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Paul Ferris Retires from Bethel Seminary

Paul Ferris Retires from Bethel Seminary

Paul W. Ferris has taught at Bethel Seminary for 20 years.

Paul W. Ferris Jr., Bethel Seminary professor of Hebrew Bible, retires after 20 years at Bethel Seminary. Ferris and his wife, Lois, came to Bethel Seminary in 1998, where Paul taught in the seminary’s Center for Biblical and Theological Foundations and Lois served in the seminary’s office of student life. We talked to Ferris about his time at Bethel and his observations about seminary education.

What led you here and why have you stayed?

In addition to personal relationships with folk here at Bethel, I was fascinated by the resilience and vision evidenced by an institution that had been in operation for more than one and a quarter centuries. That was impressive.

What have been some highlights of your time at Bethel?

The hybrid InMinistry Master of Divinity program had just kicked off. The team showed itself to be a lean, learning organization as adjustments were made and this “pilot” project turned out to be the first of its kind accredited by the Association of Theological Schools and accomplished that ahead of schedule.

I really resonated with what Bethel called its “three centers philosophy” which, although not called that, was similar to the whole-life training that was a cornerstone of the institutions where I had previously served.

What have been some challenges?

It’s always a challenge to be on the lookout for needed or prudent adjustments and finding ways to make those adjustments effectively. When I joined the faculty in 1998 we seemed to be overly dependent on adjunct faculty. As enrollment grew, the seminary was able to build a solid regular faculty.

Fund development is always a challenge. When we were not as successful in recruiting donor-partners as we wished, we went through a phase of significant annual increases in tuition costs which had an effect on enrollment. It’s a challenge most seminaries face as a result of greatly diminished support from denominations.

How has your field changed in the years you've been at Bethel? How has seminary education changed?

One of the most stimulating changes has been in the way we learn Biblical Hebrew. Typically, seminarians have to study biblical languages as “dead” languages. The approach is known as the “grammar-translation method” where the student memorizes grammatical charts and learns vocabulary by way of little flash cards with a Hebrew word on one side and an English word on the other.

Later we began to offer Hebrew much like immigrants learn English as a second language. We began like two- and three-year olds, with students hearing the language used and using it themselves. Hebrew vocabulary was acquired by way of pictures and sentences and physically acting out the ideas. What fun to watch a student who had no idea of what the Hebrew alefbet looked like seven weeks earlier be able to sit down and read from the seminary’s Torah scroll.

A disappointing change in seminary training across the nation is that for far too many, M.Div. training has become priced out of the market.

What will you miss the most?

It is a delight and honor to catch up with students I’ve come to know and love over my 50 years teaching in theological education—they’re strategically deployed literally around the globe. I will miss the opportunity to build relationships with new students.

What comes next for you?

I hope to continue my ministry of teaching seminary students, and continue to serve the church in various capacities. And this next chapter of my life will allow me to remedy my delinquency in the area of my writing.