Two things convinced the Rev. Dr. Edmund Robb III (M.T.S., 1976) to come to Perkins for his theological education: a job offer, and a desire for a change of scenery. Robb had decided to pursue full-time seminary studies after taking a few courses as a part-time student at Asbury Theological Seminary.
Robb loved Asbury but was ready for a new challenge. Then he was offered a job as a youth minister at First Methodist Church in Waxahachie. Perkins School of Theology became his new choice.
“As much as I appreciated Asbury, I wanted a different perspective,” he said. “I grew up in a traditional home. I wanted to be challenged.”
That dual perspective – a faith anchored in traditional orthodoxy, and a willingness to be challenged – foreshadowed what was ahead. Robb enrolled at Perkins, not knowing it would lead to a pivotal moment in United Methodist history.
Robb went on to start The Woodlands United Methodist Church in the suburban Houston area – now one of the largest United Methodist churches in the U.S. And while he was at Perkins, he helped arrange a meeting that influenced United Methodist scholarship for decades to come – and continues to do so today.
A Meeting of Two Minds
In 1975, Robb’s father, the Rev. Edmund Robb Jr., delivered a fiery speech at a Good News Convocation at Lake Junaluska, N.C. Observing the rapid decline in the denomination’s membership, the elder Robb decried what he saw as a loss of orthodoxy at United Methodist seminaries.
“I know of no UM seminary where the historic Wesleyan Biblical perspective is presented seriously, even as an option,” he said. “Let us serve notice, here and now, that we will no longer turn over our converts to the theological liberals who neither understand or teach the Biblical faith.”
That statement deeply offended Albert C. Outler (1908-1989), a professor at Perkins and the pre-eminent Wesleyan scholar at the time. Outler wrote a scathing rebuttal in a United Methodist newspaper.
As it happened, Ed Robb III was one of Outler’s students.
“That was the first time I remember learning the word ‘diatribe,’” the younger Robb recalled. “I had a relationship outside of class with Dr. Outler. We had developed a good camaraderie.” Robb encouraged his father to call Dr. Outler and propose a meeting. Outler agreed.
“They met at Bridwell Library,” Robb said. “I don’t want to take too much credit, but I did help facilitate that meeting. My father and Dr. Outler realized they shared some concerns, and began to ask, ‘What can we do in a positive way to address this?’”
The conversation led to the founding in 1977 of A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE), a non-profit that aims to “strengthen the classical Christian witness within the United Methodist Church.” (See sidebar) Ed Robb III continues to serve as Chairman of AFTE today. The program’s centerpiece is the John Wesley Fellowships, supporting gifted scholar-teacher-leaders “who embody this commitment to traditioned innovation and are equipped to provide leadership for the renewal of the Church in their doctoral studies at the finest universities,” according to AFTE’s mission statement. Currently, there are more than 165 Fellows in the fellowship.
Said Robb: “This was a way to give a more traditional Wesleyan orthodoxy a stronger voice within our theological schools. And it was a long-term effort. When AFTE was launched, Dr. Outler said, ‘This is a generational effort; we won’t see any results for 5 or 15 or maybe even 40 years.’”
And what an impact AFTE has had — and continues to have.
Ten Wesley Fellows currently serve as deans in seminaries and colleges, including Perkins’ Dean Craig C. Hill. Fifty-three are professors in theological schools including Perkins, Asbury, Baylor, Candler School of Theology at Emory, Claremont School of Theology, Duke Divinity, Garrett-Evangelical, Luther Seminary, United, and Wesley Theological Seminary. Another 21 serve in a professorial role in other colleges and universities.
In addition to Dean Hill, three Wesley Fellows serve at Perkins: Ted Campbell, Rebekah Miles and Priscilla Pope-Levison. Bishop Scott Jones of the Texas Annual Conference, a Perkins graduate and former faculty member, is also a Fellow, as is Steve Long, an SMU professor who teaches at Perkins.
The Wesley Fellows share a common heritage that seems to hold even as the denomination has struggled with divisions.
