CTS In the News #LeadersfortheNext

Posted: August 20th, 2013

Chicago Theological Seminary Offers Online Path to Ministry
Written by Anthony Moujaes, UC News Coordinator, United Church of Christ
November 25, 2013

Melanie PoehlsThe path of Melanie Poehls, a graphic artist from Dallas, changed the day she knelt along side an injured motorist, staying there as a man she didn't know slipped closer to death. Charlotte Morgan is a doctor of naturopathy in private practice in Las Vegas. Her path too, changed when she witnessed the healing power of her patients.

Two different paths now lead down the same road: a calling to ministry, to learn to help people in spiritual ways. Both women are following that call and are completing their second semester at Chicago Theological Seminary, one of seven United Church of Christ-related seminaries.

There’s one catch. Neither Poehls nor Morgan relocated to Chicago for their seminary education.
This year, CTS has been approved to offer a master of divinity (M.Div.) program online, making it the first progressive seminary in the country to do so.

CTS’s three-year M.Div.program prepares students to be transformative religious leaders in the church and society. The degree also helps students prepare for non-church and non-traditional ministry, including settings such as health care facilities, human services organizations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, business and academic environments, and advocacy groups. Those are the places where Poehls and Morgan hope to minister when they graduate from CTS.

Poehls was raised Southern Baptist and has lived with a spiritual relationship with God throughout her life, but stopped attending church in her late teens after witnessing how her faith excluded some groups of people.

A pair of events six months before she applied to seminary, both involving death and near-death experiences that made her ponder what she was meant to do.

She saw that brutal motor vehicle wreck involving a motorcycle and truck, and rushed to the side of the man severely injured in that accident. "I was never close to anything like that, but I knew CPR," Poehls said. "I felt this compulsion to rush over to him, but I realized CPR wasn’t going to help. Nothing was going to help. So I just laid my hands on him, just trying to comfort him."

In another instance, Poehls found herself comforting a group of women in a hospital emergency room. Both events got Poehls thinking about how she could comfort people dealing with death or near-death experiences, without relocating her and her partner from Dallas.

"How can a lay person work in hospice care? And the answer I got was chaplaincy," said Poehls, who then began – and eventually grew frustrated with -- searching for a progressive seminary. "One day I Googled ‘gay friendly seminary’ and CTS popped up."

Charlotte MorganMorgan grew up in the ELCA Lutheran Church in the Midwest, and after moving around the country she landed in Las Vegas. She and her partner have been together for 23 years and have two daughters. While looking for an inclusive faith community that was open and affirming, the family discovered the United Church of Christ.

But it was in her practice and her work in the hospice community that Morgan’s life turned toward a seminary education.

"I saw hope and healing in front of my eyes, and the call came from God," Morgan said. "It created a new life trajectory to go to seminary and get my M. Div. and work with God and help others."

When Morgan thought about what she would do with a seminary education, she figured her path would continue along in the medical field through hospice work or chaplaincy. Now Morgan says she wants to help with the Open and Affirming movement — a way for UCC congregations to become more inclusive of all people — and will spend time in the coming years discerning how her skills as a doctor might help her future ministry.

Both women couldn’t move their families to Chicago for three-years of seminary; through the web-based curriculum CTS students can be connected to the Chicago campus without even being in the same state.

CTS’s accreditation for its online M.Div. degree was the result of two years of work to develop a web-based program, along with a grant to help translate an educational experience to an online environment.

The distance-based learning courses have assigned readings, video-based lectures and podcasts, and web-based classroom discussion. "There’s a lot of reading, and responding to the readings and to classmates," Poehls said. "We have a Facebook group for all incoming students, so I’m friends with some of my classmates on Facebook and they might ask me how things are outside of classes. So there is that sense of camaraderie."

As for any advice to share with people considering a web-based seminary education, both women offered their thoughts.

"Be highly-organized. Have the knowledge about yourself that there is a lot of alone time, time for thought and reflection, but be careful to balance that out. Take advantage and get out of the location [in which you learn] to not become too isolated," Morgan said.

Morgan also suggests registering for one-week intensive classes for credits, which she has done for summer and winter classes. The intensive courses, which take place on the Chicago Theological campus, offered her a chance to meet a few other students, visit the campus and meet administrators and faculty.

Added Poehls, "I can’t speak for others [in this program], but at CTS your voice is heard and your thoughts are recognized, regardless if it’s online or in person. It’s a family."

Founded in 1855, CTS promotes a progressive philosophy, and its students have been advocates for social justice. CTS serves more than 25 different Christian and non-Christian faith communities by preparing men and women for the religious leadership.

"At Chicago Theological Seminary, we like to say, ‘You don’t have to come here to go here,’" said the Rev. Alice Hunt, president of CTS. "Now that’s more true than ever.

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Chicago Theological Seminary
is noted as a "pacesetter." That’s all part of our commitment to preparing #LeadersForTheNext

UCC Has Been Progressive Pacesetter
by John Dart, Published online by The Christian Century

Two days after the U.S. Supreme Court issued two rulings favoring marital rights for same-sex couples, the largely liberal United Church of Christ was in a celebratory mood as its biennial national convention opened June 28 in Long Beach, California.

Only hours after a U.S. district court permitted a quick resumption of same-gender marriages in California, a UCC pastor from nearby Torrance and his partner of ten years were married June 30 at the Long Beach Convention Center in a ceremony witnessed by many delegates.

