Meadville Lombard introduces sweeping curricular changes

Meadville Lombard introduces sweeping curricular changes

Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago will require community service placements of all students; plans major curriculum reform next year.


When first-year students at Meadville Lombard Theological School arrived in Chicago for their classes in early September, they sat down to the beginnings of a new curriculum at the Unitarian Universalist seminary.

Meadville Lombard rolled out its new “Community Partnership Program” this month, and—subject to approval of the Meadville Board in November—plans to introduce sweeping changes to the curriculum next year. “We are reconceptualizing the way that ministers are educated,” said the Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, Meadville Lombard’s president. “This new century requires another way of thinking about ministerial formation that more closely approximates the ministerial service that our students will be engaged in.”

The school hopes its new approach to educating ministers will better serve the ministers themselves as well as the broader world of Unitarian Universalism. And it reflects a renewed effort to keep the school vital and solvent as theological schools in general are teetering financially and as the Unitarian Universalist Association is reducing its funding of the two UU seminaries.

Meadville’s new approach puts students into community placements during their first weeks of school. “Instead of waiting until the second or third year, we are exposing students immediately to a field-site experience,” said the Rev. Dr. Qiyamah Rahman, Meadville’s newly appointed director of contextual ministry, who is overseeing the placement of students in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood and co-teaching a seminar accompanying the field-site experience for first-year students.

“I think it’s going to make a tremendous difference,” Rahman said, “for students coming in to think sooner rather than later about: What does it mean to be in relationship with others who are different than you? What does it look like to stand with them, and partner with them, and work with them as a minister in formation?”

The curricular changes at Meadville Lombard—and changes in the works at the other Unitarian Universalist seminary, Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif.—follow a turbulent few years for the UU institutions. Earlier in the decade, the two schools and the UUA discussed merging to create one Center of UU Theological Education with two or more campuses. Merger talks were spurred by concerns that each school was too small to have the necessary critical mass of enrollment, faculty, and staff to achieve long-term financial sustainability. The talks came to a halt in July 2006 with a decision that the schools would remain independent.

The following spring, both schools learned that their major benefactor, the UUA, was reexamining its process of granting money to both schools. In April 2007, the UUA Board of Trustees passed a motion directing the UUA Panel of Theological Education (POTE) “to present recommendations to the Board of Trustees that would make the funding of ministerial formation, development, and excellence the first priority for use of the Panel’s resources, rather than the current singular focus on support for theological schools.”

The Rev. Barbara Merritt is chair of POTE, which makes recommendations to the UUA board about how it should distribute theological education funds. “POTE didn’t want the money to be an entitlement,” said Merritt, who is also senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Mass. “We wanted there to be real accountability and a fairer system, where we were clear about what we expected and the schools had a clear understanding of their responsibilities. In the past, the panel was not clear about its expectations.”

Merritt said the board was also taking into account that only 35 percent of students preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry were enrolled in the two UU seminaries. (Others study at Andover Newton Theological School, Harvard Divinity School, and other seminaries and divinity schools.) “Nearly 70 percent of the POTE money was going to 35 percent of the ministerial students,” said Merritt.

The panel is continuing to fund the UU seminaries; however, the levels have been cut. In 2007, the UUA awarded Meadville and Starr King each $250,000. In 2008 the grants fell to $225,000 each. And in 2009, they will receive $200,000. “We are firmly committed to the schools,” Merritt said.

But the panel is also committed to distributing the funds equitably, and it is rededicating itself to funding “Excellence in Ministry.” In December, POTE is hosting a conference in Seattle to examine ministerial excellence and the best ways for POTE to use its grants to fund it. It will be a complex conversation, and the Seattle conference is expected to draw representatives not only from Meadville Lombard and Starr King, but also Andover Newton, Harvard, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the UUA board, UUA staff, the Liberal Religious Educators Association, Diverse and Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries, and other groups with a stake in ministerial education.

Barker, Meadville Lombard’s president, will certainly be at the Seattle conference. Like POTE, he said he has been focused on the question of excellence in the ministry. And since the merger talks with Starr King stalled, he said, “we were captured by a vision of a theological school that more effectively served the interests of Unitarian Universalism.”

