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Photo: The Girod Fellows and other research assistants meet for a discussion over lunch with their mentor, Dr. Todd Billings.

Girod Fellows James Schetelich, Jake Chipka, & Anna Erickson

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.

Oct. 17 panel on “A Theology of Singleness: A Conversation on Singleness and the Church”

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.”[1] 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”

[1] Girod, Gordon. The Deeper Faith: An Exposition of the Canons of Dort (Grand Rapids: Reformed Publications, 1958), 7.

 

Senior M.Div. student Ruth Estell may be what’s called an “old soul,” but don’t be fooled by her mild manner.

Born to RCA missionary parents and raised in Taiwan, Ruth came to the States to earn her undergrad and graduate degrees from Wheaton College, and then returned to China to teach English.

Ruth with children from the group home in Taiwan

After ten years, she heard about an opportunity to work and live in a home for children and adults with disabilities in Taiwan. She jumped at the chance to do more ministry and Bible teaching.

In Taiwan, Ruth volunteered to teach an English Bible study in a men’s maximum security prison—with no guards in the room.

“At first I wasn’t so sure,” she admits, “but I ended up loving it. The men were very respectful and appreciated that I was willing to come there.”

She saw God at work, even witnessing some men get baptized and grow in their faith.

Ruth planned to take over for the director of the group home in Taiwan, but after a year and a half, the woman grew inexplicably hostile toward her.

Ruth started to believe the negative things her teammate was saying about her, and for the first time in her life, she doubted if God really loved her. She found herself in a downward spiral emotionally, spiritually, and physically. After praying about what to do, she knew she had to leave the mission field.

She returned to the U.S. to live with her mother, who had retired to Zeeland, MI. Their family had spent many summers on furlough in the RCA mission houses in Holland, so Ruth knew a lot of people in the West Michigan area.

“When I came back, I thought I was done serving God forever,” Ruth admits.“I would have been content to do whatever just to pay the bills.”

However, many people who knew her story were praying for her, and many reached out with love and support. Some shared their own stories of being hurt by brothers and sisters in the church.

A lot of healing took place, and Ruth realized that she still had a deep desire to serve God in her work. As she began to feel a call to chaplaincy, she knew she would need a Master of Divinity, and that led her to Western Theological Seminary.

Two and a half years later, Ruth is on track to graduate this May. She hopes to work as a chaplain in a retirement home or hospital.

“I am a third culture kid,” she says, “and Chinese culture respects the elderly, so perhaps that infiltrated my heart. I love the elderly.”

Two of Ruth’s internships have been at retirement homes, but she also completed a year of church ministry and one summer term of Clinical Pastoral Education at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, where she worked with children and adolescents and at a women’s addiction recovery residential house.

“My abilities and confidence have grown,” she shares. “Children and adolescents are very honest. I have dealt with a lot of anger but also some very honest questions. You don’t always have the answers, but you can be there and listen to them.”

This year, Ruth is interning at Holland Hospital, where God is growing a love for the stranger in her. Many times she can only have one or two conversations with patients before they leave the hospital.

Harp class, led by Dr. Carol Bechtel

Ruth is part of a group of musicians that WTS professor Dr. Carol Bechtel is teaching to play the harp. At the hospital, Ruth plays the harp therapeutically—a ministry that can touch some patients and families in a special way.

“One lady I visited was very formal when I went in as the chaplain. I could tell she highly respected the clergy,” recalls Ruth. “She thanked me for coming and asked me to pray but didn’t have much to say. Later I came in just to play the harp, and soon she started sharing about her diagnosis, how she was feeling, her family… More pastoral care was done when I wasn’t there as the ‘official’ chaplain.”

Other times, patients are unresponsive or restless, and the harp music puts a calm over the room and the family. Sometimes the music frees people to have a good cry.

“I can’t answer ‘Why would God let this happen?’ or ‘Why don’t I feel God’s presence?” but I can acknowledge feelings and encourage people to reach out to God,” Ruth says. “Sometimes I run out of words, and then the music lets them rest in that.”

If people come from a Christian background, hymns remind them of times God spoke into their lives. Recently a dying patient began singing along to the hymns Ruth was playing on her harp, creating a beautiful moment that touched the family deeply. Later they asked her to play at his funeral.

Being able to play the harp for people is a “tool in my tool box,” Ruth says. “It’s just another way to care for people.”

Ruth is also grateful for Dr. Suzanne McDonald’s classes on “Aging and Dementia” and eschatology. These classes have helped her to establish a theological foundation and to understand how to care for people at the end of life.

“What I like about Western is that it’s not all about heady, intellectual knowledge,” she shares. “The professors realize they’re preparing us for serving actual people. It has kept me humble.”

Thinking ahead to graduation, Ruth says, “I think chaplaincy will be a good fit for the passions and gifts God has given me. Retirement home, hospital, hospice…I’m open to wherever God might lead.”

Middler student Alex Regets finds his dreams coming true sooner than he imagined.

I am someone who never expected to end up in ministry, but God does unexpected things.

I had started out in a pre-law program in college, but early on I felt the call to ministry, so I switched schools and finished my undergrad with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies.

For someone who never expected to end up in ministry, once I was called, I knew what I wanted: rural ministry. I entered seminary with a clear idea of where I wanted to end up. Right from the start, I would tell anyone who’d listen that when all was said and done, I wanted to be the pastor of a small church in the middle of nowhere. I also said that I’d love it if I could just stay there forever.

I wanted to go to the kind of church that often gets overlooked. The kind that gets viewed as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. And I always said that if this small, middle-of-nowhere church could be close to my hometown—well, that would be even better.

When it came time to start looking for a summer Internship after my second year at Western, I figured I’d look for a place that checked all those boxes. What I found was a small Presbyterian church in a rural town of about 4,000, averaging around 20 people each week in attendance, and it was only ten minutes from my hometown of Manteno, IL, the place where my family and my wife’s family still live.

It seemed like a great fit for my internship, but when I looked up the church, I noticed something interesting. They were currently without a pastor. I figured that was a plus, since it would help me get a sense for what the job is really like, but there was something else. Where the listing asked for required experience, this church didn’t say “First Ordained Call,” the way so many others do. Instead, it simply said none.

Suddenly, what started out as a possible landing spot for my summer internship looked like it had the potential to be something more!

After a handful of conversations with the elders of the church, we came to an agreement that I’d serve there for the summer, fulfilling my requirements for the 10-week internship, and if it seemed like a good fit for me and for them, they would make me an offer before it was over.

Well, it was a good fit.

So here I am, serving as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Peotone, Illinois, the sort of church I always said I wanted to work with!

I am finishing up my Master of Divinity degree by switching to Western’s distance learning program. It’s a little unorthodox, and it means jumping through some hoops with the Presbytery to make sure it’s all done “decently and in order,” but I am grateful for the opportunity.

It feels like a great fit in every way, and while my ordination will come a little slower, I’m already getting to experience what it’s like to pastor the church I have always dreamed of.

By Alex Regets