Communities of belonging

Illustration by Damien Vreznik

Derek McNeil, Ph.D., president and provost of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology since 2010, is leading an initiative to revitalize the Church and the collaborative role that theological schools can play in fostering wholeness of body, mind, and spirit – in individuals, ministers, and the broader Seattle community.

With the support of a Phase II grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc.’s Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative, the school is expanding its missional commitment to both theology and psychology to cultivate what he calls “communities of belonging,” extending beyond the seminary and the Church.

McNeil shared emerging insights – and some unexpected outcomes – of “Re-Imagining Sustainable Theological Education for Pastoral Leaders through Innovation and Partnerships” in a recent conversation for the Good Governance podcast with the In Trust Center’s Matt Hufman. This is an excerpted version of their conversation.

According to McNeil, the grant’s scope and intent follow a natural progression for the Seattle School. “Let’s go back to the name of our school and its mission,” he says. “It contains both theology and psychology.

“We believe that a huge part of the human need is that we have a sense of wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. Our project attempts to figure out how to link things and to be a platform of connection.”

The project initially examined God’s purpose for the Church. “One of the things that I think we forget when you’re in the habit of going to church is that really we’re talking about meaning and purpose,” McNeil says.


It has moved beyond a first-order change ... and moved into a deeper change of how we do business, how we work together, and how we think of ourselves in terms of our calling.


“We’re talking about gathering and belonging and – so central to the gospel, central to Christ’s messages – the gathering of people. Christ was a gatherer, if you will. And so we probably think a bit more around the gathering of people.

“We can get ourselves siloed into protection and not engagement,” McNeil says. “And I think everything about Christ is about engagement. It’s extending ourselves, it’s reaching for Christ. I love in the text of Luke Chapter 4 when Christ is speaking in the temple in Nazareth and invokes Isaiah, saying ‘the spirit of Lord is upon Me’ and gives a list of all those outsiders that Christ has now brought inside.”

McNeil notes parallels – and difficult challenges – in our culture today with “really quite young people ... loneliness, isolation. We’re in a post-Covid sort of space, so how do we actually develop partners? How do we make the institution more accessible? How do we think of ourselves as healers and rebuilders?”

According to McNeil, these questions laid the foundation and framework for the project. “We now think a bit more around the gathering of people,” he says, “and then the purpose and meaning that Christ brings to that, or what we bring to each other as a body of believers.”

Communities of belonging

Illustration by Damien Vreznik

The school’s location in Seattle offers an unusual strategic advantage for confronting the challenges around gathering for the seminary and Church alike, including a significant portion of de-churched, unchurched, and non-churched people, McNeil says.

“Sometimes the Pacific Northwest is perceived to be kind of a non-church or certainly a post-church environment. That’s probably why there’s an emphasis beyond just church. But one of the things that I think we forget when you’re in the habit of going to church is that really we’re talking about: meaning and purpose? We think of church, but we need to think beyond that to what are emerging as communities of belonging.”

McNeil believes the lack of connection is especially evident in the area’s more vulnerable and fragmented younger population. He cites research that identifies people ages 13 to 25 as “the loneliest generation, who know about the Church but don’t regard it as the place of comfort and acceptance.”

Consequently, the project has been focused on enhancing the School’s partnerships in the broader community. The school is examining various approaches – rooted in trust and inclusivity – to prepare students to address societal brokenness and rebuild spiritual institutions.

“The day of the isolated leader is a failed enterprise,” he says. “You must have people who know you and who can both challenge you and be honest with you and share with you their concerns as well as their blessings ... people who come from both inside and outside the institution, who can serve as partners and representatives of the diverse sectors they serve,” including, he adds, board members aligned with the mission and goals with mutual respect and support.


We must think beyond church to see emerging communities of belonging.


“There is no competition in the kingdom of God, only partnerships.”

The initiative’s early – and unexpected – outcomes have led to re-examining the institution as a place to learn and grow.

“There’s a lot of learning, and it has been a rich opportunity to ask ourselves, ‘What’s our purpose?’ We realized we had a little bit of a mismatch among the credentials we want to offer, the content a faculty wants to teach, and the audience we’re trying to pursue.

“It has moved beyond a first-order change, a cosmetic change, and moved into a deeper change of how we do business, how we work together, and how we think of ourselves in terms of our why and our calling.”


Listen to the full podcast here


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