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Rev. John H. Thomas
In August, Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, retired from his position of as Visiting Professor of Church Ministry and Senior Advisor to the President at Chicago Theological Seminary. On September 27, the CTS community celebrated Thomas’ service to the mission of CTS, his service to the wider world, and our gratitude that he is part of the CTS family. We didn’t let him leave before sitting down to talk about his time at CTS.
What originally drew you to CTS?.
The short answer is Alice and Don Clark, the Board Chair at the time, invited me. But, the short answer isn’t the full story. In reality, when I finished my role as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, I wanted to do something related to leadership development or theological education. I’ve been around seminaries for a long time and I’ve done short-term teaching, so the idea of working with students, being in a place where I could help nurture the next generation of leaders in the UCC was very appealing.
CTS was at an exciting moment in 2009 when Alice talked to me about coming. There were some good colleagues of mine who were on the Board of Trustees that I respected a great deal, including Don Clark and Dick Harter. Also, I had a long-time association with Dow Edgerton, one of our faculty members among others. I knew the school a little bit and I was aware they had the exciting opportunity to move into a new building and that offered a real sense of possibility for the future and being released from some of financial constraints that other schools were facing. Chicago is a vibrant city and that was appealing in addition to being a part of a larger theological community in Hyde Park and the ACTS Consortium. All of those factors made CTS a very appealing opportunity after my time as GMP and I am grateful for the invitation to come here.
What separates CTS from other seminaries? What are its strengths?
CTS has a long history of being directly rooted in the urban community and, as a result, has always engaged its students in an urban context and drawn students from the urban context. The urban world is really the future in many ways and it helps CTS be diverse in many ways, including a diverse student body and faculty. Very cosmopolitan in its background and interests. CTS has also been on the cutting edge in many ways. Part of the DNA of the school is to be at the edge of whatever is coming next. Our founding in the 1850s was an attempt to respond to new and emerging needs of the churches in the Midwest settlements. The work around settlement houses was an attempt to respond with the church to the needs of immigrants, low-income workers, and the very poor in Chicago. The engagement of CTS in science, particularly in psychology and psychiatry and religion, helped put it at the forefront.
CTS was also very much on the forefront of LGBTQ inclusion and the way LGBTQ studies informs new trends in theological work. There’s a sense of CTS always being fairly forward-looking, broad and cosmopolitan in its interests, but deeply rooted in the important context of urban life, new populations, transitions, and so forth. That’s what makes CTS distinctive even as it shares a great deal with other UCC and mainline Protestant seminaries.
Please describe meaningful transformation you’ve witnessed during your time at CTS?
I’ve been really privileged in six and a half years to be here for some pretty momentous changes. The most obvious one is the development of our new building. When I first arrived, we were very much in the excitement of getting ready to inhabit a new space. The old space, with all of its charm and nostalgia for some of our alums, was a pretty dysfunctional building for today. It was not a conducive place for classroom experience or library involvement and it kept the faculty and staff on multiple floors, so there wasn’t a good sense of collegial engagement. The move to the new building meant significant unburdening of financial responsibility from our old building and suddenly we were freed up to do some creative things and move beyond survival mode to imagine some new forms of sustainability. It was fun to plan the move and to figure out how we’re going to use this new space and discover what it could provide for us.
Another transformation was interreligious engagement. When I arrived, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva had recently been called to the faculty a few months before and that really signaled the initiation of a much stronger and more expansive emphasis on interreligious engagement. I’ve been able to watch and participate a little bit in the growing interreligious engagement that is now poised to grow to a new level. This is an area of interest across theological education and I think we’re still trying to figure out exactly how that shapes the identity of the school, where the focus needs to be, what kind of students we need to draw, but it certainly reflects changing patterns in American culture and the need for religious leaders to be educated, alert, sensitive, and excited about interreligious engagement and growing religious pluralism.
A third transformation I witnessed and was more directly involved in was the development of our online program. One of the things that was clear early on in my time here was that the new building and our rent deal with the University of Chicago did not solve financial problems; we were still a long way from sustainability. We needed to move in innovative ways to make us more financially sustainable, but in a way, that was consistent with our mission and were going to expand the education we could offer. There was a wonderful intersection of growing acceptance and excitement about distance learning and there was an unmet need in the church, particularly for theological education, to offer classes for people who could not move to Chicago and there was the possibility of significantly increasing enrollment in a way that would help us financially. In addition to broader institutional planning, I had to figure out how I was going to do online distance education. I never experienced it as a student or a teacher. But I began teaching online classes and it was really fun to learn how to do that and see what it can accomplish to engage students around the country who wouldn’t ordinarily be here. The geographic expansion of our student body has been engaging.
