On a weekend in late May, the Rev. Roger Ferlo and his wife Anne Harlan, a book artist, left their stately home on the campus of the largest and wealthiest seminary in the Anglican Communion to go apartment hunting in Chicago.
Two months earlier, Ferlo, associate dean and Director of the Institute for Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary, had been named president of Bexley Hall and Seabury Western Seminaries. Since late March, he’d been wrapping up his old job while taking on some of the responsibilities of his new one. Now it was time to focus entirely on the work ahead: bringing to life the innovative federation formed by the Episcopal Church’s two Midwestern seminaries.
“My job here has been as much involved in leadership and lay education as it has been in MDiv education,” says Ferlo, who was also professor of religion and culture at VTS. “So for me the combination of the two, with the Bexley site with the masters of divinity program and the Seabury site with all of these possibilities for leadership training, seems to be a really great combination.”
Ferlo, who succeeded interim president Bob Bottoms, was drawn to Bexley and Seabury by the commitment of both institutions to rethinking the way theological education is offered in the Episcopal Church, by their willingness to reshape their institutional cultures to work with one another, and by what he describes as “the bold and dedicated members of our two boards.”
A native of Rome, NY, Ferlo is a self-described “city person.” He plays the cello and, while at VTS, was a frequent guest speaker for Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. Seabury’s location in Chicago was part of the allure of his new job, he says, but he feels attuned to the charms of Columbus, where he plans to spend several days each month, as well.
Education has been at the center of Ferlo’s ministry since he left a faculty position at Yale University, where he had earned his Ph. D. in English, to enter General Theological Seminary in 1983. The parishes he served in Augusta, Ga., Pittsburgh and New York City all supported schools, and Ferlo developed a deep understanding of what makes these institutions tick. He served for 15 years on the board of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, including a term as president, and was also a trustee of his alma mater, Colgate University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate.
He sees the opportunity to lead the federated seminaries as “the capstone of my ministry.”
There is a longstanding tension in theological education, Ferlo says. “If you focus on clergy you are somehow diminishing lay people, but if you focus on lay people you are saying that clergy are somehow redundant. My question is how can you do both, and enhance, celebrate and nurture the dignity of both.”
He has a few ideas of his own about this, and the words “adaptive” and “flexible” recur in his conversation. “I really want to be working on the way in which the federation can transform people’s notions of how they can complete their preparation for ministry,” he says. But rather than arrive with a grand plan in place, he prefers to hit the ground listening.
“I know that in the first year I am going to be talking to a lot of folks in the various dioceses around,” Ferlo says. “A lot of listening to bishops, commissions on ministries, and some of these more formal or quasi-formal leadership training programs in various diocese just seeing what they are doing and where we could be a part of it.”
Ferlo also plans “a real concerted effort” to establish a relationship with the alumni of the two seminaries. “The Seabury alumni are still reeling from the loss of everything they knew about the institution,” he says. “And the Bexley alumni are fragmented due to its peripatetic history. I want the alumni to know that these institutions are not only alive, not only well, but wanting to reconnect.
“I think in the next year it would be very helpful to have a combined event, perhaps in Indianapolis, where we can make it worthwhile for alumni of both institutions to attend to talk about the federation together.”
Ferlo is optimistic about working to enhance Bexley’s already solid partnership with Trinity Lutheran Seminary and Seabury’s partnerships with the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, with which it offers a Doctor of Ministry degree in congregational development, and with the Association of Chicago Theological Schools, with which it offers a DMin in preaching. He sees wide-ranging changes on the educational horizon in both the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, and believes strong partnerships are essential to both Seabury’s and Bexley’s futures.
“The MDiv programs, whether at Bexley or anywhere else, are not going to look the same way five or six years from now,” Ferlo says. “There is going to be some rethinking about how the MDiv is offered, and the Association of Theology Schools’ standards, which are going to be approved this summer, are encouraging more supple delivery systems than we now have, where residence looks different than it has in the past.
“One thing we did at Virginia, that I think can now easily be talked about with Trinity and Bexley, is to rethink the MDiv so that there are two intense years of classroom work and then two years of apprenticeship in parishes that in some way have trained themselves to be teaching parishes.”
The VTS program is currently open to six students who apply before matriculating.
“There is nothing that says someone can’t do two years at Bexley, and then move to a place say north in the Chicago area and apprentice at a parish and do work at Seabury that would be accepted as part of the MDiv program because it is the same school,” Ferlo says.
Even before he officially takes office on July 1, Ferlo thinks that the two seminaries are already making progress toward shaping a common future. “By this fall we will have rethought the Anglican Studies program on both campuses to be one program,” he says. “In that way I think we can be much more attractive to folks because we cover a much larger region.”
The boards of the two seminaries will play an essential role in molding the federation’s future. “I envision two board retreats,’” Ferlo says. “The first joint board retreat has to be about mission. What is the mission of the federation? How does the emerging sense of what Seabury’s mission is match the emerging sense of what Bexley’s future is?”
The second retreat will focus on governance and combining the two existing boards into one new body with its own working culture. “There will be some rough patches in this,” Ferlo acknowledges. “The asset on both sides is that there are members on both of these boards who are really dedicated to making this work.”
When the federation hits its stride, Ferlo says, the church will know it.
“There will be more students going to Bexley,” he says. “The numbers of folks interested in continuing education for clergy and for lay people will have increased and they will find in Seabury a creative place to convene.
“Also Seabury, because of its location and because of its mission, will have a kind of convening vocation for the larger church. And we will have presented to the larger church some new ways of understanding preparation for both lay and ordained. “
Ferlo’s plans also include “a major presence on the Internet that is not simply passive, but that draws people to our institutions and what we have to offer.”
In the meantime, though, there is the matter of moving into that apartment, meeting the students at both seminaries, and embodying in his own life the adaptive commitment to theological education espoused by Bexley Hall, Seabury and the federation they have created.