By Emily Brandler Proffitt, '05
|Left to right: Jerry Sittser, Jeremy Wynne, '99, and Emily Dufault, '10
Joe Wittwer has shepherded thousands of people over nearly four decades as lead pastor of Life Center Foursquare Church, one of Spokane's largest congregations. For much of that time, he wanted to go back to school and get an advanced theology degree. But leading a busy ministry and raising five children had meant putting those educational goals on hold – until a few years ago, when he learned that Whitworth was launching a graduate program in theology.
Meanwhile, Emily Dufault, who graduated from Whitworth in 2010 with a degree in cross-cultural and peace studies, had found herself several years later working at her church in Spokane's West Central neighborhood. She was gradually discerning a call to pastoral ministry and knew that she would need more advanced theological training. But she didn't know how she would be able to get a master's degree while working full time – until last summer, when Dufault discovered the road to her future vocation was leading her back to her alma mater.
One a seasoned minister and the other just beginning her career in ministry, both Wittwer and Dufault felt God calling them to receive additional theological education in order to serve those under their care most effectively. And both discovered that the Whitworth Master of Arts in Theology Program could help them answer that call.
Life Center Foursquare Church Lead Pastor Joe Wittwer
"This program was a perfect fit for me, and I loved it," says Wittwer, who graduated in 2011. "It helped my thinking, which has bled into my leadership and the way I work with people, and I've had a lot of people comment that they've noticed a new depth, theologically and historically, to my preaching."
Launched in 2008, Whitworth's M.A. in theology program is intended for lifelong learners who want to deepen their faith and enrich their Christian vocation. The program equips men and women to serve the church and society by integrating theological education, practical application and spiritual formation. It is designed for people who work full time, so it's offered in a convenient, part-time schedule, allowing students to set their own date for completion.
"We wanted to deliver graduate theological education in a way that was true to our mission and sensitive to the needs of the church," says Whitworth Professor of Theology and Master of Arts in Theology Program Director Jerry Sittser. "We saw an opportunity to start a new program that reflected our deepest convictions about how theological education should be done."
Sittser says those convictions called for a part-time program that focused on both applied learning and classroom work. Program courses are rooted in classical theological disciplines, but they also have a required practical component so that students can apply their classical learning to concrete ministry situations, he says.
"We don't want students dropping out of ministry to get an education, when part of their education should be their deep sense of involvement in and commitment to the church or to parachurch organizations or local ministries," Sittser says. "We wanted to offer a graduate theological education that was more like a medical residency program, which prepares students for practice, than a typical humanities Ph.D. program that prepares scholars."
The program draws applicants from a wide range of denominations and professional backgrounds. Students hail from all parts of the Inland Northwest, and graduates have gone on to plant churches, to assume higher positions of leadership at their home churches, and to earn D.Min. degrees, among other pursuits. Whitworth has articulation agreements with both Princeton and Fuller theological seminaries, which ensure that M.A. in theology program students' credits will transfer to those institutions. The university will form partnerships with additional seminaries as the need arises, Sittser says.
Students in the program meet on campus one weekend a month and take additional week-long intensive courses on campus in the summer. They complete supplemental coursework online, as well. Whitworth's full-time theology faculty teach the core courses, with electives offered by adjuncts in students' specific areas of interest, such as pastoral care and counseling, public theology, and Christian culture.
The program is built around a cohort model, in which a group of students completes core courses together, following the program sequentially. Every new class begins with a banquet, and students eat several meals together over the course of a class. Each course also has built-in worship times.
"We are a Christian community living out faith together, not just sitting in a classroom," Sittser says.
The idea for the program grew out of a reading group for local senior pastors that Sittser started about a decade ago. He says they had such a rich experience reading and discussing classic Christian literature together that he then started a reading group with young church planters in the area. Reading the classics exposed members of both groups to a previously unknown world, and many wanted to dive deeper.
One of those pastors was Wittwer. He had helped start the senior pastors' reading group, and he became the first person to sign up for the MAT program.
"I love to learn, and this program made it possible for someone like me to continue doing my job and still get an excellent education," Wittwer says.
Wittwer says he appreciated the way the program was at once academically rigorous, spiritually refreshing, and directly applicable to his ministry. He particularly enjoyed his professors and the way the cohort model allowed him to build friendships with people from various backgrounds and perspectives. In fact, he has since hired one of his classmates to work at Life Center.
The church also has partnered with Whitworth to create a special Life Center track within Whitworth's Lay Ministry Certificate Program, which is designed to help train, equip and support men and women to serve more effectively in a variety of paid and unpaid leadership positions in local congregations. So far, dozens of Life Center's members have completed the non-degree program.
