Chicago’s Divinity School students learn practical, intellectual skills, training for life of public ministryBy Jennifer Carnig
The academic tradition that informs places like the University was born of people trying to glorify God, and yet today, most universities separate their religious studies students from their divinity school students.
By keeping with tradition and doing things as they have since the 19th century, Chicago’s Divinity School is in many ways bucking a trend.
Students studying to become Presbyterian ministers learn side-by-side with students earning their doctorates in the Sociology of Religion. In a place that prides itself on academic rigor and creating an intense intellectual environment, it just makes sense that every conversation about the nature of God would employ the same vocabulary, says Cynthia Gano Lindner, Ministry Studies Director.
Alan Terlep, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Divinity School, who also is getting his ministry certification through the school’s Master of Divinity program, says that his time at Chicago has helped him acquire theological knowledge while also developing his own personal spirituality. “You don’t often think about those ideas going together in the academe, but at Chicago, they really do.”
That is why the University’s ministry program is a good fit for Terlep—he plans both to enter academia as a historian and become an ordained Disciples of Christ minister. “I would tell anyone to come here. I can’t say enough good things about this place.”
A three-year program that trains students for a life of public ministry, the Master of Divinity program may be one of the least visible educational sequences at the University. Perhaps that is because only slightly more than 10 percent of the Divinity School’s 300 students are in the program. And yet every year around 15 students graduate with an M. Div. degree and go on to become preachers, hospital chaplains and counselors, or bring a religiously informed perspective with them to careers in social service, government and higher education.
The size of the class is intentionally small so that no one tradition or faith community can speak too loudly or inform the experience too strongly. The Chicago program is non-denominational, with students bringing a wide range of religious viewpoints with them when they enter school here.
They come from Latin-American Catholic, Norwegian Lutheran, African-American Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Unitarian and Mormon backgrounds, just to name a few. Once here, they take an intellectually rigorous course load of classes in theology, church history, social ethics, the Bible and Greek or Hebrew, alongside classes on how to preach, how to offer pastoral care and what makes an effective worship service.
Every student spends two academic years getting practical ministry experience—one year in a local congregation and another spent doing their choice of work. Many serve in street, prison or global ministries, while others work in social justice programs, which focus on such issues as homelessness, prostitution or racial inequality.
“At the Divinity School, we educate students for a life of public ministry,” write Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School, and Lindner in the literature they send to prospective students.
“When we speak about public ministry, we are describing leaders É who are fully engaged in constructive conversations with their faith traditions, their communities and their world. We are suggesting that church and society share a concern for the flourishing of individuals and communities, a concern that raises profound and perennial questions about justice, hope, freedom and fate, individuality and the common good.”
Students in the Master of Divinity program experience a struggle not unlike that of Jacob described in the Hebrew Bible. The passage reads that Jacob wrestles with an angel throughout a night, and when the struggle is finally over, he is blessed and given a new name—Israel, “he who wrestles with God.” The students, too, are wrestling—with God, with their own faith traditions, with the contours of their ministry and with the articulation of their call.
In the second-year preaching course, future preachers engage in a different kind of battle, one where they must develop sermons that help make God’s voice heard in the noise that is 21st-century America. They also must learn how to make sense of the “foolishness” that is the idea of a messiah born in a manger and put to death on a cross, how to come to terms with faith when religion is so comfortable with ambiguity, so in love with paradox.
“Descartes said, ‘if it can be doubted, it must be rejected,’ ” one student says in her sermon, explaining that she finds the whole preaching process intimidating. “How can I speak with authority if I haven’t figured anything out yet?” Her conclusion at the end of the sermon—her first ever—is that we must ask ourselves before we speak “not if it is correct or rational, but from where does it come in us?” If it comes from a place of love and goodness, what is said will undoubtedly be “right and true.”
Week after week, students take turns preaching in Bond Chapel, a space Lindner reminds them is holy, the site of countless weddings and memorials, where congregations have met for generations. Students get to preach three times over the quarter, and it is clear that their authority grows each time they speak.
“There’s a movement over the course of the quarter,” Lindner explains. “We emphasize that each preacher has his or her own unique voice, and they all really start to find that, to understand the methods, the rhetorical tools, the messages that are uniquely theirs to shape and give to the world.”
Part of what the students learn is that they have more than a few sermons in them. “Even Reinhold Niebuhr, during his first pastorate, talked about preaching 12 times and then thinking he didn’t have anything else to say,” Lindner says. “As there’s an increasing engagement with the close-to-the-bone, existential issues of what it means to be a preacher in the contemporary world, there’s a change in their stance. All of a sudden they’re owning this, and they know they will have something to say and that it will matter.”
Only about one-third of the students will become parish pastors, Lindner explains, but whether or not they plan to sermonize to a congregation, the experience of learning to preach is a powerful theological exercise. It teaches students how to integrate theology with lived experience and then effectively make that knowledge accessible and useful to people who have not read the same books or studied at a university like Chicago. “It teaches them how to illuminate people’s lives,” she says.
For Terlep, the experience has helped him on both a very practical level and a theological level. He has learned to better project his voice, pay attention to where he is standing and stop fidgeting with his hands when he preaches. On a spiritual level, the preaching experience has taught him to refine his message about what it is he really believes.
“The program has helped me figure out what exactly it is that I do and then how to do it better,” Terlep says. “What does it mean to be called? What does it mean to be a minister? These are the questions we wrestle with.
“It’s a lot of responsibility to explain the word of God to people,” he continues. “When you’re preaching, no one stops you or interrupts you because they’ve put their trust in you. And you have an ethical obligation to take that seriously. I guess maybe more than anything that’s what I’ve learned—how serious being a minister is.”