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A functional faith: Helping scholars develop theological literacy

For nearly two decades, Jennifer McKinney’s students have posed a similar question to her: “Knowing everything you know about the church and the world, how can you still be a Christian?”

McKinney, a professor of sociology, understands her students’ skepticism. “I can give a testimony of why I believe in the saving grace of Jesus and the ultimate redemption of the world, but sometimes students are trapped in particular tenets of theology that I am not equipped to tackle.

“I feel like part of my call to Christian education is to show millennials and Gen Zers that you can be an academic and a Christian. So many of them are walking away from the church,” McKinney said. “Having a more theologically nuanced and integrated discipline can only help us, as faculty, help students to more thoughtfully engage their faith.”

To that end, McKinney and four other SPU faculty members have received funding to pursue a certificate in theological integration at Seattle Pacific Seminary thanks to a $10 million commitment — the largest single gift in SPU’s history — to support a faith integration initiative at Seattle Pacific. The donors requested anonymity to avoid publicity.

Most of the funding supports recruitment of Faith Integration Fellows from around the world to work with SPU faculty.
Their work is to integrate faith with the study of business, psychology, health, education, science, art, and the humanities. That phase of the program is slated to begin in 2020.

“I feel like part of my call to Christian education is to show millennials and Gen-Zers that you can be an academic and a Christian. So many of them are walking away from the church.”
—Jennifer McKinney

In the meantime, McKinney and her cohort of Theological Integration Fellows enrolled as “faculty students” this fall. The Theological Integration Fellows include: Director of Choral Music Ryan Ellis; Associate Professor of Nursing Bomin Shim; Assistant Dean of the School of Education Graduate Programs Scott Beers; and Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy Peter Rivera. The fellows will take 10 courses over two or three years to earn their certificates. Their tuition and a stipend will be paid, and the professors will be able to cut back on their teaching loads during the certification program.

This first phase seeks to “till the soil,” said former Provost Jeff Van Duzer. The University wants current faculty to have a strong theological and biblical foundation to be ready for the arrival of the Faith Integration Fellows.

Five faculty members will be selected annually to participate over the next five years. Like the inaugural group, they will be chosen from a broad range of disciplines. For those who choose to continue their studies, the credits completed for the certificate will apply toward a master’s degree in theological integration.

“It has always been an option for our faculty to take seminary classes, but it’s difficult to do alongside a full-time job,” said Doug Strong, dean of the School of Theology. “The course release is key for giving a faculty member time to pursue graduate work.”

Although SPU faculty and staff profess the Christian faith, not all have training, Strong said. “A lot of faculty teaching at Christian universities haven’t had formal theological training if they’ve only attended secular universities,” he said. “Ironically, that means some of the professors at Christian colleges have less theology coursework than their students. This is true at all Christian colleges, but I don’t know of any other Christian college or university that’s doing what we’re doing: offering graduate-level theological training for their own non-theology faculty.”

McKinney said she’s excited to begin her studies. “Being able to speak with students who come to Seattle Pacific with no religious background, or students who struggle to understand how they can integrate their own faith with what they learn in our classrooms, is an integral part of my calling and our mission as a university,” she said. “Being a Christian sociologist who can share her faith in the classroom, critiquing the social world from both Christian and social science perspectives, is the best of what God calls me to do.”

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