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Story Magazine

Fall 2016

Urban ministry focus honed—just as violence flares nearby

by Marc Hequet, Correspondent

A longtime focus on urban ministry has sharpened at Luther Seminary, with upgrades in classroom learning and in opportunities for real-life experience at churches and elsewhere.

Indeed, real life took precedence in July after a black man died in a shooting during a police traffic stop not two miles from campus. Seminary students, faculty and staff organized a vigil and march in memory of the victim, Philando Castile.

For participant Richard Webb, the tragedy accentuates that seminary must prepare students for ministry on the spot, even on its doorstep. “It can happen in church or in a gas station,” says Webb, seminary director of multicultural enrollment management. The question we need to help students ask themselves is “How am I prepared to do ministry in between organizational lines?”

M.Div student Ian McConnell, another vigil and march participant, says the Christian response to such tragedies is a “nimble urgency in order to witness to the world as it could be, rather than the world as it is.”

McConnell, from the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, attended Westwood Lutheran Church there and entered the seminary after working in children, youth and family ministry at congregations in Wasilla, Alaska and Elk River, Minn. Over the past two years, he has worked at Redeemer Lutheran in racially diverse north Minneapolis.

When asked about the hardest skill in urban ministry, Mc- Connell reports that it’s first understanding himself and his assumptions about communities new to him.

A second tough skill is listening to understand—which means leaving behind your comfort zone. Being straight, white and male, he notes, gives him “a certain baked-in power and privilege that I can choose to leverage, or to use as a cushion to fall back into when the realities of other human lives feel uncomfortable to me.”

In short, McConnell reports that gaining and using urban skills isn’t easy. Chaperoning a church youth trip in 2007, McConnell accompanied a group ready to do rehabilitation work in a rundown neighborhood in Cincinnati. When they arrived, the host pastor instead suggested visiting residents and just listening.

Some participants were upset with the updated request. They didn’t “get to do what they wanted to do,” says McConnell. “They didn’t get to prescribe a solution.” Regarding their disappointment, McConnell admits, “I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Challenges such as these are daunting issues that faculty, staff and students face in urban ministry. In response, a classroom upgrade starting fall term 2016 now requires all incoming students to take consecutive courses entitled “Who am I as a Christian Public Leader?” and “Being Public Leaders in a Public Church.” M.A. and M.Div students in leadership concentrations also must continue with courses entitled “Systems and Leading Change” and “Lifelong Learners and Leaders,” courses available as electives to others.

These improvements mean that earlier courses on urban ministry have been “streamlined into an experience being shared by every student,” says David Scherer (’14), the seminary’s Christian public leader coordinator.

Long-term, Luther Seminary is focused on giving learners the knowledge and tools they need to be able to fine-tune their Christian outreach on the spot, case by case. “How do I do ministry not about my theology,” explains Scherer, “but from my theology?”

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