2017 Distinguished Alum The Rev. Dr. Samuel Solivan ‘76

Rev. Dr. Samuel Solivan, WTS graduate, 1976

Rev. Dr. Samuel Solivan calls himself Pentecostal and Arminian—not exactly a run-of- the-mill Western graduate! From the moment he was born, this year’s distinguished alum has lived a life full of surprises and God’s miraculous intervention.

When Sam’s mother was only seven months pregnant, she was at the church cleaning around the altar when suddenly she began to go into labor. The pastor and some members of the church helped her to the floor and she gave birth right there. The pastor held the boy in his arms and named him Samuel.

Sam’s parents had moved to East Harlem, NY from Puerto Rico. His father was a quiet military man, and his mother was a devout Christ-follower who took her six sons to church nearly every day. Sam learned a deep love for the church from her.

As a child, Sam was diagnosed with hearing loss and what was then called “mental retardation.” His mother was encouraged to send him to a special school for the deaf, but it was too far away, so he remained in remedial classes at public school.

Doctors attempted four different surgeries to improve his hearing, but the last surgery caused part of his face to become disfigured. He dealt with a lot of bullying, leading his teachers to suggest home school, but his mother insisted he stay in school. “We believe in a healing God,” she said.

He later transferred to a vocational school, and there his guidance counselor told him not to expect much out of life. “Just do your best.”

Sam and Irene’s wedding, 1969

During this time, Sam met his future wife, Irene. Her parents sponsored youth activities and prayer vigils at their home. When Sam was 13, he entered their home and saw Irene playing the piano.

The next year, during one of these vigils, Sam sensed the Lord calling him to “preach and teach My word.” He thought it was just emotionalism and wondered how God could use him with his learning disabilities. He asked God to confirm this call through his Word and through others. He also thought he would need to speak Spanish, so he asked to learn it. Then he opened his Bible and it landed on Jeremiah 1: “I have called you and known you since you were in your mother’s womb.”

Iglesia Evangelica del Bronx—Sam was literally born here, Irene grew up in this church, they got married here, and Sam was installed as pastor of this church.

That same night, Irene’s father asked Sam to join him at an evangelistic meeting the next day. When the evangelist (whom Sam had never met) went forward to speak, he asked, “Is there a Sam Solivan in the room?” Sam nervously stepped forward, and the man said, “The Lord said he will heal your mind and body and teach you Spanish.”

A few years later when Sam graduated from high school, he was drafted into the Air Force. Once he passed training, the military realized he had pre-existing conditions that would prevent him from getting insurance during active duty. They offered him an option: either go to Vietnam without insurance, or receive an honorable discharge as a veteran of the United States.

“I may be [mentally disabled], but I’m no fool!” Dr. Solivan recalls thinking.

He returned home and went to church to thank God for not having to go to war. In normal Pentecostal tradition, Sam began to speak in tongues as he prayed at the front of the church. In the back of the church, someone offered the interpretation: “I permitted this [sickness] in your life to save your life, and now I’m going to heal you. The four years you would have given to the Air Force, you will give to Me to serve Me.”

From that day forward, his hearing began to improve. Over the years, his facial deformation has healed to the point that it is now barely noticeable.

Sam heard about Central Bible College in Springfield, MO from Irene’s pastor and decided to apply. Even though he was at a second grade reading level, his compassionate professors helped him as the Lord healed his mind and body.

He completed his Bachelor of Arts in 1970 and returned to the Pentecostal church where he was raised, this time as the head pastor. He also began work as a community organizer in East Harlem. Traditionally, Pentecostal pastors are not required to attend seminary, so Sam would have been happy not to go—but the Lord had other plans.

Sam with WTS President I. John Hesselink, 1975

In 1973, Sam received a call from Dr. I. John Hesselink of Western Theological Seminary. Dr. Hesselink was working with the Reformed Church in America to recruit Latino leadership in the denomination and wanted Sam to come for an interview to be a student. The sheer unconventionality of the situation told Sam that this was a sign from God. A month later, he and his wife and three young children moved to Holland, MI for the Greek summer course.

“As an Arminian, a Latino, and a Pentecostal, it was somewhat strange, but also amazing and wonderful,” he shares. “There’s been no other community that was so powerful in transforming and equipping me. Western Theological Seminary is the institution that has most marked my life.”

