At WTS we recognize that each one of our students is uniquely gifted, so we do our best to match them with internships that develop those gifts further. With life experiences that give him a heart for at-risk youth, M.Div. student Jeff Hoos fits perfectly into his internship this summer at ESCAPE Ministries. ESCAPE is a program that caters to at-risk youth and their families, providing safe spaces, job training, a free gym, tutoring services, mentorship, and discipleship classes.  Their holistic approach to ministry is based upon love and second chances. This is Western’s first time partnering with ESCAPE, and we are thrilled with the outcomes so far! Check out the video below to see Jeff in action and hear more about ESCAPE’s vision.

 

What do you get when you take a Hispanic family from a Pentecostal background and put them in a Reformed theological seminary?

You get a seminary that is more culturally aware, and a family that learns to think outside the box.

Luis Torres had enrolled in the WTS Graduate Certificate in Urban Pastoral Ministry (GCUPM) program in 2011.

“In my heart was always a desire to study, but because of my financial situation it was hard to go to school,” he says. His friend and mentor, C.J. Kingdom-Grier, who works in Western’s Admissions Department, encouraged him to pursue his dream.

Luis works as the Connections Coordinator at Engedi Church in Holland and feels his studies at WTS have helped him navigate cultural differences within his own church body.

“Western has been a tool in my life helping to connect me with people from outside my normal social circles and outside my own traditions.”

After much encouraging, Luis’s parents, Gretchen and Javier Torres, also enrolled in the GCUPM program this year.

Their experience with Hispanic ministries in Holland, the Chicago area, and Puerto Rico provide invaluable insight into the fastest growing population in the country.

Javier is the pastor of Pentecostal Church of God, and Gretchen ministers alongside him. Gretchen is also the administrator of the Instituto Bíblico Ebenezer (IBE), a Hispanic theological training institute headquartered in Chicago.

“We want to make a difference in the Hispanic community, and that’s why we’re here,” Javier says. “We have to first reach the community and then learn other cultures too. We learn a lot at Western and to know the Bible through every point of view is really important.”

For Gretchen, the Lord has opened doors she never expected. WTS was exploring ways to be involved in theological education for Latino pastors when President Tim Brown and Academic Dean Leanne Van Dyk found out that she was the administrator of IBE. 

After Gretchen explained IBE’s curriculum and vision to develop leaders and pastors in the Hispanic community, WTS invited her to host the institute within the seminary.

Since October 27, more than 30 Latino pastors have been on the seminary campus each Monday night for classes taught by IBE instructors. Gretchen says the students are happier and more comfortable in their new learning environment. 

Recently Gretchen organized “Tabernacle Night,” where first year IBE students presented models they made of the Tabernacle as well as priestly garments. Dr. Tom Boogaart spoke on the meaning of the Tabernacle, and the event was translated in English and Spanish. Over 150 people attended.

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“I believe God wants unity in his church,” Gretchen says. “Coming from one church sometimes we think ‘we are the one,’ but that’s wrong.”

Javier adds, “We’re still very conservative in our church, but we have an open mind. I’m still Pentecostal, but this experience with Western and the Reformed church is really, really good for us.”

Last semester, all three Torreses were in Dr. Bechtel’s Old Testament Foundations class.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d have my parents as classmates,” Luis remarks. “They taught me how to walk, and now we’re being taught together the Word of God—so God is teaching all three of us how to walk.”

“To be honest, the language is a big, big challenge for us…it’s a barrier,” says Javier. “But we know we can do it, so why not give it a try? That’s why we’re here. It’s fun to see my son in the corner and my wife by my side.”

“We have to prepare in ministry in order to to reach others—in our case, the Hispanic community,” Gretchen says. “I believe this program is going to help me to grow, and I’m going to help others to grow too.”

On June 2 a group of six WTS students and two instructors loaded up a van with stuffed animals, instruments, and toys, and headed to Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, TN

The students were part of a Hebrew class that presented in front of educators from various theological schools during a conference called “Pedagogical Possibilities: New Paradigms for Teaching in Ministry.”

The conference organizers had invited representatives from theological schools around the country to present creative and innovative teaching strategies for preparing ministry leaders.

Instructors Pam Bush and Travis West decided to plan a presentation around the unique way that WTS teaches Hebrew—using song and dance, visuals, and games to experience the language.  As the central focus, the students performed an enactment of Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac.

