Western Theological Seminary announces that Dr. Leanne Van Dyk, vice president for academic affairs, has been chosen by Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA as their next president. Dr. Van Dyk will complete the school year at Western and take up her new responsibilities at Columbia the end of June. She succeeds Columbia’s ninth president, The Rev. Dr. Stephen (Steve) A. Hayner, who passed away in January after a year’s illness. Columbia was founded in 1828 as a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA). With a faculty of 30, it has 350 students in five degree programs, all offered in-residence. The 57-acre campus is located six miles from downtown Atlanta.

Dr. Van Dyk arrived at Western Theological Seminary in 1998, first teaching in the area of Reformed theology and then moving into administrative roles such as dean of the faculty (2002-05), academic dean (2005-15), and finally the vice president of academic affairs (2006-15).

In those years of academic administration, Dr. Van Dyk increased the quality of Western’s distance learning degree program, began a new Master of Arts degree, assisted in the partnership with the Newbigin House of Studies (San Francisco), headed up the re-accreditation process for the school (done every 10 years), implemented an assessment process for student learning, and led the Faculty Fellow program in which racial-ethnic scholars are brought into the WTS community to teach while working on their PhDs.

When asked about her favorite accomplishment, Dr. Van Dyk says, “I am most pleased with my work chairing ten faculty search committees and bringing marvelous new faculty colleagues to the seminary.”

Leanne Van Dyk is a graduate of Calvin College (B.A.), Western Michigan University (M.A.), Calvin Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Princeton Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). Her career began as an elementary school teacher in DeMotte, IN and Kalamazoo, MI. Although she loved working in early childhood education, she began to sense a call to ministry that grew stronger as the years went by. She decided to leave teaching in 1981 and began seminary at Calvin Theological Seminary.

“Even though women were not at that time welcomed into ordained ministry in the Christian Reformed Church, I was convinced that I was obeying a call from God,” she says. “I am so grateful that my call has led me to rich and fruitful ministries in theological education.”

Van Dyk was ordained in 2007 in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her ordination was transferred to the Reformed Church in America in 2009.

Her years in San Francisco, where she served on the faculty of the San Francisco Theological Seminary from 1992-98, sharpened her focus on the issues of cultural diversity that face the church today. She gave Western an excitement for the rich resources within the Reformed tradition for speaking theologically across cultural and religious boundaries. She cares deeply about racial-ethnic diversity and is pleased that Columbia Theological Seminary has grown remarkably in recent years in that area.

“I am eager to serve Columbia as president and lead them to continue to live into their mission,” Dr. Van Dyk says.

“Columbia Theological Seminary’s great gain is Western Theological Seminary’s deep loss,” says WTS President Timothy Brown. “Leanne has given our school boundless energy and lavish joy as she has guided our academic well-being with remarkable wisdom. We all wish she wasn’t leaving but clearly understand why Columbia has chosen her. We are mighty proud of her and pledge to her our abiding love and continuing prayers!”

Our 2015 T.I.M. Summit will prove to be one alumni (classes 2010-2014) will NOT want to miss! Any alum, whether currently placed in full time ministry or not, is invited to join in conversation to explore the ins and outs of organizational leadership. There will be fun with your peers, learning skills needed for your ministry and…door prizes!

This year’s summit will focus on how to make your ministry and vocation all about the people in the midst of the administrative and ministerial tasks that surround you every day. At the summit, you will hear from area corporate and church leaders explaining how to do what matters most in your ministry. You will be surrounded by friends and mentors who will help you, in a fun and engaging way, learn how God empowers us to empower others in ministry.

Schedule

Session 1 – Catalyzing Strengths
I’m good at names, good with ideas, but terrible with numbers. I can share a vision but struggle to empower others to participate. How do I build on what I do well without getting discouraged or procrastinating on the other?

