Making theological formation and education relevant to urban churches

by Elizabeth M. Miller for Mennonite Education Agency, originally posted in The Mennonite

Kim-Mai Tang and Khoa Ho are part of the Year 1 Cohort (class of 2017) in Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s STEP program. Photo provided by EMU.
Kim-Mai Tang and Khoa Ho are part of the Year 1 Cohort (class of 2017) in Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s STEP program. Photo provided by EMU.

Flexibility is one of the critical ways the various schools associated with Mennonite Education Agency (MEA) are making theological formation and education accessible and relevant to urban churches.

But flexibility alone is not enough. Urban church leaders are also looking for education solidly grounded in a global context and embedded in relational networks, not just institutional structures.

In response a variety of Mennonite educational institutions have developed ser­vices meant to serve and learn from urban Anabaptists, often strongly rooted in a particular geographical center or located within a series of networks and partnerships.
1. Instituto Bíblico Anabautista
At Centro de Alabanza in Philadelphia each week, over 20 percent of the church community gathers to study and discuss courses offered by the Instituto Bíblico Anabautista (IBA, Anabaptist Biblical Institute) and facilitated by the congregation’s pastors, Fernando Loyola and Leticia Cortés.

“The advantage of the courses is that you can start whenever it best suits,” said Cortés in a recent interview. “We can study at any time.”

The IBA courses at Centro de Alabanza are held twice a week. Most of the participants at Centro de Alabanza are married couples, so men study one night and women the next. This way husbands and wives are able to swap child care during their respective class nights.

“[IBA] has total flexibility,” says Rafael Barahona, IBA and the Hispanic Pastoral and Leadership Education office director. “So [the churches] can make it work for them.” IBA provides instruction manuals for students and training for facilitators, but it does not impose an external schedule on church groups using the program.

For Centro de Alabanza, this flexibility has been key. The ability to offer courses on a schedule that equally benefits husbands and wives from within the same households has had a tremendous effect on the congregation. “In my case with the women especially, they have more confidence that they are capable, that they can use their gifts,” said Cortés.

An IBA student retreat. The 2014 retreat took place in Talladega, Ala. Photo by Violeta Ajquejay.
An IBA student retreat. The 2014 retreat took place in Talladega, Ala. Photo by Violeta Ajquejay.

Cortés has observed the women immediately putting into practice what they have been learning in the classes. Some have even started preaching in the worship services.

IBA is one of the longest-running and most expansive programs for urban Mennonite church leaders. Now in its 27th year, there are 42 centers serving around 300 students across the country, from New York City to Miami to Omaha, Neb.

2. STEP
Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a graduate division of Eastern Mennonite University,operates a campus in Lancaster, Pa., that most directly serves the eastern part of the state, including many urban churches in Lancaster and the greater metro area of Philadelphia.

“One of the things unique about the EMS program is that our programs are intended for urban dwellers,” says Steve Kriss, associate director of pastoral studies at EMS Lancaster and LEADership minister for Franconia Conference.

While EMS Lancaster offers an M.Div. track and two graduate certificate programs, they also operate Study and Training for Effective Pastoral Ministry (STEP), an undergraduate-level program for church leaders who wish to strengthen their ministry and leadership experiences.

From the beginning, STEP was designed as a collaborative program, dependent on urban church networks and experience. An advisory committee from Philadelphia-area congregations helped design the original program, and teachers and students came from area Anabaptist congregations.

“It was a very deliberate attempt to connect with the vibrant urban minority [and] recent immigrant congregations in the Philadelphia urban metro area,” says Mark Wenger, director of EMS Lancaster.

STEP is grounded in practical experience and mentoring relationships. Everyone who joins STEP must already serve in a leadership role within his or her congregation, and each student is paired with a ministry mentor.

“[It’s an] embedded model, not an academy model,” says Wenger. “What you study, what you read about, what you write about, you practice right away in your context. That works in an urban setting very well.”

By necessity STEP integrates global realities into the formal education experience.

“Global political realities sometimes come crashing down in the classroom,” says Kriss. “The world does not stay as separated as it might in a more traditional setting.”

The urban congregations that partner with EMS Lancaster include Vietnamese, Latino, Anglo, African-American and Ethiopian ones. The diverse identities of these, combined with their urban context, bring global issues to the fore.

“Urban leaders are asking us to work at ways of telling the Anabaptist story that integrate with urban and global realities. For places like Philly, it’s not just the city that we’re dealing with,” says Kriss. “We’re dealing with global realities. So our coursework needs to reflect those realities.”

