Back in the fold
November 8, 2013 — Features
By Kevin Matthews
Rachel Eskesen ’04 imagines herself preaching, possibly in the Bay Area, at a church that offers continuing education programs. But maybe she’ll also be a part-time hospital chaplain or, for a spiritually motivated group, a hula-hoop workout instructor.
With church attendance in long-term decline and the definition of membership undergoing change, there’s demand for flexibility about how and where people worship.
“As opposed to church being a place where people go, what does it look like in a context where people already are?” Eskesen said.
Meanwhile, Casey Kloehn ’10 will request her first pastoral call in Washington, D.C., to care for congregants and, with them, to respond to “the gospel’s call to seek justice.” She could see herself supplementing that with work for a nonprofit political advocacy group.
“I have an opportunity and a responsibility to speak with my congregation about what’s going on in their lives. If there is legislation that’s going to affect them, that’s part of how I shepherd those people,” she said.
In their different ways, Eskesen and Kloehn expect to live out 21st-century versions of an old story in which pastors take on responsibilities that go well beyond administering the sacraments, giving sermons, and tending to the sick and needy.
To realize their aspirations, both CLU alumnae will earn Master of Divinity degrees in the spring from a well-established seminary that, by then, will be a part of CLU.
On Jan. 1, 2014, Berkeley, Calif.–based Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) is set to merge with CLU, under a plan that was approved by the CLU Board of Regents in August. That means that next year, about 80 students and nine new faculty members will join the University, and that CLU is expanding far to the north.
A few hurdles remain before CLU adds a school of theology as its fourth graduate school, including re-accreditation with PLTS on board.
The decision moves CLU closer to strategic goals including growth in its graduate programs. Summer and service learning initiatives could head north to the new campus in Berkeley. Meanwhile, the theological seminary will continue training students for various roles inside and outside of churches and keeping its affiliation with the multi-denominational and multi-faith Graduate Theological Union, which grants doctorates and other advanced degrees.
The merger puts PLTS, which has its own $10 million endowment, on firm financial footing and opens many possibilities for collaboration with CLU faculty in religion, education, nonprofit and IT management, psychology and other fields. The only seminary in the western U.S. affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, PLTS has roots in a theological seminary founded in Portland, Ore., in 1910 that moved to Seattle four years later. It has been in Berkeley since 1952.
Students and administrators are talking about how the merger will affect seminary education. There is interest in a new seminary curriculum, a pre-seminary track for CLU undergraduates in any major, a Thousand Oaks branch of a program to identify new church leaders, and, of course, interdisciplinary teaching both on the Web and in person.
This December, for example, CLU School of Management professor Paul Witman, a Methodist preacher’s kid who has often offered training to groups of pastors, will guest lecture at PLTS on the uses of social media in marketing campaigns as well as worship services.
“There are all kinds of areas that we are offering in graduate studies that fit nicely,” said Leanne Neilson, CLU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. “We think that we could create a curriculum that is innovative, that maybe offers tracks or electives in some of these areas, and we could then tap into some of the expertise of our current faculty and programs.”
PLTS has been adapting for decades to changes in the church. As one example, it took up a challenge from the ELCA to identify leaders in remote rural areas and ethnic communities and then to prepare them for ordination without removing them from the ministries that depend on them.
To that end, the seminary formalized the Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) program, giving it academic requirements not unlike those for the M.Div. degrees sought by full-time students such as Eskesen, Kloehn, Daniel Pell ’11 and Spencer Steele ’11.
The biggest difference is that these other, far-flung candidates for ordination are normally over 40 and had other careers first. They study with pastors and mentors near their homes and go three times a year either to PLTS or Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. Roughly half of them come from African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Native American and other hyphenated communities.
According to Moses Penumaka, a PLTS faculty member and director of TEEM, graduates of the program go on to work full time as pastors, but their past work experiences afford them opportunities to pursue two callings at once.
This kind of “bi-vocational” work, though it is probably as old as preaching, appears to be increasingly common for seminary graduates, according to church officials and educators interviewed for this article.
“That creates more flexibility for the church. It can also create more flexibility for you (as a seminary graduate),” said the Rev. Jonathan Strandjord, director for theological education at ELCA headquarters in Chicago. He shared a single ministry with his wife for many years while both also wrote and studied.
Then there are the schoolteachers, financial advisers, psychologists and, of course, others with less conventional second jobs. One PLTS divinity graduate and pastor continues to work in broadcast media doing voice-overs, while another “fisher of people” recently profiled in The Lutheran magazine is a bass fishing guide and professional tournament angler.
Although changes to the world that seminary students are entering come from every direction, the core of the matter is globalization, that ready and rapid circulation of people, goods and ideas that marks the age.
Everywhere Eskesen has gone since graduating from CLU in 2004 – Cairo with the Young Adults in Global Mission program, England for a master’s degree in literature, Slovakia to preach and teach at both Bratislavia International Church and a Lutheran high school, and also her hometown of Auburn, Wash. – she has found “people who are feeling transient” and seeking a sense of belonging.
“It’s not assumed that you are a churchgoer here (in Berkeley), so it’s a very real place for pastor training for a post-Christian context,” she added.
Like any other exciting career prospect, the ministry appeals to young CLU alumni at PLTS because it demands so much from them – everything they’ve learned from experience and all the skills and perspective that education adds. Even Eskesen’s high school German was useful in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, she said. “People would ask me, ‘Why did you learn German?’ and I would tell them, ‘I think it was in preparation for this internship.’”
In years to come, Kloehn sees seminaries changing to allow students to pick up more skills that complement a theological education. For her own part, she may find time yet to take advantage of CLU’s graduate-level courses in public policy and administration.
“From a very young age my pastoral leadership was instilling in me the idea that there was a lot of work to be done to make our world better, and that it was part of our job as a church to participate in that,” said Kloehn, who is from Encinitas, Calif. “It’s been something that I never really didn’t do.”
Even as seminaries develop more interdisciplinary tracks, Kloehn also thinks they will be smaller and ever more interested in the local conditions where pastors will work, both full time and part time.
“We can’t prepare all of our leaders in a handful of places,” she said. “We need to prepare our leaders where they are and where their people are.”