The UCC was the first mainline denomination to ordain an openly gay person in 1972, and in 2005 the UCC General Synod voted overwhelmingly to endorse civil same-gender marriage, encouraging local churches to celebrate and bless those marriages.

The United Church of Christ is proud of setting the pace on gay rights in the church and taking a lead on establishing women’s, racial and ethnic issues in church life. The UCC has often advocated societal changes well before a public consensus, much less a religious one, has emerged.

“We’re not RADICAL. We’re just EARLY,” states a motto of the UCC-affiliated Chicago Theological Seminary.

Does the United Church of Christ attract progressives who believe that abortion rights, gun control, immigration reform and protecting the environment are in keeping with Christian faith and practice?

Perhaps. But the UCC has also seen annual declines in membership and congregations that differ little from those in other mainline denominations since the late 1960s. (In recent years, even conservative church bodies such as the Southern Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans have shown declining numbers, indicating that the decline is not related only to liberal theology.)

Researchers attribute the membership decline in traditional denominations to the growing percentage of older members, the rising numbers of couples delaying marriages and the number of young people lacking interest in church affiliation, among other factors.

The fallout cannot be blamed simply on taking controversial stances. The United Methodist Church has steadfastly refused to open its ministry to openly gay and lesbian candidates based on its view that homosexual intimacy is incompatible with Christian scripture. Yet U.S. Methodist membership falls as steadily as the average age of congregants climbs—a factor many say leads to budget constraints and lack of church vitality.

To be sure, when the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opened their doors to gay clergy, the decision led to waves of defecting churches and members.

The equivalent controversy for the United Church of Christ was its 2005 vote to back same-gender marriage equality. Then president John Thomas said the General Synod “acted courageously.” Over the next three years 373 churches cut their ties and UCC’s Puerto Rico Conference pulled out.

Yet Thomas and other officials remain upbeat in recent interviews. For the most part, individual congregations, regional associations and the national synods are autonomous. The UCC keeps a relative “calm” because policy statements can’t be imposed on other groupings, said Thomas,

“There is dissent,” he conceded. Theological disagreement has been part of UCC history with its mixture of Congregational, Reformed and other Protestant traditions He said the first woman ordained by a Protestant church in North America, Antoinette Brown, wrote to a friend before the ceremony in 1853: “People are beginning to stop laughing and get mad.”

Prior to this year’s General Synod, the UCC described itself as a church of more than 1 million people. But the UCC’s yearbook this summer notes that by the end of 2012 membership slipped to just under a million (998,906 members), according to researcher Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi.

“The reality is that, yes, the UCC has suffered some stinging membership losses over the past ten years,” said J. Bennett Guess, executive director of local church ministries, based at UCC’s Cleveland headquarters. He sees the downward trend continuing but at a “significantly slowing pace.”

The loss of 73 congregations in 2011 and 2012 resulted largely from church closures or mergers, Guess said. The number of churches leaving out of disagreement with UCC social policy has slowed to single digits, he added.

Some congregations have returned to the fold or are considering it, Guess said in an e-mail interview. “Since 2007, we have welcomed 220 new churches . . . with half of these affiliating from other traditions, including Southern Baptists and Pentecostals,” said Guess. “This [represents] more new churches within the UCC than in any comparable period over the past four decades.”

Other mainline denominations have become active in starting new churches. The United Methodist Church reported in February that 684 new congregations were planted from 2008 to 2012, exceeding its goal by 34 churches. In June, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) announced that 115 “new worshiping communities” had been established in a grassroots initiative called “1001 New Worshiping Communities.”

“Oldline Protestant churches are right in the perception that for growth you are probably better off to start new churches, if you can, rather than to revitalize old ones,” said David A. Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “But they’ve got a dismal record of starting new churches.”

Like advertisers and television executives, church growth experts seek out younger adults, he said. “The segment of young liberal adults who are predisposed to religion, particularly young liberals, is a real small market niche,” said Roozen, a prominent sociologist of religion, in a telephone interview.

“I don’t think that the liberal theologians and church leaders have made the case for why religion adds anything to a liberal lifestyle,” said Roozen. “Why do you need the church to do Habitat for Humanity? Why do you need the church to tell you that gays are equal to any other kind of person?”

Some anecdotal evidence indicates that the United Church of Christ’s 2005 marriage equality vote “got a little bounce in conservative parts of the country,” said Roozen. “All of a sudden the UCC churches appeared as an alternative they weren’t aware of and brought them some publicity,” he said.

The denomination created a stir in 2004 with provocative TV commercials about UCC’s welcome to all comers. One depicted two burly bouncers outside church doors deciding who could be admitted for worship. The theme for those commercials—and a mantra still popular in the UCC—is “God is still speaking.” That was inspired by a quote from onetime radio and TV comedienne Gracie Allen: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Such was the hope in late March when two UCC officials traveled from Cleveland to Washington, D.C., to take part in pro-marriage equality rallies as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two cases involving gay marriage.

One was Guess, part of the four-member UCC Collegium of Officers, who became in 2011 the first openly gay person elected as a national officer of the UCC. The second one was Michael Schuenemeyer, the church’s spokesman on marriage equality and HIV/AIDS. Both he and Guess married their male partners in ceremonies in states where same-sex marriage is legal. As residents of Ohio, however, where same-sex marriage is not legal, the two couples lack the rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

The Christian Century is a progressive, ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. Committed to thinking critically and living faithfully, the Century explores what it means to believe and live out the Christian faith in our time. www.christiancentury.org

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