New students, fresh perspectives

The varied stories and aspirations of the newest MTSO students reflect the evolving role of theological education in preparing Christian leaders. Some feel the pull of traditional pulpit ministry, while others seek to make a difference beyond the church walls. Below are reflections of five incoming students.

Looking to show young people Christ’s amazing love

Growing up as a child of a United Methodist minister and MTSO alumnus, Courtney Jones might have seemed destined to join the ranks of MTSO students. Her journey to MTSO became complicated, however, as she observed her congregation and the denomination grapple with the issue of human sexuality. “I struggled with watching my own annual conference yell and shriek at each other on the conference floor. I could not imagine the loving God I knew would be so hateful,” she said.

Eventually Jones found a place that answered her desire for inclusivity. “I found a community of faith called the Crossing,” she said. “It has traditional liturgy and the most non-traditional congregation I have ever seen. The mix of trans, gay, straight, old, young, black, white, Universalist Unitarians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Mormons all worshipping God together. My faith was given new life.”

While attending Boston University, Jones served as an intern at the school’s Marsh Chapel. “Interning at a university chapel has forced me to deal with questions about tradition, and what traditions are important and why. I am forced to justify and critically analyze what I believe and why I believe it. I have gotten a firsthand look at the complexities of appeasing those with generous wallets and being authentic in speaking truth to power. Through all of these experiences, I have been granted the opportunity to really figure out what kind of change I would like to be in this world and more specifically in the United Methodist Church,” she said. “I have seen the need of a young generation who feels ostracized and abandoned by the church,” she said. “I would like to show them the amazing love of Christ. Too many people today think that the church and God are irrelevant in today’s world.”

As the first recipient of the new Bishop Judith Craig Endowed Scholarship, Jones looks forward to pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at MTSO: “A seminary education will provide me with new ways to critically look at modern challenges while also giving me the resources and tools to help find solutions to those challenges.”

A citizen of the world returns to MTSO

Shin Sung has lived, worked and studied on four continents and in more than a dozen countries. One locale that made an impression on him was the MTSO campus, where he spent a semester as an exchange student in the spring of 2015. His experiences stoked a desire to return. Aided by an International Student Scholarship, Shin is pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree.

He envisions a ministry in mission around the world. “Through my experiences in other countries, I learned God’s love for the world and felt a great responsibility for our global community,” he said.

Feeling the call to work with young adults, Shin has sought out experiences in the United States and Korea that will give him courage to pursue his goals. “I gained a better understanding of God personally through the Youth with a Mission conference in Orlando,” he said. “By integrating my learning from Methodist Theological University in Korea with my understanding from MTSO, I focused the Bible study I led on the ministries of Jesus in the synoptic gospels, and I was reminded how important the good news is to people, no matter their age.”

While completing his Master of Divinity at MTU, he served as in intern pastor at Gwang-ju Methodist Church in Seoul. “Serving as a Bible study leader and youth worship preacher taught me the meaning of servant leadership,” he said. “It also taught me to be truly grateful and compelled me to explore every day how I can become more like Jesus.”

Aspiring to be a counselor in a church setting

Fearlessly, Josh Stokes immersed himself in the discernment process and emerged confident about his role in the church and the world. “To begin my discernment process,” he said, “I prayerfully considered some key questions: I know God wants to work through me, but am I letting him? I have my own plan for the future, but is that God’s plan?”

Seeking the advice of his pastor at King Avenue United Methodist church near the Ohio State University campus, Stokes found a way to merge his interest in psychology with his passion for the church: “I never thought I could mix a career in the church and counseling. However, as she told me about MTSO’s MACM program, I could feel my fears for the future diminish as I realized with certainty the direction the Holy Spirit wanted me to go.”

Stokes, who received a Methesco Scholarship, is seeking a Master of Arts in Counseling Ministries degree. He envisions a career shaped in some ways by his own experience of rejection from a faith community. “Based my experience,” he said, “my goal is to work at a progressive church counseling anyone who seeks it, but focusing on college-age students who are facing rejection from their faith communities or are dealing with having identities that are often perceived to be contradictory to that of the majority.”

Stokes champions the possibility that churches might increasingly create staff positions for licensed counselors. “Working at a progressive church is my goal because it was the progressive church that helped me feel at home and fall in love with the church again. After hearing about the MACM licensure program at MTSO, I knew the program was a phenomenal fit for my future career.”

Finding new meaning in familiar Bible stories

Kelsey Simkins’ discernment process started with a handful of earthworms pulled from a compost pile. Volunteering at a nonprofit urban farm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Simkins marveled at “the way an industrial urban space could grow food, build relationships and nourish a community.”

“This sparked a new direction,” she said, “as I also began to rediscover the long familiar biblical stories of my Christian faith tradition and found new richness and meaning in them.”

Following her graduation from Marquette University, Simkins relocated to Denver to join the Colorado Vincentian Volunteer program for a year-long commitment to intentional community, spiritual growth and direct service and advocacy with those on the margins of society. It was here that she began her work with GrowHaus, a nonprofit urban farm, marketplace, food education hub and community center.

“Through my work as an education coordinator teaching food justice workshops for all ages, I have gained numerous skills,” she said. “Nothing has been more valuable than encountering my coworkers and the immigrant families in our neighborhood with a deepening appreciation for community. At GrowHaus, I found food to be central to our experiences of community and confirmed my passion for food justice.”

A recipient of the Harding Scholarship, Simkins plans to pursue a Master of Arts in Practical Theology degree.

“Because it all comes back to community, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to separate my interests in urban farming and food justice from my faith and theology,” Simkins said. “They are rooted in the same place. For me, faith is an access point when thinking about social change and ethics. Likewise, the practice of ministry, whether in a church or secular setting, is a powerful tool for engaging in communal dialogue about creating a more just society.”

“I feel called to help bring about a world where we are reconnected more deeply with God, the earth and each other.”

Exploring her social justice heart

“My hope with attending MTSO and graduating with a Master of Arts in Practical Theology with a specialization in Parish and Community Ministry is that I will be better suited to be Christ’s hands and feet in the mission field,” said Torrianna Foster.

Foster, a recent graduate of Pfeiffer University, does not feel called to ordained work in the church. Instead, she envisions her life’s work in a nonprofit organization helping women, children and people who identify as LGBTQ. “My call,” she said, “is to practice radical love and hospitality with people who truly need it. I am driven to explore and create change.”

During her time at Pfeiffer, Foster was instrumental in creating a campus-wide campaign known as It’s On Us, which sought to bring awareness to sexual and domestic abuse. The campaign provided a platform for Foster to hone her research skills and sharpen her relational skills through outreach to the campus community. “My senior year was all about exploring my social justice heart and what that means for my journey with Christ,” she said.

A recipient of an MTSO Scholarship, Foster looks forward to pursuing her goal of serving underserved communities and individuals: “I feel that MTSO will cultivate leadership, with a focus on people and solutions for injustices that can be fixed if someone cares enough to work for it.”