Building a Seminary Student Movement: A Missing Voice in the Cause for Change

Last year, I met with a group of students from Princeton Theological Seminary in the offices of the Bonner Foundation to talk about student involvement in the local community. One student, Lauren Gully, shared with me her frustration about the disconnect she experienced between her theological study and her desire to engage in the world.

Lauren explained: "It would be so easy just to sleep through these three years while in school." She didn't want to spend all of her time on her studies and close her eyes to the rest of the world, but instead stay involved in the social justice issues that compelled her to go to seminary in the first place.

Lauren and her peers continued meeting at the Bonner Foundation over M&M's and beer on a regular basis and as the year went on, each student in the group found an issue that they were passionate about and an organization where they could invest their time and talents.

Lauren approached John Gilmore, the seminary's good-natured senior vice president and chief operating officer, who appointed Lauren the Sustainability Coordinator for the school. In that role, she got connected with GreenFaith and has led community forums, written articles for national publications and helped shine a light on the sustainability issues that impact the campus and community. With the help of Matt Spina and the office of admissions and financial aid, the seminary opened up access to federal works study, enabling students to receive financial support for their service and thus enabling them to make longer and deeper commitment to local causes of national significance.

Other students made commitments with equally powerful results. Laura Colee was trained to work with Womenspace. Nick Ison got involved with food security issues, Katy Lee focused on immigration with a nearby church, Rick Morris immersed his energies in food and sustainability issues and David Norse began volunteering at Triad House, which provides services for LGBTQ youth. Alison Burchett spent the summer bringing many of these efforts together and the campus Community Action Network was created to serve as a launching pad for seminary student engagement.

Finding a Voice

As these students continued to meet, the conversation began to focus on the question of how their engagement while in seminary might (and should) be different from their service during high school or college. Out of those conversations, the following sentiments began to emerge to define a renewed student movement:

We need a seminary student movement that leads the church and the nation into deep engagement that combines service, advocacy and social justice.

Seminary engagement has the capacity to transcend much of the service and service learning activities that are the overwhelming practice for volunteering and acts of charity in this country. Seminary student involvement is powerful because the engagement we speak of and seek is founded on the prophetic call for justice, the healing power of grace, the commitment to seek out reconciliation and to be reconciled, the practice of radical hospitality and a firm commitment to community.

The transcendent love that our faith thrusts in our hearts defines and dictates that we love others, including and especially those whose faiths, politics and interests are different than our own. While there is nothing exclusively Christian about this claim to engage in the world, it is the fulfillment -- not just an expectation or requirement -- for those who claim the Christian faith.

It is these tenants of who we are, as we are defined and instructed by our faith, that summons us not to vilify those who are different, mock different styles or resort to violence to resolve conflict.

And it is our faith and our faith communities that will sustain us.

They will keep us from becoming bitter at those who confront us, prevent us from feeling defeated by the slow pace of change, and help quell our anger at one another and ourselves. Our faith fortifies us to sustain ourselves in our ongoing pursuit to build the beloved community and to heal the world through faith active in love.

This seminary student movement is critical in our culture today. Not only will it reawakened a slumbering church but through it, we will insert ourselves in the national discourse that has been dominated by discord. Instead through action, prayer, thoughtful interpretation of the Gospel and the translation of its powerful message into the world, our conversations and our communities will be transformed.

We seek to create a culture of service at seminaries and divinity schools whereby everyone is challenged every day to engage in the world in ways that are instructed by our faith tradition.

In order to translate that culture into living action, we will build infrastructure that supports ongoing engagement and on constant dialogue in our communities at the local to the global level. Seminary students are called on to build and lead this effort by developing and implementing programs that are not hampered by bureaucracy, that are able to claim the authority of student energies and ideals.

In calling for a culture of service, we must present the challenge of tithing time to engage in the world while students are at seminary.

Mindful of the academic demands and family responsibilities, we nonetheless interpret that the integrity of our positions in the world calls us to place ourselves in our community and to in the world where we know God to be present. Yet rather than embrace an uninspired requirement of service hours, we present the challenge that every students who is part of them seminary community tithe their time. Every individual student has different demands on their time, but by lifting up a community standard, it calls everyone to see engagement as an expectation not merely an elective or a hobby. As we propose this ideal, we are mindful of the need to break down barriers of involvement.

Growing Leaders for a Culture of Service

If you're going to have a seminary student movement, you need seminary student leaders. All students are called to participate and some will find themselves taking on roles of responsibility for building, maintain and strengthening our collective work.

Students are called to summon their peers to step up and come together to discuss and design how to create a culture of service and to build a student-led engagement initiative. This group represents the "community of the willing" and serves as the body that gives presence, direction and permanence to the collective efforts. In other words, students become the leaders of a student organizing body that is different from most other student organizations but is part of the campus community.

Building Momentum Across the Country

This movement must be a national movement that is built campus by campus and student by student, coming together with a sense of common purpose.

This weekend, students from 10 seminaries and divinity schools will gather at Wake Forest School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C., to give birth, voice, creativity and energy to revive a seminary student movement.

When we gather there will be students who have lived out the Gospel, who have walked the talk and who are breaking new ground for what ministry looks like and how it is lived out.

Phillip West of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and Robert Kendrell Carter of Turner Theological Seminary will be there; they have established a chaplaincy in the East Lake Villages in Atlanta, Ga.

Betsy Lyles launched a program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta that engages students at Drew Charter School, the United Methodist Children's Home and other sites around the city.

Lindsey Bulger works part time at Habitat for Humanity while attending Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.

Jamie Sims, who is attending Wake Forest's divinity school, created an internship to build partnerships between local churches and farmers, implementing a supply chain for fresh, organic and healthy produce to be brought into local food banks.

Chris Rinker, also of Wake Forest divinity, came to seminary because of his passion to eradicate modern-day slavery and has led initiatives of awareness and action at the school, including students at the undergraduate level. This summer, Chris has a fellowship to work with World Relief in High Point, N.C. in their anti-human trafficking sector

The goal of this weekend's gathering will be to introduce individuals who are diverse in focus, yet commonly committed, and invite them to rise above political and theological differences so that they might go deeper into the issues in which our faith calls us to invest. This meeting will be a wakeup call to seminarians across the country to see the power of their conviction, the need for their voice, and to hear the call to convene, both physically and spiritually, to take their place in church leadership.

Come join us and make your voices heard and your presence felt.