During his time in Holland, Sam was named the city’s Commissioner of Education and Housing for the Human Relations Commission, and he also started the West Michigan Latino Ministers Association. He graduated with the class of 1976, alongside current WTS president Timothy Brown.

“I have kept looking over Western’s shoulders over the years, seeing their efforts to recruit Latino, African Americans, and other minorities,” says Sam. “I’ve been encouraged by that.”

Officially “Dr. Solivan” — getting his PhD at Union Theological Seminary, 1993

One interaction with Professor John Piet stuck with Sam. “I’m going to speak to you as a Pentecostal,” Dr. Piet said one day to Sam’s surprise. “The Holy Spirit is leading me to tell you this: The Lord is going to open the doors for you to get a Ph.D.”

Dr. Piet was right. The following year, Sam was accepted to Union Theological Seminary in New York City for a one-year research degree, the Master of Sacred Theology. Later, after serving four years as an RCA missionary in Venezuela, he would return to Union for his Ph.D.

Even though Sam came from a Pentecostal background, the WTS faculty certified him to be ordained in the RCA by the Classis of New York. When he and his family returned from Venezuela, he served as lead pastor of Bethel Reformed Church in New Jersey and later Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn.

Eventually, Dr. Solivan transferred to the Assemblies of God, the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination. He moved to Boston and taught Christian theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Harvard Medical School invited him to be the theologian on a team studying medicine and spirituality. Eventually the study became a required course, and he was asked to be an adjunct faculty member.

In 1999, the Lord called Dr. Solivan to Puerto Rico. He was invited to serve as vice president of religious affairs at InterAmerican University, the largest bi-lingual evangelical protestant university in the world. He still serves there as a tenured professor of theology, and he helped to found their Ph.D. program. He has also served for nine years at the Theological Seminary of Puerto Rico.

Dr. Solivan helped to found the Eurasian Theological Seminary in Moscow, the European Leadership Academy in Malaga, Spain, and spent eleven years as part of the international faculty for the Haggai Institute with locations in Maui and Singapore.

The Haggai Institute trains professionals and executives from all over the world in evangelism and leadership. Students have included supreme court justices, lawyers, engineers, and even princesses.

“These are the kinds of things that keep me busy,” Dr. Solivan laughs.

He and Irene run the ecumenical Center for Theological Reflection in Puerto Rico, which meets monthly to pray and discuss theology with others. Also, for the last 14 years Dr. Solivan has led a radio program on theological reflection called “Thinking out Loud” with fellow theologians.

The Solivans have four grown children who live in the U.S.: three daughters and one son.

Before going off to Bible college, Dr. Solivan recalls his father (who barely ever spoke about spiritual matters) telling him, “Do it with excellence, because the Lord requires excellence.”

After a challenging childhood but a deep faithfulness to God and community, Dr. Solivan’s life has certainly been marked by excellence and a grateful spirit.

The Rev. Dawn Boelkins Retires

After more than twenty years of teaching biblical languages at Western Theological Seminary, Associate Professor Dawn Boelkins is retiring at the end of the 2016-17 academic year. To say that she will be missed only scratches the surface of what her gifts and presence have meant to students, colleagues, staff, and administration.

The ordination liturgy for Ministers of Word and Sacrament in the RCA charges those being ordained to “attend to reading, prayer, study, preaching, and teaching,” and to “not neglect the gift that is in you.” Since her ordination to that office in 1987, Dawn has devoted herself to living out every aspect of that charge. A graduate of both Western’s M.Div. and D.Min. degree programs, Dawn has played an integral part in the work and culture of Western Theological Seminary, teaching Hebrew and Greek in both the on-campus and distance learning programs. Her students laud her for her creativity and compassion, crediting her with opening God’s Word to them in unexpected and invaluable ways.

Dawn’s own sense of calling and satisfaction in her teaching is glimpsed in her response to a question about what it’s like to teach required language courses: “Generally, students approach the biblical languages with some trepidation. I beckon them past their uncertainties into the humbling, exhilarating, and spiritually rewarding discipline of biblical translation and interpretation.” One of her greatest joys, she says, is seeing the “lights go on” for her students in this regard. She also highlights the rich sense of collegiality she has experienced in participating in the Hebrew program, which has undergone many innovative changes during her years on the teaching team.

