40-Year Survey Response: Katherine Hampson

In this post we continue our series of responses to Lenore Knight Johnson’s study, “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the ECC.


I am a first-generation Filipina-American, currently pursuing my MDiv at an interdenominational seminary and working towards ordination to word and sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church. My path to seminary and ordination has been a “bottom-up” journey from within the local context, facilitated by key connections and relationships. I was initially given lay leadership opportunities within the church. As my gifts and calling were developed and affirmed by senior pastors (at the time both men, one white, one Asian), I eventually pursued seminary training and now ordination. All along the way, my local church pastors have been unwavering advocates, modeling that advocacy in our multiethnic church, as well as making space for me to preach and further develop my gifts.

Katherine Hampson

There are strong echoes of my experience in the 2016 Covenant clergywomen survey with regards to many women’s “non-traditional route” into ministry; the necessity of advocacy, structural, and spiritual support; and the importance of local church male pastors making space for their female counterparts. I would be curious to see how these factors operate specifically within the intersectionality of race and gender for clergywomen of color, and for multiethnic and ethnic-specific/immigrant congregations.

The Covenant’s affirmation of both racial righteousness and women’s ordination and leadership are crucial cornerstones for women of color serving in ministry. Yet cornerstones alone do not a strong structure make. Family and cultural issues can add extra layers to the stained-glass ceiling for clergywomen of color. When I told my parents that I was preaching for the first time, they indirectly (and indelicately) voiced their disapproval by asking, “Oh? Was the pastor away? Could they not find any man around to preach?” In Asian-American contexts, cultural patriarchy may be a significant factor in a congregation’s decision to not hire a female pastor, even if she is affirmed and ordained by the denomination. Her résumé may be put aside on the grounds that she will not be a “good fit” for the church –  yet assumptions regarding the form and definition of “fit” remain unchanged and unchallenged.

It would be fruitful for future surveys to examine whether the cultures of immigrant and multiethnic congregations tend to break down or build up gendered notions of ministry. Another avenue for ongoing exploration is whether clergywomen’s experiences differ in Covenant church plants and in pre-existing churches that choose to affiliate with the Covenant. Would ECC church plants be more willing to hire female pastors than, say, a newly-affiliated church that comes from a more conservative background? It is interesting to note that more majority-Asian-American churches join the Covenant through denominational affiliation than through church planting. How does this affect their view on women in ministry and pastoral leadership?

In local Asian-American church contexts, the presence of advocates has the potential to bear more weight than any top-down denominational stance. Having an older male authority figure express affirmation for women’s pastoral leadership, model support, and actively advocate for structural and cultural change can have significant influence on local church culture and structure. This was true in my experience.

The 2016 survey stresses the need for clergymen to advocate for their sisters to live out their call to vocational ministry and create spaces for them to serve. I would urge my brothers who pastor in primarily Asian-American contexts, whether in multiethnic or ethnic-specific immigrant churches, to further examine the significance and weight of their voices. I would encourage them to be all the more intentional about dismantling structural and cultural barriers for women in their local contexts, while also affirming through word and deed the call and gifts that the Lord has placed upon their sisters in ministry.


Katherine Hampson serves as pastoral intern at Highrock Covenant Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, while she pursues her master of divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

An Open Letter to Covenant Women (1989)

Over the next few weeks we’ll feature a series of responses to Lenore Knight Johnson’s study, “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the ECC.” We begin the series with a letter issued June 12, 1989, from the Board of the Ministry, responding to the ten-year study conducted by Mary Miller. The letter was written by Jean Lambert on behalf of the Board, and is reprinted in Kelly Johnston’s article, “Jean C. Lambert: Covenant Pastor, Theologian, Pioneer,” pp. 16-19.


An open letter to each woman seeking to obey Christ’s call to ministry in the Covenant Church, both volunteer lay workers in local congregations, and pastors, missionaries, and staff ministers.

We have been thinking together about the situation of women and men in ministry in the Covenant Church, and we want first to affirm some convictions, and then offer some interpretation we think important.

