Pablo Jimenez, national pastor for Hispanic Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who led a biblical preaching symposium at the Hispanic Theological Union, was introduced by Durstan McDonald, ETSSW’s dean and president.

Photograph by David Gambrell

Remember the “surviving on the moon” exercise? Chances are you participated in it at some team-building workshop you attended in the last twenty-five years. Here’s the scenario: you’ve crashed on the moon, a number of items survived the crash with you, you must travel to meet another landing crew, and you can only carry so much. Now—rank the items around you in the order of their usefulness. Next, join with others in a small group to compare and refine the lists. The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that groups working together always do better at problem-solving than people working alone. The unintended result often is to remind people how hard it is to work together.

Neither point should come as any surprise to Christians, who believe that we were created to live in community, sharing our diverse gifts for the good of all, but who nevertheless regularly get hung up on sins of pride, greed, or simple isolationism. Notwithstanding the existence of several theological consortia that cooperate bravely and effectively, very often theological schools sit almost next door to one another (and in this technological age, that sitting isn’t necessarily a matter of buildings) without sharing even the most basic resources.

Considering that this reality probably has more to do with inertia than ill-will, the Teagle Foundation started a grants program in the late 1990s designed to induce schools (both theological schools and private colleges and universities) to think about new ways to collaborate. A report on what the foundation learned from the program will be delivered at the Association of Theological Schools biennial meeting in June.  

The application guidelines offered no examples of what sort of projects might be funded. A proposal, said the foundation, “should offer a reasonable prospect that the participants, working in concert, will be able to do something, or do it more efficiently, effectively or at lower cost than would be possible if each institution were to attempt or continue to do it on its own. Most likely, successful proposals will be those which seek to develop opportunities for collaboration that previously have not been actively pursued by the participating institutions.” Eventually, Teagle made grants totaling $10 million: grants totaling $3.2 million were made to a dozen groups of two to twelve theological schools.

A New Attempt
It wasn’t hard for the three theological schools in Austin, Texas, to identify a challenge they haven’t been able to meet individually, not for lack of trying. The schools’ leaders have long been aware that their city’s culture is heavily Hispanic and getting more so—at a rate more than double than that of the United States as a whole. Each school has attempted to address that reality. None has scored an unqualified success, although there seems to have been improvement over time. Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary instituted a Spanish language program in the 1920s. That program lasted for thirty years before it petered out, victim of assimilationist trends and a certain lack of cultural sensitivity epitomized by the program director’s never getting around to learning Spanish. Since then, the school has paralleled the pattern of Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, three blocks away. Both schools have hired several Hispanic professors over the years and added elective courses in Hispanic theology and ministry. More recently, Austin and ETSSW have committed to a cross-cultural focus in all their courses. The Very Reverend Durstan McDonald, ETSSW’s dean and president, has learned enough Spanish to be able to teach in that language. When the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest came to Austin in the 1970s, it was as an extension site of Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa; its catchphrase was “where location shapes vocation.” (The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago has since become a co-sponsor.) Although cross-cultural ministry remains a focus of the program, the overwhelming majority of its students have been Anglo.

The Reverend Robert M. Shelton, president of the Presbyterian school, has long puzzled over the challenge of connecting his school with Hispanic ministries. “I’m a problem-solver,” he said. “I derive joy and satisfaction from solving problems. It’s why I enjoy mathematics. But that’s only true when I understand a problem. This is so complex.” Conversation with the heads of the other Austin schools revealed that they were in a similar bind, and a Teagle grant of $470,000 gave them an opportunity to try to work together toward a shared solution. A planning group was put together with representation from the three schools, and last year Salatiel Palomino Lopez, who was serving an Austin congregation but who had previously been president of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Mexico, was hired to head what has become the Hispanic Theological Union. 

