David Mellott, Boyung Lee, Christian Scharen, Fernando Cascante, Stephen Graham, Deborah Mullen, Rachel Mikva, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Ken Walden participated in the first consultation on current and future directions in theological education.


Credit: Jess Peacock 

It was a 20-minute bus ride into a different world this June for many of the participants in a new project focusing on cur-rent and future directions in theological education, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation through a grant to Lancaster Theological Seminary.


The small group traveled to the South Side of Chicago, where they toured Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC), the 8,500-member congregation best known for its former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and former member, President Barack Obama. The visit to Trinity fulfilled one of the project’s goals: gaining new insights into the dynamics of race and the importance of dismantling inequities in theological education. And it brought to life a talk that the group had just heard by Julia Speller, a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, on Trinity UCC’s place in American life.


The Chicago group was a gathering of consultants who were attending the first of six semiannual meetings, to be held in various parts of the country, during which they’ll share case studies from their various research projects. They’ll also hear from local experts about innovations and best practices in theological education in the context of North America’s rapidly changing culture.


The idea for the meetings originated with Jonathan VanAntwerpen, program director for theology at the Henry Luce Foundation. He hoped the scholars could focus on best practices, challenges, and innovations in theological education, with a goal of learning from one another and thereby making their own work even more perceptive. 


The meetings also allow representatives from the foundation to listen in, providing a unique opportunity to watch new ideas develop.

Shawna Bowman, an adjunct faculty member at McCormick Theological Seminary, painted the themes that emerged during the group's consultation in Chicago. The result is a work of art that serves as a permanent reminder of the meeting. 

David Mellott, vice president of academic affairs and dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary, and Deborah Mullen, vice president for equity, diversity, and inclusion at Columbia Theological Seminary, are co-facilitators of the project.


Mellott, who is also the project’s grant director, says the Chicago meeting exceeded his expectations. “There was a lot of note taking,” he says. “Every session felt active and potent.”


Mullen says that the project’s 10 core consultants all study theological education from different vantages — siloed, as it were, into their own viewpoints — but their gatherings will allow for cross-fertilization. “I’m excited because our project says it’s important to know what each is doing individually, but it’s more important to know what’s coming out of this collectively,” she says.


Mellott believes the project has potential to identify and link opportunities for successful innovations in the midst of the challenges confronting seminaries today. 


Participants will be examining multicultural and multifaith programs both within and outside of accredited theological schools. They’ll consider all-online courses, the use of art in theological education, and other evolving methods of teaching. 


Fernando Cascante, executive director of the Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana, will host the next meeting, which will take place in Orlando in January. Mullen expects to get an overview of theological education within the Hispanic community — especially programs that are not located at accredited, graduate-level institutions. “That’s a whole different pipeline for bringing in cultural diversity,” she says. 


The goal of the project on current and future directions isn’t to publish articles or a book but rather to influence the participants’ institutions and to help the Henry Luce Foundation better understand current challenges. “The Luce Foundation wants to support the next generation of leaders, the scholarship of theological education, and those in it now,” says Mellott. “This is powerful for them to be right in the heart of the conversation.” 


For Mullen, the power of the meetings comes from their potential for breaking open Eurocentric paradigms and opening up conversations about theological education grounded in community. She says that she hopes the gatherings will lead participants to rethink their own scholarship. “That’s the point of being in these places,” she says. “It’s not just sitting in a meeting space and carrying on business as usual.”   


A blueprint for breaking the humdrum meetings mode


The Henry Luce Foundation consultations follow a case method developed by Harvard Business School. Each core participant is invited to write a two- to four-page case study of an idea, opportunity, or challenge that the group can discuss, creating interactive learning. 


To guide the process of shared learning, Mellott and Mullen are also using Gather: The Art and Science of Effective Convening, published by the Monitor Institute with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. It is available as a free download at bit.ly/Gather-Monitor-Institute.


“These are live, working sessions,” says Mellott. “It’s not just people giving papers.”


Two research projects will support and augment the consultations. At the June 2018 consultation, Christian Scharen, vice president of applied research at Auburn Seminary, will present an overview of innovations in both accredited and nonaccredited schools. At the January 2019 meeting, David Mellott will present a review of how theological programs are engaging intersection of diversity and oppression in theological education. 


Future meetings will take place in Orlando, Boston, Berkeley, New York, and Atlanta.     

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