This Month in SEC History: March 2015

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by Mike Stroud

For years, the Southeast Conference faced a serious dilemma in regard to helping churches find pastors. A large number of them, due mainly to small memberships, desired an educated ministry that they could not afford. As time went on and seminary costs grew exponentially, the problem became even more pronounced, since payback of student loans required the young minister to clear an income well above sustenance level.

Enter a retired missionary to Africa who came to the Southeast intent on putting his experience at theological education by extension in the field to work. The Rev. Dr. Richard Sales, now deceased, inaugurated the Theology Among the People (TAP) program in 1999, and it spread to almost all the Conference’s territory eventually. This was a series of weekly courses with a small cohort of individuals studying and discussing basic and advanced topics of the faith, at first intended primarily for personal enrichment or development of Christian educators.

TAP became so successful that it was decided to expand the program into actually training ministers, through a phase-in of staggering tracks. The Conference decided to split the new entity off from TAP and give it a new name: PATHWAYS. It would have standards and protocol akin to higher education. As such, it gained the approval of two of the active associations’ Church and Ministry committees in the early 2010s.

March 2015 witnessed the first cohort graduate from PATHWAYS’ first-year track at a ceremony at Church of the Savior (UCC) in Knoxville, Tennessee. Four of the seven students represented the hosting church, while three others came from congregations in Georgia, Iowa, and Mississippi. Today, an increasing number of members in discernment and their supervising committees throughout the entire UCC call upon PATHWAYS as a lower-cost option that does not disrupt family life and careers, as a full, three-year seminary Master of Divinity program would. It is also one of the few such programs that openly holds to the tenets of Progressive Christianity.