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Graham's Journey with North Park Theological Seminary

Stephen Graham

CHICAGO, IL (December 5, 2007) - Theological training has never been more important, and yet connecting seminaries with the local church continues to present new and difficult challenges, says Stephen Graham, who is leaving his position as dean of faculty and professor of American church history at North Park Theological Seminary (NPTS).

He will begin his new position as director of faculty development and initiatives in theological education at the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) in January.

The membership organization of more than 250 graduate schools accredits those institutions and approves their degree programs while seeking to expand and deepen educational opportunities. In his new position Graham will lead several faculty development and grant programs. Graham joined the NPTS faculty in 1988 and has served in his current role since 1997. His published works in relation to the Evangelical Covenant Church have included writing on the Pentecostal and charismatic movements and their relationships to the denomination. The articles were written as part of a project on “Pentecostal Currents in the American Church,” sponsored by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. His centennial history of North Park Covenant Church, located in Chicago, is nearing completion.

Graham’s combination of administrative, teaching, and church historian experience will help in his new role, Graham says.

As an administrator, Graham is knowledgeable about the challenges associated with offering and receiving a theological education. He says the seminary training is important to help ministers deal with the pastoral challenges posed by expanding and increasingly complex ethical, economic, and political issues. Technology and trade also have brought the global society closer to home. More churches are having to minister in communities that are experiencing an increase in the number and kinds of faith traditions, Graham notes. For example, Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques are now being built in small rural towns, as well as large cities. Seminary training will better equip pastors to maintain a “firm commitment” to the gospel while working together with clergy of other faiths, Graham adds.

Theological schools also help denominations interact with the modern culture while remaining faithful to their roots, Graham says, adding, “Seminaries are key carriers of identity.” Increasingly, however, churches - especially larger congregations - are choosing to train from within rather than require seminary training. The history professor notes, however, that “there’s always been an ongoing tension between the church and the academy.” The ATS is developing means by which local pastors and the seminary faculty can work together. “Sitting down together will remove some of the stereotypes,” Graham says. “If we’re not serving the church, then we’re wasting our time,” he adds. “The Making Connections Initiative is a major way in which North Park Theological Seminary is addressing the issue,” Graham says. The initiative is funded by a $2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment and has enabled programs that include Pastors in Residence. As part of the program, ministers from local congregations spend a week at school teaching classes, studying and sharing insights with faculty. Graham also is concerned that people who want to attend seminary have the opportunity. The cost of a theological education has been a barrier for many people, especially minorities and ministers in a bi-vocational setting, he says. Graham’s work in church history will be a major benefit in his new job, he says.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the whole church,” he explains. That breadth of understanding should help him in working with the various theological understandings among the different institutions. He hopes to model the same attitude as Philip Schaff, the theologian and church historian who was the subject of his dissertation. “He was broadly ecumenical as is Martin Marty (his dissertation advisor).” Graham never envisioned his future would include being an administrator, not even at the seminary. “I don’t think any professor who has this position ever does,” he says. Although he looks forward to his new position, leaving North Park is bittersweet, Graham adds. “It’s been a fun run.”

To learn more about the Making Connections Initiative, directed by Mary Miller, visit the Making Connections website.

(SF)