by Jeff Munroe

Executive Vice President

I zoomed in 400% on the above picture of Dedication Day so I could see who was in it. I never imagined doing so would make me cry, but it did.

The tears welled up because of the stories of the people in the picture. On the top rung, in the middle of our excited students, is a friend bearing two kinds of cancer. Not far from her is another friend who has lost two sons. No one should have one kind of cancer, let alone two. No one should lose one son, let alone two. But there they are, standing and smiling, making the party complete by being there, and it made me cry. One of the young men from the Friendship House is not far from them. And there’s a student from Taiwan, another from Canada, and still another from Honduras shoulder to shoulder with a couple of students from Grand Rapids. The beauty of that choked me up, too.

You can’t miss Academic Dean Alvin Padilla in the middle of the photo, along with several of our faculty. Not far from Alvin is Vern Sterk—WTS alum, missionary, professor—who lives now in a wheelchair after a bike accident. Across the way is Gordon Laman, another WTS alum and missionary, who lives with such quiet dignity despite profound challenges to his eyesight. What good and faithful men Vern and Gordon are. On the other side I see two women I adore, both of whom are widows, and more tears came as I thought about the deft grace of their lives. Towards the back is a former board member who came from New Jersey just for the dedication, and not far from him is an alum who has been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. And then there’s Mary DeWitt, whose dear husband Jack died before this project was completed.

“There are no ordinary people,” C.S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory. “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” I see holiness abounding in this picture. Our new space has been sanctified by the sacred stories of those who blessed us with their presence on December 6, 2018. The new learning center is wonderful, and students love it. But no matter how beautiful, it’s just steel and wood and glass until holy people inhabit it. Thank God for the great cloud of witnesses that surround our students every day in that space.

 

By Dr. Kyle J.S. Small

Dean of Formation for Ministry

I left on July 21 for 33 days of walking the Camino de Santiago, one day for every year of Christ’s life. I teach leadership and spiritual formation, so I organized this part of my sabbatical around expectations I have of my students: grow deeper in Christ and clearer in vocation. (It is risky to live into the discipleship we ask of our students!)

The 1100-year-old Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage across the north of Spain that has received millions of pilgrims, including St. Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila. It welcomes 2000 people a day during the busy months of summer, and I became one of those.

I began the walk like most American pilgrims—fast. In the first five days, I completed eight days of my plan. Yet, there is no reward for arriving in Santiago early (my departure date and ticket home were already set). Indeed, there is punishment for haste: by day five this novice pilgrim had blisters on both heels. The left heel became infected, and a visit to the doctor prompted me to slow down. Veteran pilgrims remind the novice: God is a 2-mile-an-hour God.

I was being invited in to the slowness of God, into seeing the revelation of Christ in all creation, and into letting go of my questions and embracing silence.

After a week of walking, what I noticed shifted. I had spent days looking at the horizon covered in vineyards, wheat fields, and sunflowers; it was breathtaking. One morning I shifted my gaze downward and noticed two snails hanging from a rosebush. Suddenly I saw snails everywhere, dozens below my feet slowly crossing the Camino. How many had I missed? The snail became the Camino mascot, as God revealed that life in Christ is slow, not fast.

One day I was standing in a park on the edge of a town as morning light came up over the mountains. In front of me wheat fields, vines and branches, and shepherd’s pastures collided. I thought of bread and wine and of the good shepherd. I rejoiced at the I Ams around me. As I filled my water pack at the fountain, I remembered baptism. The life of Christ unfolds sacramentally on the Camino.

Not every pilgrim is there for religious reasons. Even so, Jesus calls pilgrims to himself, and should a pilgrim desire to see him, Christ is made known. As Augustine wrote, “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”

Most pilgrims enter the Camino with a situation, a burning question, or a plan. I arrived in Spain consumed with questions about work, marriage, and spirituality—determined not to return home with unresolved questions. I had 33 days and 500 miles to demand that God show up and solve my problems.

