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Strengthening Theological Education for Underserved Students.

Lexington Theological Seminary’s Pathways for Tomorrow grant is reaching underserved students in a variety of ways. The project will enrich support of African American, Latinx, and Catholic students by creating meaningful education and financially sustainable opportunities for them to earn a graduate-level theological degree, including a master’s degree, through competency-based theological education.

This is part of the In Trust Center’s ongoing series about the Pathways project. Karen Stiller interviewed Charisse Gillet, the president of Lexington Theological Seminary, and Jonathan Barnes is project director and a faculty member at LTS.

Can you describe the project in a few sentences?

Charisse Gillet: The primary goal is academic, focusing on the expansion of programming for African American and Latinx studies, along with a reboot of our Catholic studies program. (We are intentionally working with the Diocese of Lexington to expand that program.) Prior learning assessments will apply to all the programs at LTS, and benefit students of diverse backgrounds.

The second goal pertains to the climate of LTS, emphasizing the quality of hospitality and the welcome we extend to our students, faculty, and staff. The recent diversification of our faculty, coupled with new programs in African American and Latinx studies, will contribute to a more diverse student body. While it’s one thing to offer a welcome, it’s another for someone to feel they can bring the totality of who they are, and thereby feel accepted. Working on that is never-ending. The Pathways grant has given us the ability to be focused and intentional.

Another goal revolves around fundraising, advancement, and sustainability, forming a cohesive continuum with other objectives. The grant was attractive to us because it enabled an opportunity to expand, accelerate, and explore programs and opportunities that were constrained by limited resources. We’re pursuing the next opportunity for not only our students, but for those who are underserved.

What have you learned so far?

Jonathan Barnes: The average age of our students is 51, which reflects the changing environment of theological education. Historically, seminary education accommodated an average college student with no experience. We realize we can build off the experience people bring with them.

To better understand our institutional climate, we will conduct a survey of LTS. This underscores the importance of being intentional about honestly assessing how we are doing in terms of diversity. LTS has a longstanding history of embracing diversity, with inclusion being a core value. The Pathways grant has given us the ability to be intentional and to honestly assess where we are to build forward.

CG: One of the things I continue to learn is that we can never over communicate our objectives and their underlying rationale. You are always making the case for what you’re doing.

Whenever we talk about changes in our academic programs, we ground that in data. For example, it takes students 5-6 years to graduate at the average cost of $69,000. Who has that amount? For example, when communicating reasons for prior learning assessment, I try to communicate how long programs take, and what is the cost to both the students and the institution.

We’re addressing very real practical issues. If we reduce the time to complete a degree, we reduce the cost. While these may not sound as spiritual and worthy as other goals, they are real and important to the student.

What has surprised you so far?

CG: I’m not surprised by the sense of anxiety created when we discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion; prior learning assessment; and support for rural congregations. The surprise continues to be that we push forward no matter what. Sometimes when you hit that difficult challenge, it could be okay to say, “That’s too much for us right now as an institution and community.” 

But in our community, we listen to each other and provide a valuable perspective that allows us to move through difficult times. We listen to our colleagues and accept the wisdom in the room, so we can move forward.

JB: This work is challenging, especially given the current political climate where diversity, equity, and inclusion are not something people want to discuss. However, at LTS, our foremost strategic imperatives are built around that.

The willingness to have hard conversations has surprised me. We held a book study with faculty and staff, delving into After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging,” by Willie James Jennings. It’s a hard read, harder for some than others. The willingness to engage and have deep and complex conversations, marked by mutual respect, gave me hope as we move forward. It shows the good work that was done at LTS long before the Pathways grant.

Can you share a success?

CG: For me, it’s been the success in advancing our academic programs forward so quickly. For six months, the committee worked on the principles and academic degrees, exploring how to reduce credits for two degrees and expand other degrees. These revised degrees are currently online, a task that was achieved within one academic year.

Whatever hesitations we might have had, the principle wins out. If we’re going to educate laity and clergy for God’s mission in the world, then we must do that in many ways. If there’s only one way to do that, which would be the M.Div., say, then we’re leaving out many individuals who don’t have the resources, time or desire to pursue an M.Div.

Those academic programs came online quickly and efficiently, and I credit this to the faculty.

JB: The tangible results of the new programs have been successful. We’re less than halfway through the Pathways grant program, and seeing tangible results already taking place is great. Because of this work, we’re already embodying what it means to live together. We’re living into what we’re trying to become and grow into.

I celebrate the tangible results and the process. It’s life giving and hopeful to see how the process unfolded, and the trust it takes to move things forward.

What are you hopeful about?

CG: I’m hopeful about our opportunity to succeed at this endeavor. Living in a climate of fear can challenge the best institutions and the best people. I see our community pressing against that climate with a dogged spirit and unwillingness to succumb to hate. It’s a dogged spirit that says we’re not just going to give up.

If this doesn’t work, we will try something else. We’re just not going to give in. We’re rooted in the spirit that if the work we are doing is God’s mission on earth, then there must be a way to keep going.

We get tired, but we don’t give up. We keep trying to find a way to be the institution that the world needs.

JB: I’m hopeful about building on the commitments that LTS has made in the past. As we look back at the end of the grant, we will say in very important ways, “We’re not the community we were.” We will continue to evolve and become the community we aspire to be.

There’s a real intentionality to continue to grow and learn to become who we want to be.

It’s hard to define success with diversity, equity, and inclusion. We may not reach perfection, but I believe we’ll look back and say we’re continuing to grow and learn, where people can embrace who they are and find a supportive community at LTS.

What are you learning that could help another school?

CG: My first tip is to find the resources to help you do your work well. It’s okay to ask for help, to share knowledge and information, and go to other organizations that have been doing this work before you, and then adapting the material to your specific needs.

My second tip is to work with ATS. The research arm of ATS is engaged in trying to understand what theological institutions are doing. When we began to have conversations, the first place we went to was ATS.

The work needs to be grounded in your identity and institutional values. If it’s not, you won’t get the buy in you need.

My third tip is don’t grow weary in doing good work.

JB: Emphasize the importance of collaboration. There are many smart people in different institutions engaged in this work. We enhance our work when we have honest, collaborative conversations. For instance, I have coffee with another program director, where we share what we’re learning from the two Pathways grants. Sometimes, we commiserate, but we always support one another. Sometimes, she will say, “Hey have you thought about this or that?” Collaborating has been very important.

When considering diversity, equity, and inclusion work, it’s important to continually ask whose voices are not being heard. “Who is not at the table?” “What perspectives are we missing?” Embodying this work means constantly asking questions about power.  

Read more about Lexington’s Pathways for Tomorrow grant here.    

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