It remains to be seen what shape the union will take. Palomino notes that founding hopes that local Hispanic clergy would flock to see what the union had to offer were overly optimistic: lots of time spent with these pastors have at least made him very aware that their “wait-and-see” attitude toward the union is multi-layered. It includes, besides the self-evident cross-cultural challenges (“Struggle is in the very air,” said Palomino, “and some people simply think of the seminaries as racist.”), issues of:

  • Theology: Most of the target clergy are evangelicals (Palomino’s congregation, for example, is the only Spanish-speaking Presbyterian church in Austin). A perception that the participating seminaries are overly liberal was not helped by the union’s first name, the “Ecumenical Institute for Hispanic Theological Education in the Southwest.” “‘Ecumenical’ is not a word with good associations for these pastors,” said Palomino. 
  • Educational goals and economic realities: Hispanics are the least-educated minority group in the United States, said Palomino, citing census statistics. That means, among other things, that the resources for running churches are limited, and many pastors are part-time, supporting themselves with day jobs. This limits both time and money for continuing education. “Much of our teaching will have to be done at a bachelor’s degree level or less,” said Palomino. 

Future Not Clear Yet
What to do when it seems that the original plan, largely focused on a master of divinity program, is not what is wanted by the constituency? Regroup, reevaluate. The approach of the union’s board, which to this point has operated by consensus, is multi-pronged. 

  • First, build on the recent success of a continuing education event. The union hosted a one day preaching seminar, presented by a pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—a denomination with which participants are fairly comfortable—who is also a former faculty member at ETSSW, and thus a known quantity to the schools. Fifty participants from ten denominations came. 
  • Next, continue to cement the union to the schools while concurrently affirming its independent status. To that end, courses taught by faculty already in place will be offered by the union over the next three semesters. 
  • Third, plan for courses taught off-site, and in some cases some miles off-site. 
  • And fourth, don’t give up on the M.Div. goal just yet. 

Palomino sits remarkably serenely in the midst of this ambiguity. “It’s God’s opportunity for us to be faithful,” he said. In the meantime, according to Shelton, “All parts of the seminaries are getting to know each other better—business offices, development people, faculty.” There is hope that the union-sponsored courses will inspire more students to cross-register. The Episcopal and Presbyterian schools are both hiring new heads this year, and in both cases it is a given that the new people in the jobs will be committed to and involved with the union, just as was so when the Lutheran program hired their new director, Wayne Menking, a couple of years ago. There is some hope that the union will do what it is intended to do—but in the meantime, other good things are happening as the schools are nudged toward closer collaboration.

Micro Cultures
The challenges of bridging the gap between Anglo and Hispanic culture in Austin are self-evident. Much less obvious at first glance are the challenges to cooperation faced by Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Franciscan School of Theology, and Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. The three California schools are, after all, all Roman Catholic, all located within four blocks of one another in Berkeley, and all collaborators in the Graduate Theological Union, a longstanding cooperative venture that comprises nine schools of seven denominations and has cross-registration, shared library, bookstore, and graduate degrees. Until recently, however, the only interaction between the three schools was a byproduct of their membership in the GTU. Scott Connelley, a layman who is now dean of students at Dominican, was a student at the same school in the mid-1990s. “I didn’t feel any interaction with other schools,” he said. That’s true even though he took classes both at Franciscan, two blocks up the street, and at Jesuit, around the corner and another block up the hill from Franciscan. “It never occurred to me to go to liturgies or cultural events anywhere but here.” He said that his status as a lay student and a commuter might have contributed to his interest in exploration—but lay students are in the majority at these three schools. It seems that visiting the other schools didn’t occur to anyone else, either—even the presidents of the three schools interacted only at GTU meetings.