I was alone most of each day. I began to forget some of my questions and grow irritated with others. I wasn’t sure what to make of it but was finally releasing the worry, anxiety, and frustration hidden beneath my questions. At one point I walked for more than an hour without a single thought (a completely new sensation for me). I felt the Lord saying, “Let those arrogant, controlling questions go.” I was reminded of Moses in Exodus: “Be not afraid; the Lord will fight for you. You need only keep silent.”

Pilgrims are commonly asked, “Why Camino for you?” The answers vary from adventure to challenge to vocational clarity. Few mention Jesus or faith. Whatever I answered early on became dust, and by day 10 I had yet to understand what the Camino was for me. I just kept walking.

By the end of the 33 days, the Camino had moved deep into my soul. I had released my control and questions and moved from merit to mercy, anxiety to gratitude, and from angry to awed. This pilgrimage remains alive in me.

Not everyone needs to walk the Camino. The lessons I learned are available if we choose to notice what is right in front of us. The Camino was an invitation to wake up and see what is most important in life: following Christ and living with him each day. We are all walking somewhere, and Christ is seeking us.

To read more about Kyle’s journey, visit his blog, pilgrimshome.blogspot.com

Monday, May 13 Schedule:

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

10:45-11:45am – Make-up session for individual graduation photos (outside room 019)

11:45am – Registration & Reunion lunches for the Class of 1959, 1969, 1979 and 1999

1:30pm – Alumni Forum Lecture with Commencement speaker Lisa Sharon Harper  (John R. Mulder Chapel), “Four Words that Change Everything”

2:45pm – Class of 2019 group photo (steps of Mulder Chapel, outside)

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

5:00pm – Alumni/ae Dinner (The Commons) with celebration of Distinguished Alums Brian Vriesman and Tom Boogaart. Contact Tamara for reservations at 616-392-8555, x109. $20/person

7:30pm – 143rd Commencement (Dimnent Chapel of Hope College) with Commencement Speaker Lisa Sharon Harper. To learn more about Ms. Harper and her passion for shalom, go to her website. Doors open at 6:45. No tickets necessary.

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

by M.Div. Middler Bob Ike

Why would a guy in his mid-40s, who already has the highest degree in his field and a solid profession in school administration, be surfing the Western Theological Seminary website? It seemed as though I was being called by the Hound of Heaven.1 While one or two knocks are subtle, “That Voice [was] round me like a bursting sea… I am he whom Thou seekest!”2

As a kid growing up in the Interlaken Reformed Church, seminary was not on my radar. I knew I was called to teach and to devote myself to education. Yet, in recent years I had been conflicted about my calling. Stumbling upon the interconnectedness between minister and administer, I realized an “administrator” in purest form is one who is called (“ad”) to serve (“minister”). In the public sector, discipleship in executive leadership is not overtly practiced, but I was in need of continued study, prayer, and skill development to lead with a heart of Christ.

Palmyra-Macedon Central School District Superintendent Bob Ike shows some team spirit at an athletic event.

What seemed to be just “poking around” on the seminary website led to me realize the intricate relationship between ministry and school leadership. I became a student in the fall of 2017, seeking an M.Div. through Western’s distance learning program (I live in Palmyra, NY).

Whether through prayer, discussion, learning covenant, or my personal life, the idea of call is persistent. Why am I in seminary? For what reason am I knocking myself out studying and interning on top of my regular workload? How does this fit in my life? My call has certainly been challenged.

From my young adult leadership experiences at Camp Fowler (RCA), to my role as a school superintendent and now as a student at Western, God is changing me, refining me for a future in ministry as a servant leader, caring for others as they stumble and walk on a journey with Christ.

Although it is not yet clear how God will use me once I have completed a degree at Western, my studies and interactions with amazing professors and students have put me on a trajectory to be a more faithful servant. In the short-term, I am being shaped in ways that reflect how “the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.”3 Psalm 33 blends the act of singing in praise to God with the reminder that God has formed all hearts and rules over all. The Psalmist reminds me to put my hope in the Lord.

