FROM THE PRESIDENT
New appointments add
to the energy on campus
As a cold winter abates, your seminary is bursting with energy and new life this spring. Yes, there is plowing and planting taking place on the back 40 and the Dunn Dining Hall is rapidly becoming a foodie destination. But there is more.
The teaching chapel is now bigger, brighter and beautifully appointed. Virtually all of our classrooms are now, well, virtual, as well as wonderful face-to-face, interactive spaces. Recent visitors and returning alumni have noted a high level of energy on campus and a lot of positive change. I invite you to come and experience it for yourself. In the meantime, let me update you on a few items and encourage you to read through the many interesting features of this Campus View edition.
First, with concurrence of the faculty and by election of the MTSO Board of Trustees, it is my privilege to announce the appointment of Dr. Lisa Withrow as academic dean, effective July 1. I am pleased that Dr. Withrow, who also remains professor of Christian Leadership in the Dewire Chair will lead the academic life of the seminary, and I look forward to working with her to build on the fine work of Dean Randy Litchfield, the faculty and the academic staff.
As associate dean for the past several years, Lisa has earned the respect of colleagues and students, and she has led us forward on a number of important fronts. Her expertise in Christian leadership and her commitment to the seminary’s mission makes her the right person for the job as we move forward together in the rapidly changing world of theological education. Please join me once again in expressing appreciation to Dr. Litchfield for a job well done and in welcoming Dr. Withrow to the role and office of dean! I encourage you to view Dr. Withrow’s curriculum vitae to learn more about her scholarly work and her strong qualifications for this important position.
Second, I am pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Valerie Bridgeman as visiting associate professor of Homiletics and Hebrew Bible. Dr. Bridgeman will lecture, preach and lead informal learning experiences during Spring Semester and will teach two homiletics courses during the upcoming Fall Semester. You will see from Dr. Bridgeman’s curriculum vitae that she brings extensive experience and expertise to our campus community. Dean Litchfield and I have both known Dr. Bridgeman for several years and are excited to bring this well-known and highly respected homiletician, biblical scholar and artist to our campus community.
Finally, I am happy to announce that I am appointing April Casperson as vice president for institutional advancement, effective June 1. Rev. Casperson has worked in the area of recruiting and admissions for over seven years, most recently as director of enrollment management and scholarship development. She expects to complete a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Ohio University later this year. In this position she will build on her current work with many constituencies and will have oversight of admissions and development. Rev. Stan Ling, our director of development, is retiring in May and will continue in a part-time fundraising role. We are grateful for Stan’s dedication to MTSO during his tenure here. With April’s leadership, we will be bolstering our already strong staff in the areas of recruiting and development.
I appreciate the good work of all our fine faculty and staff and am grateful for the many ways so many of you support this important work on behalf of our students and those they will serve.
JOHN T. MOUNT, 1918-2014
MTSO mourns the passing
of a great friend and leader
Methodist Theological School in Ohio lost a steadfast friend and a guiding presence dating to its earliest days when John T. Mount died Feb. 20. His relationship with the school began when he was elected to its first board of trustees in 1958 and lasted the rest of his life.
Mount was most recently on campus in October, when he spoke at the 25th John and Ruth Mount Alumni Awards for Distinguished Service, which he established to honor MTSO graduates for exceptional ministry and service. He also established the John and Bertha Mount Scholarship Program.
Mount served as an MTSO trustee for 48 years, 16 of those as chair, all while working as a top administrator at Ohio State University. Mount Hall on Ohio State’s West Campus is named in his honor. He also was an active member of Maple Grove and Trinity Unity Methodist churches. He had four children, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
“John was one of those people who lived large in a number of communities,” said MTSO President Jay Rundell. “He was an extraordinary servant leader of deep faith and intellect who enriched our seminary immeasurably.”
FACULTY AUTHOR LECTURE
Mercadante celebrates release
of ‘Belief Without Borders’
When Dr. Linda Mercadante set out to study those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, she had something of a head start.