Session 2 – Workshops

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Administrative Assistants Make Life Better (or “I’m better at this than you, let me help”) – Cathy Dreyer, Pillar Church

Recruiting Volunteers: Picking Friends is Better than Picking Your Nose – Martha Wing, Holland Rescue Mission

Strategic Planning: Where Dreams Do Come True – Kyle Small, Western Theological Seminary

Session 3 – Honest Feedback & Working with Boards

Fearless Feedback: Receiving Feedback without Falling Apart  – Kyle Small, Western Theological Seminary
The Bored-room No Longer: Working with Consistories, Non-profit Boards and Ministry Teams for Energy and Action  – Jeff Munroe, Western Theological Seminary


Session 5 – Panel Discussion

Organic Energy – leadership insights from seasoned leaders
Panel Participants:

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John Spoelhof, former president of Prince Corp. and Jeff Monroe, V.P. of Operations at WTS.

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Jody VanderWel, investment manager at Grand Angels
Steve Spoelhof, former head of Advancement at Willow Creek Community Church
Martha Wing, volunteer coordinator at Holland Rescue Mission
Chris Theule-VanDam, regional director for Young Life


Session 6 – Generosity and Closing

Steve Spoelhof talks about generosity from his experience in fundraising.

The Rev. Chris DeVos joined WTS on January 19 as the new Associate Director of Journey for Ridder Church Renewal. 

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 Chris grew up in Grand Rapids, MI, where his family was deeply involved in both an RCA and a CRC church. While attending Calvin Theological Seminary, he sensed a call to pastoral ministry with the need to bring renewal to the church. He spent six years in campus ministry at the University of Colorado before answering a call to a CRC church in Dunwoody, GA. There he spent seven rich years learning what it meant to be a pastor before sensing another call to Kingston, Ontario. Finally, in 2003, Chris moved to Holland to lead Pillar Church, where he participated in Ridder Church Renewal. Chris brings the unique perspective of working in both CRC and RCA churches in the US and Canada, as well as being a pastor who has gone through the Ridder process.

What is Ridder Church Renewal?

Ridder Church Renewal is really more of a movement than a program. It is a process of transformation for pastors and churches, geared toward those who want a more vibrant mission and life as a congregation. We work primarily with pastors and leadership teams of six people. We teach pastors and leaders to take responsibility for their own growth.

It’s as if you hadn’t been eating a great diet for a while, and you begin to ask, “Why do I eat as I do? What do I mean by health and how do I reach it?”

We start out with Faithwalking, digging deep into the hidden assumptions within the personal lives of the pastor and church leaders. Out of personal transformation comes corporate renewal. The entire process is spread out over five years with training and teaching.

What interested you in leading this?

Ridder has made such a big impact on my life and in the life of Pillar Church. To be a part of that with other churches excited me. Even the congregation, although they didn’t want me to go, could see that this was really a good fit for my gifts, passions and experiences.

What impact has Ridder made on you?

The situation of the church right now in North America means that churches have to wrestle with change. Pastors need to learn to be a less-anxious presence in the midst of hard conversations about change and mission. The Ridder process has developed me to be much more capable in that way and much more honest. I’ve had people say to me at Pillar, “You’re a different person than you were when you came here.”  

Have you witnessed other renewal?

Every one of the churches involved with Ridder is gaining clarity on what it means to be in mission for God with integrity, authenticity, love, and courage. In the first two and a half years we see a lot of transformation in the lives of pastors. As the process continues, churches help their members see how God is calling them to their own ministries in their community. 

Why is Ridder is catching on so fast?

It is the testimony of churches and pastors saying that it has made a deeper difference than just a program. It’s not a quick fix. Ridder focuses on being more genuine and faithful to the gospel.

How many churches are involved?

There are 56 RCA and CRC churches. A year from now there will probably be 120. The churches are located across the U.S. and Canada. They belong to several RCA synods—Great Lakes, Wisconsin, Albany, Mid-America and New York. A number of CRC classes are also represented. We hope to expand into a Pacific NW region and to Iowa, the Dakotas, and Minnesota.

What are your dreams for Ridder?

My dreams all center on what would help pastors and churches grow in their capacity to be in God’s mission in the world. The more we can facilitate that, the better. My main work is to steward this movement as it grows.

