In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Atlantic School of Theology continues its 47-year tradition of adapting to a challenging environment and a changing church.

By Matthew Townsend

When considering which seminary to attend, American aspirants may not readily look toward the Canadian Maritimes, but the Halifax-based Atlantic School of Theology hopes they take notice.

AST’s offer to Americans may seem unusual: a full-tuition, merit-based scholarship for new MDiv students from the United States. The award, which began last year, is renewable annually if the recipient maintains a B+ average. Two students, one continuing and one entering, received funding this year from the program.

The scholarship is one component in an overall strategy to raise the school’s visibility on both sides of the border. The Rev. Neale S. Bennet, AST’s president and an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, told TLC that the school is holding its own, but that the institution — like seminaries all over North America — is trying to meet the rapidly changing needs of the church and an ever-evolving pedagogy.

“Like all theological schools, we’re experiencing pressures,” he said. “Like most universities, we’re experiencing pressures. But we’re doing okay, maybe better than okay. We publish our financial statements on the website. You can see that we’re healthy from that perspective.”

Pressure is not a new phenomenon in the Maritimes, a region that seems to extend outside of Canada’s eastern margins. Unemployment, poverty, and collapsed fisheries have made life hard for East Coasters, lending a hardscrabble reputation to the place. The people are kind, but circumstances are not — which often translates to the life of the church.

Halifax, the provincial capital of Nova Scotia, is the economic center of the Maritimes and the exception to the rule. Its unemployment is relatively low and the city has seen steady population growth for many decades, conditions that do not readily apply elsewhere in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, or Newfoundland and Labrador.

“My initial impression of the Anglican scene in Halifax, when I moved here two years ago, was that it mirrored the geography of the city. Halifax is a granite rock tucked into a corner of the Atlantic Ocean,” said Daniel Driver, associate professor for Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at AST. Driver was born in Portland, Oregon, and studied at Wheaton College in Illinois and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Before coming to Halifax, Driver taught at Tyndale University College in Toronto. He is now in his third year of teaching and worshiping in Halifax. “It was established as a military stronghold of the British Empire, and in many ways it still feels like an outpost. In a way it remains a citadel. But it flourishes.”

“I sometimes think of the Anglican church here as a delicate ecosystem, perhaps like one that would grow up on a rock sticking up out of the Atlantic. It is tenacious,” he told TLC. “AST and Anglicanism here seem to have taken root in a harsh environment, and to hang on like flowers that are adapted to the realities of winter and ocean.”

These realities — Halifax’s placement far from Canada’s other major population centers and long-term struggle in the surrounding environs — have allowed AST to foreshadow changes made elsewhere in Christendom. The school formed when three denominations came together to combine their educational efforts. The Faculty of Theology at the University of King’s College (Anglican), Holy Heart Theological Institute (Roman Catholic), and Pine Hill Divinity Hall (United Church of Canada) merged at the Pine Hill campus on the Northwest Arm of Halifax Harbor.

This may sound like a story from the late 1990s or early 2000s, as increased financial stress and decreased church attendance led to cooperation across profound denominational lines. However, AST’s formation came much earlier. “Catholics and Protestants have studied and trained together here since 1971,” Driver said. “Institutional ecumenism may have arisen by foresight or necessity — probably it was both — but by now it is simply a part of the ecosystem.”

The realization at the time, said the Rev. Susan MacAlpine-Gillis — assistant professor of pastoral theology, recruitment coordinator, and a graduate — was that no single denomination in Halifax could easily meet enrollment targets. MacAlpine-Gillis speaks well of AST and the Canadian church, but she also offers frankness and realism. “We will have undoubtedly fewer full-time clergy in any of our denominations, because it’s just hard to find congregations who can meet those needs,” she told TLC. “We may be back to that Methodist circuit rider phenomenon, where there is one person who is traditionally theologically educated who is resourcing multiple smaller communities of faith.”

As mainline denominations shrink and needs change, questions of enrollment — who, why, and for how long — drive AST’s agenda.

