Rebuilding Bridges

ORU Seeks to Heal Past Divisions with the United Methodist Church, Begins Working Toward Recertification

This article was originally published in the Oracle, the student newspaper of Oral Roberts University, on March 18, 2010.

In July of 1987, the University Senate of the United Methodist Church revoked the ORU College [then “School”] of Theology’s accreditation and ruled that students receiving their theological training at Oral Roberts University would not be eligible for ordination in the Methodist Church as they had been since 1980. Later that year, Oral Roberts would lose his own ordination as a Methodist elder and the relationship between the university and the Methodist Church would largely cease to be.

According to an AP story from July of 1987, the university and the church had begun to drift apart in the wake of Oral Robert’s controversial call for $8 million to save the sinking City of Faith and several references he had made to raising the dead during his ministry.

“I knew nothing of the revocation of my ordination until I read it in the newspaper, as nothing was communicated to me orally or in writing,” writes Oral in his autobiography, Expect a Miracle. “But I will always carry the deepest love and appreciation for the United Methodist Church and its people. I am profoundly grateful that I had at least a small part in the charismatic renewal in the Methodist church, and pray that it increases.”

Oral Roberts joined the Methodist Church in 1968 after prayerful consideration and at the request of both a Methodist Bishop and the then-pastor of the Boston Avenue Church downtown but the relationship was always tenuous at best.

Oral often found himself at odds with conservative elements within the denomination who opposed his teaching on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and healing through faith, as well as his contentious fundraising methods. In many ways, the ministry problems and public attention Oral faced in the late 1980’s only helped to push ORU and the Methodists further apart.

Asbury

Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo Credit: Michele Zamecnik)

In recent months, however, there have been telltale signs that a broken relationship is being mended. Spencer Smith, young adults pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church, is a graduate of the ORU class of 2004 and attended seminary at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

Smith attended a luncheon for United Methodist ministers hosted by President Mark Rutland on July 21, 2009, on the sixth floor of the Graduate Center. The luncheon was attended by several Oklahoma United Methodist ministers, many ORU graduates.

“The major thing he [Dr. Rutland] said is that he wants to make Oral Roberts an approved school for the training of clergy by the United Methodist Church,” Smith said. Although he is excited about the move, he sees some potential roadblocks.

“I think his [Rutland’s] intentions are true and he charged Dr. Mathew to move the school toward accreditation by the UMC. I’m doubtful because of the United Methodist Church [reducing the number of universities it accredits], but I think it would be invaluable to have that relationship restored.”

A number of United Methodist ministers are alumni of ORU and Smith believes the event sent a signal to the Methodist leadership that said it’s time to restart the dialogue.

“That was the first gesture from ORU to the United Methodist Church in twenty years,” said Smith. “It’s encouraged United Methodist ministers, some of whom have two or three degrees from the university, to feel as though they can reengage the school.”

Since July of last year, the School of Theology has established a committee called the Methodist Recertification Effort Committee chaired by Dr. Robert Mansfield, an ordained Methodist minister and tenured professor at ORU.

Other notable people serving on the committee are the Rev. Tom Harrison, Senior Pastor of Asbury; Dr. Paul Vickery, ORU professor and ordained Methodist minister; and Dr. James Buskirk, founding Dean of the ORU School of Theology and former pastor of FUMC-Tulsa. “We have made informal contacts with the denomination and we have a lot of support, but we have been encouraged to move slow,” said Dr. Thomson Mathew, dean of the seminary.

In order to be recertified by the UMC, the university must offer certain courses in Methodist history and doctrine and must also have a certain number of Methodist instructors. The process has no set timeline since the ultimate authority to recertify lies with the denomination itself.

At this point, Dr. Mathew says the chances of recertification are better than 50/50. “We are prepared to work as long as it takes,” Mathew said. “We want to be recertified and we feel it would be a great thing. Many of the Methodist ministers who have studied here have some of the most successful churches in the denomination.”

Also serving on the committee is Dr. Wade Paschal, Jr., pastor of First United Methodist Church in downtown Tulsa. Paschal attended school at Asbury Theological Seminary and Princeton University and received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.

When asked if a closer relationship between the UMC and ORU was feasible, he said, “I hope it’s feasible because I think it would do a great deal of good for my denomination. I feel we would be the beneficiary of ORU’s ministry.”

Citing moves by the University Senate over the past several years to limit the number of universities it accredits, he said, “There are some hurdles to overcome. The question they have any time they look at a non-Methodist school is, ‘Will a person attending school here receive an education that will prepare them to deal with United Methodists and United Methodist culture?’”

Regarding ORU’s position as a historically Charismatic school, Paschal didn’t believe it would be a major obstacle to overcome. “I do think that there will be some questions theologically, but I really don’t think the Charismatic part will be a huge question since there are so many within the Methodist church with Charismatic experiences,” he said.

Dr. Robert Mansfield, tenured professor of theology at ORU, is chair of the committee. Since ORU is already fully accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, Mansfield states the aim of the re-certification effort is to allow “for the ordaining of United Methodist graduates in the Master of Divinity degree program.”

The recent financial and staff cutbacks instituted by university administration have complicated the process somewhat as the committee seeks to recruit more Methodist faculty and create what Mansfield calls a “Methodist ethos” at ORU for students training to become United Methodist ministers, but he is determined to continue the effort and seek financial support.

“We [the committee] have met and reviewed the process of regaining certification and identified key requirements we must work toward meeting,” said Mansfield via email. “We have discussed these matters with President Rutland and have his continuing support.”

The committee has also been in contact with a member of the UMC University Senate to gain additional perspective on the process of re-certification.

Smith is excited about the prospect of a closer relationship and sees it as important given ORU and the Methodist church’s mutual goals and shared historical theology. While the Methodist and Pentecostal movements have tended to emphasize differing aspects of the work of the Holy Spirit, Smith sees them as complimentary.

“ORU is not the totality of the Christian faith, nor is the United Methodist Church the totality of the Christian faith,” he said, “but having the conversation about the common mission and the common drive of ORU and the UMC would be invaluable.”