We’re exploring ways to craft an even deeper collaboration between Ridder and the academic life of the seminary. I’d love to see more involvement with our faculty, as well as a Doctor of Ministry track for pastors engaged in Ridder.

As our work expands, I want to see more and more pastors and leaders take up the challenge to learn, live, and act in ways that are required of us to be more faithful and fruitful in mission today. I’m committed to doing that in my own life.

What do a poet and a theologian have to say about being diagnosed with incurable cancer in the prime of life? Listen to the conversation between famous American poet Christian Wiman and Reformed theologian J. Todd Billings.

 

Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology J. Todd Billings has had a dramatic two and a half years. From being diagnosed with incurable cancer to undergoing a near-lethal dose of chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant, to enduring a two-month quarantine and a long, painful recovery, he has surely walked through “the valley of the shadow of death.” Through it all, he has remained an inspiration to many and has now published a book about the intersection of his faith and cancer.

Since his hospitalization in March 2013, Todd Billings has been on the slow road to what he calls the “new normal.” His cancer is in a strong partial remission, and he has returned to his roles as father, husband, professor, and active church member. However, this season of his health is not without its challenges.

“With the deep joys of interaction, work, and family come downswings in energy that involve physical pain, heavy fatigue, and emotional lows. The three can almost seem inseparable,” he writes.

As he remains under “maintenance chemotherapy” to keep his cancer in check, Todd continues to find solace in the Psalms.

“As I noticed in reading Psalm 77 recently, there is little or no ‘mind over matter’ optimism here,” he shares, “but there is trust in the strong love of the God of deliverance.”

I cry aloud to God,

aloud to God, that he may hear me.

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;

in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;

my soul refuses to be comforted…

I will meditate on all your work,

and muse on your mighty deeds.

Your way, O God, is holy.

What god is so great as our God?

In his new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos Press), Dr. Billings is honest and vulnerable about his cancer story, all the while pointing to the larger story of Christ’s redemption. He tells of bringing his pain, anger, and even blame before God, while at the same time always basing these questions in trust that God can handle our laments.

Rejoicing in Lament is both a comfort and a guide for all who labor along the same path as Billings does. It also provides insight to family members and friends of those suffering from cancer or other serious illnesses,” writes John Koessler in his five-star review for Christianity Today.

Rev. April Fiet (WTS ‘07) has found the book particularly helpful in her work as a pastor. It is a “beautiful, raw, and rich work that is hands-down the most important book I’ve read about pastoral care—even though the book is not explicitly written as a pastoral care guide.”

On March 31, Western Theological Seminary will host a conversation between Dr. Billings and esteemed American poet and editor Christian Wiman, who also suffers from incurable cancer.

Wiman’s collection of reflections, entitled My Bright Abyss, chronicles his rediscovery and exploration of faith in the wake of his own diagnosis.

Please join us on March 31 at 7 pm for an evening of rich discussion on life’s deep struggles.  No RSVP needed.

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When the Rev. Lindsay Small began directing the Bast Preaching Initiatives in the fall of 2013, she was struck by the WTS learning model of continuing education:  Learning happens best as people learn together over time, in and out of specific contexts, and share that learning with others. Lindsay wondered, “How could this model be used for preaching?”

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With fourteen years of experience as a pastor, Lindsay recognized that good preaching involves dwelling within Scripture, crafting a sermon carefully, and proclaiming the Word boldly.

With these values in mind and alongside a newly formed Bast Advisory Team of WTS personnel, pastors, and college professors, she developed a peer learning model around the concept of “Dwell, Craft, Proclaim.”

This model was used to shape three types of groups: Discern Groups for college students, Discover Groups for seminary students, and Dwell Groups for pastors.

Groups employ the three-fold pathway of Dwell, Craft, Proclaim to guide discussion, but use other resources, too. They begin at the Bast Preaching Festival in November and end at the following year’s festival.

