Frank Yamada: In the face of challenges, there is hope for theological education

Frank Yamada

Frank Yamada took over as executive director of The Association of Theological Schools on July 1. Photo by Lynda Scahill/Simply Sisters Photography

The new executive director of The Association of Theological Schools talks about his vision for the organization and why he is hopeful about the future of the church and theological education.

Frank Yamada’s faith journey has been unconventional.

And, he said, it has provided great training for his new role as executive director of The Association of Theological Schools.

“I have always been someone who was eager to learn about the different ways that Christian faith was practiced in community,” he said. “My faith journey has prepared me well for ATS’ ecumenical work to promote excellence in theological education.”

Raised in a Buddhist family, Yamada became a Christian at the age of 19. This set him on a path that has included a charismatic, evangelical megachurch, a nondenominational church plant, a Korean immigrant church, an Assemblies of God college, Presbyterian and Episcopal seminaries, and ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In 2011, he became president of McCormick Theological Seminary -- the first Asian-American to lead a PCUSA seminary.

On July 1, he took over as executive director of ATS, the accrediting body for graduate schools of theology in the United States and Canada.

Yamada spoke to Faith & Leadership in the first weeks of his tenure at ATS. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Is there anything you’ve been surprised by in the six months or so since your selection as ATS executive director?

There’s very little that surprises me -- that probably has something to do with my faith formation. If I had deeper roots in any one tradition, generations old, I would be more surprised by some things that happen.

I’m pretty enthusiastic when it comes to theological education -- and pretty hopeful. I mention that because that’s a surprise for me.

I pay a lot of attention to my news feed and social media, and I’ve almost had to take a break from it sometimes, because it feels like bad news.

It’s very cynical. It’s not hopeful. In the Christian language, we would call this the specter of death.

But one thing that continually surprises me is that in the face of all this, there is hope.

I understand that these aren’t easy times for theological education or for the church. When one sees the enormously daunting challenges that schools are facing, one wouldn’t always expect to see so much hope.

I’ve heard from a lot of people about their schools -- usually under the umbrella of congratulating ATS and me on this new relationship -- but in it, then, these little stories come out.

And all these stories are pointed with hope -- hope for what they see in the future, hope for what they’re seeing emerge in their schools, hope for what they think ATS can be, hope for this future that for the most part is catching everybody off guard and is creating a lot of anxiety in our society and in the broader church.

It gives me great, great hope. That is also part of the larger Christian hope that the church will weather this, too.

Whatever shape the church takes in the next 20 years, it’s the hope of those leaders that’s going to help build what the future is going to look like.

That, I can honestly say, continues to be a pleasant surprise.

Q: What are your priorities in this first year as ATS executive director?

My first priority will be to do a lot of learning.

My first couple of years are going to be focused on visiting the schools, learning about them on the ground, so I can develop an experiential base of how schools are leaning into these changing times.

ATS also will be celebrating its centennial in 2018, so it gives us a chance to look back over what theological education has been and where it needs to be going forward.

We want to be able to send a clear message that with Dan Aleshire’s retirement, ATS is going to continue to do two things.

One is to again commit ourselves to excellence in theological education and the ecumenical cooperation that’s been part of ATS -- that’s our legacy.

And the second is figuring out a way to really innovate what we’ve done, innovate what we do, so that we can lean into the changing times.

Q: What interested you about this position?

One of the challenges of being in an executive role is that you have to have this double vision.

You have to have your sight set on the horizon and where things are headed -- the big picture.

At the same time, you have to figure out on the ground how things operate on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis.

When you’re working with an individual school, the challenge is often how to keep your sightline on the bigger picture.

One of the things that attracted me to this position is that by definition, the association -- which is made up of 270 very diverse [member schools] -- is much more of a big-picture organization. We really have to be thinking about where theological education is headed for the next decades.

That kind of horizon was a big appeal.

Also, what has always invigorated me about the church is the diversity of expressions that make up the Christian faith.

