MTSO’s students, in their own words

Here are the profiles of six promising new MTSO students, featuring quotes from their admissions essays.

Preparing to serve his fellow Tanzanians

Jackson Swallo grew up in the small Tanzanian village of Kibao before moving on to the port city of Dar es Salaam, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in education, history and Swahili from the University of Dar es Salaam, along with a diploma in theology and pastoral leadership from Reach Tanzania Bible College.

“I am glad that I have lived in both rural and urban settings and had to experience a large variety of things,” he said. “One of the things that I have discovered throughout the years is the lack of well-trained preachers who preach on the word of God with a good understanding of the scriptures.”

Over a number of years educating children and youth, Swallo has served as a language tutor, vocal trainer and soccer coach.

“Getting a Master of Divinity degree will help me acquire more knowledge in my field and be able to provide a good service to my people,” he said. “I am looking forward to pursuing this course so that I can be of help in finding solutions to the problems and to ensure my country progresses in terms of spiritual matters.”

Drawn by a sense of inclusiveness

Katie Heck took advantage of a unique opportunity to evaluate MTSO: Her husband, Daniel, enrolled at the start of the 2023 Spring Semester, giving her a close-up view. “I love the theology of inclusiveness that is articulated and evident at MTSO,” she said, “and I love the diversity that speaks to health and trust in God.”

Heck brings an appreciation for what church can be, along with concern for the ways it can do harm. In the early 2000s, she was serving in an evangelical church with “a lot of unhealthy dynamics and damaging ways of treating people that I was ultimately unwilling to adhere to and perpetuate.”

After leaving, she earned a Theology Graduate Certificate from Ohio Dominican University, an “enriching and enjoyable experience,” though she realized she had no intention of converting to Catholicism.

In 2007, Heck began attending a Vineyard church, where she served as a volunteer for years before joining the staff in 2017. In her MA in Practical Theology classes, she said, “I do not expect to agree with everything and everyone, but I do look forward to hopefully not being the most liberal Christian in the room.”

“I am hopeful that theological study at MTSO will help me articulate a gospel that I can proclaim honestly and gladly, without silencing my conscience.”

A PK seeks his own unique calling

“Well, what a surprise,” Alex Giffin said. “A preacher’s kid is applying to attend seminary.” Though his path doesn’t mirror his dad’s, he finds himself seeking a Master of Divinity degree, with plans to pursue ordination as a United Methodist deacon.

Giffin recalled a youth spent “running around the empty hallways after hours at the church with a questionably ‘borrowed’ set of keys, looking to see what kind of trouble I could get myself into.” Now he realizes, “I wasn’t yet able to articulate how God was wooing me and nurturing me into what I would someday be able to articulate as a call to full-time ministry.”

He’s still no stranger to church life. Giffin has served congregations as a communications director for eight years and is a familiar face – albeit one behind a camera – at major West Ohio Conference events.

“As I lean into this call,” he said. “I want to have a solid theological foundation for my ministry so that the communication vehicles I create are grounded in sound theology.”

“So, the question of my childhood, ‘Are you going to be a preacher like your dad?’ The answer is still the same. Not what he was called to, but what I’m called to: ministry of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ through my gift of communication.”

Caring for those harmed by religion

Sue Webley believes “that my life’s purpose is to care for those harmed, particularly by religion.” She is an associate pastor at Rivers of Living Water UCC in New York and New Jersey and has served since 2017 as the national minister of youth and young adult ministries for The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. TFAM promotes radical inclusivity for people who have traditionally lived at the margins, including those suffering from substance abuse, those living with HIV/AIDS, same-gender-loving people, the recently incarcerated, and sex industry workers.

Webley is committed to radical inclusion and affirmation. “One cannot include and condemn with the same breath!” she said. “Many in the LGBTQ+ community believe, as I once did, that they cannot have a relationship with the Divine because of who they are. Because of this, I endeavor to bring the church to them.”

“While I am already an ordained minister, I recognize the importance of investing in myself and integrating academic pursuits into my faith and vice versa,” said Webley, who is completing her Master of Divinity degree at MTSO. “A mere sense of ‘calling’ is insufficient; as stewards of the Divine’s gifts, we are obligated to develop ourselves to better guide others.”

Called to be a military chaplain

The convergence of two family traditions has brought clarity to the vocational aspiration of Christian Locke.

Immigrating from South Korea in the 1980s, “my grandmother and my mother’s family brought with them a deep-rooted connection to the Kumnan Methodist Church in Seoul, where my grandmother served as a devout lay minister,” he said.

Years later, standing at the pulpit to eulogize his grandmother, “I surveyed the gathering of individuals whom my grandmother had touched throughout her life. In that instant, I recognized that God had placed her in my life to inspire me to follow the same path.”

Honoring his family’s commitment to military service, Locke enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he observed the “devotion and selflessness” of military chaplains. During a chapel service, a chaplain asked him to assist with communion. “In that moment, I became aware of God’s calling for me not only to be a pastor but a U.S. military chaplain, recognizing the pressing need for individuals with military experience like mine to provide support and compassionate care for those who serve in our armed forces.”

As he begins pursuing his Master of Divinity degree, Locke said, “I am excited to delve into pastoral academic programs to gain a better understanding of pastoral care while also meeting new people and exploring their different theological perspectives.”

Ministering in church and serving in school

By the time Michael Warren was 6 years old, he had lived in six homes, a child of the foster care system in Pittsburgh. And, he said, “School was never something I was passionate about from an academic point of view.”

That changed thanks to Warren’s middle school choir teacher, who inspired him to pursue a music education degree and “was also my reason for accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”

Today, 12 years after his high school graduation, Warren holds a doctorate and serves as principal of the Columbus City Schools’ Preparatory School for Boys. Before becoming an administrator, he taught music in a suburban Pittsburgh district. While there, “I was able to start a social justice group and partnered with a neighboring district to find ways to highlight student voice while truly establishing a culture of belonging.”

His doctoral research was “centered around policy as it relates to students experiencing homelessness and how educational entities and nonprofits can utilize student voice and the lived experiences of youth in homelessness to implement programs that promote effective change for said youth.”

“As a school administrator,” he said, “I believe my ministry is largely a part of the day-to-day operations of the schools which I serve in.” He is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree “with the hopes of serving in a more official capacity in the church as well.”