Convictions

  1. We are committed to an inclusive ministry in pilgrimage toward a whole church.
  2. We care about you. We value your commitment to Christ, respect your willingness to study and prepare for ministry, desire to be your colleagues.
  3. We hear your pain and respect your anger, as we heard it expressed by some of you in Mary Miller’s report of your responses to her questionnaire, published in the Covenant Quarterly.
  4. We are distressed by the continuing atmosphere of coolness or hostility encountered by all too many women who hold positions of leadership throughout the Covenant church.
  5. We do not claim complete understanding of the sexism that is one of the dominant evils in our society, yet we are committed to learning what it is, how it affects women and men, how it distorts our common life in Christ; we are committed to repenting of sexism so the Spirit of God can transform us. And,
  6. As part of our ongoing work in a church always being reformed by God’s Spirit, a church growing more whole as we believe Christ intends, we urge you to join us in considering some “facts of life” we believe affect our common life in church work: the search for a call, the consideration of volunteer possibilities, the selection or interview process, entering into work, how one is received, how one perceives oneself in ministry, how we respond to situations of frustration, conflict, and fulfillment. We think putting these facts into open conversation will help us all be stronger, saner, and more faithful.

Facts

Fact 1: American society is sexist, specifically masculinist. (It is also racist, ageist, classist…but we aren’t addressing all of that here!) Though we do not understand it fully, it is clear that sexism is both a psycho/cultural bias and complex of social institutions. It operates largely unconsciously, though its “symptoms” may be observed by the seeing eye. This complex reality – sexism – is based on an ancient intuition that the biological differences between men and women are a natural and revealed “message” about superiority/inferiority, value and worthlessness, competence/incompetence, appropriateness/inappropriateness.

To say our society is “sexist” has implications on three levels: Continue Reading

Jean C. Lambert

From Kelly Johnston’s, “Jean C. Lambert: Covenant Pastor, Theologian, Pioneer”

Jean Lambert, 1962 (image credit: CAHL 11847)

Jean Lambert, 1962 (image credit: CAHL 11847)

At the 97th Annual Meeting, held in Chicago, 1982, Jean Lambert (1940–2008) became the ninth woman to be ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Lambert would go on to serve in a variety of diverse contexts, alternating between parish and academy. Beginning as professor of theology at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri (1976–1985), Lambert took her first pastoral call at Bethesda Covenant Church in New York City (1985–1989). From Bethesda she reentered the academy as senior lecturer of religious studies at the University of Zimbabwe, Harare (1989–1991). After a second call to parish ministry as pastor of the International Fellowship Immanuelskyrkan in Stockholm, Sweden (1992–1998), she returned to the classroom in Zimbabwe, as associate professor of theology and ethics at Africa University in Mutare (1998–2004). Reflecting on her ministry at the end of her life, Lambert wrote, “I have been a boundary-straddler, my churches and communities crossing sociological, denominational, national, linguistic lines.”

*****

Lambert credited the women’s movement for her later ability to “recognize the call of God for what it was” and accept that women could be called to pastoral ministry. At the same time, her desire for a less hierarchical church generated ongoing resistance to ordination. She was deeply convinced that the ministry to which every Christian was called could rightly be considered an ordained ministry…. Lambert’s main argument in “Un-Fettering the Word” is that the interpretation of Scripture should be available to all Christians regardless of their standing in the official leadership structures of the church. The article reflects Lambert’s passion for the priesthood of all believers. In time Lambert came to realize that despite her desire to maintain lay status, functionally she had already passed from laity to clergy by virtue of her vocation as a seminary professor.

*****

Jean Lambert preaching at North Park Covenant Church, 1980s. (Image credit: CAHL 17717)

Jean Lambert preaching at North Park Covenant Church, 1980s. (Image credit: CAHL 17717)

Using the power of words as well as her presence in key places, Lambert was an advocate for Covenant women in ministry before and following her ordination. In agreeing to the Covenant’s position on baptism during the ordination process, Lambert had inserted “she or” and “or her” throughout the statement at each instance masculine language was used. She appended a note to the end of the document: “I am glad to agree in the Covenant’s statement on Baptism, here stated, and will commit myself to continuing work to deepen our mutual understanding and improve our language so as to upbuild the body of Christ.”