“I was spiritual but not religious myself,” said Mercadante, who holds the Straker Chair of Historical Theology at MTSO. “I grew up like that. A lot of kids are given a religion. I wasn’t given one. Because I had that experience, I’m very sensitive to people who say they’re SBNR.”
Mercadante’s respect for her subjects is evident in Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, her new book, published by Oxford University Press. She will present a public lecture on her research in the Alford Centrum at 7 p.m. March 27, an event presented by the Theological Commons at MTSO. The book’s introduction is excerpted and available for reading here.
Though she’s now an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Mercadante feels an empathy with those who are sorting out their spiritual beliefs, and she bristles a little at some of the terms used to describe them, from “eclectic dabblers” to “salad bar spiritualists.”
That’s not to say she endorses their approach to spirituality. “I think it is important to know what you believe,” she said, “and it is important to know where you stand in regards to the beliefs of your church.”
Sometimes the term SBNR is treated as synonymous with “nones,” the term popularly assigned to those who would check “none” when asked for their religion. But Mercadante estimates only one-quarter to one-third of nones belong to that subset that may eschew religion but hasn’t rejected a spiritual life.
Having conducted hundreds of interviews, she cautions those in organized religion not to assume SBNRs are non-religious because they were mistreated by the church. “The mea culpa attitude – ‘What did we do to hurt them?’ – isn’t the right approach,” she said. “There’s no point in unproductive guilt.”
“They don’t call themselves SBNRs because they’ve been hurt by religion. Sometimes when they did have experience with religion, it was positive. But they didn’t have the experience they thought other people were having, so they thought it wasn’t for them. I didn’t find much hostility.”
She did find that many SBNRs keep their distance from Christianity because of the image they see of Christians in the media – both the way they’re talked about and the way some mediagenic Christians present themselves.
“The media have contributed to the SBNR ethos by highlighting the extremists instead of the vast majority of religious people who are good-hearted people doing good work,” she said. “A lot of SBNRs are very progressive politically, and when they hear that Christians are my-way-or-the-highway exclusivists, they say, ‘I don’t want to be with them.’ They don’t even look for another type of Christian.”
Mercadante believes her research has had a positive effect on her classroom teaching: “If I have people who are SBNR in my class, I think I can speak their language much better than I could before. It’s helped me tremendously in that way. I kind of chuckle inside when people present themselves as so unique, and I think, ‘Yeah, like 90 percent of the rest of my interviewees.’”
In fact, she thinks the spiritual but not religious would benefit from reading Belief Without Borders.
“I’m hoping SBNRs will read it because they’ll better understand the ethos they’re a part of,” she said. “And I’m hoping pastors will read it because it will get them inside the minds of people they want to reach.”
Workshop offers training
for clinical professionals
If art weren’t therapeutic, would museums exist? Would doodling? What is it about creative expression that allows us, clinicians and laypersons alike, to access feelings, world views and the existential panoply of human emotion in ways that no other intervention can?
“Creating Healing: The Role of Art Therapy in Clinical Settings” will offer clinicians information on the efficacy of creative expression in working with clients who have co-occurring conditions; the forms that creative expression may take relative to human development; how art therapy functions within overall clinical frameworks; and how creativity can support the clinician in his or her own self-care and professional growth journey.
The workshop, presented by the Theological Commons at MTSO, will be held 10 a.m.-3 p.m. April 3. It offers four recognized clock hours and four continuing education units to participants. Tuition of $60 includes all sessions and lunch.
New film features reading
of King’s Birmingham Jail letter
The Theological Commons at MTSO will present a screening of the film A Reading of the Letter from Birmingham Jail at 7 p.m. April 22 in the Alford Centrum. The event is free and open to the public.
The hour-long film was produced by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and debuted in November 2013. It features more than 40 community leaders – including Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, OSU President Emeritus Gordon Gee, U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley and both of Ohio’s U.S. senators – reading the letter Martin Luther King Jr. wrote while in the Birmingham Jail in April 1963.