“From our perspective it was really successful,” said recent grad Jonathan Gabhart. “People were really receptive to it and engaged with the content.”

WTS Senior Audrey Edewaard shared that one Ph.D. student approached her afterward saying, “Wow, I had forgotten that the Old Testament is alive.”

Many people were interested in the process going into the enactment, asking questions like “how much critical interpretive work are you doing?” and “what is the research process like?”

“We were able to reassure most of the people in the room that we do do exegetical work throughout the class,” student Anna Radcliffe said.

“The enactments are a significant part of that exegetical work,” graduate Brad Zwiers added. “When you’re embodying it, when you’re in the space, you have to make these crazy decisions about the text that you would never have to make if you were [just] reading it.”

A number of educators expressed that they would find ways of incorporating the biblical enactment and other aspects of the presentation into their own teaching. Some also said they were going to suggest that their biblical faculty contact WTS for potential partnerships.

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One unique aspect of doing enactments is that it implies scriptural interpretation is best done collaboratively.

Recent graduate Brad Zwiers doesn’t think the model of sitting alone at a desk to do interpretation allows ministers to flourish.  Rather, he suggests an “interpretive community,” where reading the Bible and growing in knowledge of God becomes an act of togetherness.

When students are doing an enactment in class, they must decide together how to interpret a passage. West says this causes each student to realize the theological assumptions they bring to the text.

“You’re forced to get these other perspectives and usually it opens your mind to a new way of how you read the Bible,” Zwiers said.

Although it  may not be realistic to do enactments in every church, Zwiers indicated he will be taking what he learned in Hebrew class to his future ministry site.

“We can empower people to read Scripture differently, to get more involved in it, to pay more attention to themselves as they read it, and to hear the opinions of others as we read it,” he said. “That’s one of the big takeaways from Hebrew class.”

One take-away the students had from the conference itself was a heightened view of the student-professor relationship and how it impacts learning.

Because the conference participants were primarily educators, WTS was the only school to bring students along.  This gave the students a unique look into the world of faculty and how much they care about their students.

The Hebrew class is one environment at WTS that naturally breaks down the faculty-student hierarchy because it is designed to be fun and collaborative.

“I feel that we have exceeded other seminaries in our break-through with the Hebrew class,” Radcliffe said.  “We are not simply professor and student, but  we are equals discovering biblical narratives.”

“The greatest gift I received from the Hebrew program was a sense of teaching and learning among equals,” said recent graduate Sarah Juist. “As I move into my new role as a Minister for Christian Education at Westminster Presbyterian in Grand Rapids, I hold this principle very dear: those I teach have just as much to contribute to a discussion of Scripture, theology, justice and action as I have information to give them.”

The students all expressed gratitude for being able to participate in the conference and hope to take what they’ve learned into their prospective ministries.

 

To watch how we teach Hebrew, check out the video below!

“God has a way of guiding us that we don’t fully understand until we look back on it,” says Dr. Dennis Voskuil, recipient of Western’s 2015 Distinguished Alum Award. In 1962, severing a tendon on his finger sidelined Dennis from the University of Wisconsin football team and changed the direction of his life. By the next season he knew he wouldn’t make the starting team, so, although he loved the game, he ended his football career and focused more intently on his studies. This led him eventually to Western Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. program at Harvard University.

Dennis came from a high energy, highly competitive family, where “my father’s top four priorities were faith, family, sports, and academics—and at times the order got skewed,” he says. His parents, siblings, and their spouses all became teachers in one way or another and were so immersed in the humanities that “when I became a parent, I didn’t even know how to raise children who would be interested in science!”

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Living in a rural community in northwest Wisconsin, Dennis was greatly influenced by his parents, grandparents, and the people around him showing how important faith was to them. As a very shy second-grader, his mother had to sit with him in Sunday school, and yet his grandfather noted that Dennis showed more interest in Christianity than most seven year olds. “Dennis,” he asked one day, “Why don’t you become a pastor?”

Indeed, Dennis saw himself as someone who would eventually serve the church, but as a college student he prepared to become an American history teacher. However, one day late in his senior year as he was scraping dirty dishes at his job in the university’s Student Union, he realized it just didn’t seem important enough. He couldn’t spend his time writing about American history without any connection to Christian faith.

By that time he was married to Betty, the sparkling, energetic girl who had burst into his life in fifth grade, promptly out-spelling him in a school spelling bee (“I didn’t like that,” he says). By seventh grade they were a couple, and right before their senior year of college they got married.

