Seminary City: Two of Hyde Park’s many theological schools are heading south to Woodlawn

In the city with the greatest number of theological schools in America, the neighborhood with the biggest fraction of these is Hyde Park. Besides the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, it is home to five of the eleven members of the Association of Chicago Theological Seminary (ACTS), a consortium of seminaries whose students can cross-register and share academic resources. Within ACTS, the Hyde Park Cluster of Theological Schools forms an even closer community, fostering collaboration and dialogue among its six member schools. Hyde Park may be dominated by the UofC in terms of educational institutions, but its theological seminaries deserve just as much renown.

In the coming years, though, the neighborhood’s high concentration of seminaries will drop, as two of them move a few blocks south to the community of Woodlawn. The Meadville Lombard Theological School plans to move to 62nd Street and Ellis Avenue in 2011, and the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) will relocate to 60th Street and Dorchester Avenue in 2012. Both are, in some sense, being driven out of their current locations–Meadville Lombard because of a lack of space, and the CTS in order to make room for the UofC’s new Milton Friedman Institute. But, as leaders at both institutions attest, the change of location is also an opportunity for them to broaden their curricula and community outreach.

The Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist institution, has already begun to integrate service with academics through its Community Partnership Program. Newly instituted this fall, this program works with the Twentieth Ward Alderman’s office to pair students with nonprofit organizations, where they volunteer for eight hours each week. Then, back in the classroom, they participate in a two-hour faculty-led seminar to reflect on their experiences. “We see ourselves training ministry for service throughout the country, with an education based in rigorous academics and practice,” says Meadville Lombard president Lee Barker. “This move really speaks to our mission.”

Along with the school’s new service requirements, the change of location will be another step toward adopting its new educational model, a dramatic curricular overhaul recently approved by the Board of Trustees. Under the new curriculum–scheduled to go into effect next fall–students can complete a Master of Divinity degree in three years, with the option of earning a second degree in four. There will also be an increased emphasis on praxis in the form of a yearly “signature course” like the Community Partnership Program, “rotations” that incorporate field-site experience with classroom learning, and a three-year mentoring relationship with a minister and congregation.

Of Meadville Lombard’s proposed new location, Barker says, “It’s the perfect place for a variety of reasons. One is that our neighbors have let it be known that it fits in with their overall plan of the kind of community they want Woodlawn to be.” The Alderman’s office has arranged a series of meetings between the school and its future neighbors and neighborhood organizations, and they’ve received a largely positive response. But the best aspect of the new site, according to Barker, is that “when one stands on that corner, one has one foot in the community of the University of Chicago and one foot in the community of Woodlawn.” Academic theory on the one hand, and the practical experience of service and ministry on the other.

Thus, although Meadville Lombard’s move might be seen as a simple logistical necessity–a need to accommodate more students and books than its current four buildings, three of them modified residences, can hold–it is also a chance to form new relationships with a community that can often seem far removed from nearby Hyde Park. “We hope to make connections with congregations in Woodlawn and have a mutually beneficial relationship,” says Lee.

The Chicago Theological Seminary faces a similar situation, though the destination of its move has perhaps been influenced more by circumstance than choice. The University of Chicago bought the school’s home of nearly a century–located at 57th Street and University Avenue–and the nearby McGiffert House for $44 million on June 30, in order to house its new economic research establishment, the Milton Friedman Institute. In addition to the purchase price, the UofC agreed to finance the construction of a new building on its campus that will accommodate the present needs and future growth of the CTS, to be rented for $1 per year for the next 100 years. The new site was chosen “based on the availability of the location,” according to Verlee Copeland, CTS board member and senior minister of Union Church in Hinsdale, Illinois. Nonetheless, it offers a number of practical advantages over its current home, as Copeland explains: “The move will make it possible for the seminary to help people prepare for faith leadership in a greater variety of ways, including online distance learning, conferences, and interaction with seminaries within the local community. The space will be more accessible to a greater number of people and will allow us to be a better host to wider community events. It will put us in a position for growth, as members of the United Church of Christ forming partnerships with Christian and other faith communities that will continue to grow and strengthen.”

Like Meadville Lombard, the CTS is in need of more space, especially for student housing. The new agreement will give its students access to thirty units of UofC housing near the site of its planned move. Another problem faced by both seminaries is that of financial uncertainty; the Chicago Theological Seminary’s move will do much to alleviate this–though likely not quite enough–both in terms of the UofC’s investment and in the fundraising opportunity represented by the unnamed rooms and facilities of the new building. As for Meadville Lombard, its financial situation is unlikely to improve as a direct result of the move; as Barker mentions, “building in this kind of economy is always a challenge.” But its new educational model is generating enthusiasm among trustees, many of whom have increased their pledges to the school’s annual fund. This renewal of support comes at an important time, as the Unitarian Universalist Association has been cutting its funding for the two UU schools (the other is Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California) after discussing their possible merger.

The chair of the UUA’s panel on theological education, the Rev. Barbara Merrit, explains, “Right now theological education is underfunded–for both schools and individuals. We need to be smarter with the resources we have.” It is this concern, in part, that has prompted Meadville Lombard to revamp its traditional curriculum–or, as assistant professor of theology Michael Hogue writes in a letter to the Board of Trustees, to return to what is truly traditional: “The educational paradigm being retrieved is an ancient one in which theology is understood as the practice of wisdom and religious life is understood as community praxis.” According to him, the new curriculum actually represents a “return to roots”–a re-integration of theology with practical life.

The Chicago Theological Seminary is also attuned to the changing nature of theological education. As Verlee Copeland describes: “There was a time when seminaries were primarily supported by local churches, and students attended with the purpose of entering a vocation in local ministry. Now the best and brightest take theological education for much broader purposes–we train thinking people of faith to serve in all walks of service.”

The changing times are noticeable nowhere more than on the local level, as Meadville Lombard and the CTS–two venerable Hyde Park institutions affiliated with the University of Chicago–negotiate their groundbreaking move to Woodlawn, a community whose relationship with the UofC has in the past been defined by conflict. Both seminaries are reaching out to their future neighbors, meeting with them to discuss plans and listen to any concerns. “We’ve met with the Woodlawn Organization a number of times, and they have been very supportive of the project, and those conversations will continue,” says Copeland, mentioning Woodlawn’s foremost community organization. As to how the CTS will fit in with its new neighborhood, she states, “The Chicago Theological Seminary in its vision, mission, and commitment has a strong passion for how faith is enacted in the world. We won’t be an isolating institution. To sit at the edge of the Midway will make us an open and interactive gateway–a bridge between the University of Chicago and the neighborhood.”

Photos by Ellis Calvin