When asked to reflect on what has given her the most joy in her time at WTS, Dawn identifies her role in the committee that redesigned Mulder Chapel. The practical and theological joined hands in a powerful way for her on this committee. The end result, she says, was “an opportunity to see the Word made flesh” in a wonderful way.

You will be deeply missed, Dawn! Thank you for tending so faithfully both to your own gifts and to the gifts of your students. May God bless you richly in the coming years as you have indeed blessed us.

—Dr. Carol Bechtel

Carol Bechtel

In their words…

In Hebrew class I loved when you would gather us in a circle to have a “lovely little theological discussion.” You always created a safe and holy space for us to share our perceptions and ideas about what we were learning. …Thank you for offering yourself and your gifts of language, teaching, music, worship, and creativity to the church, the seminary, and to students like me who are now ready to take all we have learned and go out to share God’s blessing to those we encounter along the way.

—Michelle VanDenBerg

At faculty meetings I often saw you as a model, showing us how to ask honest and probing questions while holding to your convictions, even if you were the only one to vote a certain direction. I loved it when you were willing to be the only “no” or “yes” vote!

—Dr. J. Todd BIllings

As one who struggled with Greek, your care and skill opened the door to the beauty of the language, and how it can help reveal God’s character to us.

—Chris Walker

I will never look again at Greek or Hebrew with the fear and frustration I had living within me when I walked into my first class with you. …I am an improved student of the Word because you showed me how to research to understand the narrative in light of God’s redemptive plan, and not just to get the language right.

—Josh Westhouse

In Hebrew class, you named me Rav Chesed—steadfast loving kindness. As an attribute of God, it is used again and again in scripture, and each mention of it brings to light the depths of not only who God is, but helps me realize more fully who I am in God. What a gift! I will truly cherish it the rest of my life.

—Amy Klanderman

Teaching on the Hebrew team has been one of the greatest joys of my life and has lent such meaning and purpose to my work. …Thank you for giving yourself to the team for so many years, for laughing with us at all our mistakes (and sharing yours so we could both laugh and learn from them. …Thank you for being not just a delightful colleague, but a dear friend.

—Rev. Travis West

With Gratitude: The WTS – Newbigin House Partnership ending

 

I still remember visiting Western Theological Seminary in 2010 on an exploratory trip for Newbigin House of Studies, an educational initiative that had emerged from City Church San Francisco. There was a palpable sense of excitement about a unique relationship between a respected seminary and an important city church. The prospects grew as President Tim Brown secured a significant grant to help fund the partnership. In the Fall of 2011 our partnership was launched in San Francisco in an inaugural event featuring NT Wright. Our first class of graduates from the WTS-Newbigin Distance Learning Master of Divinity program walked last May.

The partnership was designed to train church planters in city settings, and we’re happy to report that we have graduates (and students) planting or serving in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Boulder, San Francisco, and beyond (even Bangkok!). In the years we’ve been together, nearly 40 students benefited from a challenging missional curriculum, with yearly intensives in San Francisco.

The formal partnership, however, has come to an end. While the cost of ongoing funding for an endeavor like this exceeds our capacity, we’ve also learned many things from each other. Newbigin House, led by my good friend Dr. Scot Sherman, discerned that they can serve the church best through a “Newbigin Year” program, making their offerings more broadly accessible. And WTS changed much during its time in partnership. I moved from San Francisco and joined Western’s faculty at the same time as some excellent new colleagues with expertise in mission, justice, disability, and more. Western isn’t the same seminary it was in 2010, and our curriculum and ethos have been changed not only by the influence of these new professors but also by our partnership with the Newbigin House of Studies.

The net gains are huge, and the work goes on as students continue their learning within this unique curriculum. WTS will grant advanced standing with credit to applicants who have completed a new ministry discernment program at NHS called the Newbigin Year. Current WTS students may also take NHS courses for credit toward their WTS programs.

We give thanks for all this partnership has meant.

