Preparing for Ministry in a Non-Creedal Tradition

"In the beginning. . . ." Good creation stories affirm the origin of those who tell them and intrigue the imaginations of those who read them. They provide a launching point for group identity, and immediately hint at themes deemed important by those who tell the story. For Earlham School of Religion, some of these stories begin with an account of Wilmer Cooper’s exhaustive 1959 consultation among the Religious Society of Friends, during which he logged over 15,000 miles while asking a wide variety of Friends if perhaps the time had come to launch a Quaker seminary. Another begins with an account of how, while a certain Friend was a student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, prior to Cooper’s consultation, he was instructed to ask the seminary president what the cost would be to form a Friends Center as part of that school. When this Friend relayed the president’s proposed $3-4 million price tag to Elton Trueblood, Elton supposedly quipped that Friends could start their own school at Earlham for much less money than that. A favorite creation story comes from Landrum Bolling, the Earlham president who authorized Cooper’s consultation. When Landrum reminisces about those days, ESR was born on a yellow legal pad as he drafted a grant proposal to Lilly Endowment while traveling on a train between Richmond, Indiana, and Washington, D.C. These stories are united by repetitive themes of need, consultation, opposition, and perhaps creative frugality.

ESR’s birth could be a candidate for the "creation through conflict" model known from several ancient traditions. Conversations about the potential need for a school to prepare Friends for the practice of ministry were usually met by appeals to George Fox’s words that "being bred at Oxford and Cambridge was not enough to qualify men to be ministers of Christ." For generations Friends used those words not only to oppose the concept of "hireling ministry," but also as adamant support against theological education for ministry. As founding dean, Wil Cooper embodied this tension. He was from the Conservative Friends tradition, yet theologically educated at Yale Divinity School, and called upon to lead Friends through unexplored territory, including the preparation of pastors for Orthodox yearly meetings. This was not an easy birth!

The establishment of ESR was not the first attempt by Friends to provide theological education for ministers. Bible colleges and fifth-year programs by some Quaker liberal arts colleges preceded the founding of the first Quaker graduate theological school at Earlham. Conversation about the merits of a theological education was inseparable from the controversy over the pastoral model of ministry adopted by Friends in the Gurneyite tradition. Cooper encountered both support for and resistance to the idea. Even after his miles of travel and consultation, and with his 70-page report in hand, some skepticism persisted among the Earlham Trustees up to the moment when Earlham Board of Trustees President Dwight Young sought a decision in February 1960. The minutes of that meeting offer this record:

Three members of the Board expressed grave misgivings about undertaking the proposed School of Religion, and a few others voiced some uncertainty about whether it could accomplish its purpose, but most members felt that while no outcome could be predicted with certainty, the project must be a "venture of faith." And with a need so urgent, in all conscience they could not give up the possibility of what it might accomplish as "a nurturing ground for sustaining the true genius of the Quaker Spirit."

ESR opened its doors in the fall of 1960 with 11 students, initially offering an MA in Religion. In 1962, the Trustees approved for ESR to offer the Bachelor of Divinity, which was the standard three-year degree offered by seminaries at that time.

Cooper’s The ESR Story: A Quaker Dream Come True, written for the occasion of the school’s 25th anniversary, and Eileen Kinch’s The ESR Story: 1985-2010, written in celebration of the 50th anniversary, provide rich accounts of the school’s history. Suffice it to say that tensions within the Religious Society of Friends and within the larger cultural context have buffeted the school like a choppy sea against a smallish vessel. Friends’ allergies with regard to leadership, their frustrations with membership decline, their struggles with identity and message have at times focused upon ESR as a scapegoat for not rescuing Friends from these dilemmas. Postmodernism and the accompanying questions it presents with regard to the truthfulness of religious claims have contributed to the challenge of relevant seminary education as well. In response to these various challenges, ESR’s 50 years have been a period of organizational and programmatic growth, maturation, and, occasionally, reinvention in support of its mission.

This development can be tracked, in a general way, by attention to the school’s language and taglines. In its early years, it spoke of "equipping" for ministry. This term slipped in stature as theological educators recognized that a good education involved much more than merely providing one with a set of tools. The tagline "An Inward and Outward Journey" next appeared in catalogs, emphasizing the inward, personal nature of religious experience as well as the need for outward manifestations of these experiences. The phrase "An Invitation to Transformation" followed next, and was popular for many years. An intriguing phrase, its lack of specificity left open the door for a move toward a community focused on introspection and healing the wounded. Concurrently, this was a period when the school’s focus turned almost exclusively inward, with fewer intentional connections with its constituents. More recently the school adopted the tag line "For Learning. For Leading. Among Friends." Those six words capture the school’s essence as a Quaker educational setting where leading—the act of discerning leadings and also learning to lead via ministry and service—is more clearly defined. Fifty years into the journey, the school now offers the threeyear Master of Divinity (also available as the Master of Ministry), and the twoyear Master of Arts in Religion. Each degree is available in a residential or distance education format.