_______________________

1 Thompson, Francis. The Hound of Heaven. Reprint. London: Forgotten Books: 2016.

2 Ibid.

3 Ps. 33:5 (NRSV).

by M.Div. Junior Linnea Scobey

On the first day of Hebrew class at Western Theological Seminary, something happened in me. As we stood there surrounded by stuffed animals, learning the words for them in Hebrew, I had the keen sense that I was not there by accident. For five years I had been teaching Latin as a spoken language and had applied to attend Western on a whim. It quickly became clear that God had bigger plans for me, and soon I knew I wanted to teach high school Hebrew in addition to Latin.

The Hebrew language and scriptures worked their way into my heart the way rain seeps into the soil. I found myself humming morning prayers in Hebrew while brushing my teeth and singing Psalms in Hebrew when I was feeling overwhelmed. Internalizing the language and thought patterns of the people of the Old Testament revealed things about the heart and character of God and drew me nearer to God. In class we not only read portions of Scripture but also acted out the narratives, feeling them in our mouths and bodies as well as our minds and hearts and gaining new insights into those stories.

Of course, no school I knew of had any intention of teaching Hebrew, let alone the way I was learning it. But one day I spoke with my Hebrew teacher and advisor, Dr. Travis West (Moshe), and learned that a Bible teacher at Holland Christian High School wanted to start a Hebrew class there. He envisioned partnering with Western and having a seminary intern help teach the class. It sounded too good to be true. Sometimes God has a way of ordering things beyond our wildest imaginings, which, unbeknownst to us, God has been preparing us for all along.

I am now halfway through my first year co-teaching a high school Hebrew class at Holland Christian with Keith Blystra. Having lived in Israel for five years, Blystra knows Hebrew well, and the class is highly immersive. In the fall we brought students to WTS once a week to make use of the school’s props and materials. On an ordinary afternoon, you might see Hebrew students wearing bear heads and eating plastic fruit or creating a storm with blue fabric and beanie baby fish. You might hear students in sailor hats enacting parts of the Jonah story or singing and dancing to “This is the Day” in Hebrew, followed by a theological discussion on the holy name of God or what it means for God to be slow to anger and turn from calamity.

Holland Christian sophomore Austin Becksvoort told me, “I have been able to see another layer of complexity to the Bible that is not visible in an English translation. Learning the language it was originally written in opens up gateways in the Bible. A lot of subtle word choices and connections are missed when reading a translation.”

Bible teacher Keith Blystra and Linnea teach Hebrew together.

Another student, Kathryn Honeck, said, “I never knew how poetic God’s word is. Just knowing a few Hebrew words seems to bring me closer to God and give me an even better understanding of who he is.” Other students have enjoyed “just learning and being in the language,” and the way “we laugh every single day in Hebrew.”

The class has been a gift to everyone involved. I am immensely grateful for the ways Western is forming and preparing me to live into this calling, and I am grateful for the opportunity to further develop my own proficiency while sharing what I’ve learned with these students and watching them grow in knowledge and wonder.

 

 

L to R: Ruth Fitzgerald, Larry Karow, Dan DeVries, Jill Carattini, Scott Nyp

When Ruth Fitzgerald did a Google search for “distance learning” the week of Christmas 2002, Western Theological Seminary came up on her computer screen. The program hadn’t even begun, but she was interested and made an appointment to meet the director.

Dan DeVries was living in NW Iowa, and the only seminary nearby was North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls. He tried a couple of classes—a 65 mile drive—but he dreaded the thought of winter. Besides, he’d have to take more classes through MFCA to get ordained. The summer of 2003 he went to General Synod and learned that WTS was rolling out a distance learning M.Div. “That’s it!” he said.

Larry Karow considered going to Calvin, but they pointed him in the direction of Western’s new DL M.Div.

