Community organizing programs changing mainline seminaries

Mainline Protestant and Catholic theological education has recently broadened its mission beyond the training of competent clergy to embrace community organizing, reports Aaron Stauffer in the Christian Century (February). It is nothing new for mainline Protestant and Catholic seminaries to be centers of social activism, but community organizing has now been integrated into the curriculum at such leading schools as Union Theological Seminary, Boston College, Duke Divinity School, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and the Graduate Theological Union. All these seminaries now offer either courses, certificates, or shorter-term training programs in community organizing. This change is in line with the way mainline congregations and seminaries “are realizing that systemic change is necessary,” especially since the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of 2020, Stauffer writes. A central player behind the new emphasis on community organizing is the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), one of four national networks that practice such strategies and programs. Along with the community organizing networks Gamaliel, Faith in Action, and the Direct Action and Research Training Center, IAF captured the public’s imagination because of the influence of former President Barack Obama and his involvement in community organizing.

Photo by Gregg Brekke (source: Presbyterian News Service).

The link between community organizing and faith has a long history, with the IAF’s founder Saul Alinsky drawing on churches and other neighborhood organizations in his work. But today the community organizing thrust is more in the mold of the identity politics of BLM, where schools are “attempting to create spaces where racial and economic justice and power building are bound up with theological learning and practice,” Stauffer writes. The trend toward continuing education has been another factor in the new attention to community organizing, with the development of many short-term certificate programs. But Stauffer argues that adopting a community organizing approach in seminaries also challenges traditional teaching methods based on “sage on the stage” and “expert-apprentice” models, as it “strives to be democratic: ordinary people are participants in whatever expertise amounts to, and they come together to solve their problems together.” Community organizing models also take what Stauffer calls the approach of “journeying to and with” communities, where often virtual communities are established to meet students’ needs. One prominent example of these models is Vanderbilt’s Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice, where peer networks that attempt to be laboratories for social change are created. The center deploys a case study method where participants identify and test out concepts and practices for “building political and economic power in their communities.”

(Christian Century,