My Friend, Jim Emery His Lasting Contribution to Missions and to My Life
James Hodges Emery
A servant in Christian work for five decades, Dr. Jim Emery was a pastor, a 25-year field missionary and a key figure in the starting of Theological Education by Extension.
I first met Jim in 1946 when we both attended Princeton Theological Seminary. Before that I had heard a little about the very serious church he had come from in Schnectady, NY, where a whole stream of General Electric engineers had been high-jacked into the ministry by the legendary pastor, Herbert McKeel.
We had a lot in common. Both with engineering training. Both setting out now to do other kinds of engineering. Both just out of the U.S. Navy. Both creatively skeptical about the way things are, and enthusiastic about not leaving them that way.
That one academic year (1946-1947) took us both to Toronto to the first of the famous series of so-called Urbana student missionary conferences. It brought us both into contact with Christy Wilson Jr., who founded that series of conferences and who even earlier worked with us to organize a student mission retreat for Princeton Seminary students. For speakers we got both Eugene Nida of the American Bible Society (one of the two student geniusesNida and Kenneth Pikewho helped found the Wycliffe Bible Translators), and Bruce Metzger, a Princeton Seminary faculty member whom we greatly admired and wished to get more interested in missions.
That crammed year, 1946-47, was all I spent at Princeton at that time. I did not return to finish until 1953. When I finally graduated in 1956 and was headed for Guatemala I had at first no idea that Jim and Gennet had arrived there years before. It was a very pleasant surprise. By now Jim was a veteran from whom I had a great deal to learn.
The Birth of Theological Education by Extension (TEE)
For me, this all began when I was stunned to hear him say that dozens of little coastal churches, which were his assignment to assist, were starved for ordained leadership for the simple reason that the real leaders could not possibly pull away from family and jobs to go off to the Presbyterian seminary 150 miles away in the capital city. He had persuaded the powers-that-be that the seminary needed to be moved out where most of the churches werein the rural areas. This major decision then had plunged him into literally buying land and building a new seminary campus in a tiny, sleepy coastal town called San Felipe.
I became a member of the new board of directors. An additional barrier remained. It was still true that the real leaders of the rural congregations could not spend a lot of time on the grounds of the seminary even though it was now much closer than 150 miles.
The second major step was then to decentralize the instruction, to use the new campus as a source of outreach rather than as a destination for younger boarding students to come to live. This was quite a wrench. I was on the seminary board; Jim was on the faculty. It was an event directly involving only a few people. But reverberations from capital city pastors became even more intense. At a crucial synod meeting this new, even more radical decentralization of the seminary arose as an explosive issue. The first move to a rural location pulled the board out of the hands of city people. This second move all but junked the on-campus student pattern and allowed the seminary program for the first time to enroll older menin most cases people who had already been elected elders in their local churches. Oops, the familiar young men students were no longer as visible.
Thus, at a key meeting a city pastor stood up and complained that seminary students were now mainly just laymen, not young men on their way to ministerial ordinationin the more familiar pattern. The atmosphere was tense.
I'll never forget that at that moment Jim stood up and addressed the 200 or so pastors and elders at this annual synod meeting. He was the only missionary who when he stood up to say something was seriously listened to with respect by both nationals and missionaries. He picked up on the objection that the seminary student bodynow scattered all over and not living right at the seminarywas no longer a dozen or so young men who needed a place to sleep and something to eat, but was now about 65 in number and mainly older leaders who were being at that moment castigated for being mere laymen. He said simply, "Look, what is so unusual about laymen in seminary? I was a layman when I was in seminaryso were you. All of us went to seminary as laymen."
Between the lines of the pastor's objection was the disturbing fact, of course, that the new seminary student was now a more mature, impressive leader. Some were doctors and lawyers in the city. Young city pastors worried that they might lose their pulpits. (Some did.) Word got around that, "The missionaries are trying to dethrone the pastors." True, the seminary in this new system was looking for and finding those people Jim had talked to me about earlierthe real leaders who were already to be found in the local congregations. The seminary, through its new extension system was now being re-engineered to enable the rural leaders to obtain the necessary qualifications for ordination.
This major threat to the status quo would, in fact, have been voted out of existence had it not been true that the rural vote consisted mainly of elders who were now actually enrolled in this new seminary extension program.
Thus, hanging on by its fingernails, this major mutation in how the church gets its leadership survived. It incorporated the novel idea that pastoral education was not a matter of how many years you had soaked in school but who you were and the functional nature of what you learned. The rural Presbyteries had long ordained people with fewer school years behind them than the city pastors. Now the seminary had three distinct levels of pastoral education, all of them equivalent for the purposes of ordination. All of a sudden the seminary was no longer a detour to a distant place accessible only to untried younger men. Now the church could harvest for its leadership its real leaders, and all of this was the upshot of Jim's insight. I was glad to help make it happen.
The ideas spread. My wife and I then went on to help set up a pre-seminary extension program which enabled rural people whose schools only went through the third grade to attain the coveted sixth-grade diplomawhich was the minimum required by the seminary. Six major missions in Guatemala were involved in this program with more than 1,000 studentsand the seminary goal gained visibility, too. Soon down through hemisphere "the Guatemala Presbyterian Plan" was seriously considered. Then, globally.
The movement involved over 100,000 leaders training for ministry at one point. But the basic insight gradually faded. The mechanics of teaching began to loom, the threat to existing residential schools raised its head, and existing pastors who had gone through residential schooling felt threatened. To school directors, the U.S. negative example carried great weight even though the really growing movements both at home and abroad bypass the standard selection pattern. Not enough people today realize what Jim was saying: he was not proposing a new kind of education as much as he was seeking to educate the right people. His presence is needed more right now than ever.