They have taken their toll not only in time but in a huge investment of physical and spiritual energy. At this point, our seminary is in a place of great strength and promise. Now so much depends on the new leader.

So if I were wondering whether that leader will be “wise or foolish,” I think I would be almost as despondent as the writer of Ecclesiastes. Fortunately, I have no such worries. As I look at Timothy Tennent’s record, as I review his education and experience, as I talk with him and correspond with him, I rejoice that in the providence of God he will soon be Asbury’s eighth president.

I confess gladly that he will bring some gifts to this post that I do not have. I am confident of his ability, his dedication, his love for Christ and for the work of the kingdom, and his commitment to Wesleyan education and ministry.

So I will leave the sad song to Ecclesiastes. I look to Asbury’s future with glad excitement, grateful that I am privileged to be part of the continuing faculty as this new era unfolds.

Academic Excellence at Asbury Theological Seminary

“What does academic excellence mean at Asbury Theological Seminary?” If I were giving simply a technical definition, I would remind us that “academic” is usually seen as something primarily hypothetical or theoretical, and that “excellence” has from the time of the Greek poets been associated with hard work and with that which is eminently good.

But as worthy as those concepts are in a secular setting, when we seek a definition at Asbury, we mean something far more central to life itself. We recognize that we are persons created in the image of the triune God, and our first call is to him; his glory is paramount to everything we are and do. As persons created in God’s image, we are body, mind, and spirit. These are not separate parts glued together in some mysterious way; rather they are ways of describing the totality of our being as created by God.

John Wesley spoke of “sound learning and vital piety,” forever conjoining mind and heart. The cultivation of “academic excellence” requires that the “head descends into the heart.” Then “head and heart go hand in hand.” In other words, academic excellence occurs when the whole person is developed as fully as possible to the glory of God. The kind and magnitude of our gifts and graces may vary according to the Spirit’s endowment. But excellence requires devoting time, energy, and discipline to cultivating those gifts, always in the interest of the Giver for the sake of those he created.

At Asbury Theological Seminary we seek to engage the finest faculty-scholars possible within the Wesleyan tradition to research, write, and teach future leaders of the Church. Faculty members are devoted to the search for truth, in particular orthodoxy grounded in scripture and the tradition of the Church. But our faculty-scholars also offer their hearts, which are committed to bearing witness to the truth they serve by the lives they lead. In so doing we anticipate being “a community called to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, Spirit-filled men and women” who when they have completed their education at Asbury, go forth “to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world through the love of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God the Father.”

Tennent Response:
The pressing need to address both academic excellence and spiritual formation has become almost axiomatic in the academic circles of evangelical Christianity. However, what makes Asbury unique is not an attempt to “balance” the head and the heart, but rather, as Provost Andrews has pointed out, to see how the two are holistically related one to another. Rather than an attempt to balance two separate, discreet, values the article reminds us that it is more like a holy matrimony where two become one, rather than two separate elements which must be kept in some kind of balanced tension with the other. The famous “Asbury experience” which I have heard so many alumni speak of, captures this holy union quite well. As the next President of Asbury, I am committed to making certain that a whole new generation of Asbury graduates are sent forth with “sound learning and vital piety,” conjoining mind and heart in a way which will form and shape them for a lifetime of ministry.

A Fire to Preach

I will never forget the day when Bob Kerr, the District Superintendent of the North Georgia Conference called me on the telephone and told me about my very first appointment. He said, “Congratulations, Tim, the bishop has appointed you to the Nacoochee Valley Circuit.” I was told that I was the new pastor of a “four point” charge of four churches nestled in the beautiful mountains of North Georgia. I was fresh out of seminary. I had probably preached less than a dozen sermons. I had never conducted a funeral or a wedding and, of course, had never given communion.

Nevertheless, within a few weeks I found myself the pastor of the Nacoochee, Chattahoochee, Mt. Pleasant and Loudsville United Methodist Churches. In addition to those four churches I had was responsible for preaching every week to campers at a nearby campground. I had always heard about circuit riding Methodist preachers, and now I was one. John Wesley and Francis Asbury had famously traveled on horseback to hundreds of “preaching points.” Now, over two hundred years later I was crisscrossing the mountains of North Georgia in a 1973 Buick LeSabre! What a joy it was for a young preacher like me from the city to preach the gospel, lead an annual camp meeting, and become part of the lives of these wonderful rural people. I learned more over the next decade about people and about Christian ministry than one could ever find in a book or a classroom.

