Shifting perspectives

Illustrations by Irena Gajic

After a theological school embeds in a college or university, it’s still important for the school to remind its host about its distinctiveness and the importance of theological education. Rev. Dr. MaryKate Morse served at Portland Seminary before it was embedded in nearby George Fox University in 2017. This summer, she transitioned out as the executive dean, and in Episode 47 of the Good Governance podcast, she discusses with In Trust’s Matt Hufman her efforts to keep the importance of the seminary forefront in the minds of the university’s leadership. This is an edited version of the conversation that outlines some of her thoughts.


How would you say theological education is distinctive?

Our mission is different from other kinds of graduate programs. It is trying to prepare Christ-like people for God’s purposes in the world. It’s not trying to prepare someone for a profession or for the academy. Even though the academic guild is part of it, it’s not guild oriented. It’s about forming, preparing, and training people for the world to be the best representatives and ambassadors of Christ that they can possibly be. I don’t think you can do that very well just on your own. I really believe you need to be held accountable to be stretched and to be in community with other people. You need to have really great guides to think deeply about biblical and theological ideas and social ideas.


How do you tell that to someone, such as a university administrator, who hasn’t experienced that?

Well, it’s an ongoing conversation. I make the argument and then give it time, and it comes back up. One of the things that I found that works really well is to bring them into my environment somehow. Invite them to be a part of it. We have a hybrid model of theological education. So when we have our intensives, I try really hard to get one of the vice presidents or the president to come and share something that they know and sit side by side with students to see what I do or what others do in a seminary education environment.

And every time it just shifts something in them. They have a better imagination for its distinctiveness. Because these are people that also are really committed to God and the church, it sort of awakens them to the importance of the mission and the scope of it in the university. So I have better access. So one way is to try to bring them into what I’m doing as much as possible and treat them really well. Give them a great experience.

And the other thing I try to do is to really care about what they care about. So no matter what other part of the university they’re in, if they’re having a concern, I try to demonstrate to them that if that is your concern, it is my concern and I will do my part.


Shifting perspectives

What do you say about aspects like spiritual formation?

It’s not just showing up in a classroom and hearing a lesson on systematic theology. There’s this complete wraparound of academic and professional informational goals that are for the outcome of that student. And also to contextualize and to be able to live well in the complex social world in which we find ourselves. That’s another whole element that has to be brought in, and which I think is part of their formation.

That formation is not just about my individual sense of well-being, but my ability to relate well in a diverse community and have meaningful conversations together around what God’s calling us to. And it doesn’t just happen in a classroom with a lecture. You have to be very, very intentional about it and to figure out ways to deliver on this for your students.

I got really interested in this when I first started out, and we were a freestanding seminary. I had been there maybe three or four years. And we found out through a study that the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust did that seminarian pastors only lasted five years as a rule of thumb. And I then became very passionate about how we help pastors flourish for the long haul of their calling so they don’t spend all this money, do all this work, and then fizzle out.


Have you found people wondering why you’re a program that is vital to the church but may not bring in money?

This has been an ongoing leadership challenge. And what they say about the seminary is that it’s missional, which means I’m the stepchild. We are able to cover our direct and indirect costs well and return to the university a chunk of change. The cost for us educating a student is one of the lowest among ATS schools. One thing I was able to gain ground on is that financial affairs decided our contribution to the university was based on headcount rather than on credit hours.

Most of our students are very part-time. They’re adults in busy lives. And so they are not like an undergrad student who’s taking 16 to 17 credit hours. It took us two and a half years to make the argument that our contribution should be based on credit hours.


What advice would you give to others?

I had not only heard this but also experienced it, that the relationship between the seminary and the university is never in cement. It’s something that has to be nurtured all the time. You can’t just expect that the new academic department leaders or the cabinet are going to understand who you are.

Very few people have experience with seminaries. And so it’s an ongoing part of my job as the executive dean to make sure that the communication with the president and vice president and the relationships with them are strong and clear, and that we deliver what really matters to them.


The full conversation, along with a document she created to outline an embedded seminary’s importance, can be found here.

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