L to R:  Mike Gorr, Dave Parrish, Steve Magneson, Scott Newman, Chuck DeGroat, Dennae Pierre, Shari Stewart, Donna Field.

Missing: Rawee Bunupuradah, Blaine Crawford, Heidi De Jonge, James Ellis, Kevin VanderVeen

In March of 2018 WTS announced significant changes to our Doctor of Ministry degree. The new model is cohort-based, meaning that a faculty member guides participants through learning focused around a particular theme. Prior to 2018, each D.Min. student followed his or her own focus of study with an advisor, which wasn’t necessarily related to what other students were studying.

The “Deepening Soul Care and Spiritual Transformation for Mission” cohort led by Dr. Chuck DeGroat is the first D.Min. class of this kind to graduate, and the new model is showing great promise. Out of 14 initial students, 12 completed their dissertations and earned degrees. This theologically and racially diverse cohort brought together students from all over the country, Canada, and Thailand. Together they explored aspects of spiritual formation for the sake of the mission of God.

“Almost immediately a real sense of cohesion and bonding happened,” says Dr. DeGroat. “The group was there to engage around a similar theme, but each person brought a unique story and longing. We became a close-knit community through the challenges of COVID-19, racial tensions of the summer of 2020, vocational disruption, and personal stories of family illness and death.”

The D.Min. graduates describe their time at WTS as transformational. Some are already presenting their doctoral work to a wider audience, like Rev. Heidi DeJonge, who turned her thesis, “Truthing in Love: Engaging Conflict with the Disarming Love of God,” into a video series for the church she leads.

To those thinking about taking the plunge into a Doctor of Ministry program, Dr. DeGroat says, “I don’t know of a program where a student would get more personal attention, mentoring, community, freedom to explore, and incredible resourcing from a seminary. We invite students into reflection in ways that challenge them and prompt growth.”

Student Testimonials:

“Chuck created a safe space for us to simply be ourselves on our individual journeys with God. The sense of family and authentic community was an invaluable part of the learning process.”

“Dr. DeGroat was very intentional in designing our cohort to nurture strong relational networks that significantly enriched the academic process. I learned so much throughout the three-year program and grew immensely from the environment that allowed me to share deeply in the work of other cohort members.”

“Whatever was needed, Dr. DeGroat was there:  the professor with the needed academic challenge, the coach diagraming the way out of a tight spot, the pastor bringing a lantern into a specific darkness, or a trusted friend who’d flat-out earned the right to speak hard and necessary truths to us. …I absolutely cannot imagine how such a cohort could have been more expertly led. If you’re seriously looking for an academic/personal/spiritual journey that will change so much more than your resume, look no further.”

“I’m graduating from this D.Min. cohort twenty years after earning my M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary. The D.Min. program was just what I needed to reflect on the past twenty years of life and ministry, refocus my calling, and propel me into the next twenty.”

To learn more about open and in-process cohorts, visit westernsem.edu/dmin

*UPDATE* June 9, 2021:Yesterday we saw 22 alumni24 friends16 trustees17 faculty/staff, and 1 current student, all make a financial commitment to an area they love.

$42,100 was raised by 73 gifts and pledges which was buoyed by our Board of Trustees who agreed to match gifts up to $10,000, and by an anonymous WTS employee whose $500 gift would be unlocked if we increased participation among our own faculty and staff.

Because of this support, we can continue our mission: By God’s grace, forming women and men for faithful Christian ministry and participation in the Triune God’s ongoing redemptive work in the world.

Thank you!

Tuesday, June 8 is Western’s “Day of Giving!” Will you consider making a one-time special gift to the seminary on this day for an area or project that is most dear to you?

Students successfully launch into ministry because you support the programs and people that enable them to flourish. To help us make this day a success, share this event and invite your friends to support an area that they appreciate, or give a gift in honor of a Western grad or faculty member that has had an impact on your life.

In addition, the WTS Board of Trustees has generously agreed to match gifts from alumni and friends up to $10,000 on June 8, the WTS Day of Giving. Mark your calendars and please join us!