*****

Lambert’s core conviction that all Christians were called to serve God was significant for her pastoral ministry. She articulated her goals for ministry in early 1987 as becoming “more aware of God’s presence so as to lead others into receptivity; to be faithful in use of Scripture so as to lead others into discerning God’s guidance and saying ‘yes’ to God’s unique call to them—as individuals, congregations, Christians institutions, and as workers in secular institutions.”

*****

In the last years of her life, Lambert was honored by the church as well as the academy. It is fitting that her pioneering work was recognized by both fields she had served over the years… In 2006 the Evangelical Covenant Church honored Lambert with the Irving C. Lambert Award, an award recognizing excellence in support of urban and ethnic ministries, named in honor of her father… Professors Philip Anderson and Richard Carlson, who had enjoyed friendship with Lambert for many years, both felt it important that Lambert receive an honorary doctorate from North Park Theological Seminary, where she had always wanted to teach. At the 2008 commencement ceremony, Carlson presented Lambert with the honorary degree in absentia, as Lambert’s quickly declining health prevented her attendance.

*****

Jean Lambert was a pioneer who helped pave the way for other Covenant women in ministry, as she wove together practical ministry and academic theology. She was a pastor who contributed significantly to the theological articulation of the Evangelical Covenant Church and a professor who shaped Christians into ministers capable of thinking theologically about life’s challenges. Her words continue to challenge us to partner together as mission friends, bringing glory to God as we love and serve “the Friend of friends” together.

Read the full article here

 Image credit: Covenant Archives and Historical Library (Historical Photograph Collection)

An Interview with Mary Miller

Ordained five years after the 1976 vote to ordain women in the ECC, Mary Miller conducted the very first decadal study on Covenant clergywomen. At the 2017 ECC Midwinter Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, Miller was honored with the North Park Theological Seminary Alumni Award for Distinguished Service. I was fortunate to sit down with Miller to discuss the 40-year survey, how it compared to her own findings thirty years prior, and what she hopes for the future of women in ministry in the ECC. Here is a portion of that conversation, lightly edited for publication.


miller-photo

Mary Miller accepting the North Park Theological Seminary Alumni Award for Distinguished Service, January 31, 2017

Mahon: After comparing the results of the forty-year study to your own experience with the ten-year study, what changes do you see that should be celebrated?

Miller: The way the author, Lenore M. Knight Johnson, concluded the study was a celebration. She didn’t say we’re in crisis pain or in the sharp pains of trying to figure it out and feeling rejection, but that there were more celebrations. There still are horrible situations, but there are more good ones. You know, on a percentage, on a holistic, wider vision, that’s really nice to hear. For people in my generation, we have not done anything. We have not gotten anywhere. We have one woman in a church over two hundred. One woman. One, after this many years. You have a tendency to get into a funk about what has not happened rather than what has….

We’re quite adept at saying, “Oh, we have so many women who are ordained!” And we changed it so that it’s not Word and Sacrament and Specialty Ministry – it’s all lumped together. I do affirm the priesthood of believers; I do affirm specialty ministries. But the role that challenges authority is Word and Sacrament – predominately preaching these days, more than other sacraments, with our theology. So I do so very much grieve that. I also really appreciated the author bringing in contemporary readings on the subject, because I don’t know that literature.

Mahon: I also appreciated that Knight Johnson brought in other studies. It’s one thing to look at where we are, but it’s helpful to know it’s not just us. It’s systemic among evangelical denominations.

Miller: Yes. We hardly ever bring in the Holiness Movement, women who were part of their founding. I knew a woman in her nineties from the Church of God in Indiana, Anderson, and they would brag on their women preachers. There is no second-guessing or anything, and I thought, “You know, they’re evangelical.” But we only bring in a certain kind of evangelical.

