Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia sign on Germantown Avenue with the Shaeffer-Ashmead Chapel in the background. (Photo by John Kahler for LTSP)

Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia sign on Germantown Avenue with the Shaeffer-Ashmead Chapel in the background. (Photo by John Kahler for LTSP)

by Sue Ann Rybak

— The second of a two part series

The Rev. Dr. Katie Day, director of the urban concentration and the Charles A. Schieren Professor of Church and Society at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in Mt. Airy, said that prior to the arrival in 1985 of the Rev. John Vannorsdall, a former president of LTSP, the seminary did not have a very high profile in the community.

“The impression was if you needed to ask [about LTSP], you didn’t belong here,” Day said. “Over the years we have changed quite a bit. Our involvement in the community is something that is really valued here and it’s seen as part of our civic responsibility. We’re an integral part of the communities of Northwest Philadelphia.

“We are not just here in this little monastery training people in isolation. We are training people to be very involved in their communities and not be reclusive or parochial.”

Since then the LTSP has been working to “break down the walls,” Day said, pointing out that under the leadership of the Rev. Philip D.W. Krey, the seminary has worked “to reach beyond the walls,” by advocating for an open dialogue and collaboration with other denominations of faith and organizations within the community.

Day recently wrote “Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street,” published by Oxford University Press in January. In the book, Day examines the relationship of institution to urban context, from Kensington to Chestnut Hill.

In an interview with the Chestnut Hill Local, Krey said the seminary’s focus now is on “intersecting with the community, while being faithful to our tradition, and being a worshiping community and interpreting what it means to be confidently Christian.”

He said LTSP will continue to be a leader in tearing down walls of bigotry, racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Bishop Claire Burkat, of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, reiterated LTSP’s focus of breaking down the barriers between the community and the institution.

“We have metaphorically and physically broken through the stone walls which surrounded the seminary campus for more than a century by building a courtyard open to the community, welcoming ecumenical partnerships, securing a global, public, ecumenically diverse and highly skilled faculty to equip leaders to be ‘living stones,’ able to navigate the increasing changing terrain in which people of faith live and contribute.”

Moving forward in faith

Burkat said the theme of this year’s 150th anniversary celebration is “Moving Forward in Faith.”

“This 150-year-old institution is intentionally attending to the many ways it needs to change and adapt to new technologies, ideas, and directions in education in order to grow and thrive for the next 150 years,” Burkat said.

One way LTSP is looking forward is through its Master of Arts in Public Leadership (MAPL) program. The program prepares students to work in a variety of social ministry organizations, social service agencies and advocacy organizations through the integration of theological and professional disciplines.

Dr. Jon Pahl, who designed the MAPL program, described it as “very innovative.”

“The program is designed for people who have a spiritual foundation and care about social justice issues, but don’t want to be ordained,” Pahl said. “The seminary has a strong program to educate students in classical theological disciplines, to interpret text and understand context, and then articulate the depths of religious commitments. The MAPL program is intentionally interreligious and designed to prepare students to engage our pluralist culture.”

Students take classes at the seminary and either the School of Social Work or the Fox School of Business at Temple University.

Pahl said students gain practical skills from working in social work or business. Students are required to complete three semesters of “case-based field work.” He said graduates have been placed with agencies such as the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia, Project Home, Bread for the Word, and the Mayor’s Office of Faith-based Initiatives, working on issues of hunger, homelessness, poverty and domestic violence and trying to bring religious teachings and spiritual awareness into dialogue with businesses and social justice causes.”

Maria Fumai Dietrich, 28, who recently graduated with a Master of Arts in Public Leadership from LTSP, said the program has two tracks of study – social work or business combined with theological education “with the intent that those graduating from it will take into their field – whether it’s in social work, business or nonprofit management – a sense of how their faith plays a role in their job.”

“It was totally groundbreaking, and nothing else like it existed anywhere else,” said Dietrich, whose husband studied to become a pastor at LTSP. “One of the really wonderful things about the program is that it included studies at Temple University. The seminary is not assuming any expertise in business or social work – although a number people on the staff and faculty have experience in those areas.”

Dietrich, of Haddon Heights, N.J., said one of the things that sets LTSP apart from other institutions is the accessibility of the staff and faulty to students.

“As a new student, you don’t fall through the cracks,” said Dietrich, who lived in family housing on campus with her husband prior to enrolling in the MAPL program. “There are so many people looking out for you and ways to get involved and stay connected to your community. A number of students face huge opposition [from their family] to come to school to study to become a pastor.”

Dietrich said many students leave knowing that they will not make much money in the future and will carry a huge academic debt.

“There is a lot that goes into attending seminary outside of the academics and just the fact that the community is so supportive of each other, really is very magical,” Dietrich said. “I feel like it’s one of the seminary’s best assets.”

Dietrich said LTSP recognized that the church doesn’t have the employment capacity it did 50 years ago.

“The seminary is at the forefront of defining what theological education is going to look like for pastors because they are recognizing that the times have changed and the industry they are preparing professionals to enter has evolved,” Dietrich said.

She said the seminary works very hard at making sure tuition is affordable, adding that the seminary is really focused on “eliminating barriers for students.”

Burkat said one of the goals of this year’s “Moving Forward in Faith” banquet in October will be on raising funds for student scholarships, with a goal of $10 million by 2015.

Karen Sease, 27, who is a current student at LTSP, said many churches are facing financial difficulties now.

“It is a challenging time for the church,” said Sease, who grew up in Columbia, S.C. “I think the seminary sees itself as really integral to forming church leaders who can adapt to the changing context that the church finds itself in.”

Sease, who is studying to become a pastor, said too often Christians get caught up in their disagreements. She said the diversity at LTSP allows people to recognize what we have in common.

“I think our propose as Christians is to walk beside one another, be in relationship to each other as we serve the poor, the needy, the homeless, the hungry, those in prison – knowing that those we seek to serve are real people and not simply a problem to be fixed,” Sease said.

Krey, president of LTSP, said he was “not overly worried” about the future of the church. After all he said, “It is God’s church, not ours.”

Krey said that as LTSP continues moving forward in faith, the seminary will continue its vision of “preparing public leaders for faithful, dynamic, multicultural, multidenominational, bold ministry.”

Burkat added: “I am continually impressed by the graduating students and the integrity, compassion, courage and faithful witness they bring to their vocations as a result of the quality of education and mentoring they received at LTSP. We are truly moving forward in faith.”

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