“Early on I started imagining what it would be like to lead a group myself,” recalls Lindsay. “I was growing concerned by the number of female seminarians who dismissed their call to preach to God’s people. It was as if they felt it ‘too presumptuous’ to think that they could be preachers. I do not believe that every person called to ministry is called to preach, but I want these students to see that God’s call is wider than they had possibly imagined.”

Lindsay formed the first Discover Group, “The Pulpit,” specifically for female seminary students.

In the following months, Dwell and Discern groups were established, each with about seven participants and one leader. By November, the groups were eager to begin at the Bast Preaching Festival, featuring Rev. Eugene Peterson.

On November 9, the festival kicked off with Rev. Peterson discussing his book, Eat this Book, with students from Central College, Northwestern College, Hope College, and Grand Valley State University. Twenty-six students are in Discern Groups.

“I am hearing our students engage one another about the call to ministry and to preaching,” said the Rev. Dan Claus, a chaplain at Hope College. “The diversity of interests in our group helps them gain new insights. The studio art major asks different questions than the philosophy major, and they are mutually enriched.”

WTS faculty and local pastors hosted workshops on preaching throughout the Bast Festival, and overall WTS welcomed 163 participants—a great increase from 55 festival participants the year before.

“So many preaching conferences fixate on techniques, pragmatics, tricks, and gimmicks,” said Jared Ayers, pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia. “The Bast Conference and these new collegial cohorts are deeply nourishing for Christian leaders living in a moment in which there is a ‘famine of hearing the words of the LORD’ (Amos 8.11).”

In the five Dwell groups for pastors, there are two local groups in Iowa, one regional group from the East Coast, and two national groups who meet monthly through web chat. That is 38 pastors in all, engaged on the topic of preaching.

The Rev. Small hopes the Bast Preaching Initiatives will continue to grow and bless participants. “I am excited for more and more people—pastors and students alike—to engage peer learning and preaching. We feel like we are just getting started!”

In 2015 a second Discover group for seminarians will be formed.

The 2015 Bast Preaching Festival will feature keynote speaker Anna Carter Florence. There, the Discern and Dwell groups will wrap up their year of learning, and new peer groups will begin.

According to an article in the Financial Times, “The Rise of Christianity in China,” membership in the church there is now greater than membership in the Communist Party. By 2030, China likely will have more practicing Christians than the U.S.A.

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Professor of New Testament Robert Van Voorst and his wife, Mary, immersed themselves in this surprising new environment for two weeks last November. Dr. Van Voorst was invited to be a “Distinguished Overseas Visiting Scholar” at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, where the government sponsors a doctoral program in Christianity Studies. The Chinese government paid for the entire trip.

Former WTS student Grace Hui-Liang (Th.M. 2005) coordinated the visit. She is a professor at Zhejiang University and author of three books on the history of Bible interpretation in China.

Bob taught 12 students from Zhejiang’s Ph.D. program in Christianity. Many of these young scholars will get six months of paid study in the West as they write their dissertations. When they finish, they will be placed as Christian religious studies scholars in various Chinese universities.

Dr. Van Voorst discussed cross-cultural Bible study methods and shared knowledge of the historical Jesus. His final lecture covered the present state of religious studies in higher education in the West.

The days fell into a regular rhythm:  lectures and advising students in the mornings and then sightseeing in the afternoon. The students showed their American professor and his wife the sights of Hangzhou—the university, temples, and the beautiful West Lake. The students were very respectful, calling Mary by her first name at her request, but never dreaming of calling their professor “Bob.” 

Bob and Mary visited a local house church and soon found out that “house church” simply means it is not one of the government’s recognized churches.

Mostly university students attended the church, participating by devoutly praying, singing from Chinese hymnbooks, and taking notes.

“At times you could hear the whole room full of whispered prayers,” Bob reflects. “It was quite beautiful.”

The men sat on one side and the women on the other—but a woman preached the sermon.

Following the service, the pastors took Bob and Mary out for lunch, asking difficult questions about the religious futures of the U.S. and China, the rise of secularism in the U.S., and whether there would be any hope for the world if the U.S. gives up its role of promoting freedom.