And there’s a fourth thing, which we refer to “other duties as assigned.” In a small institution like CTS, you really feel the absence of a staff or faculty member. To fill this gap, I took on different roles. I was able to step into a variety of places to fill gaps. I have done work in advancement, recruitment, and a variety of other things. What that means is that I’ve had experiences across the institution. I’ve always had the opportunity to see the big picture, be a part of the big picture, and to contribute to the big picture of this school. All of this was built upon skills and experiences I had in the past, but it has all been fairly new as well. So, in a pretty late time in my career, when a lot of people are settling in to finish off what they had been doing, I had the opportunity at age 60 to start a whole new adventure, in a whole new place, with a whole new group of people. That’s been really rewarding and exciting.
What do you hope for CTS in the next five years?
CTS needs to build on the online program. We’ve talked about taking it to the next level, but we aren’t quite sure what that looks like. We need to stay ahead of the game in this, because everyone is going to start catching up. Our goal has been to be the gold standard for progressive theological education and that means you can’t stand still. I hope there’s going to be a lot of time and energy put into developing our teaching skills, our broadening use of different technologies, and experimenting with new ways of using distance learning. That’s one major initiative.
Another initiative I hope to see is the Interreligious Institute being planned in anticipation of a positive response to our grant proposal. But that will also require CTS to do some hard thinking about its institutional identity and come to some consensus around whether the school will continue as a predominantly Christian training mostly Christian religious leaders to be prepared to engage in an interreligious world or whether we will move in the direction of becoming more of an interfaith community where people learn with faculty and others students of different religious traditions. And those are really two different visions and two different sets of possibilities. CTS just has to figure out exactly what it’s going to be and settle on that.
The world of church leadership is also drastically changing. There will be more and more bi-vocational ministers (ministers who have a secular job in addition to their job in ministry), and more churches needing to be served by people who have not had the opportunity or resources to get a Master of Divinity. So far, we haven’t figured out how to craft a training program and revenue stream for those folks that will work for the church and the seminaries. There are many people who would benefit from a type of training program or certification that doesn’t necessarily require a Master’s degree. There will always be students doing the MDiv and that’s great, but we need to open up a whole new path that is not simply weekend courses here and there or continuing education, but a path that combines distance education with rigorous Master’s level courses along with mentoring and a geographically based cohort. That would require a greater sense of communication between the school and the church than what we have thus far, but I think that is a really critical need for the church and no one is addressing it. We’re hitting crisis points around leadership in the church here and there. I hope in the next five years there will be more attention in this area. That means shifting some of the attention from academic programs to looking creatively at some other education models.
What is your favorite CTS memory? What will you miss most?
It’s not a particular moment so much as the experience in the classroom. I really enjoy the students and enjoy engaging with them, both face-to-face and online. My online experience with students has sometimes been richer because more students are able to engage more deeply and more profoundly online then you sometimes find in the classroom. The classes where we related practice with instruction were probably the most enjoyable I had, both for face-to-face and online.
I’m going to miss the students the most. That’s what we’re here for, that’s what it’s all about. Everybody, whether they teach or not, is trying to support our educational process. For me, no matter what I’m doing, I’m reminded this is about students, this is about preparing and supporting leaders, and helping people of all ages pursue their passion, their sense of calling, their dream—however they want to describe it. That’s one of the exciting things about theological education. No student is here because she or he thinks it’s going to be a lucrative career choice. Everyone is here because they’re drawn to it or called to it. People arrive with a lot of excitement and energy and helping them begin to live that out is very exciting.
How would you describe your CTS experience in one word?
Growing. I’ve been forced to grow. Forced to grow in my theological experience and understanding. Grow in my abilities as a teacher. Grow in my knowledge of the issues facing theological education. Grow in my awareness of what it means to live in a big, urban context with lots of challenges. Grow in my awareness of the unique history of Chicago and the labor movement and immigration and what that means for us today. Growing, I think, is the word I’d choose.