“The gift of AFTE is in bringing people together who differ on some social issues and on the future of the UMC but are alike in their love for Christ and their commitment to the church,” said Rebekah Miles, Professor of Ethics and Practical Theology. “Ed and his father have been models of a generous, open-hearted evangelicalism that always seeks to reach across to and include people of different backgrounds and points of view.”
Ted Campbell, Professor of Church History, recalls that when he became a John Wesley Fellow, Robb made it clear that “we were at liberty to develop our own opinions on church matters. That set the tone for relationships in the long run.”
As a group, the Wesley Fellows are diverse; a few Fellows converted to Roman Catholicism after completing their education; one became Greek Orthodox. That’s understandable, Robb said.
“You can’t keep them from changing or growing or evolving,” he said. “Not everybody comes out with identical views, but they do share the heart and commitment toward Wesleyan Christianity. Some Fellows may have different positions on human sexuality, but that doesn’t mean they’re not Wesleyan.”
Most importantly, Robb believes that AFTE has had the influence that Outler and his father envisioned: “A student is more likely to have a solid engagement with classical Christianity in a Methodist seminary than they would have had 40 years ago,” he said. “Any seminary is going to be a cacophony of voices. But AFTE has given classical Christianity a stronger voice in that mix.”
Ted Campbell remembers vividly the first time he met Robb, in the summer of 1978.
“Edmund was beaming with excitement about the new congregation he was starting,” Campbell recalled. “His great plan was to build the congregation from the ground up on the basis of small groups, like the early Wesleyan societies.”
Robb had been assigned by the Houston area Bishop to plant a new church in a rural, but growing, area near Houston called The Woodlands. Initially, he’d been reluctant. He told the bishop: “I don’t think I had that class in seminary. I don’t know about starting a church.” The bishop’s reply: “You’ll learn.”
He did learn, but it wasn’t easy.
“I got out and knocked on doors, literally,” said Robb. “I worked long, hard hours, inviting people to come. We started meeting in a rented space.” For the first four years, he had no staff members other than himself.
Today that congregation, The Woodlands United Methodist Church, has more than 14,000 members and is one of the denomination’s largest churches. Robb has served as senior pastor since 1978. He’ll retire on June 30.
“He has built one of the great congregations of the United Methodist Church on that consistent basis, and it shows in the strong connections and bonds between members,” said Campbell.
The friendship between Robb and Campbell continues. Campbell has taught, lectured and preached at The Woodlands more than any other guest speaker. Even though the two men may disagree on some issues, they share much common ground.
“We agree on most of the central teachings of the United Methodist Church, including the doctrines enshrined in the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith and the General Rules,” Campbell said. “That gives us a strong basis on which we have faithful and frank conversations.”
Dean Hill noted that Robb remains quietly supportive of his alma mater. The church has donated to Perkins annually in recent years and named a large atrium on the church campus after Albert Outler.
“Ed Robb is a leading evangelical with a moderating influence,” Hill said. “He’s someone who intuitively recognizes commonalities, not just differences. You can disagree as well as agree and walk away as friends, knowing that you’ve been respected and understood.”
Robb’s ability to lower the temperature in the midst of divisions has also been evident in his political career. On top of his church duties, he’s been active in The Woodlands government. Beginning in the late 1990s, he served as a representative of local business owners on the former Town Center Improvement District taxing entity. He was elected to The Woodlands Township Board of Directors, in 2010, and later was elected chair.
“As debates at Township board meetings have grown more contentious, Robb has developed a reputation as the peacekeeper, often speaking up when voices and tempers begin to rise and trying to keep discourse civil,” according to a 2015 article in the Houston Chronicle. Fellow board members called him a “consensus builder” and someone with “a track record of pulling people together.”
Robb will retire from his position as senior pastor of The Woodlands UMC on June 30, having served as the church’s pastor since 1978.
As his career in ministry comes to a close, he looks back fondly on his days at Perkins. Outler, Richey Hogg, Schubert Ogden, John Deschner and Marvin Judy were among the professors who influenced him most strongly.
“Not that I agreed with all their viewpoints, but they were good at helping students develop critical thinking,” he said.
