Susan Harlow, Seabury Western Seminary’s director of congregational development, understands congregational life from the ground up—or at least from the floor boards.
As a child, she remembers accompanying her parents to choir practice in the small, rural Baptist church they attended, and crawling about under the pews on the bare oak floors. At every point in her life she has found “a congregation where I could be myself, but where I could stretch myself,” she says. “I want more and more of those healthy communities, because they can be such powerful presences in the lives of people who can benefit from them. People like me.”
An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Harlow has been involved in theological education for 17 years. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andover Newton Theological School, a Masters of Theology from Harvard Divinity School, and a doctorate from Columbia University in its joint program with Union Theological Seminary in Religion and Education.
She joined Seabury in July of 2009 and brought new energy and insights to the congregational development program, which is now offered jointly with the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and the preaching program, now offered in partnership with five other seminaries in the Association of Chicago Theological Schools.
“What has been extremely exciting has been the diverse interests of the students in these programs, and the different places they are coming from,” Harlow says. The congregational development program has attracted students from several countries and numerous denominations, she adds, while the preaching program unites students of varying theological views in pursuit of an effective personal preaching style.
“There is a lot of sharing going on in these programs,” she says. “The students really learn from one another, and in the end, they have some real insights to bring to colleagues who may feel isolated in the midst of parish work.”
Harlow’s own academic interest lies in deepening the theological understanding of the community organizing skills and strategies that students are taught in the congregational development program. “In most of the existing models, people come together around issues, but there isn’t enough emphasis on building relationships and valuing the individual,” she says.
She is also eager to help graduates of the DMin programs to “go on the road,” to share what they have learned at Seabury by consulting with dioceses and congregations and publishing their research online.
“Not long after I got here, I realized that I had twelve boxes of theses on my shelf,” she says. “I thought, “Why don’t we take these down so people can read them?”