In some ways, that’s one of the hallmarks of what ATS is. It’s one of the very few places where ecumenical and faith differences are actually constructive and work together toward a common goal: excellence in theological education.

That ecumenical diversity has always been something that energizes me and something that I very much looked forward to when I thought about applying for this position.

Q: Tell us about your faith journey, and how it influences you as a leader.

I was not raised in any particular church community, but many different traditions -- nondenominational, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Episcopal, high church, low church, etc. -- informed my Christian discipleship.

I grew up in a family that was nominally Buddhist. I like to say that we were twice-a-year Buddhists -- that is, we would only go to the temple/church when someone was getting married or when someone died, which amounted to about two times a year.

I converted to Christianity in 1985, when I was 19. I attended a 20,000-person charismatic, evangelical megachurch in Costa Mesa, California.

After about two years, I joined two of my friends who started a different nondenominational church plant. I met my spouse of 27 years at this church.

I transferred from the University of California at Irvine to Southern California College, an Assemblies of God liberal arts school (now Vanguard University), and changed my major from pre-med to religion with an emphasis on biblical studies. This decision was not popular with my parents.

Later, I went to seminary, because I wanted to deepen my roots in the faith. In 1992, I went to Princeton Theological Seminary for the M.Div. and then continued for my Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

After I did my field studies at a Presbyterian church, [my wife and I] became members, and I entered the ordination process.

During my doctoral studies, I served on staff at a small Korean immigrant church. After I completed my Ph.D., I was ordained as a minister of word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

My first call as a PCUSA minster was in theological education. I taught Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, a seminary of the Episcopal Church.

At Seabury, I learned how to pray differently through the seminary’s daily Eucharist and daily offices. After Seabury declared financial exigency in the spring of 2008, I went to McCormick Theological Seminary, where I directed the Center for Asian American Ministries and taught Hebrew Bible before becoming the president in 2011.

McCormick’s worship also had a profound impact on my faith. It was the first intentionally cross-cultural worshipping community of which I had been a part. McCormick worship services were a blend of Presbyterian liturgy, global worship and the black church.

There are at least three ways that this set of experiences has influenced me as a leader.

One is ecumenical diversity. Though I am a Presbyterian, I was certainly not a cradle Presbyterian who’d had the Reformed heritage in my family for multiple generations. Because of that, I have always been someone who was eager to learn about the different ways that Christian faith was practiced in community.

ATS is a wonderfully ecumenical organization, comprising schools from many different faith traditions. My faith journey has prepared me well for ATS’ ecumenical work to promote excellence in theological education.

Second is adaptability. The congregations of which I have been a part have all sought, in different ways, to be relevant to the changing times that confront religion in the U.S.

Creating cultures of leadership is the third. Many of these communities, though very different in their beliefs and contexts, shared a trait. That trait was that they were cultures that nurtured leadership.

The megachurch youth group’s leadership was organized around a dozen or more “counselors.” From that core group, over 10 future senior pastors emerged.

Disciples Church, the church plant, also produced several leaders who would go on to be heads of staff at their churches or at church plants like the founding church.

Princeton Seminary’s Ph.D. program has produced dozens of seminary presidents and deans, and McCormick Seminary’s faculty has also produced several presidents and deans since 2000.

Good leadership tends to multiply itself. Leaders beget leaders.

Q: When you look at the variety among ATS member schools, what do they have in common?

From school to school, they actually don’t have very much in common. So one of the challenges is how to create a series of standards for excellence among such different schools.

What they share in common is this spirit of resiliency and change.

The church has always adapted to its times. One of the things that I see a lot in our institutions is that in these challenging times, they get very creative and they’re very resilient.

Theological institutions figure out ways to endure and stay committed to their vision -- and in fact, sometimes are even more strongly committed to their vision in the face of these challenges.

If we think about it from a Christian faith perspective, this is also a characteristic of our faith.

Q: You’re in the midst of a project to assess practices in theological education. What are you learning?

We’re learning about the different ways that our schools are developing models that differ from the traditional three-year residential master of divinity program.

