By Retta Blaney
Michael W. DeLashmutt remembers the first time he was to lead Evensong as the new vice president and dean of academic affairs at General Theological Seminary. Anxiety was getting the best of him until one of his colleagues told him not to worry. If he dropped the liturgical ball, one of them would pick it up for him.
“That’s what liturgy does for us,” he said. “It catches us when we stumble.”
That story illustrates two key elements in DeLashmutt’s life: a respect for the tradition of a common liturgy and the power of community to sustain us on the Christian journey. They are the strength of the Episcopal tradition for him and the foundation of the seminary’s curriculum. To that core he has added what he saw as a missing ingredient in ministerial preparation: practical leadership training, that is, a new Master of Arts in Ministry degree for people interested in being leaders in the church but who do not necessarily feel called to ordination. It is the first new degree program in 20 years at the nearly 200-year-old seminary, and it welcomed four students to its inaugural semester in September.
“It responds to a real deficit in Christian education across the mainline churches,” DeLashmutt said. “It reflects a truer vision of what seminary education should be, to prepare people — all God’s people — for service.”
DeLashmutt discussed this new master’s degree in the seminary’s refectory, where students and faculty share a daily meal. He had just finished teaching the last class for the semester of “Introduction to Christian Theology,” during which students gave presentations on topics ranging from a feminist analysis of original sin to the theology of trauma. For DeLashmutt, class and lunch go hand in hand.
“We’re engaged in reconciling relationships,” he said. “We’re reflecting the eucharistic table. You can’t talk about theology without engaging in practices of reconciliation. That’s what this is.”
Christian education happens in the classroom and it continues over a meal of turkey and gravy, roasted potatoes, root vegetables, and cream of broccoli soup. What General has added to the mix with the new degree program is leadership training to take spiritual values into the workplace.
“Spiritual habits transfer to people wherever they’re headed,” DeLashmutt said. “At an NGO or in nonprofit leadership, all of these for a Christian would require a different context. Your leadership would be different if you believe the gospel is true. In youth work, it would be with an eye toward the spiritual formation of the individual.”
With the seminary’s educational history as its base, the Master of Ministry program includes a Harvard Business School-type component to create a degree that offers the same quality of education as that of training for the priesthood.
“There’s wisdom out there to be evaluated in light of the gospel,” DeLashmutt said. “Augustine gave us permission to look at these and evaluate where truth might be useful.”
DeLashmutt, who is a lay person with a PhD in theology from the University of Glasgow, said the church is changing significantly and that fewer full-time positions are available for clergy in the Episcopal tradition, making it important to prepare lay people for ministry “in a structured, thought-out way.”
The seminary has long been open to anyone seeking religious education, but the focus was on ordination. The Master of Ministry is the second professional MA, preceded by the Master of Arts in Spiritual Direction.
“To respond to the church of the future, there will be increasing and often parallel opportunities for lay people to do ministry alongside the ordained,” said the Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, 13th dean and president. “Education and formation are essential whether one is ordained or not. For those who feel so called to lead the church without the anticipation of being ordained, it seems like the church should work to equally prepare these folks.
“The MA in Ministry directly and practically affirms our commitment of educating and forming both lay leaders and ordained leaders for the church in a changing world.”
The seminary’s core remains the same.
“We are profoundly Episcopal,” DeLashmutt said. “We’re not changing that, but we feel we have something to share. We’re a residential seminary in an urban context. We want to make that available to as many people as possible.”
While lay people have been studying theology together for decades in Education for Ministry (EfM), a four-year distant learning certificate program, General’s program is an accredited master’s degree.
“Walking away with graduate credits is always a good thing,” DeLashmutt said. “EFM can be theologically rich, but it’s not engineered specifically for vocational training.”
The seminary’s new degree can “respond to trends in a very short time,” DeLashmutt said, adding that if several students wanted to pursue careers in youth ministry, “in six months we could spin up a curriculum. We have the resources. We have thousands of dollars’ worth of books and the faculty is up for it.”
Similarly, if students are interested in Christian education, prison ministry, or social work, “we could quickly develop a curriculum to meet the changing needs of the student.”