“I wouldn’t have gone to seminary if it hadn’t been for distance learning,” Scott Nyp says. “I didn’t want to uproot my family.” The pastor of the church where Scott was serving knew about the new M.Div because he served on Western’s Board. He encouraged Scott to apply.

These four became part of Western’s first entering class of distance-learning students. Fourteen students enrolled, and eventually nine would graduate in May of 2008.

The program began online in November 2003 using message boards.The students introduced themselves over the internet, so by the time January intensives rolled around, they were eager to meet face-to-face. The year included 2-week on-campus intensives in January and May.

“Those first intensives were heavily scheduled,” explains Ruth. “We had breakfast, lunch, and many times dinner together, and then we had homework for the next day.”

Yet, the unexpected happened. The unchartered territory of an “online community” became common ground where a cohort of students bonded together into friendships that continue to this day.

“The relationships were the biggest blessing to me,” says Scott.

As a new program in an era when very few seminaries were offering online education, the DL M.Div. had glitches and adjustments.

“The hardest part was that every time we came to an intensive, something had changed—some requirement, deadline, things shifting around,” says Ruth.

L to R: Ruth Fitzgerald, Deb Yurk, Jill Carattini, Dan DeVries, Scott Nyp, Courtney Porter, Larry Karow, Chad Strabbing, Jennifer Bendelius

“Laying the sidewalk as we walked,” Dan adds.

They understood that the seminary hadn’t done this before, and that the program would have its share of surprises. They noticed many of the faculty found it difficult to learn a completely different way of interacting and engaging students. They were usedto teaching face-to-face.

“Now I’m sure they’re all old pros at it!” Scott laughs. “At the time, though, I lamented that we didn’t have the neat bond with professors that in-residence students had.”

Even though Ruth and Larry came from denominations other than RCA, they didn’t feel out of sync with the professors.

“My professors allowed me to write my papers from a Wesleyan standpoint without making me feel like the theology was wrong or inferior,” says Larry. “Being at Western was a very welcoming and encouraging experience for me.”

Of the nine DL graduates, eight are still in ministry, defying the odds of burnout in the first five years after graduation. They believe it is because they had “been through the fire” for many years in full-time ministry before coming to seminary. They are now serving in Reformed churches, a Methodist and UCC church, and an international ministry.

Western’s venture into online education has given hundreds of students access to theological education since its humble beginnings in 2003. This year, 58% of our M.Div. and M.A. students are earning their degrees via distance learning.

Thanks for leading the way, DL Class of 2008!

The 2019 Summer Institute on Theology and Disability will be held in Holland, Michigan, May 20-23, 2019 in partnership with Western Theological Seminary. The Institute brings together academics, theologians, practitioners, and others to explore the inclusive intersections of faith and disabilities.

The 2019 Summer Institute begins with a Community Day for Institute participants and anyone else who cannot afford the time or expenses for the full Institute. To register for just Community Day, click the “register now” button below and choose the “one day pass- Community Day” option. Its theme is From Longing to Belonging, based on the title of a new book by Jewish parent and inclusion consultant, Shelly Christensen. Shelly and Barbara Newman, from the CLC Network, Inc., will be the Opening Plenary Speakers. A panel will follow with speakers from creative programs and ministries in the region. The afternoon features workshops led by John Swinton, Erik Carter, Barbara Newman, Shelly Christensen, Jill Harshaw, Ben Conner with Sarah Jean Barton and Carlos Thompson, and Alex Kimmel.

For more information on the Summer Institute, please visit https://faithanddisability.org/2019-summer-institute/

 

Join us on April 15-16, 2019 for the Osterhaven Lectures in Theology, featuring Dr. John Swinton.

SCROLL DOWN FOR VIDEOS OF LECTURES

Monday, April 15

9:40 am          Dr. Swinton preaching in Chapel (public welcome, sign up here)

10:30 am        Lecture #1:  Raging with Compassion (public welcome, sign up here)

Noon              Community Conversation lunch with students and local pastors on What makes Practical Theology Practical Theology?