A primary motivation for establishing the school was the perceived need for Quaker education for persons entering pastoral ministry among Friends; however, from the beginning there was also the hope that Friends from across the spectrum would study at ESR. The original proposal for the school listed writing, teaching, lay ministry, and outreach, alongside pastoral ministry, as leadership objectives that the school would address. Questions about the value and purpose of such education, particularly to unprogrammed Friends, were easily and logically raised. However with time, the number of unprogrammed Friends enrolled at ESR increased to upwards of 50 percent of the total number of Quaker students at the school.

The attractiveness of ESR to multiple branches of the Quaker family tree creates one of the school’s greatest strengths and challenges. The school has become a point of encounter where Friends of one persuasion meet others who claim a similar heritage but whose worship style and theology contrast sharply. Its annual statistics last year revealed that 27 yearly meetings were represented within the student body, as well as a vibrant ecumenical component. To this diverse group, ESR commits to being a Christian Quaker educational community marked by hospitality and respect for those who enter it in order to explore and understand their calls to ministry. Curiosity and surprise are abundant as unprogrammed Friends meet a Quaker pastor for the first time, or as an evangelical Friend tries to understand a liberal Friend’s different perspective on the Bible. This diversity creates a charged learning environment where everything from the omnipotence of God to the proper function of a clearness committee comes under review.

This commitment to serve as a crossroads for Friends from the various branches has not been without cost to the school. By virtue of being a centrist Friends institution, ESR finds support from all across the spectrum, but also has grown accustomed to discontent, cynicism, and rejection from all sides of the Quaker family. It is too Christian for some, and not Christian enough for others; too inclusive for some, too homogeneous for others; too focused on pastors for some, too out of touch with the needs of pastoral Friends for others. Regardless of students’ places among Friends or beyond, the intention was, and is, to provide a quality graduate-level educational program rooted in a historic Quaker understanding of ministry that is relevant for Friends of this era.

How would such an educational program be designed? Seminary education is no more monolithic than Christianity itself. A school’s tradition and context shape its mission and curriculum. Imagine for a moment what that means for a Quaker seminary. Seminaries that seek to serve their denominational constituents typically promote the faith and perspectives of their founding group. Quakers are a non-creedal group—at least in theory! Though small in number, groups that identify as Quaker span the theological continuum, ranging from fundamentally or evangelically Christocentric to universalistically theistic, and occasionally beyond. Friends vary in their convictions about the value of the Bible, the identity of Jesus, the importance of the testimonies, forms of worship, sexual mores, and more. What, exactly, would a Quaker seminary teach? How do tradition and context shape the school’s mission?

As ESR has given shape to this enterprise over the years, it has stressed the importance of investigation and conversation over simple indoctrination. In the absence of creeds or other broadly endorsed statements of faith that unite the disparate groups of Friends, ESR implements a curriculum that examines diverse points of view, invites conversation and contribution by all participants, and labors toward understanding the issues and supporting belief systems as students work toward an interpretation they can embrace with integrity. The goal, after all, is education for the purpose of ministry. For instance, most segments of Friends may agree that there is "that of God in every one," but their interpretations of that phrase will vary. How shall contemporary students consider that statement alongside teachings in the Bible, its representation among Friends, and their own experiences, and ultimately integrate that belief into faithful ministry? Reading Quaker texts becomes a priority, with a goal of understanding the experiences of spiritual ancestors as they encountered the Holy and lived in response to those experiences. This is knowledge that can help Quaker seminarians interpret Scripture as Friends and understand their relation to the wider Church and society as they prepare to pursue ministry in the manner of Friends.

As a Quaker institution for theological education, ESR builds upon that culture of intentional conversation with an emphasis on personal encounter rather than remote observation. Participants in the first years of ESR’s history crafted the following statement, believing that it captured the essence Friends early testimony: "We hold that Christ is present, that He guides and directs, and this His will can be known and obeyed." If, as Friends echo George Fox, "Christ is come to teach his people himself," then the best education occurs only when faculty and students expect to encounter their Inward Teacher as part of the learning process. A literal reading of any text will not suffice. Merely receiving information from a professor, however brilliant that teacher may be, is not adequate. The best learning occurs when the Source illumines and seasons the various educational resources.

This anticipation of encountering the Inner Teacher fosters the prominence of discernment as an anchor in theological education. In a tradition that gives little firm creedal guidance, a spirituality of listening where attention is paid to the inner dialogue with the Divine promotes a sense of immediacy and dependence upon the leading of the Spirit. When coupled with reflection—that is to say, critical contemplation with regard to the implications of that which is being heard—new insights break open and new understandings emerge. Such is the seedbed of continuing revelation, and is the most trustworthy source of calls to ministry. Building upon Friends’ belief that only God calls and gifts for ministry, preparation for ministry necessarily includes a component of waiting, hearing, and wrestling within the context of the community in order to discern exactly what ministry is to be undertaken.

Education in this manner is not a painless process. Those who undertake this educational journey come to understand their deepest truths, but also their strongest prejudices, biases, and woundedness. They have an opportunity to celebrate the discovery of their gifts, but also soberly acknowledge their limits. The end result holds the possibility of being formed and transformed for ministry, with an inner integrity that lives and serves in accord with what one has come to know and embrace as true, rather than empty assent to a catalogue of statements endorsed by others but without experiential credibility for the minister.