—Dr. Chuck DeGroat

Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling

Senior Fellow of the Newbigin House of Studies

Announcing Hispanic Ministries Program

Rev. Joseph Ocasio

On May 4, Rev. Joseph Ocasio arrived in Holland to begin his role as director of Hispanic ministry programs for WTS. Rev. Ocasio comes to us from Phoenixville, PA, where he served as director of admissions for the University of Valley Forge. Along with managing the institution’s enrollment, Joseph participated in developing diversity strategies to promote cultural engagement among faculty, staff, and students.

Previously, Rev. Ocasio launched the Hispanic Leadership Center at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. In that capacity, he organized student leaders to develop many campus events promoting cultural connections, and he built bridges with Latino/a churches to provide a pathway toward completing an associate of ministry degree entirely in Spanish for Hispanic pastors and leaders.

While in Florida, Rev. Ocasio was the pastor of John 3:16 Christian Church, a bilingual church in Lakeland. He is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God serving within the Spanish language districts.

Joseph and his wife of 27 years, Myra, are proud parents of four children and have three grandchildren. Whenever possible, Joseph enjoys playing golf, road biking, martial arts and hiking. Rev. Ocasio earned a bachelor of science degree in church leadership and an MA in ministerial leadership from Southeastern University. He also has an MBA from the University of South Florida with a specialization in management and marketing. Currently, he is in his second year pursuing a doctorate of education in educational leadership from Gwynedd Mercy University.

Western’s strategic plan calls us to “participate in Latino/a theological education.” Led by Rev. Ocasio, our first initiative contextualizes our current Graduate Certificate in Urban Pastoral Ministry (GCUPM) into a program specifically aimed at preparing and empowering Hispanic women and men to lead the church in mission.

This certificate is comprised of 24 credit hours, including courses in biblical studies, church history, theology, leadership, urban ministry, and the ecclesial concerns of the Hispanic Church.

This summer Western will launch two simultaneous GCUPM cohorts. One will commence in June with nearly 30 Pentecostal pastors and leaders.

The other cohort is launching in partnership with the Reformed Church in America’s Classis of the Americas. The GCUPM will provide the necessary professional, personal, spiritual and academic preparation for individuals seeking an appointment as Commissioned Pastor of the RCA. The educational and formation experiences this program provides will incorporate the ten competencies for ministries championed by the Commissioned Pastors Advisory Team (CPAT) and the Pastoral Formation Coordinating Committee (PFCC).

The seminary community is enthused about these new developments and looks forward to sharing news of other aspects of the Hispanic Ministries Program in the future.

WTS Breaks Ground

With six shovels full of dirt, the construction of the new Jack and Mary DeWitt Learning Center and the renovation of WTS officially began on May 9.

While our present reality includes the storage of thousands of books, the clearing of an entire floor of the library, and the well-ordered chaos of relocating the offices of 40 employees in a month, let’s turn our attention away from today to what the seminary will be in 2019 when the project is completed.

Holland Mayor Nancy De Boer speaks at the May 9 groundbreaking ceremony.

The crown jewel of the campus will be the Jack and Mary DeWitt Learning Center, housing the entire Cook Library collection and providing plenty of collaborative and contemplative learning spaces. The Learning Center will dominate the eastern side of the building, and just outside, further east, will be a large green space where the old Cook Center for Theological Research stood. Those sitting on the second floor of the new Learning Center will have an unobstructed view of the Hope College campus. A patio on the north side of the building will be a popular gathering spot in temperate weather, and fireplaces inside will provide warmth during the winter months. The entire library collection will be housed in the new building, and there will be plenty of space for the collection to grow.

Associate Director of Development Dana Daniels passes out safety vests during the May 9 groundbreaking ceremony.

On the south side of the seminary, a new two story administrative wing will rise, providing a clear entrance to the building. The president’s office, the business office, student services, advancement, communications, and educational technology offices will be housed in the new administrative wing. The entryway will line up with the existing reception desk, and the second floor of the new wing will adjoin the second floor of the atrium. President Brown’s office will be by the front door of the seminary, providing maximum visibility and availability to the community.

