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Expanding reach in anti-racism, financial literacy online education.

The Financial and Pastoral Excellence Empowerment Initiative of Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, North Carolina, includes the following four focus areas: (1) expansion of academic programs; (2) anti-racism and contested issues courses for HTS students; (3) personal financial planning/organizational finance courses for HTS students; and (4) a student debt reduction alumni ambassadors cohort. The initiative is a wonderful strategic opportunity for gifted and highly motivated HTS alumni, students, and other seminary constituents to creatively engage the next generation of pastoral leaders and congregations as they confront social and community change.

Karen Stiller talked with Dr. Karen Owens, the project director of Hood’s Pathways project.

Can you briefly describe the project?

Our project is divided into four focus areas, the first being the expansion of our degree and certificate programs, which is self-explanatory. This fall, we launched a Master of Arts in Christian Education and a Certificate in Christian Education for laity who prefer general knowledge but don’t want to commit to a full degree program.

Our second focus integrates anti-racism courses into our curriculum, which extends to the broader church community. We invited students from neighboring institutions with an outreach spanning the entire country encompassing more than 300 participants.

Our third focus incorporates financial literacy components into our curriculum, which includes a student debt reduction ambassador cohort. We invited alumni to participate in areas of personal financial training by attending workshops to become ambassadors for our current students. As ambassadors, these alumni will share their knowledge and assist in creating a handbook that addresses student debt, a major issue at our institution. With this program, we are training the trainers.

What have you learned so far?

In my role as director of the program, I’ve learned that theological education must evolve in our changing world. We need to be aware of what’s going on in the world and apply our knowledge so that we meet the needs of the Church in a post-COVID world.

Things have changed substantially. I’ve realized that we must remain relevant to serve the present-day issues. This requires deep introspection, connection, and collaboration.

What has surprised you so far?

I didn’t expect the results we’re getting. Our first series focused on critical race theory, and our second series will be facilitated by Dr. Obery Hendricks in which he will lead discussions about his book, The Politics of Jesus. We’ve had an overwhelming response, which surprises me.

With our finance piece, we targeted students, who are lay leaders, and clergy from small rural churches working with limited salaries and doing multiple jobs that do not support their debt. When we launched the student debt reduction alumni cohort, we had another overwhelming response from alumni, who sought more knowledge about financial literacy. When brainstorming with our Director of Alumni Engagement, I doubted people would be interested in financial literacy. However, he was very enthused about it. We proceeded to plan it and sent out an initial survey. Once again, the response was overwhelming.

Additionally, I’ve seen some pastors, who are members of cohorts, already sharing their newfound knowledge with their parishioners, which surprised me.

We asked the initial cohort, whose services were underwritten by the Pathways grant, for a one-year commitment to take the various courses offered. Surprisingly, all 17 of them enrolled for a second year of classes even though their commitment had ended. To acknowledge their dedication, we gave them a stipend. The information from the program has proven to be valuable to them and their context with many expressing a sentiment of “Wow, I really need this.”

What have been some successes so far?

The support of our president, Dr. Vergel Lattimore, has been positive and reassuring. Whenever we seek his perspective, he shares without dictating, offering his valued opinion. We’re so thankful for his involvement. Our faculty and staff have also been very supportive, generating excitement and energy around what we’re doing.

We hope our endeavors will attract more students. As a small institution, we’re proud of our accomplishments, for which I am thankful. We’ve had several things to celebrate along the way, such as the great attendance in our first series on anti-racism, and a contested issues series.

As participants of our financial cohort prepare to become ambassadors and commit to a second year, we’ve intentionally slowed down the pace. As we transition into the second year and start creating a manual, the ambassador piece will take center stage. Some of our students have reached out, eager to connect with the ambassadors.

What are you hopeful for?

I’m hopeful that people will truly recognize the value of these four focus areas and apply what they’ve learned, rather than storing the information on a shelf. My hope is that they will impact the lives of others in their communities and churches through new insights on finance and the issues of the day in reference to racism, thereby bringing the gospel message to life, to do the things that Jesus would do.

Following our last session on critical race theory, we conducted a survey. The feedback indicated that folks are taking this seriously and sharing what they’ve learned to impact the Kingdom of God.

What have you learned that could help another school?

Our school was founded in response to the exclusion of black people attending other theological institutions. While we have diversity on our campus, we are primarily African American. However, we welcome students from all racial backgrounds and encourage other schools, who might not foster diversity, to discuss sensitive issues and the ways they apply to the gospel message as we consider who Jesus was, a marginalized young man. I hope that debt can be transparent, so it can be mitigated in new ways with relevant information to help them.

Practical theology degrees are on the rise, allowing us to expand those degrees in areas such as social entrepreneurship and para-church ministries. These additions can address what is going on to truly serve the present age. I encourage other schools to consider a similar direction.

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