Why the isolation? Force of habit, mostly. The schools had separate lives long before the GTU, and although there isn’t an exact parallel between Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic orders, the way the groups go about being church have differences rooted in long histories. The Franciscan and Dominican orders were both founded around the turn of the thirteenth century, the Franciscans with a vision of holy simplicity and the Dominicans with a mandate to preach against the heretics. The Jesuits, founded in the sixteenth century as a crack missionary corps are relative newcomers, but the distinctives are deeply rooted. The schools do compete for students to some extent—but once registered, students become fiercely loyal to their own institutions. And although the schools stand shoulder to shoulder and prepare students who will work side by side in similar ministries, each treasures its own culture—and members of each community casually say things about the other communities that can make an outsider flinch

Baby Steps
Where, then, to begin cooperating? With a $125,000 Teagle grant to work on shared student services—all the schools had students, and they all shared some challenges. Here was a safe starting point which could generate enthusiasm from all three schools and which could provide the sort of successful result which encourages further collaboration. The schools jointly hired a housing coordinator, no small gift to students in the Bay Area, where rents are astronomical and housing shortages are chronic, and someone to help with job searches, both by maintaining a list of available positions in and beyond the local diocese and by running workshops on various aspects of career planning. By now, both the deans and the presidents were meeting together on a weekly basis. The schools were holding some shared liturgies—and receptions afterwards, not to mention TGIF parties. It seemed to be time for some larger dreaming, and with a second Teagle grant, this one for $640,000 aimed at strengthening students’ professional preparation people started putting out ideas—which, in the words of Jesuit’s president, the Reverend Joseph Daoust, “were met with varying degrees of enthusiasm.” A joint doctor of ministry degree was proposed and studied, but ultimately nixed. The development director of one of the schools longs for a shared database, asserting that the schools have very different donors. “That, I think, is a dream,” said the president of another school. One president asked, “Why do we need three of everything—three Old Testament professors, three New Testament professors...?” Another president earnestly explained why each school needs its own core faculty.

A next step was agreed on, and it had to do with faculty development. Each school would hire an additional faculty member in an area of its choosing “within the functional disciplines, which are pretty much the same wherever they’re taught,” said Dominican’s president, the Reverend Gregory Rocca.” Representatives from the other schools would help in the selection process. So, the schools have three new and excellent teachers—but it is telling that the Dominicans hired a Dominican to teach preaching, the Jesuits hired a Jesuit to teach liturgy, and the Franciscans hired a lay woman to teach spirituality. The Reverend William Cieslak, president of Franciscan, said, “The project has been more successful than I’d hoped, and less successful than I wanted. Maybe my hopes are unrealistic—but we have to start somewhere.”

And perhaps that is the moral of the story. It is both possible and desirable to collaborate for reasons other than financial fear or struggle for survival, but it is an activity that must be learned. Picking projects with a reasonable chance of success helps set the stage for larger, less certain attempts (as the Berkeley schools learned by starting with student services and moving to faculty development). Getting every part of the school involved raises the stakes (as the Austin schools are learning by making the Hispanic Theological Union a part of all three schools). Respecting differences and maintaining agreed-upon boundaries creates a sense of safety. Sometimes baby steps are the only possible ones. But there is a wide world of possibilities for sharing resources, and wise schools will find them. The Reverend James Coriden, professor of pastoral theology at Washington Theological Union and part of the team that evaluated the Teagle program, put it this way: “Collaboration takes lots of hard work, time, energy and struggle–and it’s best to have limited expectations.” 

14 Obstacles to Cooperation

  • Perception of unequal quality among the participating institutions 
  • Perception of unequal benefits to the participants  
  • Insufficient funding and/or staffing available for projects 
  • Unstated or unrealistic expectations for a program 
  • Lack of data-sharing important to the collaborative venture 
  • Problems of coordination created by the complex and varied division of labor for some activities  
  • Concerns about job security and loss of local control  
  • Differing levels of institutional commitment  
  • Inability to maintain the necessary momentum for a program  
  • Differing educational philosophies  
  • Issues of orthodoxy and academic freedom  
  • Differing quality and amount of equipment in the institutions  
  • Lack of coordination among academic calendars  
  • Liability issues 

From “Collaborative Ventures: With Special Focus on Theological Schools,” a monograph on the Collaborative Ventures Program, by James A. Coriden and Mary-Linda Merriam Armacost, to be published by the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education (CAPHE), a unit of the Council of Independent Colleges, to be presented at the biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools in June.

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