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When Dennis told Betty he wanted to go to seminary, she was very supportive. They moved to Holland and she immediately got a job teaching home economics. Dennis began WTS in 1966 as a student in the very first summer Greek class, taught by Dr. Richard Oudersluys. After his first year in seminary, an internship at Midland Reformed Church with Rev. Gary Wilterdink gave Dennis real life lessons in preaching and pastoral work. For the next two years of seminary, he assisted at Central Reformed Church in Muskegon.

At the encouragement of the WTS faculty, Dennis headed to Harvard and earned his Ph.D. in the study of religion. However, after graduating in 1974, he was unable to find an open teaching position at a college or university. Again, God guided him as he came very close to accepting a chaplain position at the elite Exeter Academy boarding school in New Hampshire. Instead, at the recommendation of Dr. Gene Osterhaven, Dennis interviewed with Trinity Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

“They were skeptical of me!” he says. “I was a 30 year old with a Ph.D. who had never been out of school.” Yet, they offered him the position. When he, Betty, and their children arrived in Kalamazoo, the first thing Dennis did was to find out where the church team was playing softball that night. He grabbed his mitt, drove to the field, and said, “Hi, I’m your new pastor, do you have enough players?” He played second base that night, and soon the church realized what a down to earth guy he was.

At Trinity, Dennis came to realize that his personal faith commitment and giving his life to others meant more to people than a Harvard education. In the first few months, he performed 12 funerals—a blessing in disguise, giving him the chance to get to know so many families. He poured himself into the ministry, calling on everyone, and soon the congregation began to thrive.

“They nurtured me and cared for me,” he reflects. “They taught me so much about faith and the church.” Three years later when he had to announce he was taking a teaching position at Hope College, he broke down in tears because it was so painful to leave them.

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Yet teaching was in his blood. He joined the Religion Department at Hope in 1977, and “I took to it like a pig to mud!” he says. He savored every moment. When he arrived, he had no lectures prepared and had to work until 2 or 3 in the morning to keep up with teaching two new classes every semester. Still, he loved everything about it—the students, the community, even the workload. He was happy and had no desire to leave.

After being at Hope eight years, Dennis was chosen as a final candidate to lead Western Theological Seminary. Betty was serving at the denomination and believed the seminary needed him. He was torn but couldn’t bring himself to leave the job he loved. He withdrew his candidacy.

During the next nine years, two especially formative things happened. First, he took over as interim pastor for two years at Third Reformed Church during a difficult time for the congregation, getting his “feet back in it.” There he realized how important training pastors and working directly with church leadership was. Second, he was a candidate for the presidency of Hope, and through the interview process, led by Max DePree, he learned he had gifts for institutional leadership.

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When the chance rose again in 1994 to become president of Western, he accepted. Making the transition was very difficult for him, but the students welcomed him. The first week they pulled pranks every night, filling his office with all the plants from the building, then every toilet roll they could find, then balloons, and finally an inadvertently dead goldfish (a story for another time!). Dennis loves it when students feel trusting enough to give him a hard time.

Dennis quickly realized he was called to be there. “I didn’t come with any plan, but I came with convictions of who we should be,” he says. “We are evangelical, Reformed and ecumenical. We start with the core of the gospel, centered in Jesus Christ.”

Long-time colleague Jim Brownson says that Dennis functioned as a theological anchor for the school, with his pastoral presence releasing an enormous amount of creative energy for productive work. He led by encouraging and supporting the people around him.

Dennis is very proud of the institution, the people, and what has developed. “But it’s only by God’s grace!” he is quick to point out. “You can love people, hope and pray that community happens, but you can’t engineer it.”

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Betty helped him every step of the way, blessing the seminary with her gift of hospitality. At Hope College she had hosted parties in their home for every class Dennis taught. At the seminary she threw several Christmas parties each year, and every student was invited to their home multiple times. The Voskuils infused the seminary with their love and care.

In 2008, Dennis stepped down from the presidency in order to return to teaching as the Marvin and Jerene DeWitt Professor of Church History for the six years that followed. He retired in June of 2014 and continues to teach courses on Christian history as an adjunct professor.

In the fall of 2015, Dennis will make another transition, this time to head the A.C. Van Raalte Institute at Hope College, which is dedicated to historical research with an emphasis on Dutch American history. His love of history continues. “I think real life is so exciting and history so rich, I can’t imagine devoting my life to anything else!”