In November, the Meadville Lombard board will vote on the new curriculum, anchored by the Community Partnership Program being rolled out this month. The board is expected to ratify the changes, having endorsed the general direction of the new design in June.

Faculty members have been working with Barker to craft the details of the plan, which include integrating practice with theory throughout a student’s tenure at Meadville Lombard, incorporating a three-year mentoring relationship with a minister and a congregation, and preparing students for ministry in three years rather than the traditional four.

Michael Hogue, assistant professor of theology since 2005, met over the summer with Barker and the other nine faculty members crafting the details of the new educational model. “Meadville is providing a new context for the formation of the minister and theological education,” he said. “It really maps onto some of the larger shifts in liberal religion in recent decades and Unitarian Universalism in particular. And it provides a way to do the work of theological education in a way that will shape ministers to meet that shifting terrain.”

Hogue is a rising star among the Meadville Lombard faculty. He was one of twelve new theologians worldwide to receive the 2008 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise, which recognizes the best post-doctoral young scholars on the basis of their doctoral dissertations related to the topic of God and spirituality. Hogue’s scholarship focuses on the contemporary significance of liberal religion and liberal theology, which meshes neatly with Meadville Lombard’s new focus.

“This is a shift from theological education as an idea of the depositing of knowledge to the idea that it is a contextual and formative process,” Hogue said. “It’s important to recognize that ministry cannot be engineered to theological education and it needs to provide a context in which the condition of possibility for the emergence of ministerial excellence can unfold.”

The new model may or may not affect second and third year students already enrolled at Meadville Lombard. Students are expecting that they will have a choice of whether to take classes under the new curriculum or the old one as they complete their degree. Pam Rumancik, president of the residential student body, recently met with Professor Mark Hicks about the formation of an advisory council so students could give input on the new changes.

“The changes took everyone by surprise,” Rumancik said. “But the faculty has been proactive in trying to involve student voices.”

Residential students are those who study on the Chicago campus as opposed to remotely in the Modified Residency Program (MRP).

Modified residency students will notice fewer changes, as the new model follows what many of them have been doing already. Brock Leach, an MRP student in Sarasota, Fla., said that, like other MRP students, he has been working in the community doing praxis since he enrolled in Meadville Lombard in 2007. He is required to complete 10 hours of community service each week for 18 months. Leach works with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota, preaching, doing pastoral care, and spearheading an interfaith social justice project to build a house for Habitat for Humanity.

“I’m treated as part of the ministerial staff, which is a good learning experience,” Leach said. “Part of the change in the program is to set up experiences for residential students that would be analogous.”

Leach takes his academic courses online. And during the month of January, he travels to Chicago for a month of intensive courses. “The quality of the courses has been fabulous,” Leach said, noting that scholars who cannot commit to teach for a semester are often able to teach for a week in January. He has taken two one-week courses from former UUA President and Amnesty International Executive Director William F. Schulz, one on ethics and public policy and the other called “Preaching As If You Mean It.” And last year he took a one-week course from Meadville Lombard Provost Sharon D. Welch called “Post-Colonial Comparative Religious Ethics.”

Under the new model, curricular distinctions between MRP and residential students will no longer exist. Students who choose to live in the Chicago area and students who study at a distance will incorporate the practical experience of ministry with their academic studies. Through "modules" or "rotations" students will work with religious and community leaders to gain practical experience while they work in the classroom with faculty on issues of theology, ethics, religious education, and arts of ministry.

Changes are also afoot for the Meadville Lombard campus, which is planning a move from Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood to the Woodlawn area, a South Side neighborhood tackling many urban problems. “The piece of property we’re looking at has one foot in Woodlawn and one foot in the University of Chicago,” said Barker. “It’s a perfect symbol of where we’re moving: part academic and part community.” The move is likely to take place in 2011.

As director of the contextual ministry program, Rahman has set up field placements for first-year students in the Woodlawn/Twentieth Ward neighborhood in agencies addressing homelessness, addiction, at-risk youth, and violence prevention. Combining field placements with theoretical study is important in forming a minister, she said. “It challenges students in a very different way,” she said. “And it really develops a fuller understanding of being a minister. In the past, we have put a lot of emphasis on the individual minister. What this does is put the emphasis on the ministry.”

This article is the first in a two-part series about changes at the two Unitarian Universalist seminaries.

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