Magazine article The Christian Century

Forming Priests among the People

Magazine article The Christian Century

Forming Priests among the People

Article excerpt

THEOLOGICAL SCHOOLS debate how much field education is the right amount and how to integrate practical experience into ministerial training. But what if field education were inseparable from M.Div. courses? And what if seminarians' primary classmates were the people in the congregations they serve during their three years of seminary?

Bexley Seabury Seminary, an Episcopal school based in Chicago, has such a model in mind as it relaunches its M.Div. degree program. "At every step," the school states, "students will be challenged to connect the content of their academic work with insights and reflections drawn from their internship experience."

KyungJa Oh, director of field education and formation, sees the advantages of keeping students rooted in the context of ministry.

"It doesn't make sense to cloister students and give them a lot of theory and methodology and send them out," she said. "By learning in their context, they have real-life examples, not some example the instructor cooks up."

Part of the plan is sending faculty members to the students' locations to teach alongside the supervising pastors, congregational governing bodies, and other parishioners who are interested. Participants from several such congregations gather for plenary sessions and apply the lessons to their own parishes and programs. Activities and assignments address real issues in those congregations.

Oh sees this approach as a way to prepare ministers for the ways the church--and the culture around it--is changing. "We want to train ordained leaders who are agile ... who are adaptable," she said.

Adapting to changing circumstances is something the schools that have come together as Bexley Seabury already know something about.

In 2008, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in Evanston, Illinois, was faced with a financial crisis that caused it to suspend its M.Div. program. The school maintained its D.Min. and other programs and relocated to space in the Chicago headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Seabury also began conversations with Bexley Hall about a shared future. At the time, Bexley Hall was in a partnership with Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.

The two Episcopal schools "avoided the word merging and used the word federating," said Roger Ferlo, who became president of the seminaries when they officially federated in 2012 and launched a joint M.Div. program based in Columbus.

The schools created a parent organization that allows the separate corporations of Bexley Hall and Seabury-Western to continue to exist. The schools have a combined endowment of about $24 million. Part of that money came from the sale of Seabury's property in Evanston (Bexley Hall has not owned a building since 1968). Another $2 million came to Bexley Seabury after it renewed its relationship with the Episcopal Church's diocese in Minnesota and received monies held in a diocesan trust for theological education.

Currently, there are ten Episcopal seminaries, including Bexley Seabury. In response to its own financial crisis, the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will stop granting degrees in July and is currently exploring options for how to use its resources, such as funding scholarships or becoming a center for continuing education and lay training. Bexley Seabury and EDS are working toward an agreement by which EDS's distance-learning students could transfer to Bexley Seabury.

The Episcopal Church has seen a trend toward programs for training people for the priesthood that are not seminary-based. An example is the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry, in which the Episcopal Church's dioceses of Kansas, Nebraska, West Missouri, and Western Kansas collaborate to educate people to be priests, deacons, and lay ministers. A drawback to such programs is that they are not accredited.

Ferlo is concerned that congregations will prefer to hire people with a seminary degree, leaving the graduates of diocesan programs at a disadvantage. …

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