King had been arrested for leading a march in Birmingham, Ala., in violation of a court injunction against protests. While in jail, King read “A Call for Unity,” a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods, which inspired him to pen his letter, writing in the margins of newspapers and on other scraps of paper.
The viewing of A Reading of the Letter from Birmingham Jail will be followed by a discussion led by Jamaal Bell, the Kirwan Institute’s director of communications, who directed and edited the film.
Vatican analyst speaks on Francis
and the world’s religions
John L. Allen Jr., who covers the Vatican for CNN and The Boston Globe, will speak on the topic “Pope Francis and the World’s Religions” at 7 p.m. April 2 in the Jessing Center at the Pontifical College Josephinum, 7625 N. High St. His presentation is the 10th annual Lecture on World Religions and Interreligious Dialogue, sponsored by MTSO and three other seminaries who form the Theological Consortium of Greater Columbus. The lecture is free and open to the public.
John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of The Boston Globe and senior Vatican analyst for CNN. Before joining the Globe, he spent 16 years as the prize-winning senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. His seven books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs include The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope was Elected and What it Means for the Catholic Church and Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myth and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church.
Veteran religion writer Kenneth Woodward of Newsweek described Allen as “the journalist other reporters – and not a few cardinals – look to for the inside story on how all the pope’s men direct the world’s largest church.”
Allen’s work is respected across ideological divides. Liberal commentator Father Andrew Greeley calls his writing “indispensable,” while the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, a conservative, called Allen’s reporting “possibly the best source of information on the Vatican published in the United States.” Allen’s weekly online column, “All Things Catholic,” is widely read as a source of insight on the global Church.
Allen is a native of Western Kansas and holds a master’s degree in Religious Studies from the University of Kansas. He divides his time between Rome and his home in Denver.
SIGNIFICANT MINISTRY STEPS
Share your ordination
and commissioning news
As we enter a season of important new steps in the ministry journeys of many students and alumni, we want to be sure that good news of ordination and commissioning is shared with the MTSO community.
If you are being ordained or commissioned this year, please let us know by sending a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, MTSO graduation year(s) and information about your ordination, commissioning, annual conference, ministry appointment or other items as appropriate to your denomination.
Thanks, and congratulations to all who are advancing in ministry.
Recent alumni return to talk
about non-traditional ministry
By Katherine Dickson
Director of Vocational Discernment
and Community Engagement
We hosted our first alumni discernment panel, covering non-traditional ministry, March 19. Three recent graduates spoke to about 30 people, including current students, prospective students, other alumni and guests.
Among the things the alumni shared was the importance of using the time in seminary to truly engage in activities that allow for discernment. Tracy Temple, a 2012 graduate currently in the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology joint Ph.D. program in Religious and Theological Studies, shared that journaling as a specific practice has been more valuable to him in discernment than he had expected. He also encouraged all students to take a unit of clinical pastoral education.
Rev. Julia Nielsen, a 2009 grad and ordained United Methodist deacon serving as the executive director of the Greater Hilltop Area Shalom Zone and pastor of New Horizons UMC, encouraged all students to learn how to write a grant in response to a changing church and nonprofit world.
Jess Peacock, a 2013 graduate now serving as editor of Street Speech with the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless, encouraged students to use their time at MTSO to develop their writing skills. After the panel discussion, current students had the opportunity to talk informally with all of the panelists.
We are planning two additional discernment panels this semester in an effort to represent the full breadth of our programs and student interests. I hope this will be an ongoing program of sharing and connecting, and I invite you to stay connected with our vocational discernment activities through our web page, www.mtso.edu/discern.
Here’s to Joseph, the Saint
of This Isn’t Normal
In honor of St. Joseph’s Day March 19, Rev. Julia Nielsen (M.Div. ’09), executive director of the Greater Hilltop Area Shalom Zone, delivered the following sermon in MTSO’s midweek chapel service. Her text was Matthew 1:18-25.
There’s a years-long running joke in my group of clergy friends. Whenever we get together for drinks or dinner and the ministry stories start swirling, inevitably one of us will blurt out, “Add that to the ‘Things They Don’t Teach in Seminary 101’ syllabus!”