Renovated classrooms will dominate the hallway that runs south of the new Learning Center. New windows and floors will be visible throughout the building, and at the western end of the seminary, a newly renovated kitchen and Commons area will make providing meals for guests much more efficient. The Community Kitchen (a soup kitchen that operates daily out of the seminary) will finally have adequate food storage and—at long last—the Commons will be air-conditioned.

With this project, every inch of the original seminary building from 1954 will be renovated and made functional for the decades to come.

Not so visible but of vital importance will be improvements to the seminary’s infrastructure, including significant upgrades of the mechanical systems. As a result of the project, the seminary will be much more energy efficient, and the entire building will meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Architecturally, the building will be one cohesive piece, all in the same Georgian Colonial style that has dominated the corner of 13th and College Avenue since the mid-1950s.

That’s 2019, and a whole lot of dust is going to fly between now and then. By the time you read this, demolition and construction will have begun, and a new, exciting future for Western will be emerging.

 

 

How Worship formed Guests around my Dining Room Table

 

Timothy L. Brown

 

 

Dr. Timothy Brown

President and Henry Bast Professor of Preaching

 

Here at Western Theological Seminary we make a big deal out of our daily worship. It might surprise you to learn that we are one of the few seminaries left that still worships as a community every single day. We believe worship forms us over time in mysterious ways we can scarcely understand.

I want you to come with me to the two-story colonial home where Nancy and I live, just a few blocks south of the seminary. There we are having a dinner, hosting six of our best friends over the last 25 years. Come and get to know these good people; look into their faces, listen in on their conversations, and feel the texture of relationships that have kept us together through thick and thin since before Ronald Reagan was President. Just stand quietly in the corner of the dining room and take it all in, because it strikes me as a kind of living commentary on what worshipping the living God in a Reformed way can do for you.

Sitting directly across from me is Jack Smith (I won’t use any real names in this article). Jack and I graduated from college together and went off to different graduate schools. When I graduated from seminary with the right to be a minister of Word and Sacrament, Jack graduated with an MBA and what seemed to be a license to print money. He has become fabulously wealthy, not unlike many who made fortunes in the 80s and 90s. What singles Jack out is that somewhere along the line he stopped asking the question, “How much of my fortune should I give away to good causes?” and started asking, “How much of what God has given me do I have the right to keep?” If you asked where he learned to do this, he’ll tell you that it dawned on him after hearing—Sunday in and Sunday out!—“Let us return our tithes and offerings to the Lord!”

Sitting next to Nancy is Lynn. While giving birth to her third child—right in the very act of offering life—she was stricken with a debilitating stroke. The baby survived and so did she, but her life would never be the same. She would never change that baby’s diapers or dance with her husband again. At one point in the evening while we were discussing “the good old days at Christ Memorial Church,” Lynn said to me, “You know, Tim, my favorite moment in our worship services was always right at the beginning when you would lift your arms in the air and say, ‘Grace to you and peace in the name of the Lord Jesus!’ When I hear those words my heart almost stops and I know that while I may never understand why all of this happened to me, I do know that our gracious God does know and, frankly, that’s all I need.”

Sitting opposite of each other are the Holts and the Newhouses. Dr. Holt teaches at Hope College and had an Obama/Biden bumper sticker on his car a few presidential elections ago. Mr. Newhouse is a successful realtor in Holland, and he and his wife had TWO Bush/Cheney posters in their front yard during the same election. At one point the conversation turned to politics and heated up a little bit—and I thought, “Oh no! My party is going to tank!”—but then, mysteriously, the Holts and the Newhouses shifted effortlessly from American politics and their striking differences to their heavenly citizenship and the one thing that will join them together forever.

At the end of the night, Nancy read several Psalms from Eugene Peterson’s The Message and we all held hands and prayed—prayed for our kids and grandkids, prayed for one another, and prayed for our world. We ended with the Lord’s Prayer and tears!

It may not have been so clear to me that night, but it surely is now—we had all been mysteriously shaped and formed by the way we worship Sunday in and Sunday out, and because of that we were being shaped and formed for witness and work in the world.

That’s why we make a big fuss over daily worship here!

