Case Study: GRTS
Grand Rapids Theological Seminary hasn’t been providentially exempted from the difficulties highlighted in our previous post. In this sequel I want to reflect on the school’s historic brand, discuss its niche in evangelicalism, and speak to its current situation. This is something of an update to a series of posts that I wrote for the GRTS Talking Points Blog in 2018 (here, here, and here). My goal is to inform the school’s stakeholders about the current situation and encourage mutually accountable dialogue between the school’s constituency and its administration. This is my own personal, conflicted take on GRTS—I’m speaking for myself and nobody else. This is the 64th post on this site since I started it in July 2018, and it’s by far the hardest one I’ve written. I think Bill Taylor was right when he argued that dissent is an obligation, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Identity: What is the GRTS Brand?
GRTS began in 1941 as the Baptist Bible Institute, an evening school that met in the basement of Wealthy Street Baptist Church. By 1963 Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College and Seminary was granting state-approved bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Undergraduate education was broadened to include a liberal arts curriculum by 1972. Cornerstone College was granted university status by the state of Michigan in 1999. The seminary’s name was changed to Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2003. Today the Cornerstone University umbrella covers a residential undergraduate program and a Professional and Graduate Studies division in addition to Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. The University also sponsors 91.3 WCSG Radio in West Michigan and Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, headquartered in Chiang Mai Thailand.
In the late 1980’s–early 1990’s, Dean Jim Grier had the GRTS faculty thinking about the relationship of theory and practice in theological education. Jim was influenced by Edward Farley and Thomas Groome, who viewed theological education as ecclesial reflection in a context of shared praxis. In this model, theory (biblical exegesis, systematic theology, etc.) informs ministry practice (preaching, mentoring, counseling, etc.). In turn, ministry practice leads “back to the drawing board” to renew and refine the theoretical roots. This approach helped GRTS relate to a broader spectrum of evangelical protestants, and today it’s compatible with the CBTE approach to seminary education discussed in our previous post. GRTS classes accordingly have often emphasized methodology (not just content) and investigation (not just indoctrination). How to think has been emphasized at least as much as what to think. Through the years more and more of the students who came to GRTS were already involved in various ministries, so this approach helped them learn to “fish for people” more effectively.
Two additional developments were significant. In the early 2000’s, President Doug Fagerstrom and Dean John VerBerkmoes introduced a new ministry residency program that linked classroom instruction to mentored ministry practice. This approach to theological education provided an approach to ministry practice that was both theory-informed and field-mentored. In 2008 GRTS President Fagerstrom and Dr. Royce Evans pioneered an urban cohort program where urban ministry leaders could reflect together on biblical studies, theology, and ministry leadership. Both of these developments enhanced GRTS’s implementation of the theory-based practice model of theological education.
In my later years at GRTS, I sometimes heard the narrative on campus that GRTS was no longer the narrow-minded little Baptist school that it used to be. In my view it wasn’t that school for long, if it ever was. Sure, some people outside the GRTS community have claimed that GRTS is a reactionary, isolated place, but there have been others who have claimed GRTS is alarmingly progressive. Apparently the current administration is countenancing the latter view, but neither of these narratives accurately represents the historic model of education at GRTS. If the folks who promote the “GRTS is too conservative” and “GRTS is too liberal” narratives would and sit in on a GRTS class and participate in the GRTS community, maybe they would get what’s been going on. Hopefully they would see that neither mindless indoctrination nor reckless subversion are on the agenda.
So, what is the GRTS brand? The school seal puts it succinctly in words dating back at least to the seventeenth century: Ecclesia semper reformanda: “the church always being reformed.” The Cornerstone Confession, affirmed annually by the faculty, lays out the conservative evangelical theological stance that informs and guides the classroom work, framing a biblically-based education that emphasizes critical thinking in a diverse evangelical community.
Constituency: Who does GRTS serve?
When Victor Matthews’ retirement led to my coming to Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary in 1986, about 60% of the students identified as Baptist or baptistic, and the rest came from other denominations. More recently demographics show that GRTS students represent over 20 different denominations, ranging from Pentecostal to Presbyterian and Wesleyan to Reformed. Around 40% of GRTS students identify as independent or non-denominational. The largest denomination represented is still Baptist (around 20%). When the views of many independent churches are taken into account, baptistic students still make up roughly half of the GRTS student body. About 75% of the students are Caucasian, 16% African-American, and 4% Hispanic. In recent days the number of male and female students is nearly equal. Much of this increasing diversity comes from the wide appeal of the Counseling and Urban Cohort programs. During Doug Fagerstrom’s tenure as president, enrollment at GRTS rose to around 350 students, double what it was when I arrived in 1986. Unfortunately, enrollment has dwindled in recent years. Given the turmoil of the last 12 months, further decline is expected.