As conversation, encounter, and inner integrity converge toward ministry in a Quaker fashion, there really has been no other choice for ESR except to form an educational program that bears witness to Friends’ deeply held conviction that the call to ministry is universal. In particular, Friends’ commitment to universal ministry apart from hierarchy or a professional class of clergy influenced the development of a Master of Divinity program that includes areas such as peace and justice, writing, teaching, Christian spirituality, and pastoral care alongside the work of the pastor. Indeed, as students come through the educational process characterized by an entrepreneurial spirit, nontraditional ministry is not uncommon, but it is always surprising.

Fifty years into this adventure, at least three things stand out as fundamental to ESR’s task as a graduate theological school with a passion for ministry in the manner of Friends. First, the school creates space. At the very least, it is gathering space; quite probably, it is sacred space. In that space men and women pursue the questions and seek answers that bring the Light to bear on the soul’s yearning to know and be known in concert with the Divine movement within them and among them.

Second, ESR provides content. Preparation for ministry is not just an experiential journey, even for Friends. The Christian and Quaker heritages factor large in this educational process. Current research must be integrated into that which has been traditionally valued. There is much to hear, much to challenge, much to release, and even more to take up. To lead this charge, we depend on faculty who have excellent command of their discipline, but do not depend only upon their knowledge when they enter the teaching process. With the help of Christ who is come to teach his people, both knowledge and skill are acquired in this process.

Finally, preparation for ministry at ESR involves learning the value of the measured response. In a given situation, one can say or do so many things. But which ones would be helpful? Which might foster the work of the Spirit? Which are impulsive reactions? Which might evaluate the situation based upon accumulated knowledge and thoughtful reflection, seasoned by the wisdom of the Spirit? The measured response is one that is finely tuned and precisely focused on the situation addressed in that particular moment.

Together, these qualities contribute to a more deeply rooted, richly seasoned readiness for ministry that takes its place alongside the many others who are also called to participate in God’s work.

As ESR enjoys this 50-year milestone, good institutional planning requires analyzing the present, looking toward the horizon, and anticipating the future. The school does not stand alone, unaffected by others. The journey ahead will be no less challenging than the one already completed. The larger cultural context and the specific joys and tribulations of Friends each have their particular influence upon the school’s future.

Membership declines in monthly and yearly meetings are not universal, but neither are they uncommon. They have as much to do with social and religious trends in the United States as it does with Friends’ message or peculiarities. Consequently, a solution to reversing the trend is not simple. This predicament raises questions about the long-term viability of the groups ESR desires to serve and the locations where its graduates might offer their gifts of ministry. As ESR recruits heavily from these groups, the school’s potential prospect pool for students and donors fluctuates with rise and fall of Friends.

Equally challenging is Friends’ history of splintering over differences. Some groups within the family are embroiled in current controversy that has reached a crisis point. Given Friends’ governance structure, separation is a probable outcome when irresolvable conflicts emerge. Whether the separating parties continue to identify as Friends, or view ESR as a trustworthy resource for thinking about faith matters, affects ESR’s future prospects.

One could argue that the world needs the message of Friends with or without them; that may be true. A strong attractiveness to ecumenical groups helps stabilize the school’s student body against these fluctuations. Still, for ESR to remain Quaker, it is vitally important to have a genuine connection to a living tradition.

A more enticing challenge is one that frets less about the differences among Friends, preferring instead to assist contemporary Friends with the important work of refining their own sense of identity and message so that they can worship and serve with optimism, courage, and conviction in the 21st century. Despite frequent appeals made by reform- minded individuals, neither Christianity nor Quakerism can be revived in their primitive forms. However, messages of earlier generations can be mined for wisdom and testimony, knowledge and witness, which still speak to that of God within all. Those insights can be prayerfully considered and interpreted afresh, in light of new information and new issues that face us. Whatever Friends have to offer the world contributes to a foundation for ministry that will now almost certainly operate in a multicultural, religiously plural environment. In that context, with its emphasis on diversity and tolerance, the new challenge is to minister—indeed, to live—with integrity of conviction that offers Good News without automatically drawing lines that exclude those who do not share Friends’ points of view.

In effect, the challenge is to bring values that create Quaker testimonies into conversation with large cultural and religious issues. In truth, this type of challenge faces every generation. Unlike the internal conflicts that can drain participants, these are the types of challenges that invigorate seminary teachers and students. Some studies of U.S. religious culture contend that spiritual hunger is no less persistent than in previous generations, but that individuals are looking for answers outside of traditional locations and forms, seeking real experience rather than inherited answers. Friends’ peculiar point of view on the immediacy of the Divine, the primacy of direct experience of the Living Christ, seasoned through participation in a lightly organized ecclesial structure, could speak volumes to this generation of seekers. A seminary like ESR was made to serve in such a time as this.


Jay Marshall, a member of New Castle (Ind.) First Friends Meeting, has served since 1998 as dean of Earlham School of Religion.