At this point, that class is going to have to have 30 credits.
I’ll tell you, I had a life-forming and faith-strengthening education here at MTSO. With the exception of the sheer terror I felt during the first session of my first semester’s Intro to Theology class with Dr. Mercadante, I loved every minute of my four years here. But I have to tell you, there’s a lot that seminary can’t teach because it can’t predict the future, or all of human behavior. There are surprises out there. They can tell you that God is going to mess with your normal, that God does things like that. But what it will look like in practice can never be taught.
Even with years under our belts of studying the work and will of God, we still can’t predict what God will do. That’s the thing about this “new thing” pattern God has stuck to – new means unpredictable. New means scary. New means hard to study for. Sometimes, ministry feels like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but sometimes it seems like someone else is choosing the adventure and you’re just watching the pages flip. All you can do is remain present.
In honor of this kind of ministry, I’m grateful that today is St. Joseph’s Day – Joseph, patron of the universal Church, fathers, carpenters and social justice – and I’m going to don a miter here for a moment and add to the earthly father of Jesus’ designations the Saint of This Isn’t Normal.
I love this story in Matthew. It’s a good birth narrative: some good and juicy details but not so many (thank you, Luke) that you start to close your eyes. We get lots about Joseph here, and not much about him anywhere else. What are we to do with Joseph, silent throughout the gospel story, largely missing except in Matthew, a role player cast in a part already taken?
We read what we have carefully. And any fair reading of this part of the gospels concludes that Matthew’s birth narrative is really Joseph’s story. It is Joseph’s dreams that propel the narrative, Joseph’s faithful response in accepting Mary that creates the holy family, Joseph’s decisive action that saves the child from the slaughter of the innocents.
Matthew tells us he was a righteous man and then proceeds to show us exactly that in the rest of the story. Like I said, we don’t know a lot about this man, but we can learn quite a bit from what we do know. He was not a sophisticated man. He was the kind of man who could take a pregnant, teenaged wife and a troublesome, temperamental and precocious boy and make a life with them.
He is a visionary who trusts his dreams, a righteous man, a man of action and a man of virtue. A righteous man wants to the right thing, not the legal thing. He has conviction and trust. He is a Saint of the Perfectly Non-Judgmental. Saint of the Accepting. Saint of This Isn’t Normal.
Frankly, on the days when I struggle to understand or identify with Jesus in any way, when I swear I just don’t know why I didn’t get taught this thing in seminary (or Sunday school, for that matter), it’s Joseph I have to remember to look to.
Here he is, minding his business, not looking for any trouble – maybe just a good life, a wife he can spend enjoyable evenings with, better business some days, good health – and suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s this wrench in his expectations. At first, he thinks he’s got it handled: He’s been taught how to handle the problem of a girl who steps out. The Law is pretty clear. He resolves to follow the rules. He is righteous, after all.
But then, his normal gets all weirded up. There’s an angel. And some pretty intense news about the baby being Spirit born, and prophesies about his future son’s power to save people from sin.
Sudden left turn. And this simple man pivots without – according to the text – even a hesitation. He determines to step one foot out at a time and be a really, really good listener. He has to get this right. There are lives on the line, and frankly, I don’t think anyone probably taught Joseph much about how to deal with this situation. He’s in new and uncharted territory.
My own territory is on the West Side of Columbus. I serve as a deacon in the United Methodist Church, and my setting is a typical urban core cityscape. I run a community development nonprofit there called the Shalom Zone and a little church that partners with the Zone to transform our community from the urban wasteland it has been to the beautiful city on the Hilltop we’re called to be. But there’s wreckage in that landscape. Brokeness: 36 percent poverty; 44 percent graduation rates. Soul-killing use of drugs and alcohol, and deeply entrenched racial conflict.
There’s also incredible family support and joy at the gifts of daily living and opportunities for deep gratitude. It’s the devastating and the gorgeous jumbled up in a heap.