Asked for his thoughts on avoiding persecution but still spreading the gospel,  Bob reached into the New Testament. “If you suffer for being a Christian, God will bless you,” he told them. “But if you suffer because you break God’s law, then you should accept your punishment as just.”

The house churches are spreading very rapidly as more people come to faith.  

“Frankly, the church in China is doing very well now,” Bob says, “but Western Christians don’t realize that the Chinese government is both encouraging and suppressive.”

The Chinese government sponsors the largest Bible printing operation in the world. It has printed 125 million copies of the Bible, given to churches for use and distribution—even house churches. The government would rather have a mainstream form of Christianity influenced by the Bible than to have Christian cults.

However, the government remains wary of any movement becoming too large, and as Christianity grows among intellectuals and business leaders, the government tries to control that growth.

 “As Tertullian said around A.D. 200, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,’ Bob remarks. “The more you try to suppress faith, the more the faith grows.”

Professor Van Voorst hopes to participate again at Zhejiang University. He believes both the academy and the church are going to be important for Christianity in China.

“It’s simply amazing that a political system pledged to atheism would sponsor the high-level study and teaching of Christianity,” he says. “We may wonder why, but we thank God that such research and teaching are being done.”

By Diane Shircliff,

Fourth year Distance Learning student

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I have dreamed of going to Israel since I was 15 years old. Thanks to the Intercultural Immersion program of WTS, that dream came true in January. Led by our guides, RCA missionaries Marlin and Sally Vis, our group of jet-lagged—but excited—seminarians left the plane in Tel Aviv, donned warmer clothes, and hit the ground running.

For the next several days, we trekked to and through as many sites as the weather and practical logistics would allow, both in the Galilee region and in and around Jerusalem. Eagerly and intentionally absorbing the view from the hill, the unevenness of the ground, the cold of the stone, the beauty of the architecture, the undeniability of the ancient Roman power, we were consistently challenged to think what that culture brings to biblical teaching, to remember that knowledge of Jesus and the gospel must carry in it a deep understanding of Jesus’ humanity and the culture in which he lived.

I cannot adequately explain the different feel of the land. There is a continuity we touched momentarily through the stones and ruins that inform millennia of culture and conflict. We felt it when we climbed to the caves in Mt. Arbel and heard the story of the slaughter there. We saw it in B’et She’an, with its Greek-influenced layout and immensity, a foreign template for power demanding recognition. We saw it at Herodium, the five-story palace fortress looming from its perch just outside Bethlehem. We saw it in the wall and checkpoints and red tile roofs of Jewish settlements sprawling down the mountains in the West Bank. We heard it in the voices of the people we met and grew to love.

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Our first night in Jerusalem marked a shift of focus from the past to the present and future. In those next few days, we traveled to the West Bank to Hebron, guided by a hospitable, gentle Muslim woman, experiencing more freedom in our movement than she was allowed.

We toured Yad Veshem (the Holocaust memorial) while winding through Israeli military training groups. We listened to the heart-wrenching stories of Muslim and Jewish daughters killed by the enemy, saw first-hand the non-violent resistance of Palestinian Christians at the Tent of Nations farm, visited a settlement, meeting with two Jewish settlers, attended a lecture by Dr. Salim Munayer at Bethlehem Bible College, and were welcomed into the homes of Palestinian Christian families, who shared their stories of life in this land of occupation.

Western media falls short in giving us the whole picture. Consistently, we heard this plea: “Tell our story. Come back. Bring people with you.”

The politics are harsh. The fear is palpable. It is easy to claim sole ownership of a connection to the land, to assign blame, to take sides. While governments stake out political positions, individual Americans are free—free to seek peace, not merely cease-fire, to join hands with any and all who seek justice. We cannot fix the problems or force solutions, but can walk alongside, lift up, and do the work of Jesus in his homeland.