Because these congregations were mostly elderly people, I soon found myself conducting funerals. In fact, in my first two years of ministry I conducted 52 funerals! I remember a lady stopping my outside of church one day and saying to me, “There are only two kinds of preachers, there are the marrying preachers and there are burying preachers – and you’re a true burying preacher!” I realized that we had a lot of work to do to really help these churches prepare for the next generation!

During the next several years I was able to lead these churches to become full time appointments and, at a subsequent appointment, led another two point charge, the Carnesville-Allens Charge to become their own full time churches. My colleagues soon gave me the nickname, “The circuit breaker”! However, looking back on those wonderful years in pastoral ministry, my greatest memories are not about building new parsonages, expanding facilities, or the countless meetings and budget discussions. What I remember most are the men and women who received Christ as their personal Lord and savior. For decades, most of those churches had only grown through their own children who were growing up in the church, or the occasional transfer of membership from other Methodist churches. However, once they began to re-conceptualize their work as a missional church they began to invite new people to church and gradually we began to see dozens of people come to Christ, many of whom had never heard the gospel before. My own seminary training had not adequately prepared me to lead a congregation to be a community of evangelists or disciplers. However, it was the greatest “on the job training” one could ever hope for.

I remember one young lady in my congregation named Susan who asked for prayer for her husband, Kent. I finally went to visit Kent and, by the grace of God, he received Christ as his Lord and Savior. He was so enthusiastic about his new found faith, he called me the next day and asked if I would meet him at his parent’s house and lead them to Christ. That night they received Christ. Two days later, Kent and I were in the living room of his brother and sister-in-law and they received Christ. A few days later, we had the joy of leading his grandmother to Christ. I will never forget the Sunday we baptized this entire family into the church. I always thought that household conversions were something found only in the book of Acts. I slowly realized that whenever the church is faithful to Christ and the gospel, the book of Acts continues to unfold in the world today.

One of my prayers for the graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary, is that they would leave Wilmore or Orlando with a fire to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ and proclaim the gospel with confidence! The gospel of Jesus Christ is still good news to a lost world. Our mission is to “spread Scriptural holiness throughout the world.” May God grant us the wisdom and the grace to send forth a whole new generation of circuit riders who will crisscross the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Personal Reflections on Dr. Timothy Tennent and Julie Tennent

Dear Asbury Theological Seminary Community,
Across nearly four decades in theological education, God has blessed us with scores of wonderful friends and colleagues. While we treasure each one of them, Tim and Julie Tennent claim a special place in our lives and affections. Although we certainly rejoice with everyone at Asbury as you welcome an amazingly gifted new president, we also want you to know how deeply Tim and Julie will be missed here at Gordon-Conwell. Quite simply stated, you have chosen two of our very finest colleagues and two of the most outstanding Christian educators we know.

The Asbury community will soon learn, as the Gordon-Conwell community has known for a long time, that Tim and Julie are lots of fun to be around. We have hiked together, gone bird watching together, eaten popovers together, enjoyed boat trips together, and shared a good many meals and wonderful conversations together. My wife Janie and I have enjoyed their company immensely and have often had our spirits lifted by their delightful sense of humor.

You will also discover that Tim and Julie are absolutely trustworthy. What they promise, they will do. What they tell you, you can believe. What they set out to accomplish, by God’s grace, they will complete.

The Asbury community will also learn, as we have, that Tim and Julie are enormously talented. Julie’s musical abilities, in fact, are nothing short of legendary up here in the Northeast. Not only does she teach and perform and compose music but her presence on the organ at our seminary chapel can lift an entire congregation to the very throne of God. Tim, of course, is no less talented – having demonstrated his remarkable abilities through his superb classroom teaching, his outstanding administrative skills, his remarkable scholarship, his powerful preaching and his godly leadership. And with all of these talents, he can also design and construct a beautiful deck for his Ipswich, Massachusetts house. Talk about omni competence!

Most important, of course, are Tim and Julie’s winsome Christian faith and deep love for Christ and His Church. Tim and Julie will broaden Asbury’s vision for reaching a needy world with the glorious Gospel, to be sure, but they will never overlook the needs of those individuals and institutions that are closer to home. In short, you are going to fall in love with this wonderful couple and their family. We send them to you with our very best wishes and continued prayers. May their coming mark a whole new era of faithful ministry in the history of one of our very finest seminaries.