Mahon: In the ten-year study, you quoted a woman saying, “When I began ministry eight years ago, I did so with full hope that there would be others, women as ‘settlers’ who would follow, surpass, better us ‘pioneers.’ Now I find that hope not just frustrated but pretty much shattered.” As one of those pioneers, have you seen “settlers” follow you? Or do women graduating from seminary today still need to be ‘trailblazers’?

Miller: I would say there are more settlers. There are some who will go into much more difficult situations and take on the challenges….Some [men & women] are not fitted, temperament-wise, to do any challenging – or they challenge itty-bitty things, rather than the main things. There’s some wisdom, and Lord knows, I challenged wrong things. I have some really stupid and embarrassing situations (but I’m not going to tell them!). But you know, you have to pick and choose. You can’t just say that everything is important…

It’s been three years since I was on the Biblical Gender Equality Commission. At my last meeting I distributed a chart depicting the number of female pastors ordained to Word & Sacrament compared to the whole ministerium. That percentage was somewhere around twelve percent at one time. Over the course of forty years it has reduced to about two percent.  It marks a huge change in the landscape of ministers in the denomination. Even if new leadership made women in senior ministry a significant thing – like we as a denomination have done with racial diversity – it would take a long time to restore.

Ministry areas affecting that decrease are hirings for church planting and some of the conference visions rejecting egalitarian relationships. I asked if I could plant a church and was denied. The percentage of solo men to women as church planters is significant. Many of the women accepted are co-pastoring as complementarian planters with their husbands. We keep adding new planters from outside the Covenant who have no commitment to theology of women in senior leadership. I think it is a justice issue that Covenant money is being given predominantly to men for this specialization. Ha! I think I know who would win a class action lawsuit!

Mahon: One of the questions you asked respondents in the ten-year study was, “If you had a magic wand, what would you do with it to aid the progress of women in ministry in the Covenant?” How would you answer that question now?

Miller: I would bring that two percent up to about fifty-one percent.

Mahon: Do you have any advice or encouragement for beginning women pastors and seminary students?

Miller: The world is getting smaller with all the technology, all our relationships and traveling, so find alternate role models, encouragements, skills, and behavior sets. They’re out there and available now, which is different than when I started. You can borrow from other traditions. You can borrow from stories of people who are now known…. I’m going to accept this award tonight on behalf of my husband who paid for my degree and then died. It was an investment that we couldn’t afford, but it gave me my whole life. I’m also accepting it for Victoria Welter. In 1903 she was the first woman to get a theological degree from North Park Theological Seminary, and the class was allowed to vote whether or not she would be in the class picture. They voted no. Now, everybody thinks the story ends there, but the grace is that she became a missionary in China. So, I know that one illustration. It’s insidious, but I’m sure they were very nice about telling her she couldn’t be in the picture. Now, though, there are enough examples like that that we know, as well as the positive ones where they were stout and it worked. In some ways those resources – they don’t do the work for you, but they shore you up and encourage you.


Mary Miller was ordained in 1981, five years after the 1976 vote to ordain women in the Evangelical Covenant Church. She currently serves as the chaplain of Covenant Village of Cromwell, Connecticut

Mackenzie Mahon is an MDiv/MNA dual-degree candidate at North Park Theological Seminary and serves as student assistant for the Covenant Quarterly

Image credit: The Covenant Companion

40 Years of Women’s Ordination: A Study by Lenore M. Knight Johnson

From Lenore M. Knight Johnson’s “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the Evangelical Covenant Church”:

Campus Forum in Nyvall Hall (image credit: CAHL 15883)

Campus Forum in Nyvall Hall (image credit: CAHL 15883)

After thirty years of the ECC’s ordaining women, Olson and Cannon argued that greater effort should be made to support women pursuing senior level positions, including lead and solo pastoral roles and positions emphasizing preaching. At forty years, this continues to be a barrier for clergywomen. Just 12 percent of respondents are solo pastors, 6 percent senior pastors of multi-staff church, and 2 percent executive pastors, representing similar figures from ten years ago.

