Should Seminaries Be Doing More to Empower Latino Christians for Ministry? (Pt. 3)

Editor's Note: This is the third part of a three-part series based on the new book, "Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions." The Christian Post series looks at racism and multi-ethnicity in the church from the perspective of African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American Christian leaders. Part One, an interview with the editor of the book, Anthony Bradley, can be read by clicking here. Part Two, an interview with Asian-American Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong, can be read here.

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Serving as Director of the Center for the Study of Hispanic Church and Community and Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and Pastoral Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, Dr. Juan Martinez knows first-hand how vital it is for seminaries to come alongside Latino Christians who are oftentimes already active in ministry without having ever stepped inside a seminary.

"Most Latino Protestants are Pentecostals, which means that most of the students in the Hispanic Center are already in ministry and do not need a degree from Fuller to pastor. They study at Fuller as part of their continuing education, not to be ordained. Many of these students are on the fringe of U.S. Protestantism and do not regularly have to interact with the power structures of majority-culture churches," Martinez writes in Aliens in the Promised Land.

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Fuller Theological Seminary, which describes itself as "an evangelical, multidenominational, international and multiethnic community," is located in Pasadena, Calif., and has an average enrollment of 4,300 students. The evangelical school, one of the largest in the world, asked Martinez in 2001 to take on leadership of its Hispanic Center. Fuller has been in the business of equipping Hispanic men and women for ministry for 35 years. In fact, Martinez, a Mennonite Brethren pastor who calls himself a "Latino leader," earned his Ph.D. and Th.M. degrees at Fuller.

Sharing his experience, views and suggestions in a chapter entitled, "Serving Alongside Latinos in a Multiethnic, Transnational, Rapidly Changing World," Martinez asserts that engagement of minority communities is a necessity for U.S. evangelicals, especially considering the steady growth of the Latino and Hispanic population. Currently, U.S. residents of Hispanic or Latino heritage are nearly 17 percent of the population, with that figure projected to hit 29 percent in 2050, according to the Pew Research Center.

Seminaries should not only be "attentive to the different histories of minority groups," but also place Latinos in leadership roles to help guide their programs and outreach. The same goes for Protestant churches and denominations, says Martinez, who wonders if these groups are intentional about empowering Latino pastors and leaders and value their voice. "Or do they want Latinos only as long as they 'look (and act) like them'?" he questions in the book, speaking partly from his early experience in the Mennonite Brethren.

The Fuller Theological professor says that expecting assimilation to the point of voiding cultural identity does a disservice to the history and culture of minority groups, whose input should be valued precisely because they bring a different perspective to the table. But such engagement is a two-way street, according to Martinez, who says a polycentric reality requires an understanding of various ethnic communities as well as an understanding of the majority, white culture.

"All minority peoples have to be polycentric. They always have to take the majority into account. The majority does not have to do that. For them it has to be a conscious decision," he told CP.

Bible Institutes Versus Seminaries

One of the primary fronts seminaries ought to consider are Bible institutes, where many Latinos in ministry are trained as an alternative to the costs and language barriers associated with seminaries. Furthermore, seminaries, while welcoming of Latino students, are sometimes lacking in "tools for connecting [biblical, theological, and historical formation] to the reality of their ministry," Martinez asserts.

In explaining the distinction between seminaries and Bible institutes, Martinez told CP that "seminaries have been places for the professional development of pastors, usually required for ordination in historical denominations."

"Bible institutes have always been more informal, more flexible and have not been accredited. [Bible institutes] are able to train more people because they do not have as many prerequisites to entry," he added. "These two institutions can work together, if (Bible institutes) are seen as first level biblical/theological education and seminaries as continuing education."

But Bible institutes don't always see a need for seminaries, as these church and denomination-run facilities are autonomous, intimately contextualized, and don't pose a threat in educating young Latinos "out" of their communities.

"In the past, seminaries educated Latinos out of their communities in that they prepared them to serve in 'white' churches," Martinez explained. "They taught them the values, criteria, models and ministry styles of 'white, middle class' churches and gave them few tools for ministry in their own communities. When Latinos finished they found it very difficult to serve in Latino churches."

Latinos should serve where God calls them to serve and by no means feel obligated to serve in any specific ethnic or cultural context. "But when a Latino church sent a person to seminary and saw them return unable to minister in the community, the church wonders about the usefulness of seminaries," said Martinez.

Despite the apparent wedge between Bible institutes and seminaries, the Fuller Seminary professor believes the two routes of ministry training can complement each other and provide Hispanic students with a well-rounded and biblically-based education.

"Many of them (Bible institutes) have very solid programs, but accreditation is rarely a realistic option for them. Bible institutes are also among the few educational institutions where Latinos are in charge. They have the flexibility to accept most Latino leaders and are usually very inexpensive. Since the majority of Latino pastors are being trained in Bible institutes, seminaries can provide curricular support, training of professors and administrators, and other support that strengthens these programs," writes Martinez in Aliens in the Promised Land.

"Seminary education provides the opportunity for deeper reflection on [the] Bible, theology, history and ministry. Leaders need to constantly expand and grow, so going to seminary is a very important tool for that task," he told CP when asked why graduates of Bible institutes should consider following up with seminary studies.

The mark of a good seminary program, he said, is that it "will provide tools to help students respond to the specific issues of their ministry context. Sometimes that includes teaching in languages other than English. It also means the importance of understanding context and its impact on ministry."

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