*The Day of Giving Page will go live on Thursday, June 3 and close on Wednesday June 9*

Monday, May 10, 2021 Schedule:

Due to restrictions and precautions from the pandemic, all events will be different this year, and some are canceled. See below for details. The reunion classes from last year (1960, 70, 80, 90, 2000) are joining us, as well as graduates from the Class of 2020.

9:00am – Senior Blessing for distance learning graduates in the Atrium (no room for guests due to spacing restrictions)

10:00am  – Individual graduation photos (taken outside on the steps of Mulder Chapel)

noon-1:00 – Virtual Reunions via Zoom for the Classes of 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001. Reunion Classes ending in “0” also welcome. Go here to register.

2:30pm – Commencement Rehearsal for all graduates (Beechwood Reformed Church, 895 Ottawa Beach Rd, Holland, MI 49424)

canceled – No Alumni/ae Dinner this year (due to pandemic safety precautions)

7:00pm – 144th & 145th Commencement. NOTE NEW LOCATION: Beechwood Reformed Church, 895 Ottawa Beach Rd., Holland, MI 49424. Registered seating has reached capacity in the sanctuary (Seating in the Great Room available by reservation here). Doors open at 6:15pm. Masks required.

The normal receiving line for graduates will not be held, but we encourage graduates and guests to go outside Beechwood Church for socially-distanced celebrations.

Commencement will be livestreamed and will be available on the Beechwood site.


The service will be recorded and made available on this page later.

 

WTS is committed to engaging the work of racial reconciliation and justice in our institution, churches, and communities. With that goal in mind, the diversity committee led campus-wide reading and discussion groups for staff, faculty and students around three books:

  1. Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope,
  2. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, and
  3. Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.

The Board of Trustees also read The Color of Compromise and discussed it during their February meeting.

“The way that the thoughtful people in our discussion group grappled with Reading While Black pointed me to aspects and implications of McCaulley’s work that I would not have come up with on my own.”

—Suzanne McDonald, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology

 

 

“Reading and discussing Caste was a reminder that the work of antiracism, justice, and conciliation is hard, and we have barely scratched the surface. Wilkerson, in naming the complexity of systemic injustice and the depth of our historical depravity, encouraged and challenged us to dismantle oppression wherever we encounter it—in ourselves and in the world around us.”

—Shari Oosting, Associate Director of Formation for Ministry

 

 

“I really like that the author offers hope. He talks about how we should have acted at different times, but he says ‘we can still act.’ We can still be a part of change, the way God might want us to be.”

—Gail Ebersole, Board of Trustees Chair

“Engaging this book within a community of fellow believers was powerful. The history and stories presented were not easy to read or digest. That being said, I am thankful that Western provided the space to process, share, and lament together.”

—Anna Christians, M.Div. student

“I appreciated the opportunity to share about experiences with racism and dream about a better future with ministry leaders from different demographics and other parts of the country.”

—David Parrish, D.Min. student

The Color of Compromise exposed critical gaps in my knowledge about the history of racism in our nation—especially around American Christianity’s role in protecting, nurturing, and quietly approving of white supremacy along the way. The hard conversations fostered honest repentance and creative thinking for ministry.”

—Jaimi Vander Berg, distance-learning student

 

In addition, WTS was grateful to have Jemar Tisby with us last month for the 10th Annual Stoutemire Lecture series in Multicultural Ministry. His lecture, titled “How to Fight Racism” focused on the danger of Christian Nationalism and encouraged practical steps towards racial justice. Over the course of the two days Jemar also had smaller group conversations with our Student Council, Faculty, the Diversity Committee and the WTS Board of Trustees.

Jackson Nickolay with wife & WTS alumna Hannah, hiking on the Isle of Iona.

By M.Div. student Jackson Nickolay

We had just hiked over 12 miles.

In the excited rush of having finally arrived on the Isle of Iona—a Scottish island laden with personal and spiritual significance—my wife Hannah and I had hiked the length of the island… three times over. We were exhausted, the type which prompts a heightened sense of attention to the way the seams of your jeans have been rubbing your legs the wrong way and informs you that the laces of your boots were given one pull too many when you put them on. As we neared our bed and breakfast, nothing sounded better than curling up with a book and slowly falling to sleep.

But the light was calling to me.

