Imagine a seminary where belief in God is optional, but a commitment to weaving theology into the arts, interfaith service or boots-on-the-ground “social transformation” is a prerequisite.
Inspired in part by his own experience playing Division 1 football for the University of Kansas in the early 2000s, the Rev. Gary Green II is in the process of designing a course on theology and sports activism.
His plans, he said, include airing “Disruptive Conversations” — recorded interviews with young Black men who have played collegiate or professional football, and “who are seen, on the one hand, as sub-human, but also as superhuman.”
The goal is to move beyond his classroom at the United Theological Seminary in St. Paul and open those conversations to members of the general public, regardless of their religious affiliation.
“If I’m actually listening to an athlete tell his story, and considering the theological depth of it, and the political sensibility, then we can collaborate to make things better,” Green said. “If you’re going to change the world, it’s going to require collaboration. Why not have athletes working with politicians and theologians? If our work does not touch the community, why are we doing this?”
It’s a question that is often asked at St. Paul’s newest graduate school, a 60-year-old theological institution that made the jump from New Brighton to the capital city’s Green Line corridor in early 2019, in part to be closer to the arts community and the urban core.
Formed in 1962 as a merger between the Mission House Seminary of Plymouth, Wis., and Yankton School of Theology in Yankton, S.D., United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities dubs itself an ecumenical graduate school committed to “interreligious engagement” and social action.
Over the years, the progressive seminary has evolved from its main-line Protestant roots in the United Church of Christ to embrace, in a social sense, “some of the messiness of life, and get into those complicated conversations,” said Green, who joined the faculty mid-2019. “But there’s not a lot of people in the community who even knew we were having those conversations, because they weren’t being held publicly.”
A PRESIDENTIAL SEARCH, A BREWERY AND PUBLIC SERVICE
School leaders are looking to change that, in part by finding a new school president open to raising the seminary’s public profile and steadying its finances.
Some of that work is already underway. A year before COVID-19 became a household name, the seminary — which will celebrate its 60th anniversary in October — relocated from the suburbs to the roomy interior of a former tractor factory on Eustis Street in St. Paul.
Classrooms were immediately equipped for remote learning, as more than half the rapidly-growing student body has been Zooming in from well outside the Twin Cities even before the pandemic.
For in-person learners, there’s alcohol. The progressive Christian seminary may not have a hip cafe on campus, but it offers working happy hours next door at the Lab Brewery, which shares the same building.
The “Theology on Tap” gatherings have been a hit with graduate students, but that’s hardly the only selling point for a less-than-run-of-the-mill graduate program where spirituality trumps organized religion, and service to others is the only way to get a passing grade.
A NON-TRADITIONAL APPROACH
Who might enroll? Christians, Jews, Muslims, pagans and atheists, for starters.
“The first Baha’i licensed chaplain was a graduate of United,” said Assistant Professor Justin Sabia-Tanis, director of the school’s “Social Transformation” program, one of its three major tracks. His students have gone on to open showers for the homeless at a Florida church, launch a by-kids, for-kids children’s magazine at a Twin Cities elementary school, and write a “liturgy of lament” around the topic of George Floyd’s death for a progressive church in Edina.
About 57 percent of the 165-student body are being trained for the chaplaincy — mostly in interfaith settings such as prisons, hospitals, hospice and the military — and a third track focuses on the intersection of theology and arts programming.
It’s a non-traditional approach toward seminary education, and while other Twin Cities seminaries, convents and religious programs have grappled with declining enrollment figures, student numbers at United began trending upwards in fall of 2018.
Still, money is tight.
For the 2017-2018 calendar year, the latest year for which tax forms are publicly available at Guidestar.org, the seminary listed $4 million in revenue and $4.8 million in expenses. That’s relatively positive news. Financial losses were even greater the year before at negative $1.14 million and the year before that at negative $1.7 million.
A NEW PRESIDENT
After serving for five years as president, former board chair Lew Zeidner plans to retire this year.
Incoming interim president Molly T. Marshall will fill the post on March 1, with the goal of helping to further define a shape and strategy for both the presidential search and the institution itself.
Marshall has cultivated a reputation as a turn-around artist: at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas, she was credited with saving the school from closure in 2004 and then going on to stabilize its finances and grow enrollment.
In terms of the latter, “we’ve been growing about 15 to 20 percent annually over the last few years,” Sabia-Tanis said. “Previously, most people went to seminary because they went to their pastor and said, ‘I think I want to go to seminary,’ and the pastor said, ‘Oh, you should go to my school.’ Now it’s ‘How can I contribute meaningfully to the world? What is the purpose of my life?’ rather than service to a specific church.”
“The younger generations are more likely to identify as spiritual, rather than religious,” Sabia-Tanis added. “Our inter-religious approach — which draws students from a variety of faiths, and none — is different from the seminaries built in the 1950s, where everyone prepares to serve local congregations where everybody went to church on Sunday. The religious questions were very different than they are today.”
WRESTLING WITH QUESTIONS AFTER GEORGE FLOYD’S DEATH
For a graduate theological program that prides itself on its commitment to racial and social justice, those questions have taken on added immediacy in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis Police custody last May.
Floyd’s violent death set off days of riots across the Twin Cities and across the country. Given that history, officials at all levels of government are bracing for the March trial of officer Derek Chauvin — captured on video kneeling for nearly eight minutes on Floyd’s neck. The theological community is grappling with its own seemingly-contradictory responsibilities to educate, promote calm and healing or take to the streets and demand justice.
“We’re wrestling with these questions in ethics class right now,” said Stephani Pescitelli, a theology and arts concentrator. “There’s no easy or perfect answers, but there’s definitely creative, compassionate responses when it isn’t a black or white issue — keeping people and well-being at the center, and being clear about what matters most.”
A VIRTUAL DISCUSSION
On March 2, United Theological Seminary will host a virtual discussion with three Black faith leaders — Green, MSNBC contributor and Rev. Traci Blackmon of the United Church of Christ, and the Rev. Steven Belton, president and chief executive officer of the Twin Cities Urban League.
The focus of the discussion, according to the university’s event announcement, will be how clergy and community leaders can “provide care while disrupting systems of oppression in this moment.” The Zoom event is pay-what-you-can, with a $10 suggested donation but no payment required, and open to the public. Tickets are available at tinyurl.com/BlackFaithLeaders2021.
Pescitelli, a trained environmental biologist who is also seeking ordination through the Unitarian Universalist church, has already faced her share of theological wrestling after moving to the Twin Cities from Madison, Wis., to enroll in the seminary in 2019.
She recalled a “Sex and Religion” class led by Sabia-Tanis where most of the students identified as supporting abortion rights. To force them to fine-tune their reasoning and better understand communities of faith that oppose abortion, Sabia-Tunis took the class to a presentation led by an anti-abortion speaker at a Catholic church.
“He really challenged us to see things from all sides,” Pescitelli said. “We were very much going as respectful witnesses. That experience transformed the way I approach these questions and gave me so much more space to listen to people who are different than me. (Justin) is a very skilled facilitator at holding that kind of space. It’s about building relationships and understanding the other.”