May 8, 2017 – Commencement and Alumni Day

Monday, May 8 Schedule:

8:45am – Opening Worship and Senior Blessing for DL and DMin students, friends and family (Mulder Chapel)

11:45am – Registration & Reunion lunches for the Class of 1967 and the Class of 1977 (Semelink Hall)

1:30pm – Alumni Forum Lecture: We are sorry, but due to a family emergency, Dr. Miroslav Volf will not be coming to Holland and giving the afternoon lecture or the commencement address.

2:45pm – Class of 2017 group photo (steps of Mulder Chapel, outside)

3:00pm – “A Look at Western’s Future” – Hear an update about the seminary’s capital campaign and building project coming soon. (Mulder Chapel)

3:15pm – Commencement Rehearsal (Dimnent Chapel of Hope College)

5:00pm – Alumni/ae Dinner (The Commons). Contact Tamara for reservations at 616-392-8555, x109.

7:30pm – 141st Commencement (Dimnent Chapel of Hope College) with Commencement Speaker Dr. Fred L. Johnson III. Doors open at 6:45. No tickets necessary.

Commencement is followed by a receiving line on the lawn between Dimnent Chapel and the seminary, and there is a reception in the seminary atrium.

Oh, how times have changed!

by Rev. Wallace Stoepker
Class of 1946

Oldest living alumnus

Each time The Commons comes out, I read it with great interest. What an extensive program the seminary has now with a variety of faculty and students! When I graduated from seminary in 1946, we had 30 students and six male faculty, and that was the entire school.

I recall when I was a student pastor for a summer on the western prairies of Alberta, Canada, during World War II, gasoline and cars were scarce, so I was provided with a horse to do my church work. Is there another pastor in the RCA who had to use a horse to do visitation? I first had to catch the horse in a 40 acre pasture and saddle it!

During my three years at seminary, tuition was free to students, as well as our single dorm rooms in Zwemer Hall. My expenses for my last year amounted to $200-300, and I graduated debt free.

However, my first salary in a small western New York church was only $1,700 for the year. Newly married, Dorothy and I discovered what poverty was like. We were so poor that I took the janitor’s job also at $200 per year. At the parsonage I shoveled coal to keep the furnace warm and there were about 30 grass snakes in the very damp basement, plus rats and lots of mice. There were even mice living in the piano, eating the glue.

Our 1.5 volt battery phone had to be cranked to use, and we had eleven families on the same line. All of our phones rang any time one of us got a phone call. No privacy!

We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the church when we were there. One hundred years old and still no inside bathroom. You had to wade through three feet of snow to use the outhouse.

I begged to have a sign with the name of the church on the outside of the building, and the response was, “What for? Everyone knows what church it is.”

Unlike today, at that time the church had no interest in missions, benevolences or social problems. When I suggested we support some, the response was, “We take care of ourselves. Let others take care of themselves.”

Back then, churches were not always so accepting of differences. A young man from the church wanted to marry a girl who came from a non-Christian, broken home. His parents were against it and refused to come to the wedding, as did the rest of the congregation. Dorothy and I made the service as meaningful as possible and had them over to the parsonage for wedding cake. Regardless of their treatment at the hands of the congregation, both of them came to church faithfully, and the wife took several leadership roles. They have been married 60 years now and still write us every Christmas.

Dorothy recalls several weddings I performed over the years that were especially memorable. In one, the wedding party came late and the organist never did show up, so Dorothy had to leave our small children in the pew and fill in. Afterward, there was a police car waiting outside. Turns out the organist was in trouble with the law…which explains why she didn’t show up!

At another, the bride was already pregnant. Some of you may not know this song, but she wanted it sung in the sanctuary at their wedding: “You Made Me Love You. I Didn’t Want to Do it.” I talked her out of that.

I am now 95, and my wife is 94. We are both quite well and live in our own home. In fact, my eyesight is excellent and I feel so good that I bought a brand new car in 2015. A friend of my son said that was the biggest act of optimism he had heard of in a long time.


The Rev. Wallace and Dorothy Stoepker Ministerial Scholarship

The children of Wally and Dorothy established a student scholarship in honor of their parents’ 70th wedding anniversary in 2016. Here they are pictured at the scholarship luncheon with the first recipient of the scholarship, first-year student Aric Balk.

L to R: David & Carol Stoepker, Dorothy & Wally Stoepker, Timothy Stoepker, Jane Stoepker, Aric Balk.

