Last night I attended a high school fair that featured non-traditional educational opportunities for high school graduates. I was intrigued by how many of the organizations' reps, the ones standing next to the colorful tablecloths loaded with brochures, signup sheets and candy, had come to their work through some deep encounter with engagement in the world, usually outside the United States.
I was more interested in their stories than the sales pitches they were expected to deliver. After some polite chatter with one young woman I noticed that she had tattooed on her left arm in bold letters: "Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God."
So I asked her, "Tell me about your tattoo."
Her face lit up and for the next ten minutes she talked and talked. She told me about her Lutheran church back home and about the Lutheran pastor who took them on mission trips, how she ended up in Uganda and working at an orphanage. Five minutes into the story I wondered when she was going to answer my question, until I realized that I knew exactly what she was doing. Her tattoo was an expression of declaration, a form of proclamation, and her commitment to endure through God's love.
"Have you ever thought about going to seminary?" I asked.
I watched her freeze and I actually think she stopped breathing for a moment. She would not have been more taken aback if I suggested she try out for the Seattle Seahawks.
"I am very spiritual, but I am not religious."
"I understand," I responded.
She shot back "I mean, look at all the bad things that are happening because of religion."
"I believe in God, but I am not sure of all the rest of it."
"I know the feeling. That is how I felt and still feel. That is why I went to seminary."
My response seemed to both shock and intrigue her. The idea that seminary was a place to ask questions and that ministry was something that was left undefined was unexpected and compelling.
"How do I learn more about seminary?" she asked, as she grabbed a piece of paper and a pen to write down what I was about to tell her.
Traditionally, someone thinking about seminary would go talk to his or her college chaplain or his or her local pastor. But what happens when you're out of school and you don't go to church and you have no access to anyone who might help you discern what to do in your life? Not much.
Seminaries that Change the World is an initiative launched last year to create a place where service-minded individuals could go to learn about theological education, to point to institutions that share a common commitment to be centers of discernment, not to merely be recruiters trying to fill a class.
The Seminaries that Change the World: Class of 2015 was just announced (see press release). Like any list, this is not exhaustive or complete. It is not unbiased, nor does it claim to list "the best." The schools listed in this year's class represent seminaries and divinity schools that came forward on their own accord and accepted an invitation that was open to all. What these schools have is a mutual respect and a shared commitment to reach out, train, and launch a generation of service-minded, God-loving individuals who are seeking to be faithful in the world. These are schools that can reach someone who is uncertain about religion, but committed to a faith that's worth permanently inking on their skin.
So at least I was able to give her the website and through that links to thousands of peers, hundreds of faculty and dozens of admissions offices that are trained to discern and not recruit. It is the invitation and the followup and follow though that is the substance from which discovery and direction are discovered.
Distinct qualities that integrate faith and service
There are many important and noteworthy aspects of theological education. Seminaries that Change the World has focused on some of the ways that these schools encourage and support service-minded individuals who are seeking places where they can learn and platforms from which they can launch. Below are six categories that are worth highlighting; please refer to our website for noteworthy details about other schools on our list.
Andover-Newton Theological School offers significant aid to graduates of the PeaceCorps and City Year. Bethany Theological Seminary offers scholarships to create a "pathway to service" by lowering student debt, offering community housing, increasing work study opportunities and empowered practices for simple living.
Princeton Theological Seminary utilizes thousands of federal work study money to support students who serve in non-profits around the Trenton-New Brunswick corridor, including the Bonner Foundation.
Field Education/ Experiential Education
At the University of Chicago Divinity School, all first year students shadow and train as volunteer chaplains at Cook County Jail - the largest single-site facility for incarcerated persons in the country.
Walking the Talk/Environmental Stewardship
Wake Forest University School of Divinity launched the Food, Faith and Religious Leadership initiative, which prepares religious leaders with the knowledge, skills, and pastoral habits necessary to guide congregations and other faith-based organizations in creating more redemptive food systems.
Opportunities to Lead after Graduation
Fuller Theological Seminary graduate Kimberly Williams, the executive director of the Good Shepherd Volunteers and Yale Divinity School grad Chris Coons, the U.S Senator from Delaware, are examples of what people do after graduation.
Compelling, Relevant Masters Programs
Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry offers a Masters of Arts in Transformational Leadership that is particularly appealing to those coming out of service years like AmeriCorps.
Exciting and Healthy Community Life
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary converted one of its dorms into Avaya House to welcome and house local AmeriCorps members to live on and engage with the rest of the school community.
Back to the tattoos.
After I finished this conversation, I went to the next table and there was another young woman. She also had a tattoo. This one was on her wrist and read "God is love." "Do you mind if I ask you about your tattoo?" She gave me a pleasant yet puzzled look, saying "of course I don't, that is why I put it on my wrist."
It made me think of many others who have tattoos and those who don't but nonetheless make a public proclamation about God's love in their life and the life they want to share with others. It is powerful how these individuals, most of whom are young adults, express their spiritual life by making a permanent mark on their bodies. These words and images cannot be washed off, nor can their commitment to engage the world be diminished.
Tattoo or no tattoo, I see a generation with both deep desire and strong fortitude. The schools listed in Seminaries that Change the World have worked hard to invite and welcome them and offer a course of study that is both grounded in tradition and shaped by the here and now. These institutions, with their faculty, students, staff and alumni, understand the brokenness of the world and the promise and the work that goes into repairing the breach.
And there is a quid pro quo. These schools that seek out capable individuals with leadership abilities are also committed to be led and reshaped by them. It is these young adults who through their experience will rethink, renew, and rebuild the church. And this indeed is good news.