Robb’s advice to current Perkins students? Seek opportunities for continuing education.
“Theological education gives you the foundation for the larger theological world and a knowledge of church history,” he said. “It’s the underpinning, the background for a career in ministry. But your education needs to continue as you learn the nuts and bolts of ministry.”
For example, seminary students typically don’t learn how to conduct effective stewardship campaigns. Like it or not, Robb said, it’s part of the job.
“I find most new pastors have very little idea, and a lot of fear, about talking about money,” he said. “We tend to use euphemisms. Don’t be afraid to talk about money.”
Over the years, The Woodlands has built five new buildings, relocated and added large parcels of land.
“That’s a lot of capital campaigns!” Robb said. “That’s not why I went into ministry. It’s not pure ministry. But if it’s not done, we don’t have the platform to continue on. There’s a lot we do in ministry that’s not learned in seminary. That’s true anywhere.”
Robb encourages young pastors to seek out seminars and other ways to learn some of the practical aspects of ministry.
Other advice for growing a church: Make sure that visitors connect with small groups – such as a Sunday school or a Bible study – and have a good experience. Be sure they are warmly greeted and are offered good childcare.
Focus on missions, local as well as international.
“Without missions, a church becomes a religious country club,” he said.
And finally, hire good people.
“Don’t be afraid to bring someone on to the church staff who is more talented than you. You don’t need people who think exactly like you do. But you do need people who share your same heart.”
In evolving from the pastor of a newly planted church to the senior pastor of a large congregation, Robb says his job changed from “shepherd” to “rancher,” a term popularized by Lyle Schaller while Robb was in seminary.
“In our inner hearts, we as most seminary graduates are inclined to that shepherd role,” he said. “But if we hang on too tightly, the church won’t reach its full maturity.”
About Ed Robb
Family: Robb and his wife, Bev, have three grown children and eight grandchildren
Hometown: Abilene, Texas
Other degrees: In addition to his Perkins’ degree, Robb earned an undergraduate degree from Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky., and received an honorary doctorate from Asbury University.
Favorite Bible Verse: “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32 (KJV)
Historic Figures He Most Admires: Moses, Socrates, Thomas Becket, Alexander Hamilton, William Wilberforce, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.
AFTE is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization founded in 1977 by the late Dr. Albert C. Outler and the late Dr. Edmund W. Robb, Jr., to strengthen the classical Christian witness within the United Methodist Church. The founders’ goal was to help revitalize theological education. Both believed that a greater emphasis on the evangelical Wesleyan tradition in United Methodist seminaries would bring greater spiritual vitality to the entire denomination.
The centerpiece of AFTE has always been the John Wesley Fellowship program, which supports gifted scholar-teacher-leaders who embody this commitment to traditioned innovation and are equipped to provide leadership for the renewal of the Church in their doctoral studies at the finest universities. Candidates are selected for their commitment to Christ and the Church as well as for their academic scholarship, educational excellence as teachers, and promise for intellectual leadership in renewing the Church. Fellowships are usually given for up to four years. Approximately 12-16 Fellows are in the program at any one time; AFTE typically spends more than $180,000 per year on direct grants to cover tuition and other educational expenses.
In partnership with The Foundation for Evangelism, AFTE also offers one fellowship for scholars in the Wesleyan tradition who are pursuing doctoral studies in evangelism and related disciplines. The Harry Denman Fellowship Program aims to equip individuals who might one day teach evangelism in Wesleyan-tradition colleges and seminaries, and who are committed to the classical Christian faith and spiritual renewal of the Church.
Each year, present and former John Wesley Fellows gather for personal and professional exchange at the Christmas Conference, named in honor of the founding annual conference of American Methodism. The undertaking of a doctoral program can be a lonely and grueling experience; the gathering helps developing scholars get to know and share ideas with other Fellows.
AFTE also sponsors Catalyst, a scholarly newsletter sent to more than 5,000 United Methodist seminary students four times a year and focusing on stimulating serious consideration of classical Christianity.
Source: A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE) website, aftesite.org