Information Regarding WTS Title IX Investigation

Over the past several months, Western Theological Seminary has been the subject of an investigation following allegations of sexual harassment filed by two professors on behalf of nine students.  The independent investigator, an attorney with over 25 years of experience specializing in civil rights and Title IX law, delivered the findings of her investigation in mid-April.

In the complaint, the students reported:

Our experience at Western Theological Seminary contains a paradox. While in many ways WTS has been a supportive and welcoming place as we pursued our calls to ministry, at the same time we have found WTS to be one of the most inhospitable and challenging environments we have ever been in. We have been dismissed and derided, humiliated and harassed. There have been times when WTS has seemed like a sanctuary, but there are too many instances when female students have found themselves feeling afraid and unsafe on campus. The voices of contempt and condescension must be vocally challenged by the many whom we have found at WTS who support us, but too often do so silently which does not affect needed systemic change.

We feel it is important to share what our experience has been at WTS, because no problem can be addressed without first discovering its nature. And we do have a problem, as we think is shown hereafter. We maintain a deep love for this community and only wish to bring these stories to light in an effort to better this place which we hold close to our hearts.

Allegations were made against WTS employees, students, and third parties. (Third parties refers to patrons of the Community Kitchen as well as individuals at teaching churches.) The investigator concluded female students at WTS had been subjected to a “sexually hostile environment.” This is a legal term that refers to a totality of circumstances that is serious enough to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the educational program.  It examines all the alleged harassment and considers its severity, persistence, or pervasiveness.  A series of incidents, none of which alone is sufficiently severe to constitute a hostile environment, may be sufficient when considered together to amount to a hostile environment.  As described below, this was the situation with respect to the complaint investigated by outside counsel.

According to the investigator’s report, “The most significant harassment for purposes of the analysis of whether a sexually hostile environment existed (and continues to exist) for female WTS students was the conduct of the patrons of the Community Kitchen.  This behavior included repeated and ongoing leering and staring, catcalling, unwanted sexual advances, sexual comments and comments about their physical appearance.” Steps addressing the seminary’s response to this finding are included below.

Allegations against WTS employees included unwanted hugging, touching of shoulders and arms; inappropriate comments about physical appearance, and flirtatious behavior. While no individuals were found to have violated the seminary’s sexual harassment policy as a result of the investigation, individual employees were disciplined by the seminary for inappropriate behavior.

Regarding their experience with male students, the female students reported:

A portion of male students rejects the legitimacy of female students’ call to ordained ministry and church leadership. Female students regularly face resistance, negative comments, and dismissing attitudes from male students in their classes and outside of classes at WTS. They also report demeaning language and hand gestures made toward them.

Female students report a lack of support from faculty and administrators when facing these demeaning comments, gestures, and attitudes. Their concerns are often minimized. Consequently, they feel weary, depleted, and discouraged.

Students also reported incidents in their teaching churches, such as gender based comments and exclusionary behavior.

The investigator made the following recommendations, all of which are being implemented by the seminary:

Establish today a WTS Sexual Harassment Prevention Task Force. The purpose of the Task Force will be to provide input to the Title IX Coordinator and senior leadership regarding the effectiveness of the Title IX compliance program and recommend strategies for continuous improvement. Members of the Task Force will represent the WTS community, including Rayetta Perez, Title IX Coordinator, a member of the Board of Trustees, administrators, faculty members, staff members, and students.

Provide increased security by the entrance near the Community Kitchen to prevent harassment of WTS students, faculty, and staff by patrons of the Community Kitchen.

Update non-discrimination statements in all documents at the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year.

Train administrators, faculty, staff, students, and trustees on sexual harassment and sexual discrimination as well as policies and procedures at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year.

Revise grievance procedures with input from the Sexual Harassment Prevention Task Force to clarify where and how students, faculty, and staff should report various types of sex discrimination and understand the grievance process in the first semester of the 2017-18 academic year.

Develop and initiate a climate assessment to evaluate the effectiveness of WTS policies, procedures and practices relating to sex discrimination (including sexual and gender-based harassment). We plan to administer the first assessment in the coming months, and a follow up assessment at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. The results of the assessments will be used to inform future proactive steps to continuously improve our overall Title IX compliance program.

