Let’s get missional
At Dubuque Seminary, a degree in missional Christianity attracts students who don’t feel called to be pastors but want to be part of what God is doing in the world
By Duane Sweep
You couldn’t convince Mary McQuilkin that she was being called to enroll in seminary. “No. Absolutely not,” she would say whenever anyone broached the subject. “I kept telling them, ‘No, I don’t want to do that at all.’ ”
McQuilkin was working as a sign-language interpreter in Magnolia, Ill. While volunteering in the youth program of her congregation, she felt called to youth ministry. But she was not interested in pursuing the traditional Master of Divinity degree leading to pastoral ministry.
Her pastor, Carol Stufflebeam, a recent graduate of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, persuaded her to take a look at another option being offered by the seminary. That look convinced McQuilkin to enroll in the seminary’s new Master of Arts program in missional Christianity.
Peggy Sell, Dubuque’s director of admissions, describes the Master of Arts in Missional Christianity as “perfect for anyone who is considering their life and vocation through the lens of Christian faith in a God who is still active in this world and inviting us to participate in God’s work.”
Leaders of the program say missional is more than just a term that’s become popular in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): It’s a way of life—a life focused on living as a disciple of Christ in the world, but not necessarily within the structures of church.
“I think missional Christianity is an attitude; it’s a demeanor,” says Amanda Benckhuysen, coordinator of the Dubuque program and assistant professor of Old Testament at the seminary. “It’s a spirit in which you say, ‘My faith is integrated into all of my life, and all my life can give glory to God.’ ”
“We realize that not everyone who is called to minister is called to be a pastor,” says Sell. “They have a genuine call, a passion, but not to become a pastor.”
Brad Longfield, dean of the seminary, puts it this way: “The effort here is to encourage those who may or may not feel called to ordained ministry to understand their vocation in missional ways—to reach out to others using the gifts they have, in the places they are, in ways that are theologically informed.”
Gaining new tools
Cathy Spielman sensed God’s call while working as volunteer Christian education director at First Presbyterian Church in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where she and her husband live. The call was so strong that she decided to become certified as a Christian educator.
The effort here is to encourage those who may or may not feel called to ordained ministry to understand their vocation in missional ways—to reach out to others using the gifts they have, in the places they are, in ways that are theologically informed.
“You think you’ve got your life on schedule and you’re going in a specific direction,” she says, “and then God just spins you around in a one-eighty and says, ‘No, this is where you’re going.’ ”
While pursuing certification, Spielman learned that the new Dubuque Seminary program could shorten the time needed to complete the certification process. Moving to Dubuque wasn’t an option for her, but the seminary program would allow her to take most of her classes online. Now enrolled in the program, she spends two weeks on campus before each fall and spring semester in what the seminary refers to as “intensives.”
“I can see I’m on the right track here,” Spielman says of her focus on Christian education. “I can make this my whole life’s work, but I need to have some different tools.”
She is able to apply what she is learning at seminary to her work at the Idaho Falls church. “The program gives me answers to questions that would otherwise go unanswered,” she says.
Sell describes the missional Christianity program as a “rigorous graduate program with a solid theological foundation as well as vast flexibility to study a particular emphasis in great depth.”
Students take courses in three major divisions—Bible, history and theology, and ministry—alongside students in the M.Div. program, but are not required to take courses in Greek and Hebrew. They study one area of interest in depth and complete a project in that particular area.
McQuilkin sees the program as a “bridge between church and community.” She says it shows people in the community “that this is what it’s like to be a Christian.”
Beyond church walls
Following her own graduation from seminary, Benckhuysen worked in campus ministry at the University of Michigan before earning a doctorate and joining the faculty at Dubuque. She describes Dubuque’s program as “theological education for those who want to be involved in ministries that reach beyond the church walls.”
“There are just all kinds of ways that we can be involved in ministry and mission in North America and in our larger global context,” she says. “I think it’s very suitable for a seminary rooted in the Reformed tradition to be looking at ways to equip the body of believers to be informed and to integrate their faith into their vocation.”
Using a term introduced by community planners, Benckhuysen talks about the importance of establishing “third places” in ministry—places where people can congregate outside of home and work. The church used to be that third place, she says, but involvement in traditional churches is dwindling.
“People aren’t going to come to your church programs, because that’s far too threatening—the church building itself or the idea of church itself is a barrier,” Benckhuysen says.
“So how do you set up a safe environment where people will come and hang and build relationships and establish communities and feel comfortable and safe, where there might be opportunities for the gospel to be shared?”
Longfield sees a connection between Dubuque’s missional Christianity program and the PC(USA) movement to develop 1,001 new worshiping communities. The denomination is trying “to loosen up some of the tight structures we have in place” and to be open to new models of what constitutes a congregation, he says. The Dubuque program is encouraging a similar flexibility in nurturing church leadership.
Longfield says the program is part of Dubuque Seminary’s effort to “use our gifts to serve the church in these new times. If there are ways that we can proclaim the gospel in new ways that the church has not yet embraced structurally, then let’s go ahead and do that.
“And let’s find ways to empower people to do that,” he continues, “to proclaim the gospel wherever they live and work.”
Duane Sweep is associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Seminaries meet the challenges of changing times
In 2012 the PC(USA)’s Committee on Theological Education celebrates two centuries of Presbyterian seminaries serving the church and the world. “We are giving thanks for seminaries rising to meet the challenges new times demand, year after year, for 200 years,” says Lee Hinson-Hasty, coordinator for theological education and seminary relations for the denomination. “Fresh degree programs with cutting-edge delivery systems give me hope for the church and our seminaries, today and for generations to come.”
The Master of Arts in Missional Christianity program at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary is only one of the innovative programs being rolled out by seminaries. Others include:
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Master of Arts in Ministry Practice, a two-year degree to deepen understanding of the Christian faith and enhance research and leadership skills, allowing for concentrated study in a single discipline
Columbia Theological Seminary, Master of Arts in Practical Theology, designed to equip professionals or volunteers for a broad array of ministries in Christian education, Christian leadership, pastoral care or worship, in congregations and beyond
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, M.Div./M.A. double degrees, in marriage and family therapy, social work, law, education, business administration and spirituality
McCormick Theological Seminary, Master of Arts in Discipleship Development, a two-year degree with a focus on practices, skills and strategies for the development of effective Christian formation programs in congregational and agency settings
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Master of Divinity with emphasis in Church Planting, a four-year program that includes a supervised internship in church planting and an overseas trip to interact with church planting in another region of the world
Princeton Theological Seminary, dual M.Div./M.A. in Education or Youth Ministry, designed for students who know they wish to focus on youth ministry or Christian education
San Francisco Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry with various emphases: multidisciplinary studies, pastoral care and counseling, pastor as spiritual leader, urban/black church studies
Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center, dual M.Div./M.A. in Christian Education and in Church Music, with the latter degree offering theological, biblical and liturgical understanding of the theory and practice of church music and opportunities to interact with persons aspiring to the ordained ministry
Union Presbyterian Seminary, Extended Campus Program, offering an online assisted master’s degree in Christian education
Auburn Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry in Multifaith Education (with New York Theological Seminary), offering the skills and knowledge necessary to work effectively in a multifaith context
Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico, Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Care for Families, exploring the relationships of people with God, themselves, others and nature
For more information and links to seminary websites, visit the Theological Education website.