Photo: The Girod Fellows and other research assistants meet for a discussion over lunch with their mentor, Dr. Todd Billings.
In 2017 Western began accepting applications for the Girod Fellowship, a full-tuition scholarship for students with outstanding research and writing skills who display eagerness for deep theological learning and have a heart for the church’s ministry. Girod Fellows also serve as research assistants to the seminary’s holder of the Gordon H. Girod Research Chair of Reformed Theology, Dr. J. Todd Billings. Now with three full-time Girod Fellows, the program is drawing academically-outstanding students to Western and forming thoughtful, theologically-minded leaders for the church.
James Schetelich became the first Girod Fellow during the 2018-2019 school year, and two more fellows followed this year—Anna Erickson and Jacob (Jake) Chipka. The fellowships have helped to widen Western’s drawing power. Jake learned of the Girod Fellowship from WTS Admissions Director Jill English during her visit to Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, where he was serving as an athletics chaplain. James and Anna heard about WTS through professor recommendations at Wheaton College. Anna was attracted to Western because of its Reformed background and evangelical direction, as well as its ecumenical spirit.
Another big draw is the opportunity to work alongside Professor Todd Billings.
“Dr. Billings is so brilliant and has shaped the church in really formative ways, yet he writes and speaks with such humility,” Jake says. “He’s so cognizant and comfortable with the idea that he doesn’t have all the answers. I think for Dr. Billings, study is a form of worship, being drawn into the mystery of God.”
One way Dr. Billings models this humility is by encouraging the Fellows to give feedback on his writing. For the last several months, they have been busy reading chapters for his newest book, tentatively titled The End of the Christian Life.
Dr. Billings writes as a member of the cancer community, as well as one who has studied Christian death and dying extensively after he received a $25,000 grant from the Louisville Institute to research “Congregational Life and the Dying: Renewing Resurrection Hope in a Medical Age.”
The End of the Christian Life, set to release in the fall of 2020, will explore the idea that a daily embrace of mortality is an important part of discipleship. It will examine cultural factors that prevent this exercise as well as personal stories from members of the cancer community, sociological research, and theological insight.
“I don’t want feedback that’s just compliant,” Dr. Billings says. Rather, he encourages the Girod Fellows to be brutally honest—something they get more comfortable with as they get to know him.
“80% of the time their feedback leads to some type of revision,” he explains. “One time I started a chapter completely over, and I think it ended up better.”
Dr. Billings encourages the Girod Fellows to research areas of their own interest, as well, and take ownership of the events that the Girod Chair hosts. Some of the 2019-2020 events include weekly Pastor-Theologian Lunches, a colloquy and public panel on the theology of marriage and singleness, and a lecture in February on “An Augustinian Theology of Mass Incarceration.” His assistant, WTS alumna Katlyn DeVries ‘19, plays a large role in organizing these events and mentoring the Fellows as well.
Since the Girod Fellows are all in-residence M.Div. students, they have also become active leaders on campus through participating in chapel, serving as representatives on student council, and living in the Friendship House alongside young adults with cognitive disabilities.
A large focus of the fellowship and the work of Dr. Billings in general is doing theological research and study on behalf of the wider church. James says this is done not in a remote “high-tower” but more cooperatively, in order to be theologically rich and applicable to the church’s needs.
“Remember that you are small,” Anna recalls Dr. Billings telling her. In other words, remember that Jesus is already at work in the church, and that studying these topics is merely entering into the work He’s already doing.
Jake, Anna, and James have research interests of their own that they hope to examine through the Fellowship as they prepare for ministry.
Jake is passionate about those on the margins of the church, especially those experiencing mental illness. He is currently working with Dr. Billings on a project that examines illness, healing, and the Gospel, comparing how the medical world approaches these topics. His background in studying medicine as an undergrad is well-suited to this work.
Anna is currently working with Academic Dean Kristen Johnson on a research project around discipleship and the Great Commission. She would like to delve deeper into American Evangelicalism and is also interested in reading Karl Barth and learning more about the Reformed tradition.
James is enthralled by John’s gospel in the New Testament and would love to dive deep into it—something he often talks about with Dr. Billings while taking him to medical appointments for cancer treatments. James plans to apply for Ph.D. programs and is interested in becoming a pastor-theologian.
Several summers ago, Dr. Billings held listening sessions with local pastors about the scope of the Girod Research Chair, gauging what they were most interested in—was it the events? Opportunities for congregational learning? He found that pastors were most excited about the Girod Fellows—a program for forming thoughtful, theologically-minded leaders for the church who can engage in difficult topics with humility and depth.
That’s what the church needs, and we trust that’s what the Girod Fellowship is accomplishing.
Interested in applying for the Girod Fellowship? Connect with our Admissions department today!
The Gordon H. Girod Research Chair of Reformed Theology
“To be Reformed is to hold within one’s heart a deep conviction concerning the most basic truths set forth in the Word of God.” That was the sentiment of Gordon H. Girod, for whom the Chair is named. Girod was a passionate preacher and pastor who cared deeply about Reformed theology.
In 2013, Girod’s daughter Carol and her husband, David Van Andel, gave a generous gift that would ensure the continuation of the seminary’s focus on training pastors committed to deep theological engagement in the Reformed tradition.
The person chosen to fill this esteemed Chair was Dr. J. Todd Billings, a professor who cares deeply about encouraging pastors to see ministry as a creative theological space.
This combination of care for the church and deep theological thinking exemplifies the focus of the Girod Research Chair today.
Current Girod Initiatives:
The Girod Fellows Scholarship
PTL! Pastor Theologian Lunches for students
Girod Grants and Colloquy Groups for pastors
Events featuring scholars and speakers
Upcoming Girod Events:
February 10, 1:30pm – Dr. Joseph Small, author of Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World
February 27, 7pm – Dr. Greg Lee, Wheaton College, public lecture on “An Augustinian Theology of Mass Incarceration”
 Girod, Gordon. The Deeper Faith: An Exposition of the Canons of Dort (Grand Rapids: Reformed Publications, 1958), 7.