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The largest percentage of respondents (30 percent) pastor congregations of 100 members or less. Among the twenty-three solo pastors who responded to the survey, all serve congregations with fewer than 100 members. Twelve respondents currently hold positions as senior pastors of multi staff congregations, one in a church of 200–300 members, three in churches of 100–200 members, and seven in churches with less than 100 members. In other words, women in senior leadership roles primarily pastor smaller congregations.

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Examining outcomes for those seeking a position through the call process, 9 percent (18 women) were called to a senior or solo role (8 of whom listed senior or solo pastor as their preference), and 31 percent of all respondents secured an associate role. Among those in the associate category, 25 percent found positions in Christian formation, 19 percent in youth ministry, 10 percent in pastoral care, and 41 percent of respondents selected “other,” describing positions as worship, formation, and children and family ministries. In other words, while the percentages of women desiring and securing an associate position were fairly similar, this is not the case for those seeking a senior or solo role.

*****

When asked how supported clergywomen feel or felt by their local church in their first position, 53 percent chose very supported, and 30 percent selected somewhat supported… The regional conference continues to be the level where support is experienced as most lacking for clergywomen. As a respondent stated, “I have found support and contact from the regional conference very limited in my time as a pastor. I have felt especially, given a first [call] as a female senior pastor, more contact would be given. I have found this not to be true. In addition, I have found that, as a pastor in general, outside of district pastors’ meetings there is little contact with respect to the pastoral care of pastors.”

*****

Additionally, women have struggled in finding jobs and are concerned over the underrepresentation of women at all levels of leadership, spanning congregations, regional conferences, denominational offices, and ECC events such as Midwinter and CHIC. Respondents commented on the fact that, currently, only one woman serves as conference superintendent. Women also expressed significant disappointment that not all churches, fellow clergy, and speakers at denominational events support women in ministry, with statements such as, “It is still accepted that churches do not have to embrace or even believe the biblical teaching on women as pastors.” And finally, clergywomen shared general concern over the broader culture within the denomination, describing the ECC as a “good old boys’ club” and critiquing the persistent use of masculine language.

*****

If the ECC only draws from half the population to lead its churches, is the denomination truly the best it can be? Are denominational leaders looking beyond the limits of congregational polity and seriously considering ways they can openly and boldly advocate for the exceptional women who are called and gifted to serve the ECC? The structural and cultural changes proposed in this article cannot be viewed as obstacles or burdens but rather as opportunities to make a thriving denomination even stronger. To be sure, change is difficult and often a slow, arduous process. But if the ECC is committed to the position it affirmed in 1976, the denomination and all those who comprise it need to determine if they are willing to do the hard work necessary to keep and support extraordinarily gifted people, create paths toward all levels of leadership, and ensure clergywomen can thrive in all realms of daily life—spiritual, personal, and professional. Until then, these same questions and issues will likely remain for another decade and beyond.

Read the full article here.

Image credit: Covenant Archives and Historical Library (Historical Photograph Collection)

Sneak Peek: CQ 75:1 | 40 Years of Women’s Ordination

The first Covenant Quarterly issue of 2017 is now published. 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the Evangelical Covenant Church‘s vote in favor of women’s ordination. Four decades later, how is the denomination doing? This issue considers the past, present, and future of women’s ordained ministry in the Covenant.


Lenore M. Knight Johnson

Lenore M. Knight Johnson

Lenore M. Knight Johnson, assistant professor of sociology at Trinity Christian College, presents the results of the forty-year study on Covenant clergywomen.

“While the ECC has made important strides in relation to its stated position on women’s ordination, I argue that a combined focus balancing structural and cultural change is necessary for the denomination to truly break through the barriers clergywomen continue to encounter in their service to the church.”

From “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the Evangelical Covenant Church


 

Kelly Johnston

Kelly Johnston

Covenant pastor Kelly Johnston surveys the pioneering ministry of Covenant clergywoman and theologian Jean C. Lambert (1940-2008).