But: No one ever told me I would find myself regularly requested to do exorcisms after seminary because the angry spirits of abusive boyfriends won’t leave the house. No one ever told me I would preach with a 6-year-old on my hip one Sunday after she had a total meltdown in the fellowship hall because that was the only way she wouldn’t hurt herself or someone else with her teeth.
No one ever taught me the right way to manage race relations between Somali immigrant mothers and African-American grandmothers during a community lunch. No one ever told me how exactly one is supposed to empower tired parents to change a broken city school system while politicians fight over testing policies and zero-tolerance.
No one certainly ever taught me the right way to respond after seeing a parishioner’s penis during a hospital visit. No one ever taught me what to say during church when the first child I ever baptized had hanged himself in his closet the Friday night prior.
Because this isn’t my normal. God put this calling in my life. I was on my way somewhere else, to a nice and comfortable life elsewhere with other people. But now I look gratefully and constantly to the Saint of the Perfectly Non-Judgmental, the Saint of the Perfectly Present, the Saint of the Nobody Taught Me How to Do This, Saint Joseph. Because Jesus sort of messed with my life, and sometimes I can’t bring myself to look him right in the eye.
The troubling and perfect truth of the matter is, Jesus messed up Joseph and Mary’s lives, too. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here by saying, looking at the whole span of his 30 years from incarnation to resurrection, they suffered more because he lived than they would have if that angel hadn’t made an appearance to Mary in the first place.
Joseph’s life, especially, was harder. Better. And harder.
When that left turn, that call and change come, how do we work with that? With what we have? Or when you think you’re called to do one thing, and it’s something entirely different? Jesus knew how to do this, how to listen and follow and trust and be convicted in the face of impossible calling.
Where did Jesus learn this from? He learned it from his dad. He learned it from his dad.
This Ministry of Presence I’m talking about, it really sucks, to be honest. Now, they can’t kick me out of the church or out of this chapel for saying that, because I’ll just say it’s a theological term we use on the Hilltop all the time, so I’m going to say it again. It really sucks. The ongoing, long-term chaos and mess of it all. I don’t know why any of us wants to do it.
Perhaps we shouldn’t want to. Perhaps those of us who seek after it so desperately need to reevaluate. I learned in Church History once that becoming a bishop in the early church was so terrible and dangerous there were some folks who ran, and who got clubbed over the head and consecrated while unconscious. Otherwise, no one would do it. Sounds about right.
Perhaps we ought to run. But I look at Joseph, and his Ministry of Presence, and accepting the Not Normal, the Ministry of Making the Left Turn Look Good, and I think, well, God seems to work in these new things. Seems to make them and then ask us to trust. To remain righteous.
Conviction and trust. Trust in God, and in dreams. God speaks in visions and dreams and fiery furnaces, in hopes and convictions and impossible burning bushes. God speaks. Are we listening?
If we expected to be taught everything in seminary, what room have we left for God’s speaking in the surprising moments of ministry? What trust are we exhibiting? Where is our assurance of grace, our satisfaction in obedience? When will we trust that God made a man who is the Saint of This is Not My Normal? To ignore the Torah, to ignore the custom of our time, like Joseph, to take God’s spirit at its word and respond in faith no matter the craziness of the request, or the way it will mess up our lives.
Joseph was a righteous man. Biblically this means he was clear in his relationship to God and acted out of that clarity. Traditionally it means he was willing to do something few others would be willing to do, and is rightly honored. Theologically he managed to bridge somehow his heritage and his setting so that he could raise up God with Us, the bridge of heaven and earth.
What did I learn in seminary? To look to the saints, to look to Jesus, to look into the gently swirling chaos and have faith that if I take the next right step, the one following may go left, but my foot will not stumble if it’s in trust that I take it.
And so, my friends, I heap a blessing of not normal upon you. May the joy of the God of St. Joseph keep you safe on this journey, surprise you eternally along the way,and make the adventure so filled with opportunities for faith that you reach the other side called Righteous, a child of Jesus, adopted grandchild of Joseph.