The current Cornerstone Confession reflects the development of GRTS’ constituency. The school’s original doctrinal statement was very much like that of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. As the GARBC ended its practice of approving colleges and seminaries, President Rex Rogers led the emerging Cornerstone University community toward a broader constituency. In the mid-1990’s the board authorized a three-tiered statement that articulated the school’s common heritage with all orthodox Christians, its baptistic distinctives, and its role as a Christ-honoring biblically-based academic institution. Under the leadership of President Joe Stowell, the more succinct Cornerstone Confession was formulated. This document articulates Cornerstone University’s unchanging affirmation of fundamental Christian doctrine from a conservative evangelical viewpoint.
At GRTS, the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same. The school has changed by being blessed with a wider vision of the body of Christ, resulting in a more diverse community of learners. The school has remained the same as a community that is normed and reformed by the Word of God and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. The greater breadth of the GRTS community has not compromised the depth of its theological commitment—the wider the branches, the deeper the roots should be. The ethos that has long informed and enlivened GRTS classrooms is still sufficient to guide GRTS in the difficult days ahead.
Vision: Where is GRTS going?
The current season at GRTS began when President Joe Stowell resigned in the spring of 2021 and was succeeded a few months later by Dr. Gerson Moreno-Riaño. The new administrative direction soon proved to be too abrupt to be called a transition. Tensions arose immediately over the new president’s administrative style and approach to political and social issues. During the first year of Dr. Moreno-Riaño’s presidency, a great many administrators, faculty, and staff left the school, which left students in a confused quandary. The new administration’s dubious narrative seems to be about getting the school back on track after years of alleged theological drift, spiritual decline, and financial problems. I don’t believe the school ever left its track.
Sadly, the precipitous administrative change at the university led to the departure of the longtime GRTS dean and the majority of the faculty. The seminary dean position is currently open after being filled temporarily filled by an interim dean. Counseling, the seminary’s largest program, is being moved from GRTS to the Professional and Graduate Studies Division of the university, with its Bible and theology requirements removed. A steep decline in enrollment is expected.
What can be done now? Since the departure of seminary president Doug Fagerstrom in 2012, the University administration has focused on building facilities and promoting new programs for the traditional undergraduate program. The previous momentum of the seminary has turned to inertia. Proactive leadership has been lacking, and now the situation is exacerbated by current trends and the recent administrative sea change. GRTS stakeholders should consider engaging in prayerful discussion with the administration, especially President Gerson Moreno-Riaño, Vice President for Academics Bradford Sample, Chair of the Board of Trustees Carol Bos, and other trustees. Crucial issues begging for attention include:
- Allegations of theological and spiritual drift versus reaffirmation of the seminary’s historic brand and its niche in evangelicalism
- Need of trustees who are conversant with theological education as well as pastoral ministry, forming a seminary oversight committee on the university board of trustees.
- Need of a seminary Dean who is committed to the GRTS brand and conversant with current trends in theological education.
- Renewed communication with and service to the GRTS alumni/ae community
- Churches and individuals who will fund seminary scholarships, especially for the MDiv program
Is it too late? When I came to GRTS in 1986, a high berm pierced by a rather narrow entrance separated the college campus from the busy East Beltline highway. The berm was originally installed to insure the tranquility of the campus, shielding it from the noise of the heavy traffic rushing by. However, some saw it as symbolic of the school’s desire to be separate from the larger West Michigan community. During Rex Rogers’ presidency, the berm was lowered, and the main entrance to campus was considerably widened. This development in landscaping pictures the developments in the identity, constituency, and vision of GRTS. The identity of the school, in terms of its core beliefs and educational values, has remained the same. What has changed is the school’s vision, which has become less myopic and more welcoming to a wider constituency. All this is hanging in the balance now. I’m concerned the berm may be rebuilt.
We conclude this post as we did the last one. This may be the end of GRTS as we know it, but Jesus’ promise to build the Church holds true. The Battle Belongs to him.
Use the comment option below if you’d like to share your thoughts on this matter, especially if you’re a GRTS stakeholder.
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Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei. Soli Deo gloria.
The church reformed and continually being reformed according to the Word of God. To God alone be the glory.
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