Meadville Lombard has transformed its approach to theological education.
Meadville Lombard student Chris Jimmerson (right) stands with his teaching pastor, the Rev. Kate Rohde, interim minister at Wildflower Church in Austin, Texas, during the school’s January 2014 convocation. (© TK Barger)
A failed polygraph test in 2008 was elemental in Doug McCusker’s ministerial formation. He wasn’t lying when he took it, but internal turmoil about what his employer, the federal government, was engaged in meant “they read it as I had been involved in espionage,” McCusker said.
McCusker worked as a cartographer and then a systems engineer for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. A pacifist who had marched against the Iraq War, he said that for his government career, “I did what I needed to do; I stuffed it.” After the failed polygraph, however, “It took years of processing to figure out that it’s probably my opposition to some of the work I was doing.”
McCusker kept his job and his security clearance, but during the episode, he said, “I thought I was going to be branded a spy. I began to think, ‘Well, what will I do if I lose this job?’ And then that became, ‘What do I really want to do?’” His deepening engagement with his Unitarian Universalist congregation in Burke, Virginia, turned him in a new direction. “After six or seven years of being a UU and really immersed in the life of a community, I finally felt this peace: ‘I have a path and now I don’t care what they do to me.’” He had discerned a call to ministry.
In 2010 McCusker enrolled part-time in a master of divinity program at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago to study for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. He planned to retire in 2014, then add more courses to his schedule until he had enough to graduate.
“And then comes the final chapter,” he said. “Five-year update: time to take a polygraph again.” He failed it again.
Five minutes after reporting to work after returning from the January 2013 term at Meadville Lombard, McCusker was put on leave from his job. “The Universe, God, Spirit of Light kicked me in the pants and said, ‘Get on that path [to graduation]. You’ve seen it. Don’t tarry. Go.’”
McCusker, 55, is part of a wave of older students who go to theological school after pursuing another career. “My game plan was to live at home and continue working full-time. Meadville Lombard’s model was very conducive to that plan.” The school had offered a modified residency program for many years, and in 2011 stopped offering a residential program altogether. Except for three yearlong “signature courses”—Community Studies, Congregational Studies, and Leadership Studies—at internship sites near the students’ homes, the classes are all short-term, offered in weeklong sessions in Chicago in January, March, or July, with an online component.
McCusker and I spoke over lunch one day during Meadville Lombard’s January 2014 term, which fifty-three students attended. I had not been to Meadville Lombard in five years; this was my first time back since my 2009 graduation, and I had gone to Chicago to learn more about Meadville Lombard’s new model of theological education.
Meadville Lombard is the same school—in name and leadership—but it is not the seminary I entered in 2006. I enrolled in a residential program on the Hyde Park campus established after the school moved from Meadville, Pennsylvania, to Chicago in 1926, next door to the University of Chicago. The school sold its buildings in 2011 and moved seven miles north, to Chicago’s Loop, where it leases space in the twenty-first-century glass tower built by the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Meadville Lombard occupies the sixth floor and shares a library with Spertus on the eighth. When students come to Chicago for their two-week intensive sessions, the school makes use of the seventh floor and other parts of the building. There is space for everybody at once in the ninth-floor, kosher-food-only Crown Family Great Hall. Of the ninety-three students currently enrolled, many never took a class in Hyde Park.
In August 2013 the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools praised Meadville Lombard’s “nimbleness” and the “collaborative process engaged by the school’s leadership that has established for this seminary a unique niche in graduate theological education—one that successfully affirms the school’s distinct identity through an imaginative curriculum that is delivered creatively to a distinctive audience.”
That’s quite a change from my Meadville Lombard experience. When I was rushing my way through the master of divinity program, including a congregational internship, in three years, Meadville Lombard was in what Denny Davidoff, the school’s senior consultant for development and alumni/ae affairs, calls its “ambiguity” phase. In the last decade, Meadville Lombard considered replacing its main building in Hyde Park; it announced plans to build a new facility a few blocks away; it talked about a potential merger with Starr King School for the Ministry in California; and it announced exploratory talks about merging with Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts. The school was struggling to find a viable future.
In the end, Meadville Lombard steered its own ship and has found port in the “TouchPoint” model it developed—a distance education model anchored by triads of students who are in regular and collaborative contact to help them remain focused on their classes.
Meadville Lombard’s program is centered on its convocations, when students converge in Chicago—especially in January, when students’ teaching pastors (their primary instructors and internship supervisors) also come to Chicago, at Meadville Lombard’s expense.
At the January 2014 convocation—one week after the Chicago Sun-Times dubbed the city “Chiberia” for its winter deep freeze—the skies outside were densely foggy, but there was warmth in the Great Hall for the faculty presentations. And the ambiguity had changed in character.
Meadville Lombard is no longer focused on the school’s survival, according to Davidoff. Instead, she said, “The vocational ambiguity of going wide-eyed into this profession, into this calling, is possibly the largest institutional question.”