“We’re meeting the challenge of enrollment in all kinds of different ways, one of them being to put focus on continuing education and on diploma programs,” Bennet said. “We’ve seen quite a growth in our enrollment in diploma programs. We have an MA in theology and religious studies, which is a growing program.”

“We are taking our light out from underneath the bushel in a more significant way than we have in the past. We’re advertising regionally, nationally, and internationally.”

Going the Distance
Also among AST’s efforts to diversify: a five-year, distance-based MDiv program in which students come for summer study and spend the rest of the year in practicum study as a student minister in the mission field. As with AST’s ecumenical merger, this is not a recent development: the program is long out of testing, having been offered for more than ten years. Learning sites — churches that wish to receive a student minister — register through their denominations and are made available to AST students, should all sides agree on placement.

Like Matthew Heesing, most students in the distance program are affiliated with the United Church. The program was created to meet the UC’s needs, but it is available to Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and those from other denominations, provided judicatory approval and a suitable learning site. In Heesing’s case, that site is United Church in the Valley, Turner Valley, about an hour south of Calgary. There, he is a part-time student online and paid part-time minister — the only one in the congregation. In the summer, he returns to Halifax to spend six weeks as a full-time student.

Heesing, who is from Edmonton, completed a master’s degree in religious studies and theology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. When considering an MDiv, he decided to go the distance route. He got engaged to another Albertan after finishing his degree. Staying put meant Marlee, now Heesing’s wife, could seek work locally, he told TLC. He also did not want to lose three years of income while earning a degree in Halifax. Residential programs elsewhere in Canada could have sent him to the country’s most expensive cities — Toronto and Vancouver — also off the table.

His choice was not driven solely by financial criteria, though.

“The idea of doing a practicum learning experience was very appealing,” Heesing told TLC by phone. “I was looking for something more hands-on, more practical, more on the ground, getting my boots dirty, my hands dirty.”

AST’s experience with distance education and its pedagogy “solidified the decision.” Heesing said he especially appreciates how professors, during practicum study, try to integrate online courses with a student’s practical ministry.

This understanding of adult learners — people with families, careers, and a need for practical experience — also attracted Douglas Beck. A confirmed Episcopalian and an American, Beck is among the populations AST has been seeking to reach.

“Living in Maine and being middle-aged, my hope for my theological education was to find a program that provided for long-distance learning,” he told TLC. “At the time, it seemed that part of my call included beginning an MDiv program. It had been 25 years since my most recent degree, and I had some concerns about going back to school while managing day-to-day life responsibilities.”

Beck started in the distance program for this reason but has since switched to residential study in Halifax. “There is definitely a different intensity to the residential program,” he said. “For me, the experience of shifting from the distance program to the residential also deepened my relationship with my ongoing process and engaged learning. The church, AST administration, faculty, staff, and other students offer an opportunity for lively, interactive relationship in both programs.”

Heesing, 26, has remained in the distance program and is now in his third year. He said the program has worked well for him because of his experience in the church. Not only does he hold a degree in religious studies, but he has been involved with board, presbytery, General Council, and international service. He has led worship, offered pulpit supply, and preached, so starting practical education made sense for him. “It really wasn’t a huge intimidation for me,” he said, to “plunge in with both feet.”

He also cited the strengths of spending five years with a congregation instead of a 14-month internship, of which several months are consumed by settling in and looking for a first call.

The seminarian cautioned, however, that people with less experience could struggle with being tossed into a ministry environment. “For those really just starting out on their journey … I would be nervous,” he said. There are multiple circles of support and accountability, but “in terms of the nature of planting [yourself] feet-first into the deep end, that’s a lot of power and responsibility. The potential for less than proficient leadership is certainly there.”

Another risk, according to Heesing: that a congregation could sign up as a learning site in order to find an affordable minister, not understanding the commitment to education and potential ancillary expenses. He said his site has been exceptional, however, with a motto of “We’ll try anything twice.”