Light is a big deal on Iona. If you happen to wander your way into one of the few bookshops on the small island, you will find a variety of books about the essence of the light there. These books range from the respectably reverent to the magically mystical. Some marvel at the beauty God has bestowed upon the early morning light. Others speak of the light as a doorway into heaven itself and claim Iona as one of the few thin spaces on earth where heaven and earth are separated by the narrowest beam of light.

And that light was calling me.

With Hannah making the wise choice to rest after a long day’s hike, I set out to find the horizon. The sound of my tired feet dully testified to my eagerness to reach the hills in time to see the sunset, but my excitement turned to dismay as I realized I had farther to go than I thought. The sun was sinking, and fast. My pace quickened toward a hill and through a herd of sheep that seemed justifiably startled by this interloper moving a bit too quickly in the failing light.

My body cried out to me. Any rational person would have stopped miles ago. Why was I pushing myself so hard?

I needed this sunset. Having recently followed a call to attend seminary—a path I could not have predicted even six months prior—I found myself searching for a sign, a divine nod, an assurance that I was on the right path, that I had indeed received a call, and where I was going God would be with me.

I got to the top of the hill and looked toward the sea, only to see a larger hill just offshore, right in the way of the sunset… my heart sank. The light was fading, and there wasn’t enough time to move to another of the many hills. Defeated, I turned around, looking for a place to sit for a moment and catch my breath.

As I turned, I saw eyes gazing back at me. A lamb had poked its head around the side of a grassy knoll a little way to the north, its white fleece bathed in ethereal sunset light.

Hope kindled. My tired legs drove on once more as I stepped toward the lamb and into the light of the just setting sun.

The clouds didn’t part, there was no angel chorus, and no ladder descended from the sky. But as I sat there tired in body and hungry in soul, I saw the air itself suffused with the sun’s shimmering light, the hills of Iona aglow in dark purple silhouette, and the sea illuminated with a path to the horizon. Respectable reverence can call it what it wants. As for myself, I will say that as I sat there on a hill with the lamb, the thin place quickened, the veil opened, and I saw Iona cast in heaven’s light.       —JN

See this story and more in our March 2021 issue of The Commons

If you missed Dr. Winn Collier‘s virtual Book Release on March 23 featuring Liz Vice & Rev. Eric Peterson, you can watch it here now!

Liz’s first song:
Produced by Tyler Chester
Edited by Jeremy Stanley
Sponsored by Good Shepherd Church NYC

More about the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination.

2020 M.Div. graduate ministers with the Deaf in Jamaica

Two percent of the world’s population is deaf, and 98% of those have never been told about the Gospel. The Carribean Christian Center for the Deaf (CCCD) in Jamaica has been working for years to change that statistic, and in 2020, WTS graduate Patrick Bloemendaal, his wife Kara, and their four-month old son, Silas, moved from their home in Michigan to join the organization.

“CCCD operates four campuses across the island,” says Pat. “One is Jamaica Deaf Village and three are schools.” The organization’s mission is to “reach, teach, and nurture the Deaf of Jamaica so that they can experience the joy of knowing Jesus and serving within their community.”

Pat and Kara were introduced to CCCD when Pat was working as a youth minister at Community Reformed Church in Zeeland, MI and attending WTS through the distance-learning program. The church asked them to lead a short-term team to the island, and they felt such a strong connection with the ministry that they wanted to return full-time.

CCCD Student poses for a photo during Pat & Kara’s second trip to CCCD in 2019

These days Pat and his family work, play, and worship all in Jamaican Deaf culture. Although they had learned some American Sign Language before they arrived, now they are learning Jamaican Sign Language.

“Every country around the world has their own unique sign language,” Pat explains. “Silas is learning too; most of his signs revolve around going outside and food.”

Although the Deaf do not consider themselves disabled, many in mainstream Jamaican society look down on them, and they have a very high unemployment rate. CCCD empowers the Deaf community and models Deaf leadership through pastors, staff, and a CEO who are all deaf themselves.

“The ability to provide a way to communicate opens the door to the gospel and a ton of other resources,” Pat shares.

Recently, he and Kara put together classes to help the Deaf residents transition into their next phases of life— working and/or living away from the Deaf Village if they choose. Once a month they offer classes on topics like marriage and family, computer skills, resume building, banking, conflict resolution, and more. Pat and Kara bring in Jamaican leaders to teach the classes and paint a picture of what is available across the island.

