Educational Dimensions of the MTSO Sustainability and Land Initiative

December 2013

This document is intended to support and guide the development of academic programming relative to MTSO's sustainability initiative. It is informed by conversations with an interdepartmental working group of staff and faculty.

What Is Involved in Sustainability and Land?

Sustainability involves:

  • Care of and access to food, water, and energy
  • Issues of hunger and food deserts, health, poverty, race and racialization of land,
  • vocation, public life, economics, and justice
  • Commitment to community and inclusiveness
  • Urban, suburban, exurban, and rural contexts
  • Local, regional, national, and global levels
  • Connecting theory and practice to create faithful daily praxis
  • Incarnational theology and embodied spirituality
  • Systemic ministry – service, outreach, mission, and justice work

Mission Connection

Seeking to live our aspiration to "prepare and invigorate transformational leaders to engage the church and the world in leadership and service," and live out commitments in our identity and purpose "to a just and sustainable world," MTSO is developing a sustainable campus plan which establishes a model for theological education through the cultivation of sustainable teaching and learning communities on our land. In addition to our classroom and hybrid learning communities, we are committed to creating a sustainable campus seeking the health of all. We are creating a campus space that pays particular attention to our impact on food, water, soil and our fellow creatures.

Sustainability is an integral part of ministry with youth and young adults; those in hunger and poverty; within communities of struggling churches; and the unaffiliated/Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNRs). It can be a factor in helping congregations make a difference in their place and helping the church be known as a source of hope. Sustainability also recognizes and values the works of those before us and seeks to honor all acts of faithful stewardship.

Academically Related Outcomes

  • Foster capacities to develop and lead hope-filled service at the intersections of human community and creation
  • Extend the mission of the church and faith based nonprofits by fostering integration of sustainability and outreach ministries
  • Create abilities to revitalize and lead congregations as communities and pioneer emerging faith communities through work with local ecologies of land and food
  • Instill a value of parish as rooted in place by developing capacities to name, understand, and engage the many dimensions of where students serve
  • Deepen theological and spiritual formation from active learning in a sustainable and incarnational school environment – attention to embodied spirituality
  • Develop skills for collaborative, abilities to create community, and commitments to be in community.
  • Skills learned in this setting would be applicable to many different kinds of church and community settings.
  • Develop systemic thinking to complement critical thinking skills
  • Create and make available resources on sustainability through such things as academic conferences, lectures, communities of inquiry and practice, and online curating through the Theological Commons
  • Provide resources for the MACM and MDiv degrees to potentially engage land-focused disability ministries and treatment programs addressing addictions and PTSD
  • Create academic partnerships mediated by sustainability, e.g. OSU, OWU, ONU
  • Experiential learning opportunities through internships and other learning activities

Institutional Outcomes

  • Extend MTSO's mission to serve church and world
  • Enable MTSO to live out its own vocation as a sustainable institution – i.e., ethically and sustainably steward the environmental resources of MTSO to model its commitments, serve its community, and ease demand on operations
  • Connect with and engage the local community, creating and strengthening partnerships with both churches and nonprofits
  • Develop a strategic position for MTSO to respond to declining MDiv enrollment trends in
  • theological education by increasing MTSO's distinctiveness and diversification of its academic program portfolio
  • Enhance enrollment by creating an avenue to connect with a new/broader potential student population and "alternative" forms of ministry, service, and community
  • Reduce the cost of MTSO operations
  • Expand network of relationships providing academic resources
  • Expand network of relationships providing financial resources
  • Create new avenues for enhancing alumni continuing education and relationships


The study of ecology and social change is interdisciplinary in method and intentional about linking research and praxis. MTSO's context located on nearly 80 acres in central Ohio offers a teaching/learning context serving as a bridge between farmland, suburbs, and city. In this creative space we propose to reintroduce native species; start a small organic farm; enhance stewardship of water, soils, woods, and air quality; and pursue sustainable practices enhancing the teaching and learning ecology of our campus. These commitments support specialization in ecology and theology in our academic offerings as well as serve as a venue for community engagement (local and global). The recent shift from a traditional management position to one of Campus Steward to lead our work around buildings and grounds is working wonderfully and is a good example of an initiative already under way.

Two significant threads in MTSO's academic program are contextual and public engagement. More intentional attention to sustainability is a natural extension of our program. Context, public, and land come together in an embodied theological, spiritual, and ministerial engagement with the complexity of place. This also facilitates opportunities for lived kinds of community that form practices, reflection, commitments, and faith.

Sustainability is a subject of study but it can also serve as an integrative programmatic theme. In such a role sustainability can facilitate dialogue between disciplines, denominations, religions, and demographic groups.