“In 1989, on behalf of the board, Lambert wrote ‘an open letter to each woman seeking to obey Christ’s call to ministry in the Covenant Church, both volunteer lay workers in local congregations, and pastors, missionaries, and staff ministers.’… Lambert’s words were both stark, speaking in plain terms about the reality of sexism in the church, and encouraging, expressing solidarity with Covenant women as ministers of the gospel. She admitted that all women in ministry in the Covenant Church were ‘pioneering in a treacherous wilderness.'”

From “Jean C. Lambert: Covenant Pastor, Theologian, Pioneer


 

Denise Kettering-Lane

Denise Kettering-Lane

Denise D. Kettering-Lane, associate professor of Brethren studies at Bethany Theological Seminary, evaluates Philipp Jakob Spener’s beliefs and practices regarding women’s roles in Christian ministry.

“If anything, Spener’s correspondence to women substantially increased over the course of his life. Thus throughout his life he consistently adhered to the notion that developing a more involved laity would result in an improved church, and he recognized that women were part of that laity. While publicly conforming to many social conventions, privately Spener regularly encouraged women’s activities in his correspondence.”

From “Philipp Spener and the Role of Women in the Church: The Spiritual Priesthood of All Believers in German Pietism


Read the complete issue here.

NPTS Post-Election Statement

The faculty and staff of North Park Theological Seminary offer the following statement in response to our current national climate. Though we write primarily to our students, we hope to bless our larger community of faith as we all engage in dialogue, discernment, and action.


The United States has experienced a contentious election and post-election season marked by fear, polarization, and violence. The political climate reveals longstanding national sins of racism, elevation of whiteness, misogyny, nativism, and economic disparity. As faculty and staff members of North Park Theological Seminary who represent varying degrees of privilege and power, we join our voices with those who are most vulnerable.

We submit to the Lordship of Christ who humbled himself unto death. As members of his body, we strive to consider others above ourselves (Phil. 2:2–8) and to serve one another in humility (Matt. 20:26–28). As one body, if one member suffers, all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26); if one weeps, the body laments with them (Rom. 12:15).

A large part of our community is weeping. The fear of deportation is real. The anxiety of being assaulted is real. The fear of being forgotten or mistreated is real. Many people of color, women, and other marginalized groups feel increasingly alienated not only in the political context but in much of the white evangelical culture as well.

Regardless of where Christians stand politically, the gospel demands we recognize vulnerable populations among us who find themselves further marginalized in the wake of the recent election. The gospel also demands that Christians recognize ways we benefit from and participate in structural injustices. Ignoring policies that denigrate and even endanger vulnerable groups is not a faithful option, even if privilege allows some to do so. When we have power, we use it justly and for the good of all.

In the midst of real suffering within our community, we seek not only to love our neighbor but to know our neighbor (Lk. 10:29), through our conversations, classroom discussions, and times of prayer. We hope to embody a community in which walls of hostility are broken down (Eph. 2:14) and where love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).

 

Deb Auger
James Bruckner
Mary Chase-Ziolek
Stephen Chester
Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom
Paul de Neui
Timothy L. Johnson
David Kersten
Ellen M. Kogstad
Max Lee
Alexandria Macias
Hauna Ondrey
Amy Oxendale-Imig
Luke Palmerlee
Deborah Penny
John E. Phelan, Jr.
Elizabeth Pierre
Soong-Chan Rah
Stephen Spencer
Al Tizon
Emily Wagner


Related material | “NPTS Faculty Statement on Race & the Justice System”

Wrap Up & Look Ahead

THAT’S A WRAP

Our Aug/Nov 2016 issue of the Covenant Quarterly focused on the 125th anniversary of North Park Theological Seminary. Historians explored North Park’s origins (Philip J. Anderson) and David Nyvall’s founding vision (Scott Erickson). Former seminary student and professor John Weborg reflected on his rich experience at NPTS, and Al Tizon cast a portrait of the ideal seminary graduate seminary’s should be developing. Finally, seminary dean David Kersten and ECC president Gary Walter outlined challenges and opportunities facing North Park Seminary as it looks to the future.

