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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.

 

This episode features WTS alumnus and Duke Divinity School Th.D. candidate, Alberto La Rosa. Alberto’s doctoral work focuses on a theology of immigration, and in this interview he shares why his work is important in today’s cultural moment, and what it is like to approach theology of immigration as an immigrant himself. Sara Sanchez, a current WTS student originally from Honduras, sat down with him.

 

This episode features WTS alumnus and Duke Divinity School Th.D. candidate, Alberto La Rosa. Alberto’s doctoral work focuses on a theology of immigration, and in this interview he shares why his work is important in today’s cultural moment, and what it is like to approach theology of immigration as an immigrant himself. Sara Sanchez, a current WTS student originally from Honduras, sat down with him.

Thursday, November 8 at 7 P.M. in Mulder Chapel

Join us for Dr. David Dark’s lecture “What Passes for Life?” during the NEA Big Read this November. This year’s Big Read book is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The novel takes place in the Great Lakes region after a fictional swine flu pandemic, known as the “Georgia Flu”, has devastated the world, killing most of the population. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015.

Religious question are political questions are post-apocalyptic questions. Dr. David Dark, assistant professor of Religion and the Arts in the College of Theology at Belmont University and author of Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, will explore how good post-apocalyptic novels break the ice of the status quo by inviting us to do battle with our own moral carelessness. He will discuss how Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven encourages us to take the temperature of our own strange behavior. What have we normalized and why? If we let it, Station Eleven makes us more alive to the arbitrariness of organizing our own fictions and leads us to proceed more wonderingly in our conception of ourselves and others.

Who could be a better representation of the power of civility than Nelson Mandela? Today’s guest is WTS alumni and South African theologian, Dr. Tinyiko Maluleke, who is working on a book about Nelson Mandela and hope. Rev. Dr. Denise Kingdom-Grier sat down with him to discuss Mandela’s legacy.

Who could be a better representation of the power of civility than Nelson Mandela? Today’s guest is WTS alumni and South African theologian, Dr. Tinyiko Maluleke, who is working on a book about Nelson Mandela and hope. Rev. Dr. Denise Kingdom-Grier sat down with him to discuss Mandela’s legacy.

In this episode, theologians Edith M. Humphrey and John L. Thompson discuss the question, “Does church tradition undermine the centrality and authority of scripture?”

 

In this episode, theologians Edith M. Humphrey and John L. Thompson discuss the question, “Does church tradition undermine the centrality and authority of scripture?”

Introducing the work of Dr. Suzanne McDonald,

Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology

Dr. Suzanne McDonald has been studying and reflecting on the topic of dementia for 20 years. She has developed a two-part class for churches called “Dealing Faithfully with Dementia,” and this semester she began teaching a course for Western’s new Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry program entitled, “Ministry, Aging, and Dementia.”

Dr. McDonald first became interested in this topic in the late ‘90s when she was working for the Red Cross in Australia. Her boss, a retired army colonel, was not a Christian but began asking tough questions about God when his wife’s mind quickly deteriorated from dementia.

“What kind of a God do you believe in that could do this to my wife?” he would ask, or “Why is this happening?” and “Who is she and where has she gone?”

It was very hard to watch and got Suzanne thinking about what it would mean to walk well with someone going through this.

Her colonel friend, Walt, eventually did become a believer in Christ, in no small part because of how Suzanne and others surrounded him and his wife, Pearl, with love during that time. It was such a powerful experience for Suzanne that she went on to complete Clinical Pastoral Education in a dementia ward in England.

Her series, “Dealing Faithfully with Dementia,” is for congregations and pastors who want to be faithful to God and the Gospel, and also faithful to the very difficult realities of the disease, as they walk beside those with dementia and their caregivers.

It is important to give people space to lament and not move too quickly to oh, it’s all ok because of Jesus.

“Dementia can be devastating,” she says, “but we have in the scriptures and in our theology ways of talking about it that acknowledge the pain and also the presence and work of God in the midst of it all.”

Her series for churches looks at Holy Saturday (the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) as a theological space that mirrors dementia. The disciples did not know on that day that the story would end in Christ’s resurrection.

Those walking the dementia road can say that in Christ all will be well in the end, she explains, but for now there is no cure and in the later stages, there are only occasional glimpses of who the person is.

Dr. McDonald calls these “resurrection moments” when there’s a flash of remembrance.

She recalls a woman who had been married to her husband for 50 years but didn’t recognize him at all. Then one day, he came to see her all dressed up in a suit and wearing a very strong aftershave.

As soon as she smelled it, she sat bolt upright and said, “Harry! Where are you taking me tonight?”

Harry was ecstatic because she hadn’t recognized him in so long. He thought, “I’ve got it. I’ve got the trigger!” The next day he came dressed the same way…but she didn’t recognize him. He couldn’t stay long because he was crying so hard.

“It was a reminder that you can’t manufacture these things,” Dr. McDonald says. “If these resurrection moments come, they are a gift.”

In part two of the series, participants think about issues of personhood, image of God, and how they can walk with people in a pastoral sense. Suzanne emphasizes the importance of not just a person’s mind but their body as well.

She remembers Walt saying toward the end with Pearl, “When I look in her face, I still see the beautiful woman that I married.”

Dr. McDonald suggests two resources she has found helpful: 1) John Swinton’s Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, and 2) Benjamin Mast’s Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease. She also plans to do some writing on the topic herself.

“Know who in the congregation either has dementia or is caring for someone with dementia,” she suggests. “Especially be there to support the family at the various stages and learn better strategies to do that.”

What tends to happen is that when someone gets dementia and it starts to progress, they stop coming to church because they can’t remember names. It’s too awkward and embarrassing. At the same time, people in the congregation get uncomfortable as the disease progresses because they don’t know what to say or how to deal with it.

Dr. McDonald’s passion is to help people learn better ways to faithfully show the love of Christ to those with dementia and to their caregivers. She speaks multiple times per year at churches and is happy to accept invitations. These events are usually open to the public.

Contact Dr. McDonald about speaking at your church. 

In this episode, Dr. John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, discusses changes and renewal in the art and practice of church worship.