I wanted to see what the doctor of ministry program at Ashland looked like on the ground,” says D. Brent Laytham, dean of St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore. Laytham was finalizing a partnership between the Ecumenical Institute and Ashland Theological Seminary, but he needed to know more, so he traveled the 400 miles to Ashland, Ohio, to sit in on the first day of orientation and classes for the doctor of ministry program. “That way, I wasn’t speculating when I talked with my board about the collaboration,” he says. “I had been there, and that gave me authenticity.”
The Ecumenical Institute is a unique educational endeavor, created in 1968 to offer ecumenical education to students who are mostly working adults. Though an academic unit of St. Mary’s Seminary & University, the oldest Catholic seminary in the United States, the Ecumenical Institute includes Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical, and a few Jewish faculty and students.
Many of the Ecumenical Institute’s alums have expressed a desire to continue their education with a D.Min., and some faculty members have been eager to teach more advanced courses. But the Ecumenical Institute’s doctoral program had been discontinued 30 years before.
Laytham asked a recent graduate of the Ecumenical Institute to conduct a feasibility study, which indicated a solid market for a D.Min. program while also noting that costs would be significant and gaining accreditation for a new degree would be challenging. Perhaps a joint doctoral program with another school was the answer.
Laytham was interested in the possibility of students beginning their doctoral studies at the Ecumenical Institute with its own faculty, but finishing with an accredited degree from an already-established program. He explored partnership with nearby schools but couldn’t find a good match at a seminary within a 90-minute radius of Baltimore.
He had just decided to expand his search when a member of his alumni council stepped in with a suggestion. “You have got to look at Ashland Theological Seminary,” she said, noting that Ashland’s program was both rigorous and flexible. Laytham pulled up the Ashland website, sent an e-mail message, and then made a phone call.
Over at Ashland, Matthew Bevere, the associate dean who oversees the doctor of ministry program, was surprised to hear from Laytham. “I wasn’t expecting it,” he says, “but we were interested from the beginning.” Ashland is affiliated with the Brethren Church, but students from more than 70 denominations attend the seminary. “A partnership with another school would likely add to the richness already on campus,” he says.
Unlike the other schools Laytham had considered, Ashland employed rolling admission rather than requiring closed annual cohorts and offered intensive classes on a schedule his alums could manage. And Laytham liked the diversity of the student body and faculty. “Our program reflects the changing demographics of ministry in the United States,” says Bevere. “We attract a lot of pastors as well as educators, counselors, chaplains, medical professionals, and other dual-career folks.”
As conversations continued, both Laytham and Bevere grew more interested. Ashland’s enrollment, already healthy, would experience a welcome growth spurt. And students from the Ecumenical Institute would be able to choose among Ashland’s range of specialized tracks — spiritual formation, transformational leadership, and independent design — and complete requirements at their own pace.
After the formal agreement was signed by both institutions, Bevere visited Baltimore. He talked with potential students and mentored faculty about developing and teaching courses at the D.Min. level.
“I did an overview session for more than 40 people,” says Bevere. “Then I met face to face with a couple dozen students, reviewed their grade transcripts, and answered a lot of questions.”
Bevere thinks that demographic diversity — including geographic, cultural, and religious variety —benefits both schools. “Crucial to a successful D.Min. program is the formation of a lively and diverse community of learners,” he says. “Students not only learn from faculty members, they also learn from each other.” St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute is adding to the mix by bringing some Catholic students into Ashland’s predominantly Protestant student body and enabling East Coast students to encounter a Midwestern point of view.
The program that eventually took shape has Baltimore students being fully admitted as Ashland D.Min. students and then completing their first year (40 percent) of the program as visiting students at the Ecumenical Institute. The rest of the program will take place at Ashland, where Ecumenical Institute students will assimilate with the continuing D.Min. students who have been at Ashland all along.
“I would guess some Ashland students won’t be aware of the partnership until the first time our students show up for class,” says Laytham.
Regardless of the location of their initial classes, all students who complete the program will receive their degrees from Ashland Theological Seminary.
The joint program has prompted the Ecumenical Institute to design three new courses that scholars and pastors will team-teach. The first two are structured as spaced intensives, meeting on Thursday evening and all day Friday three times over three months. “It’s a pedagogical experiment intended to allow some additional reflection and growth between classes,” explains Laytham.
Ashland students — those who begin their studies in Ohio and those who will arrive from Baltimore midway through the program — attend weeklong intensive courses twice a year on the Ohio campus. The courses and the modes of delivery are continually being evaluated, and they may undergo subsequent tweaks and revisions as needed.
Gaining approval for the program was relatively easy. Laytham and Bevere reported that their boards of trustees, administrators, and faculty members were supportive of their efforts from the outset. “They asked good questions about how this would work, but they were very enthusiastic,” says Bevere. Reconciling processes has been a bit more of a challenge. “Enrollment management and recruitment are hard enough for one campus,” says Bevere. “When we work together, these essential administrative tasks don’t just double, but they triple in complexity.” Sharing information long distance has been another hurdle to overcome. “We’re figuring things out along the way,” he says.
As chief architects of the new joint D.Min., Laytham and Bevere are committed to ensuring its success. “We believe wholeheartedly that partnerships that develop synergy out of existing strengths are the future of theological education,” said Laytham. Early indications suggest that their assumption is right. They announced the joint venture in April, and within a few weeks they had enrolled several students and applications were arriving daily at both locations. The first semester of the new program has now begun, and Laytham reports that 17 students have enrolled at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute, and another has chosen to do her entire program at Ashland.
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