I hope to return someday and bring friends along to meet the people and learn their stories. Meanwhile, I will keep listening to the stories, the living history of the land. Regardless of whether I am able to return, the cycle of power and oppression, wealth and poverty played out over thousands of years in Israel/Palestine serves as a clarion call to address injustice wherever it is met, whether that is in the Middle East or the American Midwest. We are called to do the work of Jesus in our own homeland as well.

In recent years, the seminary became aware that our students’ debt load was increasing, but we didn’t know the scope of the problem nor did we have personnel available to focus on the issue. Through the generosity of Lilly Foundation, Inc., we have been able to direct resources toward delving into the complex issue of student debt, and for that we are grateful.

Western Theological Seminary is one of 67 theological schools in the USA to receive $250,000 over three years from Lilly to examine and strengthen financial and educational practices with the goal of improving the economic well-being and financial literacy of future ministerial leaders.

Jeff Munroe, V.P. of Operations and Advancement, and Carla Capotosto, who has been responsible for marketing/communications efforts at WTS for the last 15 years, are heading the student debt initiative. The lessons Carla learned while navigating her own life circumstances have given her a passion to help students in this area. She and Jeff both want students to experience the freedom that comes with careful fiscal management.

Western is using the funds from Lilly to research the scope and systemic nature of student debt, provide financial counseling and economic education to our students, and explore creative partnerships with undergraduate institutions to lower the cost of a seminary education.

Already a clear picture has emerged by studying the debt loads of our last three graduating classes and our current Master of Divinity and Master of Arts students.

Consistently, one-third of students are either completely debt free or have not taken on seminary debt. This is cause to celebrate! The middle third are carrying debt that will be manageable on their expected salaries (with careful budgeting). The last third are looking like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress with huge loads on their backs, making every step difficult. We don’t know each situation, but from a distance their debt looks unmanageable and certainly like something that will affect their future home life and their ministries.

So what kind of salary can M.Div. graduates expect as they consider debt load? The starting salary including housing allowance for a first year pastor of an RCA church (with less than 250 people) begins at $42,291 in one classis and averages around $53,500 across the country. Ideally, a student without resources for additional household income would keep his or her debt under $37,000.

The sidebar to the right gives the approximate cost of seminary. It is important to note that without donors contributing to the work of the seminary and defraying the total cost of education, we would need to charge over $30,000 a year in tuition per student.

Western is also pleased to be able to offer lower tuition rates than our peer seminaries.

The issues surrounding student debt are complicated, but we are starting with some basics. In addition to helping our students become more aware of the implications of debt, we have added financial literacy training to the curriculum, starting with our junior in-residence class. The first class was held in January and covered topics such as cash flow, budgeting, insurance, investing, etc.

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Other workshops are being created for middlers and seniors that focus on topics such as clergy taxes and church administration. We are also offering financial counseling to students.

The seminary is revisiting our financial aid policies, we are doubling our efforts to solicit private scholarships from donors, and other ideas are in the works.

We welcome your feedback: carlap@westernsem.edu

The Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan lets seminary students live alongside those with cognitive disabilities.

In 2007, the Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House at Western Theological Seminary became the first seminary housing of its kind. Friendship House is a pod-style apartment complex where 18 students live alongside six young adults with cognitive disabilities, and the partnership has led to astounding results.

Friendship House gives the six Friends an opportunity to live independently and work in the community, while the seminarians get the opportunity to learn what it means to live alongside someone with a disability. We at Western Theological Seminary would be diminished without the presence of our Friendship House Friends. They have enriched the lives of seminarians and given us a deeper appreciation of all people and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.

In 2018, the six “founding” Friends graduated. They transitioned to new living arrangements and have made room for new Friends to come live at the house. New Friendship House Director Carlos Thompson will be living at Friendship House and serving on the faculty of WTS as a Nouwen Fellow for 2018-2020.

The Friendship House has inspired other seminaries to create similar communities. Duke Divinity School started their own Friendship House in 2013, which was followed by others at Vanderbilt and George Fox University, another in Fayetteville, NC and soon, one at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Click play to hear about Friendship House from those who know it best: