Something about Seabury Western Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program in preaching inspires superlatives. Just ask the Very Rev. Brian Baker, dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento. In the late 1990s, he was still finding his voice when he first came to Chicago.
“We would go there for these three week intensive experiences and they would really push us to be creative and get out of our comfort zone and do things homiletically that we would never imagine doing,” he says. “I ended up finding the real voice inside me and being able to preach from the core of my being.
“But more importantly, it helped me find my voice as a priest. So it wasn’t just about finding who I was as a preacher, but really grounding me in who I was in my vocation.
“For me the DMin program was the most transformative experience I have had.”
Baker is not alone in his regard for the ecumenical preaching program, which is offered through six seminaries in the Association of Chicago Theological Schools.
“I was attracted by the ecumenical nature of the program,” says Helen Jacobi, dean of Waiapu Cathedral of St John, Napier, New Zealand, who will finish the program this year. “I also wanted a program with strong academic input in lectures and assignments and this was certainly the case.”
“They bring in faculty who are incredible preachers,” says Susan Harlow, director of congregational development at Seabury, who has guided the seminary’s return to the program after a two-year absence. “James Forbes, Jeremiah Wright, George Buttrick, Walter Breuggeman. Famous top-notch preaching professors, plus top notch practicing preachers.”
The program involves a three-week residency each summer for three years. Between September and March, after the first two residencies, students design and conduct the Preaching Ministry Project. In this independent project, designed in collaboration with an advisor and a group from the congregation, students explore an assumption or idea about preaching through a rotation of four videotaped sermons, which are evaluated by advisors, faculty, and parishioners.
“It gives people an excuse to really be honest about what in the sermon moved them and what didn’t and to challenge the preacher’s assumptions” Baker says. “My precious brilliant bits maybe weren’t as brilliant as I thought. And the stuff I felt I maybe should leave on the cutting room floor really moved people.”
After the third residency, students research and conduct a final extended project and write a thesis that takes the form of a publishable article.
Much of what students value most occurs in their interactions with classmates.
“In our class we had people from different countries: New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and from across the US, from Hawaii to the East Coast, and in the third year from Sweden,” Jacobi said. “This made for a rich experience learning from our different contexts.”
Baker’s class included members of 13 denominations, spanning the theological spectrum, and he credits the “brilliant design” of the program for moving people past their preconceptions and to a place where they were willing to take risks in front of one another.
“What it really allowed me to do was let go of a tendency to over analyze the text, and just trust that the creative process would work,” he said. “Not everyone who entered the program was a great preacher. Everyone who graduated was a much better preacher than when they entered.”
Jacobi agrees: “My preaching changed ... a lot! I moved from being a very cognitive preacher with a set pattern of approach to a sermon to a preacher with lots of approaches and lots of tools in my toolbox.”
Her participation in the program changed her congregation as well, she says: “The feedback process set up in the congregation meant the congregation now listens more carefully and understands better their own role in the sermon. They are more critical now!”