Story Magazine - Second Quarter, 2007

First Graduates Complete New D.Min Programs

by Melanie Boulay Becker, Special Correspondent

This spring, the first two cohorts graduated from the new Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) programs at Luther Seminary: Congregational Mission and Leadership (CML) and Biblical Preaching (BP). Nineteen graduates, 10 CML and nine Biblical Preaching students, received their diplomas in May.

"It's been a wonderful feeling to watch the D.Min. programs grow from conception to seeing actual graduates receive their diplomas," said Richard Bliese, Luther Seminary President. "More importantly, however, in the days ahead we'll be watching the growth and transformation of ministries as these programs change leaders, their congregations and, therefore, thousands and thousands of lives."

Programs launched in 2002 and 2004

Introduced as part of Luther Seminary's strategic plan, Serving the Promise of Our Mission, these programs were launched in response to church needs. During the strategic planning process, the seminary conducted nationwide listening sessions to discover what congregations needed to prepare leaders for mission. The feedback was clear. Congregations wanted their pastors to preach with conviction in ways that were rooted deeply in scripture. They also wanted their pastors to be able to lead more effectively within the complex and ever-changing North American culture. Seminary leaders put a lot of thought into what kind of leaders the seminary should be producing. "Their primary conclusion was that the church was called into mission," aid Paul Lokken, Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Education. "We concluded that we were called upon as part of our vocation as a seminary to produce the kinds of leaders the church would need to be in mission in the 21st century."

In response to these clear directions, Luther Seminary created the two new D.Min. programs. The five-year program in Congregational Mission and Leadership (CML) began in 2002 and the three-year program in Biblical Preaching began in 2004.

"The D.Min. in Biblical Preaching is a concrete response of the seminary to the church's cry for better preaching," said David Lose, Academic Dean. Lose holds The Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching and leads the seminary's Biblical Preaching D.Min. program.

Craig Van Gelder, Professor of congregational Mission, who leads the seminary's CML program, addressed how the program meets the needs of busy pastors who find focusing on theological thought and discussion difficult. "This Congregational Mission and Leadership program is structured to create the kind of space for students to think theologically about ministry," said Van Gelder. Seminary leaders were impressed by the graduating cohorts throughout the process.

"Both groups fulfilled most every aspiration we had for students in the program," said Lokken. "They were good students who formed close relationships with each other. Their coursework was excellent and in a very way they are a credit to Luther Seminary."

"We are very proud of their work," He said, underscoring the key role they played in establishing a successful degree program.

This year's graduates commended the programs. "The program gave me a renewed vigor for ministry," said Michael Peck, a CML graduate and pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Overland Park, Kan. "I don't think I've been more excited about my work at Holy Cross than I am right now," he said.

"This program has fundamentally changed my ministry. I'm so grateful!" exclaimed a Biblical Preaching graduate. "I've always been a strong preacher. But I'm a much better preacher today now that I've participated in the D.Min. program."

Cohort Approach Proves Crucial

Both programs use a cohort-based peer learning approach combined with regular face-to-face learning. This approach allows students to remain rooted in their current ministerial context and allows their ministry to shape their studies and their studies to shape their ministry.

Both seminary leaders and the students found the cohort model to be a key component of success of the programs. "We find it's an extraordinarily effective way to structure the programs," said Lokken.

"The cohort approach very much assists the students in completing the program," he explained. "I think one of the chronic problems of D.Min. programs generally is that graduation rates are not as high as they should be.We're finding that our graduation rates in these programs are very, very high. We attribute that to the cohort model."

Peers Provide Support

"Excellent preaching isn't simply a goal, it's a journey, and having trusted companions to accompany you on the way is immensely helpful," said Lose,  describing the Biblical Preaching cohorts. "That's why the cohort model of instruction has been such a vital part of the program. There is a level of spiritual support and accountability that becomes very important for our students."

Earnest Tate, a graduate of the D.Min. in Biblical Preaching and an associate pastor at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, describes his cohort as one in the Body of Christ. "When one suffers, we all suffer," he said. "For me, a big part of this was the opportunity to be exposed to other scholars." He also appreciated that he could continue with his regular responsibilities. "I didn't  miss a beat while in class," he said.

"Through the cohort, I got to know people really well," said Mary Gustafson, another graduate of the Biblical Preaching program, and Rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Southbridge, Mass. "This group of friends prayed for me--and I for them," she said. She expects the connections she has made to continue to thrive. "I assume we will remain friends. I'm hoping to have members friends. I'm hoping to have members of my cohort, their families and youth groups come and stay with us when they come to New England."

In describing the value of the cohort for the CML students, Van Gelder said he jokes with the students that everyone threatens to quit at least three times during the five years required to complete the CML program. "Everybody goes through hard times," he said with all seriousness. "Some people change pastorates during that five years, some people go through personal difficulties--but (thanks to the cohort), they sustain each other."

"The cohort aspect of the program was crucial," said Kathleen Whippo Haller, a CML graduate who serves as associate pastor for congregational care at Trinity English Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Ind. "In addition to professors' teaching, the cohort format expects colleagues to learn from one another," she explained. Haller confessed that she may have quit if not for the cohort. "Challenges arise in life and ministry in the course of a multi-year program. It would have been easy to drop out. The cohort's commitment to one another made it impossible to do that."

Peck echoed Haller's sentiments. "As I've listened to stories of folks who have been through similar programs that didn't have the cohort model, what I hear is that completion was a lot more difficult when they were on their own. For us I think there was a sense of not wanting to let the others down."

As a member of Michael Peck's congregation, Alan Walter reports that he saw real value in the cohort model. "It gave Pastor Mike an opportunity to develop a lot of relationships with others around the country that will be important to him throughout his time as a pastor," said Walter.

Context Crucial

Context, which is inherent in the seminary's cohort model, is another key component of the D.Min. program. "The D.Min. program is the highest degree possible for ministers who are practicing, so every person in the program has a ministerial context," said Lokken. He also pointed out that ministry and context are inherently intertwined. "Ministry that misses context is not effective ministry.We want a program where the students develop profound knowledge and a sense of the theological but also are able to apply that to context, because in order to be effective, ministry has to be related to context."

On the biblical preaching side, David Lose said, "Good preaching is never abstract or theoretical; it is concrete, preaching to a particular people at a particular time and place. That's why meeting preachers in their context is so important." He also pointed out the benefits to congregations. "The parishes that our students serve benefit too as they learn how important preaching is to the life and vitality of the congregation."

"For us, the issue with the Congregational Mission and Leadership program is 'how do you help pastors help learn to lead within their settings?'" said Van Gelder. "Studying in context is basic to the design of the degree," he explained. "We don't take them
out of their ministry."

What's Next?

Both the CML and the Biblical Preaching programs continue to grow. Together, the programs have more than 80 students and have a broad ecumenical appeal. Along with pastors in the ELCA, 13 additional denominations are represented in these programs including other Lutherans, United Church of Christ, American Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Salvation Army--Canada. Luther  Seminary leaders are constantly working to improve the programs. "We want to strengthen the programs in terms of recruiting and financial support," said Lokken. "More importantly, we're not going to sit and rest on our good success. We are constantly working to improve the programs to make them more relevant to ministry in the church."