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How a Small US Evangelical Seminary is Defying the Odds

The school, which has grown 500% in 6 years, was the first seminary approved by the Global Methodist Church

RIDGELAND, Miss. — In an age of shrinking theological schools, Wesley Biblical Seminary in Ridgeland, Mississippi, is defying expectations.

Photo via social media @Wesley Biblical Seminary

While many of the largest and prominent evangelical seminaries across the United States—such as Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary—are downsizing, WBS is growing in enrollment.

In the fall of 2017, for example, the school had 60 master’s students and 15 Doctor of Ministry students. Today, the seminary has 497 students overall in credentialing and degree programs — a staggering 500 percent increase in just six years.

“That’s just massive growth,” said Elijah Friedeman, who serves as Vice President of Enrollment at WBS, “The Master’s [degree] level has grown by 150 percent and then the total number of population served has just drastically increased.”

There was a time when the school talked about closing. Now, the school has nearly as many current students enrolled as alums.

WBS was founded in 1974 by the Association of Independent Methodists as a multi-denominational school that serves many small evangelical Wesleyan denominations. They emphasize the Bible as the final authority and believe holiness is essential. The school has historically been smaller in enrollment and faculty size.

There are three factors the WBS administration thinks made the enrollment increase. One factor is the establishment of the Global Methodist Church. The GMC was established on May 1, 2022, as a more theologically conservative alternative to the United Methodist Church (UMC). One of the primary reasons for the split in the UMC was over issues involving sexuality.

According to Andy Miller III, who serves as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Preaching and Theology at WBS, the school is one of the first six seminaries approved by the GMC.

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“We were the first to have a Course of Study for the Global Methodist Church and since we were the first to offer that, it has led to an amazing growth for us,” he said.

The second factor is that WBS has diversified program offerings. WBS is now offering different levels of education at different price points. The seminary currently offers undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels of education, along with a lay institute.

“We’ve recently launched a bachelor’s program, which is pretty small still,” Friedeman said. “We’re hoping to grow that some.”

The retention rate for the WBS master’s program was 76 percent last year, the school said.

The third factor of why WBS is growing is the flexible online model of education. WBS used Zoom for classes before the pandemic and found success with it.

“That [online] model, that emphasizes live learning, has really helped us to not be in a position where we have to have students come to us,” Miller said. “Many seminaries are unwilling to move away from a residential, in-person situation and we just have a sense…that Zoom can be a productive learning environment.”

Students still come to WBS to attend the classes in person. However, many students are now attending classes remotely.

The switch to an online model of education has helped the school become more affordable and efficient.

“The number of students we’re serving and the budget we have is very unusual in higher ed,” Friedeman said. “We’ve kept overhead as low as we can. A lot of that comes too by running a really efficient campus and keeping administrative personnel as limited as possible.”

The school has grown despite challenges in the last few years. In 2019, then WBS President John E. Neihof died of a heart attack. His successor, Matt Ayars, unexpectedly resigned in December 2023, citing health and family reasons. But Interim President Matt Friedeman, who also serves as John M. Case Chair of Evangelism and Discipleship, said WBS is still hitting the ground running.

“He set us up for great years whether he was going to be here for them or not,” he said when speaking of Ayars’ tenure at WBS.

Friedeman has taught at WBS since 1987, making him the most senior professor on campus. He said the school has more money and students than it has ever had before. Despite the faculty and students that he has seen come and go, he said the mission of WBS has remained the same.

“We’ve maintained our theological commitments,” Friedeman said. “We believe in Trinitarian orthodoxy, we’re Wesleyan-Arminian, we believe the Word of God is inerrant, we believe the Spirit can transform a person…and we believe someone can and should be entirely sanctified.”

Pastor Adam Godbold of Faith Methodist Church in Dallas, Georgia, and a WBS alum, confirmed the school holds strong in their theological commitments. He cites biblical inerrancy and entire sanctification as two doctrines WBS is abundantly clear on.

Godbold also said WBS professors maintain strong relationships with their students, including himself. Steve Blakemore, WBS professor of Christian Thought, had a big impact on him.

“The first class I had was his,” Godbold said. “It was a weekend class [called] ‘Theology and Practice of Pastoral Leadership.’ That was a monumental class for me…He was so approachable and so accessible and just likeable. We, over the years, maintained a bond.”

This article was originally published by Religion UnPlugged.

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