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Presbyterian seminaries look to partnerships to fulfill mission

Going it alone is no longer possible, or desired, as boundaries of theological education expand

Editor’s note: This is the second 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.

by Gregg Brekke | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Stained glass window at Louisville Seminary’s Caldwell Chapel.

Once upon a time, theological institutions were seen as stewards of self-sufficiency. Aside from a visiting professor now and then, tenured faculty formed the core of the identity and mission of most seminaries. Students sought out specific professors as mentors and advisers. Aside from denominational affiliation, a school’s internal prowess in missiology, homiletics, liturgy, music, pastoral counseling or evangelism was often the main draw for new students.

But times have changed, both in the church and in seminaries. As the church, society and contexts for ministry have expanded over the past several decades, theological institutions have adapted to new realities in preparing students for ministry. For many Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminaries, that means partnering with other institutions and organizations to complement their existing curriculum.

David Crawford, president of McCormick Theological Seminary, believes partnerships are a vital component in the education offerings of the school. It was a lesson he learned during his previous career as a technology leader and executive.

“I think a really hopeful thing about the world these days, even in these difficult and challenging times, is that organizations are starting to think a little differently about how to get their mission front and center again, and how to leverage resources that others have brought to the table and learn from others in that process,” he said. “[We can’t] always assume we know how to do this or that we’re the only ones who know how to do this, and we we’re going to do it our way. There’s just a greater sense of openness and willingness to collaborate.”

New relationships beyond McCormick’s walls

Crawford highlighted a new partnership with the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and its General Secretary Dr. Iva E. Carruthers in pursuing efforts at racial justice and reparations for slavery. The effort was launched June 19, 2020, as the pandemic reached an early summer peak in the United States.

“Dr. Carruthers and I have been in conversation for several years about the work that we all do in the community of Chicago, particularly in the local and regional work that we have done for many years at McCormick,” Crawford said. “Working with Dr. Carruthers, I learned a lot about what we might be able to do together to advance the cause of addressing issues of systemic racism, white supremacy and the legacy of slavery.”

Watch a video from his interview here.

Other partnerships at McCormick include the fall 2021 launch of a five-year Bachelor of Arts/Master of Divinity program in collaboration with Trinity Christian College in Chicago’s suburbs. And at the Cook County Jail, the seminary is in the third year of offering a theological certificate program to detainees. The program started with a cohort of 12 students in the men’s maximum-security division. This spring, the program welcomed 20 new students from the women’s division. The program is part of McCormick’s Solidarity Building Initiative, which is partnering with other organizations and schools seeking to reform or abolish the current prison system and assist formerly incarcerated individuals with education, housing and other reentry support.

“We hope it’s a model for others around the country,” Crawford said of the Solidarity Building Initiative.

McCormick also became the first member of the Association of Theological Schools to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the Association of Hispanic Theological Education (AETH) to create pathways for students at AETH-certified Bible institutes across the country to pursue advanced graduate-level degrees and continuing theological education at McCormick.

“The Church isn’t a building and the seminary is not just a campus,” he said. “What happens in the communities we serve is really the work that we need to be involved in — what happens outside the walls.”

Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard III

Reaching out beyond the Louisville campus

Another seminary expanding its partnership opportunities through the pandemic is Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (LPTS). In addition to existing degree program partners at the University of Louisville, including the Kent School of Social Work, the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law and the College of Business, LPTS is currently pursuing partnerships with a number of colleges and universities.

A letter of agreement was signed in the fall of 2020 with Hanover College in southern Indiana that provides a field context for LPTS Marriage and Family Therapy degree students to serve as student body counselors in addition to offering opportunities for Hanover psychology students to apply for the MFT program at the seminary.

“We’re finding that this is a win-win situation,” said the Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard III, president of LPTS. “We want to establish a relationship that’s built on fidelity between both our institutions and the possibility of doing something that’s happening in only a handful of ATS (Association of Theological Schools) institutions.”

Watch a video from his interview here.

LPTS is also exploring the possibility of combined degree programs that would accelerate an undergraduate program and allow early entry for students into Master of Divinity or other theological degree programs.

“Right now, student indebtedness is perilous,” Pollard said. “So if we’re able to possibly look at curtailing a semester or a year’s worth of that educational experience to help students – and of course Louisville Seminary already provides a full tuition scholarship experience for every master’s degree student – but to be able to further help them is something that I find very promising.”

Additionally, the seminary is in conversation with two historically Black colleges — Simmons in Louisville and Stillman in Tuscaloosa, Alabama — and two Kentucky-based institutions – Centre College in Danville and the University of Pikeville — to see where partnership and collaboration can benefit each school. Stillman, Centre and Pikeville are all PC(USA)-affiliated educational institutions.

A traditionally residential program, LPTS — like so many other institutions that favored or exclusively offered in-person instruction — had to adapt quickly to remote learning requirements during the pandemic. Pollard believes the seminary will return to its residential and in-person instruction base in time, but that the virtual classroom will play a key role in developing and expanding partnerships.

“What have we learned in this past year here at LPTS?” he asked. “We have learned a lot of things. We have learned, of course, that online education is valuable. We have learned that online education is not the end all and be all. We have learned that life is short, life is not a given and therefore we need to embrace it all.”

And for Pollard, this means LPTS will strive to be an institution that sees beyond itself and looks toward an expansive view of preparing students for ministry.

“I expect that from what we have learned over the course of the last year, that our theological experience will never be the same,” Pollard said. “I would like to see us get to a place where we move beyond the norm — where we revere and love and accept and embrace each other, and all of God’s Creation, without respect of person or of life.”

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 robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.


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