In the case of David Gungor, who is a professional musician, this approach was applied to his summative project. Rather than writing a paper for his final project, he composed and recorded several songs that responded to themes in Wolfhart Pannenberg’s systematic theology. In addition to the music, he wrote a small paper that described his process and spelled out the academic dimension of the creative work.
“We are teaching with a ministry horizon in mind, so that the future vocational goals of our students inform everything that we do,” DeLashmutt said. “As a small school, this allows us to work closely with students, to design everything from whole courses to individual assignments that help integrate theological studies and ministry development.”
The Rev. Canon C.K. Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond the Episcopal Church, said we are at a time when it is important for seminaries to think outside the box and that General’s new degree is a good example.
“There’s a great need in the church to be more serious about leadership,” he said, citing St. Paul as someone whose ministry was successful because he combined the theological with the practical. “We’re at a time when we need to remember or imagine what ministry was like in the past.”
Robertson teaches a course each semester at General in the Master of Divinity program, alternating between traditional subjects such as the New Testament and courses in congregational development and conflict resolution.
“Always the goal is how to join the theological with the practical,” he said. “That’s crucial.”
Accreditation for the new master’s was completed in April, leaving the school little time to advertise before deciding on fall admissions. DeLashmutt said this is good because, with only four students in the program, the seminary can readily meet their vocational needs. Two students heard of it through word of mouth and two were already students who transferred into the new master’s.
Gungor is one of the word-of-mouth newbies. An assistant pastor at Trinity Grace, a nondenominational church in lower Manhattan, he is also a songwriter, singer, and musician and has found what he’s learned in just one semester to be of great benefit to his work.
“I’m an artist and I work at a church that’s not Episcopal,” he said. “It’s a beautiful stepping stone to a more sacramental view of artistry. It’s good for my church and it’s good for my art. It’s practical to what I do.”
Gungor, 31, spoke from the living room of the apartment he shares with his wife, Kate, a student in the Master of Spiritual Direction program, and their four children. Windows look onto the lawn of the Close and the surrounding 19th-century buildings. It is into that picturesque world that he allows his children out to play, knowing they will be safe, with the kind of freedom he enjoyed growing up in the Midwest.
“We fell in love with the campus,” he said. “It’s such a family-friendly place. We feel like we have our own lawn.”
The son of an evangelical pastor, Gungor is not an Episcopalian. The new master’s is open to all Christians.
“The Episcopal Church really is a beautiful expression of faith for where I am,” he said, adding that the degree could be a track to see if he wants to be ordained. “The program seemed welcoming to me as an outsider. The Episcopal Church is welcoming to diverse thought. It’s not afraid to question and to wrangle. I feel like I’m able to learn from and contribute ideas that are different in class.”
This is exactly what the program’s creator had in mind. DeLashmutt said models of traditional seminary education were inherited from the Berlin school, in which students trained to be “the intellectual leaders of the community.” It was highly philosophical and “practical ministry education of any sort was marginalized.”
That DeLashmutt has found a home in the Episcopal Church is a reflection of the same welcoming nature that Gungor found. His background is eclectic: Methodist then Baptist then Pentecostal, until an incident when he was 19 and he more or less abandoned going to church. He did, though, continue to respond to a call he first felt at 16, a desire for a career in some kind of ministry. Wanting a theological education led him to Fuller Theological Seminary Northwest and to what turned out to be a life-changing experience when a friend invited him to a Presbyterian service in Seattle. For the first time he experienced clergy wearing vestments and an order of service that began with a deacon offering a confession and absolution.
“I just felt something in me break. I had a profound sense of gratitude and acceptance.”
That was the beginning of his transition to mainline churches. He found his way to the Anglican Communion while living in the United Kingdom and was confirmed at Easter Vigil in 2011.
“Liturgy is that thing that carries you,” he said. “It’s almost like a net of grace that holds you when you can’t stand on your own. The prayers are from Scripture, to pray back to God. God gives us the words when we don’t have the words. Liturgical spirit, to me, is one way of providing deep meaning in the midst of life.”
DeLashmutt sees the seminary’s education as providing that net of grace. He thinks of the disorientation he felt before his first Evensong at General because it helps him relate to how new students can feel.
“We set a culture of forgiveness,” he said. “Students can feel free to make mistakes because they have a structure in place.”
Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.