74.3-4 contributors

The conversation continued on Forum, as a variety of scholars and pastors discussed the impact diversity should have on seminary curriculum (Phillis Sheppard, Mark Tao, Willie O. Peterson, & Jo Ann Deasy), and as current professor and former NPTS president and dean Jay Phelan responded to articles by Kersten and Walter. Thanks to all who contributed to our fall issue and Forum discussion.

UPCOMING

The upcoming Quarterly issue (February 2017) features the fourth decadal study on Covenant clergywomen, surveying and assessing the status of Covenant women in ordained ministry forty years after the ECC’s 1976 vote. The two articles that accompany the study (1) look back at the life and work of one of the first women ordained in the Covenant and (2) even further back to the range of ministry roles open to women within early German Pietism.

Stay tuned for publication – and please contact us if you would like to contribute to related Forum articles or recommend another author. We welcome your input!

Opinion: The Future of the Seminary is Tied to the Future of the Church

In this post, North Park Seminary professor Jay Phelan responds to Gary Walter’s and David Kersten’s articles, published in the most recent issue of the Covenant Quarterly. Do you agree with his sentiments? Dialog with Phelan, Walter, and Kersten in the comments section (link located below article title).


Jay Phelan

Jay Phelan

I deeply appreciate the commitment that both President Walter and Dean Kersten have made to the Seminary. Since I have spent more than twenty-five years of my life and ministry serving North Park, I have a vested interest in the school not only surviving but thriving. As President Walter makes clear, these are challenging days for American seminaries. I know these challenges intimately not only because of my years at the seminary, fourteen of them as president and dean, but because of eight years on the board of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Over those eight years I was privileged to work with and learn from some of the brightest minds in theological education leadership.

For the board of ATS, the future of seminaries, and of theological education in general, is closely tied to the future of the church. Many seminaries are in crisis because the churches they serve are in crisis. The tide of Christendom is receding. And while mainline churches have struggled for years with declining membership and dwindling resources, in recent years it has become clear that evangelical churches are facing some of the same challenges.

Recent statistics indicate that evangelical churches are losing their young people at an even greater rate than mainline churches. This is not a problem that will be solved by outreach and evangelism alone, as important as both are. As the seminary needs to rethink what it means to prepare women and men for ministry, so the church needs to rethink what it means to worship, serve, witness, and teach in a post-Christian era. The Evangelical Covenant Church is historically well-placed to explore new ways of being church. Pietism has always stressed life over theological correctness, and for many people young and old this has a great deal of appeal at a time of deeply divisive theological conversations. Both the seminary and the church have stressed the deepening of the spiritual life, focusing on the spiritual formation of both pastors and “lay” leaders. And both the seminary and the church have focused on the importance of issues of justice—on poverty, racism, domestic violence, and social justice generally. The churches and the schools that are able to focus on mission and witness, that are rooted in actions as well as words, in compassion instead of condemnation, will have a future.  I think North Park Theological Seminary and the Evangelical Covenant Church can be such a school and such a church.  To that end, I would observe and recommend the following:

  • In an era of biblical illiteracy and theological ignorance, it will not serve us well to lessen our emphasis on the Bible, theology, and history. These must remain at the core of preparation for ministry. We still need a learned clergy and learned lay leaders.
  • Theological education must be a partnership not only between the denomination and the school, but also between the local church and the school. Many of our current students are online students serving in local churches already. In my opinion, local church leaders and seminary personnel need to work more closely together to assure the online student or other already-serving student is getting the greatest benefit possible from their theological educations. Churches also need to take the initiative to recognize, cultivate, and call out talent within their own congregations.
  • The denominational leadership and leadership of the school must work to preserve the distinctiveness of the Covenant. I recommend this not simply to be parochial but to suggest that our biblically centered, theologically diverse, and spiritually committed form of witness and worship are powerful and needed by the wider church. To this end both church and school need to be confident in the gifts they have to offer. For too long we have lived as if we are just a little people with no gifts to bring to the larger community. We need no more “poormeism.”
  • Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, I believe the seminary needs to be resourced sufficiently to accomplish its tasks. The seminary, like every American seminary, even the largest ones, has faced financial difficulties in recent years. Some severe belt tightening and fiscal discipline have righted the ship. But there comes a time when a more aggressive stance is necessary. If we are going to accomplish the wide-ranging plans recommended by Dean Kersten, we are going to need more resources, especially for technology, student financial scholarships, and for increased spending in our recruitment office. With a growing seminary we will be able to add additional voices at the faculty table.