It has also been important for traditional Mennonite congregations to be involved in the work that urban congregations and leaders are doing. Kriss calls this “enlivening work.” “Across the board it helps build relationships and give [traditional Mennonite congregations] new ways to look at Anabaptism.”

3. AMBS-SCUPE
Both EMS in Harrisonburg, Va., and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., offer courses in their graduate programs specifically focused on urban contexts and ministry. They also regularly receive students from nearby urban centers.

In general, however, the seminaries report that it is the partnerships in urban-based theological education that have most strengthened their programs in this regard.

AMBS, for example, is a long-standing member of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). Rather than try to duplicate the courses and experience offered by SCUPE, AMBS encourages students to enroll in SCUPE’s courses in nearby Chicago.

Miller-and-Martin
David B. Miller, associate professor of missional leadership development and AMBS-SCUPE program liaison, meets with advisee Martin Navarro. Photo provided by AMBS.

According to Rebecca Slough, academic dean, SCUPE builds on the formation offered at AMBS while introducing students to a wider network of people.

“It puts [students] in a different theological and racial-ethnic environment,” says Slough.

Julia Gingrich, a 2014 AMBS graduate who lives and works in Elkhart, credits her SCUPE courses with giving her the tools to “exegete” her urban context.

“[They] played a significant role in forming me as a missional leader who seeks to be deeply and consciously rooted in my ministry context,” she wrote in an email.

The Urban Peacemaking course Gingrich took through SCUPE was especially helpful in preparing her for her ministry internship at St. James AME, which Gingrich described as “an African-American congregation located in a marginalized Elkhart neighborhood.”

“[In Urban Peacemaking] we studied and discussed gun violence and mass incarceration, issues that are of central concern to the members and neighbors of St. James,” wrote Gingrich. “Studying these issues helped me join St. James in [its] efforts to resist these forms of violence.”

4. Center for Intercultural and International Education
The kind of partnerships and networks that have made IBA, STEP, and SCUPE possible are also crucial to the work of the Center for Intercultural and International Education (CIIE) at Goshen (Ind.) College.

CIIE focuses on welcoming students from multicultural backgrounds—who are also often urban students—as well as working with organizations and churches that work with youth.

“Many times we think urban students are more needy than other students,” says Gilberto Pérez, CIIE director. But he notes that urban students often have a level of resiliency and network navigation skills that is helpful for college. Adjusting to college without the proximity of their home network can be daunting, however, so CIIE pairs them with a student mentor. “The mentoring gives them a place to experience what they had in their home community,” says Pérez.

While CIIE focuses much of its energy on the Goshen College community itself, it also sustains partnerships with 16 different community partners that work with students of color in locations all across the country.

Their goal, Pérez says, is “to be in relationship and offer the resources the church has available.”

5. ReconciliaAsian
ReconciliAsian, an Anabaptist peace center that works mainly with Korean-American churches in Los Angeles, recently began a partnership with CIIE. Like the Philadelphia churches who partner with EMS Lancaster, ReconciliAsian finds their focus to ultimately be a global one.

Their recent partnership with CIIE allows ReconciliAsian to reach what Park-Hur calls “invisible” youth in the Asian-American community who may not fit the “model minority myth” imposed on so many Asian-Americans.

Park-Hur also hopes to speak at more family conferences with her husband, Hyun Hur. Their respective backgrounds as a Korean-American and a Korean immigrant make them uniquely equipped to communicate a message of conflict transformation across generational boundaries.

Like many urban ministries, ReconciliAsian depends on a variety of relational networks and partnerships for its work.

As important as networks and flexibility are to theological formation and education in urban contexts, they alone cannot respond to other challenges. Some urban churches, for example, want their youth to attend Mennonite colleges, but they fear those same young people won’t return after four years away.

“Our undergraduate programs are all outside major urban areas,” says Kriss. “Some Mennonite congregations feel that to raise up good leaders and send them to Mennonite schools means the congregations lose them forever, because they don’t return.”

Cost is another hurdle. Some of the programs, like IBA, keep their costs low by using volunteer instructors. But accreditation comes with a price tag that can be particularly burdensome for urban churches and leaders.

Yet relationships can go a long way toward sharing these challenges and adapting or creating new educational structures that better serve urban churches.

“We need networks of trusted relationships,” says Kriss. “We need to spend time building relationships and being in each other’s space.”

Elizabeth Miller is a member of Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.

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