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Friday, April 17, 2020

Signs of Life at Community of Christ Seminary

Over the past week I've blogged, perhaps rather depressingly, about religious colleges closing. Those featured were associated with the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Today, how about something more positive, and related to a different 'Restoration Movement'? Community of Christ Seminary, part of Graceland University, has announced that they're expanding their Master of Arts in Religion program.

In case you're unfamiliar, Community of Christ (notice no 'the' in the name, and that's intentional on their part) is the former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For most of their history since 'the Reorganization' in 1860 they spilled a great deal of ink in distinguishing themselves from their Utah cousins, denouncing polygamy, and laying claim to being the one, true church of Christ on earth. Over the course of the late 20th century the denomination became more progressive, shedding a massive number of members in the process and spawning myriads of splinter groups. In 2000 they officially changed their name to Community of Christ, and have continue since then in bringing their beliefs and practices in line with the era. While they continue to use the Book of Mormon and their own edition of the Doctrine & Covenants (two which they actively add new sections from time to time) in addition to the Bible, their view of scripture is worth noting:
"Scripture is writing inspired by God’s Spirit and accepted by the church as the normative expression of its identity, message, and mission. We affirm the Bible as the foundational scripture for the church. In addition, Community of Christ uses the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants—not to replace the witness of the Bible or improve on it, but because they confirm its message that Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God. When responsibly interpreted and faithfully applied, scripture provides divine guidance and inspired insight for our discipleship."
For more details on that, check out Scripture in Community of Christ.

While RLDS/Community of Christ branches have traditionally had bi-vocational, self-supporting ministers serving them, over the past few decades some of these as well as full-time ministers and denominational leaders enrolled in graduate theological programs, obtaining advanced degrees in divinity. It's fairly certain that this study was a strong contributing factor to the transformation of the church from an LDS sect to a forward-looking denomination. I've been given to understand that one of the seminaries that influenced many of them was St Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, a United Methodist school. Others, like Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, were also in the mix. It was only about 2+ decades ago that Community of Christ started their own seminary.

While Community of Christ Seminary does not offer a Master of Divinity (MDiv) program, sort of the 'gold standard' of theological education, and required by most organized denominations for ministerial ordination, under the auspices of Graceland University they do have a Master of Arts in Religion program that is regionally accredited. The news from the past month or so is that this program now has three areas of concentration to choose from, rather than just one standard for all students.


Those concentrations are broken down as follows:
Christian Theology
  • RELG5022 Introduction to the Hebrew Bible 3 s.h.
  • RELG5050 New Testament - Letters and Apocalypse 3 s.h.
  • RELG6050 Christology and Liberation Theology 3 s.h.
  • RELG6070 History of Christian Thought II 3 s.h.
Spiritual Leadership
  • RELG5435 Pastor as Person 3 s.h.
  • RELG5440 Spiritual Formation and Transformation 3 s.h.
  • RELG6245 Transformational Leadership 3 s.h.
  • RELG6250 Community Building and Diversity 3 s.h.
 Peace and Justice
  • RELG5445 Theology of Peace 3 s.h.
  • RELG5450 Philosophy of Peacebuilding 3 s.h.
  • RELG6255 Social Justice: Ecologies and Economies of Peace 3 s.h.
  • RELG6260 Conflict Resolution and Restorative Justice 3 s.h.
The full lineup of classes for this degree can be found on the Community of Christ Seminary website.

The reason I share this is to demonstrate that while some colleges and seminaries are closing or consolidating, and new models of education are being developed to work in the contemporary scenario, theological education itself is not dying. I take the effort that Community of Christ leadership is putting into developing their own seminary not only as a way for them to train their own ministers, but also to participate in the broader work of churches of all varieties. From what I've found online, they take in a fair number of students from other denominations.

While they do not offer an MDiv, I'm certain that they have this on their roadmap. The Master of Arts can be offered through Graceland's accreditation, as noted above, but a valid MDiv requires recognition from the Association of Theological Schools. Offering the MA in Religion is probably preparatory to receiving that accreditation.

My plans are already fairly established, in that I hope to begin studying through Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology next year (2021), with an assist from Starr King School for the Ministry to cover the UU-specific courses. If this path weren't available to me, a second choice would be the eventual MDiv I expect Community of Christ Seminary to offer. And, if I were only looking for an MA in Religion, this seminary would be at the top of my list.

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