For example, we had allowed some schools an exception to the residency requirement. We had allowed a few schools to have an exception for experimentation, to learn about a completely online degree program and what formation [in that context] looked like.

We’re learning from each about different ways of creating change or innovation in the ways that our schools deliver programs and the audiences that they deliver these programs for.

There are so many different clusters of ways that our schools are trying to do their mission differently.

We’ve gotten these folks together and put them in cohort groups around different educational models. Then they learn from each other about what’s working, what’s not working. They’ve been developing papers and reports that we’re publishing to help other schools.

We’ve learned a little bit about process, too, and how we can create change within our schools in a field that is not known necessarily for change. This is not something that has always been the hallmark of theological education, but to see and be inspired by what these different schools are doing has been a rich process.

Q: Within this variety, what do you see that holds ATS together, and what are the challenges that threaten to pull it apart?

What holds ATS together is our shared commitment to excellence in theological education, and also our commitment to the formation of quality leadership.

We believe that well-trained leadership is a necessity for the future of the church and for the future of our religious institutions.

This allows us to focus in and hold on to a common set of values [within broader commitments] that otherwise we don’t necessarily share, whether it’s certain faith commitments or doctrinal commitments.

These are things that have typically tended to divide the church. But by having the shared commitment to these values of excellence in a well-trained and well-educated, not just clergy, but leadership, we naturally cohere.

Now that’s not to say that we don’t have differences of opinion about what counts for excellence.

In an environment of change, what do schools want? They want flexibility. They want more freedom to be able to try things and experiment with things and fail, which is sometimes a very difficult tension to keep in balance when we’re dealing with educational standards. So that’s one example where it’s a challenge to keep that together.

But the other challenges are the ones that you would expect.

As our country has shown us over the past several years, faith commitments and social commitments -- which are often united -- have the ability to divide us.

For example, regarding gender, our current standards say that we will encourage leadership according to our different faith traditions.

But if you think about how that’s embodied in, say, an evangelical tradition or a fundamentalist tradition or a Roman Catholic tradition or a progressive Protestant mainline tradition, it’s very different.

So when you begin to try to commit yourselves to a standard of excellence around gender, paying attention to the leadership of women, it’s going to look very, very different from school to school.

That’s an example of one of the things that is both a strength -- because it helps us define [standards] more clearly according to our different traditions -- but also where we find ourselves threatened by forces that could divide us.

Q: What’s your analysis of ATS’ track record on being inclusive of underrepresented communities? What do you think you should be paying attention to as a new leader in this organization?

My first engagement with ATS was with the Committee on Race and Ethnicity, a group of ATS faculty and administrators who would come together and help ATS think about how it can set an agenda for the rest of its membership with regard to racial/ethnic diversity.

One of the projects that I remember working on was called the 2040 Project. It was developed around the idea that most demographers believe that by the year 2040 we will no longer have a racial/ethnic majority in this country.

So the reality of our schools has been that most of them have long legacies to Western European Christian traditions.

But what we’re seeing in our data is that all of our schools as an aggregate, and most of our schools as individual institutions, are finding that the student bodies are diversifying along the lines of the demographics that we would expect by 2040.

The challenge for our schools then becomes, how do we change our environments to address these cultural realities? And how do we help them adapt so that they can be schools that are not just hospitable to different racial and ethnic groups but are actually intentionally planned and committed to excellence in theological education and formation for these particular groups?

To use McCormick as an example, here’s a school that was founded on what was then the Western frontier to provide training for Presbyterian ministers who were always assumed to be not just white but usually of Scottish heritage.

Now as we look at it in the 21st century, it is serving a student population that is over 80 percent persons of color.

At some point, you would think that the model and the delivery and the content of theological education and the formation for leadership has to adapt to those changes.

That’s one of the things we were able to do, and that’s also one of the things that our schools are going to have to figure out how to do as they lean into these futures. Because it’s not uncommon to have, say, a United Methodist seminary training a Latino Pentecostal pastor.

These are the realities of the 21st century, and they’re going to increasingly be the reality of our schools as we move forward.