I am retiring this year and am very thankful and humbled to have spent my career at North Park. I am confident in its future and its leadership. But all associated with the school will need courage, flexibility, and imagination to enable it to succeed in its mission.


John E. Phelan, Jr. is senior professor of theological studies at North Park Theological Seminary. He previously served as the seminary’s president and dean, as well as on the board of the Association of Theological Schools.

1 Question: Diversity in the Seminary?

Our recent Quarterly issue marked the 125th anniversary of North Park Theological Seminary. In it both Seminary Dean David Kersten and ECC President Gary Walter reflected on the seminary’s future. Toward ongoing conversation, we asked pastors and scholars associated with NPTS to respond to the following question: What implications does or should shifting demographics have on our seminary and its curriculum? We invite you to engage their thoughts – and add your own – in the comments section. You’ll find the comments link below the article title.


sheppard_phillis-isabella“Seminaries by nature have always been affected by the demographic shifts occurring in society – though often with resistance to change. A failure to change the curriculum and the ethos reveals our narrow vision of community. Curriculums and seminary communities have the power to form those preparing for ministry. When the presence of people previously excluded, based on gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, does not inspire curricular and co-curricular transformation, then we have essentially failed to become communities of formation for ministry in a diverse and changing world. Our vision for NPTS and the world has to be expansive, loving, and just.” Phillis Isabella Sheppard, former NPTS professor of pastoral care, current chair of the faculty and associate professor of religion, psychology, and culture, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee


profile_headshot_mtao“Shifting demographics spotlights the need for continual institutional reform.  Increased racial and gender diversity mandates a thorough internal review to ensure that curriculum, pedagogy, faculty standards, academic affairs, student life, etc., prioritize persons of color and women and treat intersectionality in positive and contextually appropriate ways.  This reform need not sacrifice NPTS’s core convictions arising from a socially-conscious, pietistic, Scandinavian evangelicalism. Rather, interrogating and challenging every area in which white supremacy and patriarchy have become embedded liberates NPTS to be more faithful to achieving its greatest potential while positioning it to remain a standard-bearer for effective theological education.” Mark Tao, NPTS graduate, ordained Covenant pastor, reentering call process, Chicago, Illinois


dr-willie-o-peterson“Hopefully there will be no pressure to trivialize NPTS curriculum for the sake of culture. My first reaction to this Forum question was to imagine the assumption that shifting from a homogeneous population to a diverse one presupposes an automatic curriculum overhaul. NPTS has a legacy of graduating servant leaders for the church. A mastery of the essentials remains requisite for vocational ministry no matter the generation or culture. All ministry candidates need a mastery of the Gospel’s message, and ministry methodology. Future generations will continue to need women and men who are masters of the right message and methods.” Willie O. Peterson, assistant to the superintendent, Midsouth Conference, Evangelical Covenant Church


deasy-cropped“If the purpose of seminary is to prepare all God’s people to minister to all the people whom God loves, then shifting demographics must have an impact. Theological education must be about teaching people to think, translate, and integrate what they are learning in order to serve the world they have been called to. This requires curriculum that is deeply connected to diverse communities of faith, faculty who are interculturally intelligent and engaged, students who are intellectually curious, and a denomination with a vision of theological education that prepares future ministers not for themselves but for all those who are to come.” Jo Ann Deasy, former NPTS dean of students, ordained Covenant pastor, director, Institutional Initiatives and Student Research, the Association of Theological Schools, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


How do you believe shifting student demographics should impact North Park Seminary? Join the conversation in the comments section (link located below title). We look forward to dialoging with you.