In November of 2016, Western Theological Seminary was awarded a $425,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Established by Henry R. Luce, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc., the Luce Foundation offers grants in eight program areas including one whose focus is theology. WTS was among six institutions selected from a large field of competitors to receive an inaugural grant from the Luce Fund for Theological Education.
The seminary’s approved project—Enabling Theological Education: Preparing the Next Generation of Christian Leaders—Presence, Intention, and Dimension for Ministry to, with, and by People with Disabilities—will expand Western Theological Seminary’s pioneering work in disability and ministry.
The seminary’s efforts in disability and ministry began a decade ago with the addition of the Ralph & Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House, the on-campus residence where seminary students live with young adults from the community who have cognitive impairments. It has yielded such positive effects that interest grew to extend the impact of the Friendship House into the seminary curriculum.
In the fall of 2016, WTS launched a Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) program—the first of its kind in theological education. The GCDM provides students the knowledge and skills to lead congregations and ministries in ways that are attuned to and inclusive of the gifts and perspectives of people with disabilities.
Last May, the seminary also partnered with Hope College in serving as a co-host of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. The grant from the Henry Luce Foundation provides opportunity for the momentum around disability and ministry to grow.
Initial activity will focus on readying the seminary for future aspects of the project. An accessibility audit will determine what additions or changes are needed to our physical and educational environment so that we are hospitable to persons with disabilities. The audit will not only examine our physical classrooms but also review our learning management system and distance learning platforms. Once the support structures are in place, we can launch the key activities of the project.
In the fall of 2018, Western Theological Seminary will inaugurate an annual symposium and lectureship focused on disability and ministry. The two-day event will feature a keynote speaker and workshops for attendees.
Additionally, the seminary intends to spend a portion of the grant to hire visiting professors, preferably people with disabilities, to strengthen both faculty competency in disability studies and the GCDM program. WTS will also develop an adjunct professor base of instructors who have expertise in disability and ministry.
Dr. Ben Conner, associate professor of Christian discipleship and director of the GCDM program, will assume leadership for the implementation of the grant. He is eager to move the seminary forward in its commitment to disability and ministry.
Conner, an experienced scholar and leader in theology and disability, believes this is a necessary and often-neglected ministry focus in both the seminary and the greater church. As he noted in the grant’s proposal, “People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States. It is an open group which most people enter against their will; a group that includes people from every class, ethnicity, and economic circumstance.”
WTS looks forward to the opportunities the Luce Foundation Grant will provide to expand this important ministry focus at the seminary.
News of Another Grant
Melissa Conner, director of the Ralph & Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House at WTS, also directs Renew Therapeutic Riding Center in Holland. The center provides equine assisted activities and therapies to children and adults with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. Four of the six friends living at Friendship House take lessons there.
Last December, Renew Therapeutic Riding Center was awarded $20,000 from the local Women Who Care group. The money will fund public school special education students to participate in activities at Renew.
WTS students enrolled in Dr. Ben Conner’s “Ministry and Margins” course take a field trip to Renew to observe lessons.
Also, several WTS students volunteer at Renew and one of them aspires to earn instructor certification.
Melissa’s work at Renew wonderfully complements the efforts of WTS in disability and ministry.