Throughout its nearly 100 years, AU has always offered some form of religious studies major. It wasn’t until 1950 when the School of Theology was opened for seminary students. From then on, AU’s Department of Religious Studies and School of Theology operated as two totally separate entities. However, starting in the fall of 2017, the two will merge and become the School of Theology and Christian Ministry.
This merger will benefit AU financially, maximizing the use of available resources by combining the expertise of faculty from both sides. In addition, two new faculty members will be hired to replace two retirees from the Department of Religious Studies after this school year. Dr. James Lewis will remain the dean of the new School of Theology and Christian Ministry, and Dr. Fred Burnett will remain the chairperson for the undergraduate portion of the school.
Of the merger, Dr. Lewis said, “it seems to be the right moment for us to do some of these more creative things which will take advantage of the gifts that we already have.”
Dr. Burnett agrees and believes that “the undergraduate program shouldn’t be completely separate from the professional ministry side, because they are trying to accomplish very similar things.”
The logistics of this transition are in the works, and next year will operate as a sort of trial run for the new structure. The idea behind the coalition is that there will be two distinct faculties, mainly for the purposes of accreditation for the seminary faculty, but they will operate under the same umbrella of the school. The Department of Religious Studies will also be officially making the switch to the Department of Christian Ministry.
“We are trying to do what we’ve always done,” Dr. Lewis explained, “provide excellent teaching and advising. We are now working on moving parts around and trying to bring these two arenas together under the same structure.”
Curricular issues are also a main concern. One major benefit of the merger is that it will allow for cross-teaching between the School of Theology and the Department of Christian Ministry.
“This will allow seminarians to benefit from the expertise of our undergraduate faculty, and undergraduate students to benefit from the School of Theology faculty,” said Dr. Lewis.
Dr. Lewis praised the cooperative efforts being put forth by both faculties. “There is a shared sense between the SOT and the Department of Religious Studies that if this is what we’re going to do, we want to do it well,” he said. Members of both faculties have gathered together in order to “start developing authentic relationships so that we can in fact become one school.”
Seminary and undergraduate students are also optimistic about this time of change. “No one knows precisely all the nuts and bolts,” explained Dr. Lewis, “but everyone is sensing that it’s an exciting time. People are coming together and continuing the process of figuring out what the best we can do together is.”
Dr. Burnett thinks it will be mutually beneficial to increase interaction between seminary students and undergraduate students. “Both groups of students like when this happens, it just doesn’t happen very often as of now,” he explained. Now, with joint classes, each group of students will have an increased breadth of opportunity at their fingertips.
Another benefit of this change is that it creates the potential for a program that will speed up the process of obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a seminary degree. Undergraduate students will be able to fulfill their major and liberal arts requirements while simultaneously being introduced to and immersed in the School of Theology.
Dr. Burnett said that other exciting ideas are in the works, such as an increased emphasis on missionary traveling and studying abroad, as well as a center specifically designed to foster religious dialogue and cooperation.
Any time an institution undergoes a change such as this, there is concern and discussion about the potential positive and negative ramifications. “One of our responsibilities is to prepare for [change],” Dr. Lewis explained. “We are beginning that preparation by coming together and having very specific, ongoing conversations.”
The body of seminary students is not large but they are incredibly committed, according to Dr. Lewis. He is hoping for this merger to bring increased traffic of incoming students, as well as “new energy, new perspectives and new beginnings” for the school.