BANGOR – Bangor Theological Seminary has been virtually the only Christian institution of higher learning in northern Maine for 182 years. That will change over the next 18 months when a new seminary and four-year college are expected to begin offering classes with assistance from one of the city’s largest congregations.
There are no students, professors or buildings yet. No plans have been drawn up for classrooms, residence halls, administrative office or a library. For now, Grace Evangelical College and Grace Evangelical Seminary are a vision being shaped by a dozen ministers who pastor churches in Penobscot, Hancock and Waldo counties.
The Rev. Jerry Mick Jr., senior pastor of Bangor Baptist Church, identified the college and seminary as part of the long-term vision of the church when Bangor Baptist held a mortgage-burning celebration last year. The Rev. Dr. Jerry Falwell, president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., was guest speaker at that event.
Bangor Baptist Church has given the college and seminary $25,000 in seed money and offered the new seminary the use of classrooms at Bangor Christian Schools. The church is also assisting the institutions in seeking not-for-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service.
Three staff members from Bangor Baptist, including Mick, are among the dozen men serving on a Visioning Committee that is overseeing the development of the new schools.
“It’s a modest beginning, but it is a beginning,” said the Rev. Scott Cleveland, a committee member and pastor of the Second Congregational Church of Brewer. “We’ve made it very clear that we don’t want to be a Baptist college or seminary. We’ve been given full autonomy.”
Pastors and staff at Bangor Baptist are helping the two institutions get off the ground. The schools will be nondenominational, however, according to the Rev. W. Lyman “Terry” Phillips, who has agreed to serve as the first president of both institutions.
The seminary plans to offer evening classes this fall for clergy and lay leaders in a certificate program that would include 30 credit hours of course work. The four-year liberal arts college hopes to welcome its first class in the fall of 2002.
The institutions would seek accreditation through the New England Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges and the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. The schools also would seek articulation agreements with other institutions of higher education such as Husson College and the University of Maine, according to Phillips.
Phillips is pastor of Eastbrook Baptist Church in Hancock County. He turned to his own congregation to explain why the new schools are needed.
“A young man in our church just graduated from King College in Bristol, Tennessee,” Phillips said Thursday. “He went there because he could not find a Christian college closer to home that offered pre-law and political science. There is no Protestant liberal arts college in Maine. The closest is Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.”
While the state may not have a four-year Protestant college, it does have a Protestant seminary that has trained ministers and lay leaders throughout New England since 1891. While BTS is associated with the United Church of Christ, its faculty and staff include Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists and Baptists.
Phillips said that the difference between Grace Evangelical and BTS “probably goes to biblical interpretation. I think I would be accurate in describing Bangor Theological Seminary as a very liberal theology school. That has its place, but our curriculum and approach would be a more conservative point of view,” he said. The Rev. Dr. Ansley Coe Throckmorton, BTS president, denied that BTS is “too liberal.”
“We’re very centrist Christian,” she said Thursday afternoon as she prepared for the final graduation before her retirement in August. “I hope we’ll have a cordial relationship with this new school and wish them well. Our sister seminary, Gordon-Conwell [an interdenominational seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.], has an excellent relationship with Andover Newton Theological Seminary [an American Baptist seminary in Newton, Mass.]. To model on that relationship would be our hope.”
Phillips said that he was not sure what the denominational mix of faculty and staff at Grace Evangelical College and Seminary would be. He said that the committee had not yet worked out a 2002 budget or found a place to hold classes or house students that first year. He said that the campus of Bangor Baptist was one of several possibilities the committee was considering as a permanent home for the institutions.
“How much money we will need to open the doors depends on how our curriculum develops,” he said. “We know that we’re going to have to raise funds and find people who want to endow chairs and provide scholarship assistance as well as support operations. We’re going to need to be working on three or four different levels at once to bring in a freshman class of 50 or 70 students. They’ll be our school pioneers.”
Phillips received his undergraduate degree from Amherst College and his master of divinity degree from Yale University. He also holds a law degree from Boston University, but has never taken the bar exam. He said Thursday that he is now doing everything for Grace Evangelical from acting as president to designing graphics for brochures.
“Among lay people and clergy members, young and old, I sense a strong desire for academically sound and biblically faithful teaching,” said Cleveland of Brewer.
“There’s a dearth of that in this area. Hypothetically, a high school senior who wanted to attend Grace Evangelical College would find not only academic excellence, but genuine mainline Christianity in line with the historic biblical reformed faith.
“We hope the school will seek to be uncompromising about what the essentials of the Gospel and faith are, not about how church can differ. There’s nothing else on the radar screen like it, and there’s a radical need, a deep need – one that is not being addressed at all at this point.”