“I am very concentrated,” Davidoff said, “on private fundraising to go to student aid.” The cost of theological education remains a concern. Most students’ required internships are half-time and unpaid. They must pay tuition and other expenses—often including supporting themselves and their families—and higher education loans are a continuing burden.
“The first intern I ever had was half-time for two years,” said the Rev. Karen Stoyanoff, minister of the UU Church in Anaheim, California. She is the teaching pastor for Jason Cook, a third-year leadership studies student, and that earlier experience meant she had ideas for how to structure Cook’s internship. An advantage to the two-year internship, she said, “is that there really could be a kind of measured growth and change in how Jason related.”
Another teaching pastor, the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, recalled her own two-year internship. She was not able to pick up and move for a traditional yearlong program during her studies at Drew Theological School, a United Methodist seminary in Madison, New Jersey, she said, because she was the mother of a three-year-old and a baby. She arranged her own internship at the UU Congregation at Montclair—where the intern she now supervises at Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, second-year congregational studies student Kimberly Johnson, is a member.
“I don’t find it weird,” McNatt said, to arrange one’s own internship near home. “What I find weird is the class bias that’s built into the idea that you’ve got a whole year to move your whole family . . . and go do an internship in a city far away. That was never going to happen. My husband was the one with the job and the health insurance, and I had babies, so it never occurred to me that I’d go off to California or someplace.”
(As this issue was going to press, Starr King School for the Ministry named McNatt its next president. See page 31.)
The internship’s two-year structure does mean its role in forming ministers has evolved. So has the support system for students. Social media is a necessity now.
“Facebook has become the hallway for us,” said Lyn Betz, a leadership studies student serving as an intern in her home congregation, the UU Church of Concord, New Hampshire, where the Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger is her teaching pastor. “We have a secret group where we share the struggles and the joys that we’re having. The group I’m on most is Leadership Studies; we’ve created another one for the cohort that started together, because we had formed pretty close connections with students who are part-time,” and they have ended up on different study tracks.
“I created a group for a class that I’m in, and then [Professor] Mike Hogue created one, so there’s one that he’s in and one that he’s not,” Betz said. “In the one that he’s in, we ask him the intelligent questions, and the one that he’s not in we [complain] about how difficult it is to understand Immanuel Kant and things like that.”
(Some students, like Betz, serve internships at their home congregation, which Meadville Lombard will accept for course credit. The UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee will require a second, off-site internship, but that doesn’t always have to be in a congregational setting.)
“I don’t feel like I’ve just done my internship,” Jason Cook said. “I’ve got twelve other classmates right now. [It feels like] I’ve been in twelve different churches over the past year and a half because we do so much reflection with each other, we know what’s going on in each other’s churches.”
Teaching pastors appreciate Meadville Lombard’s support for them as internship supervisors. “Every other time I have worked with interns, I felt totally dissociated from their program,” Stoyanoff said. “Even when I’d ask [the seminary] ‘What is it you want me to make sure the intern gets to experience?’, I couldn’t get the response. I really like the feeling of connection to the larger program” that Meadville Lombard fosters by including the teaching pastors in the school instruction system.
Kimberly Johnson said choosing McNatt as her teaching pastor was important. “I made it clear that she was probably the primary person that I wanted, because one of my concerns is, ‘What is it like to be an African American minister in this denomination when there aren’t very many African American women ministers and there aren’t that many African American women members?’ I really wanted to work with somebody who knows.”
“I never got a chance to mentor an African American woman,” said McNatt, “so I was really excited. I was like, ‘Yes! Finally!’”
“What I’ve really gotten from Meadville, particularly over the past few months,” Cook said, “is recognizing that the ministry I will likely do, and most of my peers that I will graduate with will likely do, will not necessarily look like ministry we’re familiar with.”
Change is central to contemporary ministry, and to training new ministers. “If the times change, then we have to be able to change,” said the Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, Meadville Lombard’s president.
Provost Sharon Welch agreed. The school “really needs that freshness of making sure that we’re in touch with what’s actually going on in congregations.” And, she added, “people are going to know how to rely on each other and rely on their colleagues. It’s not going to be you isolated in your own congregation trying to figure it out.”
“This is my third master’s,” said McCusker, the former government employee who is graduating from Meadville Lombard in May. “It’s by far the hardest, because it’s using my entire person, not just my brain and my academic aspect. The experiential pieces are challenging, but so rewarding.”
This article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of UU World (page 28-32).
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The Rev. Dr. Tim Barger, minister of First Unitarian Church of Toledo, Ohio, writes under the byline TK Barger. Before being called as the settled minister in Toledo, he was religion editor of the Blade, Toledo’s daily newspaper. He is a graduate of Meadville Lombard and earned a Ph.D. in mass communications from Syracuse University. He contributed an essay to Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism (Skinner House, 2016)
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