On May 12, the day after graduating, M.Div. recipient Benito (Ben) Aguilera was ordained at Christ Memorial Church in Holland, MI, where he has accepted a position as Pastor of Community and Global Missions.

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Ben grew up in Southern California and didn’t become a Christian until high school. His first church was a non-denominational charismatic congregation where he learned about the Holy Spirit, gifts and strong leadership. There he developed a deep passion for sharing the gospel. When Ben got to his first chapel service at Northwestern College in Iowa, he was in for a culture shock.

“It was interesting, it was different, it was new,” he says. “I began to see the beauty in liturgy, in the tradition that the RCA has, but I also saw some of the challenges that the RCA faces, for example—diversity.”

Ben has dedicated his studies and his ministry to understanding and appreciating different cultures outside and within the church and learning to meet people where they are. He is passionate about sharing the gospel with the un-churched and with those on the fringes of society.

“I always tell people I’m from the best of both worlds,” he says. “I’m from a charismatic background but also have this strong biblical foundation that I love in the RCA. It challenges me. It challenges the way I think; it challenges the way I walk with God, and I think it’s really important that I always have those two be a part of my life and my ministry.”

Ben has been working as the director of community development at Christ Memorial, where his job has been to maintain relationships with 20+ non-profits and ministries in Holland. One of his goals is to get the church out of the pews and into the community.

Ben and his wife Hannah will be staying in Holland for the foreseeable future, but they are open to the Lord’s direction. Ben has a heart for urban ministry and hopes someday to become a church planter.

WTS is pleased to announce the addition of our newest program, the Graduate Certificate in Disability & Ministry.  Directed by Dr. Ben Conner, this program will include 24 credits divided between core courses and specialized courses addressing the intersection of theology and disability. Visit the GCDM page for more information!

The seminary’s second-largest graduating class received their degrees on Monday evening, May 11, in Dimnent Memorial Chapel on the campus of Hope College. Western Theological Seminary awarded 42 Master of Divinity degrees, five Master of Arts degrees, three Master of Theology degrees, three Doctor of Ministry degrees, and three Graduate Certificates in Urban Pastoral Ministry. Prominent church historian Dr. Justo L. González was the commencement speaker. He spoke to the graduates about the Ascension of Christ, emphasizing Christ’s absence and Christ’s victory. He stressed that there is love in Christ’s absence, allowing us to steward creation and God’s people with the help of the Holy Spirit. “The victory,” he said,“is that Christ is seated with God where we will join Him someday. Like a mother teaching her child to walk, who is waiting around the corner for him, Christ is absent from us,allowing us to learn to walk towards him until the day he will finally embrace us.”

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Alumni/ae and friends of the seminary are invited to attend our Commencement and Alumni/ae day on Monday, May 11. 

Please join us at 2:00 PM in Mulder Chapel for a presentation by Commencement speaker, Rev. Dr. Justo L. González. Then at 7:30, join with us in celebrating our 2015 graduates at the 139th Commencement ceremony in Dimnent Chapel. The public is welcome for these events!

SCHEDULE

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Alumni/ae Reunions

12:00 noon, Classes of ’55, ’65, ’75
Lunches $10/person, locations tba

for more information, contact LuAnne VanSlooten.

Afternoon Presentation 
2:00  “Remember the Future: History Works Backwards” by Commencement speaker, Rev. Dr. Justo L. González.
Held in Mulder Chapel, public welcome

139th WTS Commencement
7:30 PM
Dimnent Chapel (campus of Hope College)
Doors open at 6:45

for more information, contact Beth Smith.

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Have you ever felt called to seminary, but weren’t able to leave your current setting? Western Theological Seminary’s Distance Learning program could be for you.  Our DL students are ministers, professionals, parents, and more. With fully online classes and two week-long intensives between semesters in Holland, MI, the DL program allows flexibility around your schedule while maintaining the same quality theological education WTS is known for. Watch what some of our current students have to say about the program, and find more information on our Degrees page.

We are sorry to report that the event at WTS is cancelled.  Daoud will not be able to make it to the U.S. He will be meeting with Israeli court officials to continue an ongoing legal battle over the ownership of their family farm. However, the event at Christ Memorial Church will still be held at 7 pm on April 30. A representative of the farm will be there, speaking on Daoud’s behalf. Daoud will be present through pre-recorded videos.

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