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Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary wonders: Is God calling you to lead change?

The initial cohort will be formed for ‘Lead Change,’ online facilitated learning that begins this fall

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

“Lead Change,” an online certificate program being offered by  Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, begins this fall.

LOUISVILLE — People sensing God’s call to be a catalyst for change in their community can consider enrolling in “Lead Change: A Certificate in Community Faith Formation,” a new certificate in community faith formation being offered by Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. The inaugural cohort of 15 learning partners, as the seminary calls its students, will begin this fall and finish in spring 2024.

The cohort will meet via Zoom on Tuesday evenings for 2½ hours. Cohort facilitators will guide the conversations.

Each course, according to a description on the seminary’s website, will braid theological reflection, education and practice. Learning partners are engaged through online learning as well as individual coaching and spiritual direction, small group process space and a curation of practices and resources throughout the program.

Tuition for the certificate is $3,375 plus an additional $100 for each of the five elective workshops that will be offered. While the seminary is unable to offer scholarships, learning partners are encouraged to ask their mid councils or similar bodies in other church structures for their sponsorship and financial support.

The course is ungraded. Learning partners will be assessed as they share learning assignments with the JCSTS cohort facilitator and with one another during the weekly sessions, which will be “highly interactive.”

Last week, “Lead Change” organizers at JCSTS spoke with Presbyterian News Service about the initial cohort, which is still being formed. The Rev. Dr. Deborah Mullen, JCSTS’ principal program associate, joined Sarah Dunne Pickrell, mission engagement coordinator at Village Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, and Rick Ufford-Chase, JCSTS’ institutional advancement officer and the co-director of the Center for Jubilee Practice, for a Zoom call.

Pickrell said many new worshiping community leaders “are looking for some kind of theological base.” Many “ground themselves in mission first, and most often it’s anti-oppression work, addressing a community need.” They may not have time or resources to pursue a Master of Divinity or Doctor of Divinity degree, so they’re sent to be trained as, say, a commissioned ruling elder. “It’s a great avenue, but not the right fit for a lot of leaders,” said Pickrell, who had been looking for an innovative program for quite a while before connecting with Ufford-Chase and Mullen.

Sarah Dunne Pickrell

“What would [such a program] look like for anyone, not necessarily in a new worshiping community, but other leaders too, for the significant change work they are doing in their communities, Presbyterian and other denominations?” Lead Change “has expanded” since its original concept “to be highly inclusive, centering voices not normally centered,” including people of color, LGBTQ, people who are neurodivergent and others, Pickrell said.

“We have had a call on our lives as an institution to bring together the intersection of faith and justice,” Mullen said, adding that JCSTS initiated its Drum Major for Justice certificate in public theology nearly three years ago.

“We have been unapologetic about locating justice work at the core of the Black church, a liberative theology that is surviving and resisting structural racism and oppression,” Mullen said. “Our framework is inclusive of those values.”

Based on “our experience” and that of Pickrell and others, “we perceive that programs are not meeting the needs of those who are looking for curriculum and course preparation that is relevant and welcoming to the work they are doing,” Mullen said.

“A lot of the early thinking Sarah, Deb and I did was in the context of the George Floyd uprisings in 2020,” Ufford-Chase said. “We had this shared experience of hearing people say, ‘I am not getting the preparation I need to do ministry in a way to recognize the dynamics of how race is playing out.’ What we are trying to do here is to say, ‘Ministry is changing, and we are aware of that.’ We can help with language and community-building techniques.” About 80% or more of the content that will be used, Ufford-Chase said, “are the voices of folks we are serving.”

“We are going to work with mid councils to let them know we would love them to partner with us to prepare their candidates from ministry,” Ufford-Chase said.

The Rev. Dr. Deborah Mullen

“This is transformative curriculum,” Mullen said. “You can’t start in the same place and expect different results. … We are constantly being formed by all that’s going on around us — the messages we receive about who we are, the bodies we bring to this work and where we are told not to enter. We see it as an opportunity to inform and form in a way that is consequential for people, a way that makes people think, ‘I never thought of it that way before.’”

According to Pickrell, “the dream is to form and develop leaders likely already on the path to come alongside and deepen awareness of how they function.” During the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, “I witnessed faith communities, some very progressive, struggle to know what to do and how to show up. … We know there is work to be done. We hope these learning partners will be equipped to be ready to lead and guide communities through this in meaningful ways.”

Mullen said the “visual image” for “Lead Change” is the late Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, “who talks about ‘doing the work your soul must have.’”

“While the curriculum will foreground and center” material “developed by and for African American and BIPOC people, it’s not exclusive to that,” Mullen said. “We hope it will be the kind of catalyst the denomination sees as exciting to partner with as the denomination continues to prepare leaders for ministry.”

Rick Ufford-Chase

JCSTS “is such a good fit,” according to Ufford-Chase, who was moderator of the 216th General Assembly (2004) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “because our president and Board of Trustees have been laying the groundwork for almost a decade, thoughtfully carving out space for theological reflection that doesn’t depend on the academy, but a new way of understanding what theological reflection is.” He said he began talking with Pickrell about 2½ years ago, “when I had just begun to get to know the folks at the seminary” while working on a pilot program on the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation. “I went to [JCSTS President] Paul [Roberts] and said, ‘This is the foundation you have been trying to create,’ and Paul immediately saw it.”

For Mullen, an apt comparison is the seminary as seedbed. “We see ourselves planting these very tender seeds — some of it on rough ground that needs to be tilled over. … We continue to plant seeds of awakening and responsiveness, and we’re looking for learning partners who know they haven’t found that thing yet that really ignites them.”

Pickrell said the guides helping to shepherd each of the five units “have such a variety of backgrounds, a lot of them with significant history in the church. There are a lot of creatives, artists and musicians, who are pastors and lay leaders. They have experience starting things and passing things on to other leaders.” They’re also blessed with “significant facilitation skills and experience in antiracism,” Pickrell said, and possess “quite a bit of racial, gender and sexual diversity.”

“It’s so much more than voices. These people are the embodiment of intersectionality, each individual,” Mullen said. “That kind of richness is difficult to find in one place, in traditional education or graduate education.”

“It’ll be like going to a really cool conference,” Pickrell said. “You have to see yourself in the work you’re wanting to create. We trust they will do that.”

Learn more here. Online learning begins this fall.

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