"Our involvement with Whitworth has elevated the value of continuing education for our entire congregation," Wittwer says.
Name: Emily Dufault
Hometown: Moses Lake, Wash.
Education: Earned a bachelor's degree in cross-cultural studies and peace studies from Whitworth in 2010
Career Aspirations: Hopes to become consecrated as a pastor within the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church
Favorite Part of the M.A. in Theology Program: The cohort model, which allows her to get to know people from a wide range of denominational backgrounds, life experiences, and ministry areas
Quote: "This is the right program for me. I'm getting high-level academic theological studies in a way that's directly applied to how I'm doing ministry, so I'm able to put it to use immediately."
For Dufault, returning to Whitworth to earn her master's degree was an unexpected next step in her vocational journey.
After completing her bachelor's degree, Dufault spent a year in Costa Rica helping establish Whitworth's center there. She then returned to Spokane and started working at The Porch, a church planted by Garland Alliance Church, which she had attended as an undergrad. Diving deeper into pastoral ministry, she saw all the different pieces of her passions come together. She began looking for a part-time graduate theology program that she could complete at her own pace, in her own city. For the second time in her life, her search for the right educational fit brought her to Whitworth.
"When I came back to campus I thought, 'Well, hey there, Whitworth, I didn't think I'd get to see you again so soon,'" she says. "It is the perfect program for what I need, plus the classes are blowing my mind and changing how I look at my faith and how I do ministry."
Dufault hopes to finish her degree within three years. She's currently working on being licensed within the Christian & Missionary Alliance denomination. Once licensed, she will begin a two- to three-year training track within the denomination, culminating in her consecration as a pastor.
Dufault says that financing her degree has been a challenge, but a grant she received through Whitworth has offset a substantial portion of her tuition costs.
Whitworth's ability to create and maintain such scholarships will be key to building the program, because so many of its students are financially challenged due to their involvement or planned involvement in ministry and nonprofitrelated professions, says Cheryl Vawter, '94, associate vice president for graduate admissions and continuing studies.
"Unlike many students in our other graduate and continuing education programs, students aren't choosing the program based on the expectation that they will one day get a financial return on their educational investment," Vawter says. "While everything we do at Whitworth is directly tied to our mission, the M.A. in theology is particularly close to the heart of who we are as an institution."
Another key to building the program will be bolstering its connections to Christian communities across the Inland Northwest, says Whitworth Lecturer in Theology Jeremy Wynne, '99, the program's new assistant director. Wynne is working on networking with Christian leaders in the region to raise awareness about the program and to help them see how it can be a valuable partner in their various ministries.
"It's really the only program of its kind in this area, but at this point there are still many people who don't know we're here and aren't aware of how accessible this program is to people with families and full-time jobs," Wynne says.
In addition to relationship-building, Wynne is also focusing on increasing the program's diversity with regard to the ministry interests of its students, the areas of expertise of its faculty, and the types of electives it offers. For instance, he says, the program recently added a master's-thesis option for students who want to focus on research. The program is also adding classes focused on different aspects of ministry: a course in youth ministry, a course focusing on worshipping within Christian communities, and classes focused on mission, particularly the global Christian movement.
"We're finding opportunities to be stronger and applying ourselves to that," Wynne says. "This is a community that is passionate about learning and studying the gospel. They love what they do, and that's why they're doing this program: We want to support them in that."
In addition to its master of arts in theology program, Whitworth is also seeking to meet the needs of churches and congregations in the Northwest through The Ekklesia Project. The goal of the new church-engagement initiative, which launched earlier this year, is to enlarge and develop Whitworth's ability to function as a catalyst, center and resource for conversing, envisioning, planning and programming. It seeks to assist churches and other Christian organizations in the region as they discern ways in which they can be the church and do ministry in the cultural setting of the 21st-century Pacific Northwest.
The Ekklesia Project is being funded initially through a $1-million grant from the Lilly Endowment; it is being administered by the new Whitworth Office of Church Engagement, headed by Terry McGonigal, the university's former dean of spiritual life. In addition to administering The Ekklesia Project, the office of church engagement is pursuing opportunities to develop and deepen partnerships with Presbyterian denominations and with other expressions of the global church. The project is also looking to expand local and regional ministries. Additionally, the office works with churches to assess needs in the local community and to develop strategies and programs to meet those needs.
Both The Ekklesia Project and the Whitworth Office of Church Engagement are consistent with the university's Whitworth 2021 Courage at the Crossroads strategic plan, which calls for deepening Whitworth's position as a valued resource to the church and society.