Pat preaches to the New Life Church of the Deaf congregation and students from the Knockpatrick campus (pre-pandemic)

Patrick completed the Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) while he was at seminary, and he says that helped to broaden his perspectives and engage populations who are often overlooked.

“I live in a community that is for the Deaf, run by the Deaf,” he shares. “It’s changing my perspective and understanding. Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do when given language access, resources and knowledge. The GCDM program at Western came alongside the ministry I was already doing as a youth pastor and changed the lens with which I see people—we’re all made in the image of God and He has a story and journey for each one of us.”

CCCD students lead in worship

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique challenges for CCCD and some of Pat and Kara’s initial plans for ministry. Forty percent of the organization’s funding usually comes from the short-term teams who visit, and Pat was supposed to be in charge of those teams. Instead, he has designed a three-week virtual experience where small groups can sign up together to receive two emails per week with videos, testimonials, and resources to learn about Deaf communities around the world, raise awareness, and sponsor a project through CCCD.

Pat hopes the program will benefit the team members’ own personal spiritual lives as they discuss the content. He also tries to schedule one live event with people from the village so the team can interact in a more personal way.

Another challenge comes from schools in Jamaica being online since last March. Although sign language via Zoom is possible, the small squares on a screen are hard to see. Some families don’t have access to computers or tablets, or they have to share one device between multiple children.

Facial expressions are also an important part of sign language and can be difficult to convey behind a mask or over Zoom.

For now, Pat and Kara are focusing on building relationships with teachers and staff and continuing to learn the language and culture.

“We’re not here to make waves or start anything new,” Pat shares. “We’re here to partner with what the Deaf are already doing and support them. It’s my goal that we continue to find this place as home and earn credibility. We’re expanding our family and are excited about the roots we’re laying down.” They are expecting their second child in August.

“My life has always been about getting as much experience as I can,” he says. “Volunteer opportunities, everything I could get my hands on. That would be my advice [to students]—just go get experience. It’s the same with the GCDM or any of the other certifications that Western offers. If you have the opportunity and freedom to take part in those programs, do it. Experience is key, and you have no idea what God is going to call you into. I never thought I’d be running a transition program or preaching in sign language, but here I am.”

See this story and more in our March 2021 issue of The Commons

 

Photo: Nathaniel, Rachel, Todd, and Neti Billings – (Briana Crowell Photography) “I used to assume that God owed me a long life—to pursue a vocation and family with full strength, to live long enough to become a grandparent,” says Dr. J. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology. “Then, at the age […]

Photo: Amelia holds Gramma’s hand

By M.Div. Student Amelia Green

Since childhood, my dream was to become a nurse. When I graduated with my BSN and passed my State Boards in 2014, I was convinced I was where God had called me to be. I certainly never planned to attend seminary.

I had no idea that the hours I spent singing “Jesus Loves Me” with a woman in the dementia unit would lead to receiving God’s call to pursue ministry. I didn’t realize God was preparing me for something more whenever I prayed with a resident or sat at the bedside of the dying. I didn’t know that the everyday tasks of my career would lead to a longing to provide more spiritual care…but God knew.

When I finally began the Master of Divinity program at Western the Fall of 2019, I had no idea I would need my classes and the encouragement of the WTS community to help me continue as a nurse during a pandemic.

As the world debated over the reality of COVID-19, the necessity of wearing masks, and the mandate to stay home, I found myself trying to balance working more hours, acclimating to a world on Zoom, and completing my coursework, while also navigating through a season of personal loss and grief.

I had to quickly learn how to show my residents they were loved, once smiles were hidden behind masks and physical touch became limited, and especially after the mandate came that visitors could only be allowed inside nursing facilities if their loved one was dying.

I can still hear the joy in a woman’s voice when she told me about her first outdoor visit with her husband a couple months after the pandemic started, but this was mixed with the grief of not being able to even touch his hand.

I can still see the panic on a resident’s face when I took her hand and told her that her COVID test had come back positive.

The painful realities of COVID-19 became personal when Gramma (my own grandmother) tested positive on November 23. Her symptoms started out mild, but by the following Saturday, I received a text saying she was being rushed to the nearest hospital.

