In the heart of the heartland, agricultural crops aren’t the only things taking root this year. A new school for Episcopal leaders is finding fertile soil in Kansas as four dioceses pioneer a new, low-cost approach to theological education.
With its August launch, the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry in Topeka began training its first 39 students from four sponsoring dioceses: Kansas, Nebraska, West Missouri, and Western Kansas.
The idea is to provide an alternative to high-cost, residential seminary education. Instructors, most of whom have PhDs or other advanced degrees, meet adult students at Grace Cathedral and Bethany Place Conference Center for an intensive study weekend once a month during the academic year.
The result: a theological education that costs just $1,800 annually for those seeking ordination to the diaconate or priesthood. Equally important, according to the Very Rev. Andrew Grosso, is how the school is training laypeople for growing roles in congregations that have cut back on staff, including clergy.
“It’s a big shift for us as Episcopalians because for so long we’ve thought of lay ministry … in terms of lay participation in ordained ministry,” Grasso said. The school has begun to “find ways of encouraging authentic lay ministry to allow those who are indeed called to ministry — which is everybody — to pursue those unique ministries that they are called to.”
Each course is eight weeks long and convenes just once. Students prepare by doing assigned readings in advance. They often follow up their intensive weekend by writing a paper. Meanwhile, they’re doing readings for the next course, which meets a month later.
On weekends when classes are in session, just about every available classroom and lodging space is occupied as the Diocese of Kansas makes the most of its facilities at and near the cathedral.
“We’re stretching everybody’s resources pretty much to their limit at this point,” Grasso said.
Time spent in community is brief: sessions run from 7:30 a.m. Saturday until about noontime Sunday. But it’s nonetheless essential to the school’s philosophy of spiritual formation in the 21st century, Grasso said.
Unlike some distance learning programs, which rely on video lectures or online interaction, the Kemper School brings people together in person for meals, fellowship, worship and classroom discussions. In the process, students learn how spiritual formation happens through intentional practices.
“We’re trying to encourage people to think of their formation as something that does not stop,” Grasso said. “They will continue to find themselves formed — academically, spiritually and missionally — as they return to their communities and bring the formation that they experienced at the school into conversation with those in their congregations.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Members of the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry’s board met with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori during her visit to Topeka Oct. 5.