 

After receiving the investigative report, the seminary issued internal email communications from President Timothy Brown and Board of Trustees moderator Mr. Kris DePree to share information. The emails reaffirmed the seminary’s commitment to meeting legal obligations – but, more importantly, creating and sustaining an environment which honors the call of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Meetings were also held with the complainants, President’s Council, Administrative Cabinet, faculty, staff, and Board of Trustees. The entire seminary was invited to attend Community Conversations offered to in-residence and distance learning students to receive information, ask questions, and imagine steps forward.

In the Community Conversation with Distance Learning students on May 10, Academic Dean Dr. Alvin Padilla responded to the question: “If WTS is committed to affirming women in ministry, why is this still up for debate in the classroom?”  Dr. Padilla made a distinction between “debate” and “discussion,” saying that the full inclusion of women in every level of leadership in the church is a settled question not up for debate at WTS. Every member of the faculty affirms this. However, it should be discussed, because every student, male or female, will encounter church members with contrary views and must be equipped with solid hermeneutical understanding to enter into discussion about this.

Dean of Formation Kyle Small wrote a letter addressing Western’s teaching church mentors at the end of April which included these lines:

Churches are not exempt from sexism and patriarchy. As we undertake our internal work, we invite you, as Christian leaders, to examine your churches and organizations. In the coming months, WTS will be more than willing to share what we are learning about our community and provide anything we can to you and your leadership teams. Together, we can cultivate faithful Christian communities that seek Jesus Christ and participate in his call for redemption, reconciliation, and love.

The WTS faculty wrote a letter to the complainants that was shared with both the In-Residence and Distance Learning student populations.  The letter, which was signed by all members of the faculty, included this statement which reflects the collective sorrow of the seminary community: “We are sorry that your gifts and your calling to ministry and leadership in the church have not always been supported, affirmed, or defended in the classroom, hallways, or your teaching churches . . . We are committed to the Christian practices of confession and repentance, and pledge ourselves to learning from our mistakes and intentionally shaping the culture of WTS toward openness, hospitality, affirmation, and communion.”

For the Board of Trustees response, click here.

If you have ongoing questions, concerns, or would like to report incidents of harassment at WTS, please contact Title IX Coordinator Rayetta Perez by email or 616-392-8555 x 103.

Update from President Timothy Brown, June 8, 2017.

Register Now for the 2017 Writer’s Workshop

On May 16-17, Western Theological Seminary and Hope College will co-host a Writer’s Workshop featuring award-winning author Barbara Brown Taylor.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a New York Times best-selling author, professor, and Episcopal priest. Her first memoir, Leaving Church, won a 2006 Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writers Association. Her last book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, was featured in TIME magazine. She has served on the faculty of Piedmont College since 1998 as the Butman Professor of Religion & Philosophy and has been a guest lecturer at Emory, Duke, Princeton, and Yale. Taylor and her husband Ed live on a farm in the foothills of the Appalachians, sharing space with wild turkeys, red foxes, white-tailed deer and far too many chickens. –from barbarabrowntaylor.com

Workshop Schedule

Breakout Seminars

Workshop Speakers

Also Included: One-on-one meetings, Open mic, Bookstore

Advanced Writer’s Retreat (separate registration required)

Lodging

Rachel Held Evans will join Barbara Brown Taylor along with many other authors.

Rachel Held EvansRachel Held Evans is a New York Times best-selling author whose books include Faith Unraveled (2010), A Year of Biblical Womanhood (2012), and Searching for Sunday (2015). Hailing from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925— she writes about faith, doubt and life in the Bible Belt.

Rachel has been featured in The Washington PostThe GuardianChristianity Today, Slate, The Huffington Post, The CNN Belief Blog, and on NPR, The BBC, The Today Show, and The View. She keeps a busy schedule speaking at churches, conferences, and colleges and universities around the country.

A lifelong Alabama Crimson Tide fan, Rachel is married to Dan. Her preferred writing fuel is animal crackers and red wine. –bio from rachelheldevans.com

Read Rachel’s blog HERE.

Other authors holding workshops at the event.

books

Learning_to_Walk_in_the_DarkAltar_in_the_wo BbtanotherwayfiLeaving_Church