The way Dean J. Philip Wogaman puts it, it sounds like the typical American success story.
"From humble beginnings, we've become one of the strongest seminaries in the country," says the dean of Wesley Theological Seminary, whose modern red-brick campus nestles on the rolling hill along Massachusetts Avenue NW, adjacent to American University.
The objective of the seminary, currently celebrating its centennial year, is essentially the same as it was 100 years ago, said Wogaman -- namely, to produce clergy who can "relate the Christian faith intelligently to the world and the problems vexing our age."
To accomplish that task today, "we try to use the resources of Washington, of political Washington, of medical Washington, of inner-city Washington," as well as the more traditional lectures and books of any graduate program, he said.
In celebration of its centennial year, the seminary has extended that same philosophy of bringing the best resources of Christian thought to the school. This week, the distinguished Christian ethicist, Dr. John Coleman Bennett, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary and a colleague of the late Reinhold Niebuhr, lectured twice during the school's annual "Graduate Days." Other lecturers included the Rev. Canaan Banana, president of Zimbabwe, who is a 1975 graduate of Wesley, and the nationally recognized authority in pastoral counseling, Dr. Howard Clinebell of the Claremont, Calif., School of Theology.
Speaking to several hundred present and future clergy, Bennett proposed two issues on which the church of the 1980s should focus. One, he said, is economic injustice, "about which Americans are becoming more complacent than they have been in the recent past and our federal government sets us an example for that complacency."
The other issue, he said, is nuclear war, which he said is an increasingly dangerous possibility, "partly because of the hope that it could be kept limited and also because of the almost unrelieved hostility between the two nuclear powers to which the foreign policy of our own government greatly contributes . . ."
Bennett said the economic policy of the Reagan administration is in "profound conflict" with "basic Christian teaching," which he said demands an abiding concern for the poor.
Under administration cutbacks, Reagan administration, he said, the poor "are being asked by the nation to suffer in their bodies while the comfortable people receive tax advantages and are made more comfortable." Such a policy, he said, is "more than unjust, it is indecent, it is monstrously callous."
The tradition of social ethics, for which John Bennett has been the leading exponent in Protestantism in this country, has always been strong at Wesley Theological Seminary. Founded by what was then the Methodist Protestant Church in 1882, the seminary held classes on the campus of Western Maryland College in Westminster until 1955, when it moved to its present location.
Now, as then, the vast majority of Wesley's 358 students are training to be parish ministers, and are enrolled in a three-year graduate program leading to a degree of Master of Divinity. The school also offers a doctoral program, as well as a master's degree in theological studies.
As in most Protestant seminaries in recent years, women today make up a substantial proportion of the student body. At Wesley this year, more than one-third of the degree candidates are women.
Most the students are Methodists, but there is nearly a score of Presbyterians and a generous sprinkling from Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, United Church of Christ and other denominations. From time to time, local rabbis have taken work there.
The school "has many more second-career students" -- men and women turning to the ministry after careers in government, public schools, law, "and even a couple of dentists," Wogaman said. "We have far more people moving from other professions into the ministry than the other way around," he said.
Wesley has a number of innovations designed to equip future ministers to relate the gospel to the world in which their parishioners live. To promote ecumenical understanding, the school is an active partner in the Washington Theological Consortium, a cooperative arrangement involving seven theological institutions in the area, three of them Roman Catholic. Under the consortium arrangement, the curricula, the libraries and the faculties of all seven schools are accessible to students in each of the schools.
"We require every student to take at least one course outside the home institution," Wogaman said. Students must also take at least one course from one of the Roman Catholic professors available on the campus each semester through the consortium's faculty exchange program.
In the area of religion and politics, Wesley provides space and facilities to the Churches' Center for Theology and Public Policy, an ecumenical study center that seeks to relate the full spectrum of Christian tradition and theology to contemporary issues of public policy. In return, the center's director, Dr. Alan Geyer, a nationally recognized ethicist and political scientist, serves on the faculty.
Four years ago, Wesley began a special program, taking advantage of its location in the nation's capital, which has attracted visiting seminarians from institutions all over the country. Students enrolled in the National Capital Semester program spend one day each week on a field trip, "to the Hill, the Pentagon, even the CIA," Wogaman said. In addition to carrying a 15-hour course load, each student must complete "a major research project on an issue of public policy and what the church might do about it," he explained.
The school operates a Lay Resource Center, with noncredit courses ranging from Bible study to expressing the faith through art, open to anyone who is interested. And it offers a variety of continuing education courses for working clergy who feel the need of refresher courses.
The seminary "is terribly important as a resource to the whole church," Wogaman said, "A seminary apart from the church is almost a contradiction in terms."