These concerns aside, for students remaining in their local environment, Heesing said a distance program could equip leaders who already have a “contextual qualification” — they know the region and perhaps even the congregation in which they will serve, but can still participate in accredited theological education.

MacAlpine-Gillis, who is co-coordinator of the distance program, said she agrees with Heesing and that AST takes these kinds of concerns into account. “When you are enrolling students in a program that combines academics and practice of ministry, you want people coming in who feel comfortable taking on leadership in a congregation,” she said, adding that the vast majority of students who consider the distance program have ministry experience. They are the “people that get tapped on the shoulder, either by another person, by their minister, or by God, to say, Have you thought about a path to ordered ministry?”

Thus, she said, students who enter the distance program are usually confident, ready to “jump into the pool and figure out how to swim.”

A Role for Theological Education
Looking at the bigger picture, MacAlpine-Gillis cited growth in judicatory-based educational programs, such as diocesan-based schools aimed at filling gaps left by seminary closures. AST’s program launched for similar reasons: to help the UC provide pastoral coverage for rural Newfoundland, among small congregations. Now, the school is trying to reach into other denominations, “to say, We have been there, we know what that’s like, we have a program that can help you meet those same needs.”

The professor said AST hopes to connect with more Anglican and Episcopal bishops, “cautiously not wanting to step on toes, but to say, We think we have a program that could really help to meet the theological education needs of your people.”

Part of this reaching out comes from AST’s formation program. It has three formation directors (one for each denomination), who help keep residential and summer students grounded in their faith traditions. MacAlpine-Gillis hopes to communicate that AST does not want to tread upon local episcopal authority, “but say, Here’s a tried-and-true method for a person to serve a pastoral charge at a distance and earn a degree, to say to bishops, You can determine what a particular student in a particular parish can do, according to your norms, and we provide an education and Anglican formation in summer residence and online throughout the year.”

Students unsure about being called to an MDiv are able to enroll in courses at a distance, through the certificate and diploma programs mentioned by Bennet. MacAlpine-Gillis cited a new Anglican student based in Québec’s Magdalen Islands, a remote part of the Diocese of Québec experiencing long-term population loss. “What she’s going to learn from that will just be so good for her own growth, and it will translate into what she’ll be able to offer to that community on her island.”

“It’s always our hope that people will take what they’ve learned and teach others.”

Back in Halifax, AST is similarly working to expand theological education among Haligonians who never intend to become priests, but hope to carry theological knowledge into their careers.

“We have and have had students who are business executives, lawyers, accountants, physicians, journalists,” Bennet said. “This fall, we are hosting a symposium on social enterprise. We think there’s a whole group of people out there who are interested in growing or developing as leaders, in terms of being leaders of integrity who don’t necessarily see themselves as becoming ordained ministers in the church — or even senior lay leaders in the church of some fashion. But they see leadership as a vocation for them, and they want to develop as vocational leaders.”

“All of this builds on who we have always been, a university dedicated to shaping faithful and effective leaders.”

AST’s adaptation is not limited to its classrooms. The school has been consolidating real estate as well, clearing out the first floor of its office building — a once and future residence hall, this time for students at AST, St. Mary’s University (with which AST is affiliated), or the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. Bennet and MacAlpine-Gillis said this fits with AST’s educational mission and can offer students outside of religious studies a glimpse at theological education.

As AST reaches into new populations, MacAlpine-Gillis underscores its mission and purpose. “I think that there is value in having educated scholars teach theology,” she said. “Sometimes, it seems as if people think anybody can be in ministry — and, yes, there are certain aspects of the profession or the job that lots of people can do. But in a time of complex change, both theologically and culturally, I think we want people in [congregations] who understand the tradition of the church and the theological foundations that we’re built upon.

“It’s not just being a worship leader and preaching fuzzy, feel-good sermons, but a person who can wrestle deeply with a text and offer that, and maybe a very challenging, prophetic kind of witness. I think that there will always be a role for theological education.”

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