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Maxie Dunnam ~ God Outwits Us

These reflections were given in honor of Asbury Theological Seminary’s 90th anniversary celebration.

The whole of my ministry life has involved my being called to places and positions of ministry for which I was woefully inadequate. Who I am today, and whatever I have accomplished for the Kingdom, flow from those occasions when I have responded to God’s call with fear and trembling, knowing that unless I lived in his presence and received his power I would fail. Connected with my personal commitment has been Jerry’s journey, and her willingness to follow God’s call for us as partners in ministry…often discerning God’s call more specifically than I.

My coming to the presidency of Asbury is a perfect illustration. I was totally inadequate for this task, and I wrestled with the call of the Trustees for months. They were so sure; I was so uncertain. I don’t have time to recall the dynamics of the struggle, but I did become convinced that the Trustee’s call was  God’s call. And I came, though on the inside I was kicking and screaming because I was blissfully happy and fulfilled in ministry, and felt God was demanding too much.

In keeping with my ministry-long spiritual discipline, I turned to the “saints” for support and guidance. Brother Lawrence spoke the charging word. Most of you know that name, Brother Lawrence. If you have not read his book The Practice of the Presence of God you have probably heard a preacher or teacher speak of him. He served in the kitchen of his monastery and said he experienced the presence of God as clearly in washing pots and pans as in the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion.

I love that story, but it was another claim and story that got my attention. Like many others, Brother Lawrence entered a monastic order believing that he was giving up this world’s happiness to become a monk. He discovered a much deeper happiness than he had ever imagined. One day when he was praying and reflecting on the dramatic turn of events in his life, he shouted out to God: “God, You have outwitted me!”

Isn’t that a delightful phrase? “You have outwitted me.”

What a testimony to the providence of God, the working of God’s grace in our lives. I believe that’s the story line of my life, especially the storyline of my relationship to Asbury Theological Seminary.  In fact, I believe that is the story line of the history of Asbury.

God outwitted me. I came reluctantly, thinking God was being unfair, calling me out of such a fulfilling ministry; but our ten years here were laced with God’s grace and presence and the sense of knowing I was at the heart of one of God’s great Kingdom enterprises.

That’s my personal story and I believe it is the storyline of our history. Through 90 years, since Dr. Morrison walked across the street from Asbury College believing that what America needed at that time was a seminary that would offer the whole Bible for the whole world, God has outwitted us. When graduation takes place in a couple of weeks, there will be over 10,000 living alumni. God has outwitted us as thousands have gone from here to the ends of the earth, and are serving today in all 50 U.S. States, 65 countries, 22 time zones. And what started out as a rather narrow, focused school of Wesleyan/Holiness folks has served at least 144 denominations.

When much of the Methodist/Wesleyan establishment looked down their noses at a humble holiness education center in a Kentucky village, God outwitted us…that little school, often scorned, now provides more ordinands for the largest of the Methodist denominations, the United Methodist Church, than any of her 13 official seminaries.

God has outwitted us. Because of the University and Seminary, this little town has become the missional education crossroads of the Wesleyan movement.

God has outwitted us…the Seminary has become such a technology model that The Association for Theological Schools and The University Senate affirm it as the measure for excellence. And we have a campus in Orlando that is already larger than 90% of all seminaries.

Oh, how God outwits us! The large denomination that once did everything to discredit what Asbury was doing now sends recruiting teams to attract our graduates to their areas. Our professors are respected across the world as outstanding scholars who have not allowed scholarship to be disconnected from vital piety.

And on and on we could go. As God has outwitted us during the past 90 years, let’s claim it to be so in the future as we continue to be faithful in shaping and reshaping ourselves in a way that will most effectively equip persons to serve this present age. And that means, I believe, at least this.

One, we must recognize that too many ministers are well-educated, but are not equipped to make disciples or lead Christian communities. We must become more humble and lay aside the snobbish notion that if we study the Bible enough, read enough Christian books, learn enough doctrine, we can be good disciples and good ministers.

We need knowledge, but what we need most is Kingdom character and competence.

Therefore, we must connect study and knowledge to practice. Professors and others who train folks for ministry must “know God” and also be able to mentor people in knowing God.

Somewhere along the way we strayed from the core purpose of seminaries as servants of the church, equipping persons for ministry. Seminaries became almost entirely the same as secular graduate education institutions. This resulted in making theological education largely theoretical, and training for ministry was abstracted from the actual practice of ministry.

In light of this, I believe our biggest challenge is to find ways to train men and women “in” ministry, not “for” ministry. While we hallow places and community, places alone do not make community…community flows from mutual commitment and mutual sharing in ministry.

Secondly, to serve the population of our country, we must pay attention to the large urban centers. Might God be calling Asbury to find a way to establish a dozen urban training centers? Places where theological education and equipping for ministry takes place – with the trainees being involved in ministry – with mentor and professors not only providing the content of the faith, but using reflection as the primary pedagogical dynamic. A short-term ministry sojourn during a student’s three or four year MDiv journey is simply not doing the job. We must find ways to train people in ministry not for ministry.

If we dare entertain a challenge like this, I pray we will go to some of the most secular sections of our nation, where the notion of called, spirit-filled, sanctified, evangelistic ministry is almost non-existent, and the language of holiness is foreign.

During this next period of our history let’s be open to God outwitting us. Let’s prove to the world who we are, and what we believe, and provide ministry preparation fit for the Kingdom.