“Gramma” Marjorie Dawn Guppy and Amelia

I soon found myself flying down the highway, pleading with God to give me enough time to make it to the hospital. I wanted to be in the parking lot so I could be as close to Gramma as possible, and it was where I needed to be when I received the news that she passed. It was by God’s grace, and God’s grace alone, that I not only made it to the hospital, but I received a text stating that I could come inside.

In the last hours at Gramma’s bedside, I found myself leaning into my education at Western as well as my nursing profession. As I sat down beside my grandmother and took her hand in mine, I felt the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit. I prayed that the Lord would be near her during her hour of need and that she would know she was not alone. I spoke Psalm 23 over her and could sense the comfort it also brought my mom, my aunt, my uncle, and myself. I was then able to use my nursing skills to help prepare my family for the changes that would be coming, which helped ease the fear I saw on their faces.

In the last moments before death we shared messages and love from family who could not be present, and we shared how God had answered so many of Gramma’s prayers. The room was filled with grief, but there was also overwhelming peace because my grandmother was now whole and reunited with so many of her loved ones.

It’s easy to focus on the high survival rate of COVID-19. By doing this, however, we overlook the 500,000+ deaths in the United States, as well as the 2.3 million deaths worldwide. We can forget that each of these numbers represents a life that has ended, and that an even greater number grieve from the losses. Some of these deaths represent older adults who had to spend their last weeks without their loved ones. One of those statistics represents my Gramma.

We have all suffered from the effects of COVID-19, and yet we are the ones who have been called and are being shaped to aid in God’s restorative work once this pandemic ends. We are the ones that Christ calls “the light of the world,” and no matter where our ministries take us, we are the ones who will bring Christ’s light into even the most broken and darkest of places.

Although I had no idea God’s plan was to blend ministry with my passion for nursing, I am grateful for the opportunity to live out my faith and training in a way that blesses others during this difficult time.

—AG

See this story and more in our March 2021 issue of The Commons

 

MONDAY, MARCH 22 at 1:30-3:00 PM

We are so excited to welcome author Jemar Tisby as this year’s Leonard F. Stoutemire lecturer in Multicultural Ministry! The in-person event will be limited to WTS students & employees due to COVID-19 building restrictions, but an online livestream will be available for the WTS community (registration is limited due to contractual obligations).

“How to Fight Racism”

Once you’re convinced that racism is a problem, what do you do about it?

Racism is pervasive in today’s world, and many are complicit in the failure to confront its evils. Jemar argues that we need to move beyond mere discussions about racism and begin equipping people with the practical tools to fight against it.

Tisby will offer an array of actionable items to confront racism in our relationships and in everyday life based on a unique model called the A.R.C. of Racial Justice. Listeners will be challenged to consistently interrogate their own actions and maintain a consistent posture of anti-racist action. It is time to stop compromising with racism and courageously confront it.

Tisby roots the ultimate solution to racism in the Christian faith as we embrace the implications of what Jesus taught his followers. Beginning in the church, he provides an opportunity to be part of the solution and suggests that the application of these principles can offer us hope that will transform our nation and the world.

Jemar Tisby is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Color of Compromise”, president and co-founder of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, and co-host of the podcast, “Pass The Mic.”

He grew up just north of Chicago and attended the University of Notre Dame. He went on to join Teach For America and was assigned to the Mississippi Delta Corps where he taught sixth grade at a public charter school and later went on to be the principal. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary and is presently working toward his PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying race, religion, and social movements in the twentieth century.

Jemar and his family call the Deep South home and especially love the weather, people, and food! His new book, “How to Fight Racism” was released in January and is available now.

The Leonard F. Stoutemire Lectures in Multicultural Ministry are named in honor of the late Reverend Leonard Foster Stoutemire, pioneer African American clergyman and church planter to Holland, Michigan. Although originally he wanted to enlist into missionary service in Africa, in 1944 Stoutemire migrated to Holland, MI to plant the city’s first intentionally multi-racial congregation, the All Nations Full Gospel Church of Holland.

The lectures equip seminarians, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and local congregations with resources for increased intercultural competence for greater effectiveness in Christian ministry.