Connecting sustainability programming with MTSO's technological capacities makes for a distinctive combination. Too often technology is depicted as anything but contextual and a corrosive to community. This leads to technology pitted against land and local community. MTSO is capable of breaking this dichotomy and using technology to resource and connect local ministries of place.

The sustainability initiative advances several academic programs. In 2011, the faculty of MTSO established an ecology and social justice specialization for both the MDiv and MAPT degrees. These specializations allow interested students to weave together commitments to ecology and social justice as a foundation for lifelong vocation. These specializations and their respective degrees are furthered by:

  • Creating a lab-like learning environment
  • Expanding our portfolio of sustainability course offerings and expanding faculty expertise
  • Developing off-campus field education placements addressing sustainability
  • Developing on-campus sustainability internships
  • Fashioning intentional community units focused on sustainability on-campus and with partnering churches and organizations

The development of a sustainability concentration in the Joint D.Min. degree with Trinity Lutheran Seminary has garnered support from the Director and committee overseeing the program. With new sustainability courses in the Classical Division it will be possible to develop a sustainability concentration in the MTS degree. Sufficient offerings should be available to create a non-degree certificate in sustainability and robust programming in the Theological Commons.

Connections with Prior MTSO Initiatives

Several MTSO initiatives have created institutional capacities positioning us well to begin an academic initiative on sustainability. In turn, a sustainability initiative can provide assets to other initiatives. These initiatives include: anti-racism, cross cultural program, interreligious and ecumenical relations, collaboration with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (G-ETS), collaboration with Trinity Lutheran Seminary, technology, and the Theological Commons. The interconnection among all these competencies around justice concerns marks a significant network of sustainability on a wider scale. The ethics of sustainability considers relationship of creation and humanity in terms of race, culture, religious dimensions and beliefs; the discussion is furthered through partnerships so that networks of justice grow ever wider.

Technology and programming through degree offerings and the Theological Commons provide the means by which sustainability networks bring together best practices, best resources, and practice of justice ministry. Just one example of program linkages is through cross cultural courses that have established relationships with other theological institutions in India, Cuba, and Zimbabwe that have sustainability efforts integral to their mission.

Contributions of a Sustainable Campus to Student Learning

Educating students for ministry, service, and stewardship in relation to sustainability and place requires a formative environment. In faculty circles we often note how the various aspects of the school create an overall educational system. The explicit and implicit curriculum of the school needs to work together. For example, we can study to overcome racism or to develop spirituality but living it out on campus and in classrooms sends the real message. Connecting theory and practice was a motivation of Bob Browning, Ethel Johnson, and Charles Foster to establish lab schools and the Early Childhood Center at MTSO. A small-scale operation for growing food for our dining hall and community needs creates a lab-like learning environment – not to make students farmers but to form capacities to engage place, land, and intentional community, while expecting practical engagement with these topics. More generally, making the campus environmentally sustainable educates through daily practice and modeling. How the campus uses energy, water, woods, and land communicates values and teaches ways students can be stewards of sustainable communities and leaders in transforming the world.


We would be developing programmatic distinctiveness and diversification, both of which advance enrollment as well as mission. Distinctiveness creates a draw and an identity empowering recruitment in a competitive environment. Diversification of program allows us to offset the impact of national trends of declining M.Div. enrollment. While noting this decline, the Autumn 2013 issue of In Trust reports that non-M.Div. degree programs such as the MA and D.Min. are growing. (p. 13) In addition, 81% of entering students across theological schools do not expect to have a full-time parish ministry position upon graduation (p. 16). Instead, entering students have vocational goals intersecting with ministry in the local church, but their goals focus on specialized areas such as counseling, chaplaincy, community organizing, and educational ministries. As noted earlier, the sustainability initiative can expand our MAPT, MTS, and MACM programs and create a new specialization in the D.Min. program.


  • Expertise of faculty, existing faculty, particularly Dr. Tim Van Meter
  • Expertise of Land Steward Bachelor
  • Newly created office for vocational discernment and community engagement that helps students explore ways to engage the community through individual vocation and school vocation – Kathy Dickson brings particular resources on sustainability to this office
  • Campus-based farmer with expertise in leading local food initiatives farm to table training, and commitments that align with ours in sustainable agriculture and food justice
  • MTSO land, woods, water, and facilities
  • Overall faculty and staff investment in the issue
  • Alums working on and with these issues in the region
  • State network of MTSO and UM resources which are opening doors to expertise, potential donors, and foundations
  • Local network of universities (e.g. OSU, OWU, ONU) and organizations (e.g. Stratford Ecological Center).