On September 20-22, 2013, approximately 100 seminarians representing ten different theological institutions from across the country gathered at Princeton Theological Seminary to discuss what they considered to be a vital component of their theological education—service. Though coming from different geographical, economic, racial, sexual, and denominational backgrounds, these students all shared something in common—their passion for integrating social justice work into their seminary experience.
The SERV (Seminarians Empowering Revolutionary Vision) conference grew out of a student service movement begun in the 2012-2013 school year. Supported by a grant from the C.F. Foundation in Atlanta, four different seminaries (Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia; McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta; Wake Forest School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.) used the grant to fund working partnerships between seminarians and churches and non-profits in their communities. These seminarians called themselves Community Engagement Fellows (CEFs). Though not a recipient of the grant, students at Princeton Theological Seminary nevertheless worked alongside the CEFs in their own financially sustainable manifestation of the movement—a Federal work study program known as the Community Action Network (CAN). Like the CEFs, CAN members, referred to as issue-based team leaders, spent 10-15 hours per week partnering with local non-profit organizations to support ongoing service to the community and to build a relationship between the organization and the broader Princeton Seminary community.
The Community Engagement Fellows and Community Action Network experienced varying degrees of success in their respective seminaries and communities. Some programs flourished, others wilted, all faced challenges. In the spring of 2013, with the school year and the C.F. Foundation grant drawing to a close, representatives of the involved seminaries met at Wake Forest Divinity School to discuss how to best continue the student service movement within their seminaries as well as make their programs more sustainable. Those who attended the meeting, including PTS CAN members Nick Ison (M.Div., 2014) and Amanda Huels (M.Div., 2015), found the conversation to be so helpful and energizing that they wanted to host a conference to enable seminarians from across the country to network and brainstorm together on how to effectively marry their theological education with their passion for service. “We left [Wake Forest] not wanting the momentum to fade,” said Huels.
The result was the inter-institutional, inter-denominational SERV conference. Student organized and student run, the conference was planned by seminarians and for seminarians but nevertheless had the support of the Seminary, both financially and ideologically. “Princeton Seminary, and President Barnes in particular, have been very supportive of this movement,” said Huels. President Barnes spoke at a press conference the opening afternoon of the SERV conference, stating, “Jesus is not committed to hanging around strategic plans. He tends to hang out on the fringes. CAN is an example of the fringes.” For Barnes, CAN and the larger student service movement represent those seminarians who are saying, “‘I’m not going to give myself the luxury of just reading about justice in the library; I am actually going to go out and get my hands dirty.’” The president expressed his desire to help the movement work toward its vision in whatever ways he could.
This desire to “get one’s hands dirty” during one’s seminary education captures the heart of the conference. Theron Cook, a junior M.Div. student at PTS and one of the SERV conference leaders, explained, “We want to break down the perception that you can’t be in seminary and also engaged with social justice work.” For Cook and other conference planners and attendees, community engagement cannot be seen as a supplement to one’s theological education; it must be a primary ingredient in that education. “I think seminaries for a long time have kind of had this business plan or direction that seminary is a place where you escape the world and buckle down and do some really great study. The study is a great experience, it’s true, but it’s an isolated thing,” explained conference “maestro” Ison. “Coming from our perspective [as young millennial seminarians], I think that so many young people today would go to seminary if they thought it was a place that was more engaged.” In a time in which young adults are competing for opportunities to serve the nation and world through such organizations as Teach for America or the Peace Corps, many seminarians are pondering ways that students and administrators alike can re-animate seminary education.
In an effort to envision what a more socially engaged seminary education might look like, seminarians participating in the SERV conference gathered to brainstorm and learn from one another. In the morning, participants attended two of eight issue-based workshops focusing on social justice issues ranging from racial reconciliation and immigration to LGBTQ community concerns and prison reform. They then attended action-focused sessions to discuss the place of such issues in theology, the church, and seminaries at large. Finally, participants gathered into seminary-specific small groups to discuss tangible ways that they could effectively and sustainably implement social justice work in their own seminary communities.
Through these conversations, seminarians from PTS and other seminaries concluded that in order to successfully and sustainably marry their theological education with active involvement in social justice, they had to work alongside their seminary’s administration. For PTS, that will mean “a solid institutional commitment, whether that be from the Student Government Association or in the Office of Student Life,” explained Ison.
Ison and other Princeton seminarians involved in the movement have specific ideas about how they would like to work with PTS administrators to better incorporate community engagement into their theological education. “We’re looking to create things like more field education sites and work study positions. We’re hoping to think long-term about putting together dual degrees so that you could go to seminary and not only receive a dual M.Div./M.S.W. but also combine an M.Div. with nonprofit management or with policy. There are a lot of different combinations that would be productive not only for the church but also for this sort of new bi-vocational direction of ministry that a lot of people are finding themselves in,” said Ison.
The Reverend Wayne Meisel (PTS M.Div. 1998), founding president of the Bonner Foundation and the director of faith and service at the C.F. Foundation, has been a key supporter of the Community Action Network and the Community Engagement Fellows. Like the seminarians he supports, Meisel believes in the importance of integrating theological education and community engagement. “It’s a joy to be able to be in conversation with these students. They’re waking us up!” he said at the SERV press conference. In an effort to help seminary administrators think about ways they can help their students move from “random acts of kindness to systematic social involvement,” Meisel hosted administrators from various seminaries at the Bonner Foundation, only blocks away from the Princeton Seminary campus, where the seminarian SERV conference was convening.
The goal of the SERV conference was to encourage, inspire, and empower seminarians to envision and create a place in their institutions for active community engagement through facilitating conversation and networking. In Amanda Huels’s opinion, the conference did just that. “At SERV, students from across the country were able to share meals, share their stories, and work toward a common vision in which theological education, community service, and the church intersect. When I took a step back on Saturday afternoon during the break and watched two students from different schools make a connection around the area of ministry they were most passionate about, I knew that the work we put into SERV was successful.”