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PC(USA) seminaries advance curriculum to match the needs of the church and society

Practical theology and ministry experiences prepare pastors for leadership

by Gregg Brekke for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The pandemic has given seminaries affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) the opportunity to strengthen and update their curricula. (Contributed photo)

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of four stories that include interviews with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminaries, taking a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic challenged and changed seminary learning environments. Read the first two stories here and here.

 “We started our curriculum discussions asking what kind of person do we want to graduate,” said the Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley, Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.

That sort of design thinking has led to curriculum innovations across Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) theological institutions including Columbia Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Union Presbyterian Seminary.

The process of looking at curriculum changes couldn’t have come at a better time for the seminaries. They were already aware of changing demographics in church attendance and participation, a move toward utilization of technology in faith contexts, and a growing desire by congregations to make substantive progress in addressing the needs in their communities. All of which led to asking the question — what skills and attributes will pastors need to faithfully lead these types of congregations into the future?

And then the pandemic hit.

“What’s so interesting about the year of pandemic at Columbia Seminary is that it certainly upended some things, but it’s also very interesting that it accelerated a direction we were already going,” said Dr. Leanne Van Dyk, President of Columbia Theological Seminary.


Dr. Leanne Van Dyk

She said the school had realized after a year of remote learning that, along with associated technical and in-person relational challenges, “there are real strengths to online learning.”

“We’ve seen as a community that this is a way of forming and shaping pastoral leaders that is really needed right now,” said Van Dyk. “[And the need will continue] as we go forward.”

New curriculum at Princeton

Princeton Theological Seminary will begin a new curriculum in the fall of 2021. Under development for several years, the curriculum would have launched whether or not the pandemic had happened. But Lapsley believes learnings from pandemic adaptations will greatly benefit its launch.

“We’ve had about 70 percent of our students in residence this year, even though we have been online,” Lapsley said. “I think our team has done a wonderful job in trying to foster community even as we have had to be distant physically. The other thing we’ve learned is what the benefits of technology are. We will not be leaving those behind. We are going to integrate the benefits of technology into our teaching going forward.”

The three focus areas of the new curriculum include seeking holistic formation of students for ministry in terms of body, mind, and spirit; finding creative ways to engage the residential component of education at Princeton considering most of the students and half of the faculty live on campus; and taking seriously the school’s past and the “failure of theological imagination” in exploring its historic participation in slavery, especially its founding in the 19th century.

the Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley

And that work is not done. As Lapsley acknowledges, those lessons will be applicable to historic as well as the contemporary context of racial reckoning.

“I think some of the turbulence that we are experiencing is so painful,” she said. “But I think God is at work in it and that newness of life is biblical, right? The newness of life comes out of painful times. And so I’m hopeful about that.”

In particular, Lapsley is excited about the new Life Together course, in which first-year students will meet in a dynamic course led by a faculty and staff member, which includes weekly worship, lunch, and service initiatives as a group throughout the semester as well.

Union brings two campuses together

Already utilizing a hybrid online/in-person model of education for its Master of Arts in Christian Education Program, Union Presbyterian Seminary leveraged existing tools to provide continuity for virtual learning at the beginning of the pandemic. It also laid the groundwork for bringing closer collaboration between its two campuses, shifting how the school thinks as a community about the process of theological education.

“We took the opportunity [of the pandemic] to use this technical ability to bring the two campuses together,” said Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, President and Professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary.  “Now we have students in Richmond in class with students from the Charlotte campus, faculty from the Richmond campus teaching with students from the Charlotte campus, and teaching with faculty from the Charlotte campus. So that’s been an exciting thing that’s happened.”

Watch a short video of an interview with Blount here.

In a three-year pilot program that happened prior to the pandemic, Union’s faculty had been asked to teach at least one hybrid or online oriented class. Though there was some original skepticism, faculty found the ability to work with students more directly an energizing one that offered creative teaching and learning opportunities. And Blount sees the creative new approaches helping to facilitate greater student participation in many cases.

“We’re beginning to realize that students now can bring a sense of dynamism and control to the classroom and we want to be able to respond to that,” he said. “So it’s not just us coming and being in front of a screen and talking. We want to be able to figure out how we can be more engaging, how we can be more creative so that the classroom time becomes a virtual conversation, but it’s a virtual conversation where they have been equipped.”

Examples of that dynamism include the creation of a global mission center at the seminary so the school can create an international, and interfaith, context where students can think about foundational issues of faith and life experience. The Center for Womanist Leadership named for Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon and a center for social justice and reconciliation provide more opportunities for students to explore their calling and put their faith into practice.

Dr. Brian Blount

“I hope one of the things that our students will take with them from this experience of being students in the midst of a pandemic and a time of social justice crisis is that as we have tried to hear their concerns and craft curriculum around their voices,” Blount said. “I hope that they will be driven to hear more questions from people around them and be more driven to craft worship and education and other kinds of social endeavors or ministry endeavors around those kinds of questions so that they, too, become other oriented.”

The needs of others — the congregation, the community, society at large — are the core to the philosophy of curriculum and program development at Union. “We start with others and then we draw the questions,” Blount said. “A focus and a concern for others transforms the message we teach, learn and share.”

Columbia looks to the future and at the past

Columbia Seminary benefitted from the strengths of online learning in three primary areas, according to Van Dyk: student response, continuing education and faculty adaptation.

Watch a brief video from her interview here.

While many students longed to come back to campus for in-person instruction, the move to virtual learning was smooth and coursework continued as normal, even with an increased enrollment in the fall of 2020. Continuing education allowed pastors, many feeling the need to serve in new ways due to the pandemic, to update their skills and outlook toward distributed worship and fellowship. And Columbia’s faculty worked to adapt their curriculum to online learning.

Also during this time, Columbia Seminary’s board of trustees launched an inquiry into the school’s participation “in the oppression and the subjugation of African Americans.”

“This school was founded in the early 1800s by people, some of whom who were enslavers and who attempted to legitimate the system of enslavement,” Van Dyk said. “Columbia Seminary is now at a point where we want to repair the breach that was created with that system of oppression. We want to confess the sin. We want to advocate for justice and we want to make the community whole. That is our commitment and our goal. It’s not easy. It’s not quick, but we are on this for the long haul.”

Gregg Brekke is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, photographer and videographer. He is the former editor of the Presbyterian News Service. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula at

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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