7:00 pm          Lecture #2: What does God look like?—Whose God? Which image? (public welcome, sign up here)

Tuesday, April 16

7:30 am          Breakfast Lecture #3 in the Commons: Mental Health and Ministry (public welcome, sign up here)

 

John Swinton is a Scottish theologian and a major figure in the development of disability theology. He is a professor in practical theology and pastoral care at the University of Aberdeen’s School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy. In 2004 he founded the university’s Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability, which has a dual focus:  the relationship between spirituality and health and the theology of disability.

John is an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland, and in 2012 The Church of Scotland appointed him as Master of Christ’s College, the university’s theological college.

In 2014 he established the Centre for Ministry Studies, a joint project between Christ’s College and the University of Aberdeen. It provides a broad range of education and training for both lay and ordained people.

In 2016 he was awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing for his book, Dementia:  Living in the Memories of God. 

John also serves as an honorary professor of nursing in the Centre for Advanced Studies in Nursing at Aberdeen University. He is a registered mental nurse as well as a nurse for people with learning disabilities.

Western Theological Seminary is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Felix Theonugraha as its next president. Dr. Theonugraha is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and a talented administrator who comes to the seminary from Trinity International University in Deerfield, IL, where he currently serves as Vice President for Student Life and University Services.

Carol Van Andel and Kris DePree, co-chairs of the Presidential Search Committee, state, “On behalf of the Presidential Search Committee and the Board of Trustees of Western Theological Seminary, we welcome Felix with open arms as our next president. His faithful commitment to the Reformed Church in America and his penchant for leading with a servant’s heart make him uniquely qualified to extend our beloved school’s rich legacy and propel us all into a new and dynamic era.”

During his tenure at Trinity, Dr. Theonugraha led the enrollment team, athletics department, alumni office, and student life division, and also served on the President’s University Leadership Team and the Gender Equity Task Force. He also served as co-chair of the Racial Reconciliation Implementation Team and taught courses in the Master of Arts in Leadership program. Dr. Theonugraha led the graduate student affairs division for a time, and also worked alongside international students and helped to introduce intercultural elements to Trinity’s chapel services.

“Western Theological Seminary has an incredible history,” Dr. Theonugraha says. “The deep commitment to ministry and passion for the Lord that characterized the students who in 1866 requested to continue their theological studies in Holland are still evident at WTS today. My prayer is that I can continue to extend and deepen that history, so that WTS can continue to be a place that prepares women and men who are called by God to lead the church in mission, and do so in a way that is mindful and responsive to our time and place in God’s story—such as the increasing ethnic diversity in our country and the growth of the church in the Global South and East.”

He was born in Indonesia, and later spent time in Taiwan before arriving in Central California around the age of twelve. Dr. Theonugraha is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley (B.A.) and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.Div., Ph.D.). He is a contributor to The Wordview Study Bible (Holman) and to Faith, Learning, and Living in Christian Higher Education: Teaching and Learning in the Evangelical Tradition (Crossway). He loves to preach, and he and his wife Esther are active in their church, where they have co-taught adult education classes and K-5 children’s ministry.

David S. Dockery, President of Trinity International University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School says, “I join with others from across the Trinity community to offer our heartiest congratulations to Western Theological Seminary on the outstanding choice that has been made for the institution’s next president. Felix Theonugraha is prepared and ready to provide wise and capable leadership for the Western community in the days ahead. His commitment to the gospel, his many good leadership gifts, his experience in the work of theological education at Trinity, and his long term relationship with the RCA will serve him well as he assumes this new responsibility. We are happy for Felix and Esther Theonugraha and hopeful for Western Theological Seminary in the days to come.”

Dr. Theonugraha will assume his duties as president of the seminary on July 1, 2019. He is following the 11-year tenure of Dr. Timothy Brown, who is retiring as president but will return to the classroom as Henry Bast Professor of Preaching.

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Theonugraha!