Faculty Stories

The Master of Arts in Public Ministry: An Interview with Rev. Dr. Timothy Eberhart

Rev. Dr. Timothy Eberhart
Rev. Dr. Timothy Eberhart is the Robert and Marilyn Degler McClean Associate Professor of Ecological Theology and Practice Director of the Master of Arts in Public Ministry

How would you define public ministry?

I hesitate to respond with too narrow a definition. And I say that because I believe that public ministry, on the broadest level, is nothing more and nothing less than the common ministry of everyone who seeks to follow Jesus in the Spirit for the sake of the world God so loves. The scope of God’s loving-justice witnessed to in the scriptures isn’t confined to some set-apart private sphere, or just to the interior lives of individuals, or to religious practices narrowly understood. The redemptive work of God is ultimately universal in scope. In that sense, every Christian is called to ministry. All of the baptized are called and equipped by the Spirit to seek God’s justice—at home, in gathering together at church, in the marketplace, in civic life, in neighborhoods and communities, and as global citizens of our common planetary home.

We were very intentional in naming this a degree in public ministry and not one in social justice or public advocacy. We are a seminary of The United Methodist Church rooted in the ecumenical Christian faith. We are equipped to train and to form Christian leaders, and we have long done so in ways that have prepared ordained ministers to serve faithfully and with excellence for the sake of the public good. What we have not done as well, at the curricular level at least, is train and form lay leaders who feel called to live out their vocations in the public realm as a living expression of their Christian faith. So we were clear that this is a ministerial degree, but one that claims and affirms an expansive understanding of ministry for all Christians.

That leads me to my next question, which you’ve begun to answer. Why did Garrett-Evangelical decide to offer a master of arts in public ministry? What was the thinking behind creating this degree?

There are an increasing number of students applying to seminary who are clear they desire a theological education but who do not see themselves fitting into traditional forms of congregational ministry. They’re compelled by Jesus. They care deeply about the state of the world. Many have been shaped by their experiences in the church—some of those experiences being rich and meaningful, others more painful. But they desire to study the Bible more critically, to learn about Christian history in greater depth, to explore questions of spirituality in a community of learning, and to examine the pressing moral issues of our time—even if they’re still discerning where they will end up after graduation.

So how can we extend the many goods of a theological education to the whole church, so that all members of the church body and not just clergy have the opportunity to engage their faith through sustained refection and be equipped for the work of ministry in whatever form that might take? We very much hope that a large number of those who enroll in and graduate from this degree will be laity. And I think the implications of that are pretty exciting—for our churches, our seminary classrooms, and ultimately for the kind of impact they are going to have in the world.

Garrett-Evangelical has also been a leader for a long time in educating United Methodist deacons, those called to ordained ministries that connect the church with the needs of the world. We’ve structured this MA to meet the requirements for deacons, and I’m confident there will be many preparing for diaconal ministries who will find this a compelling degree program.

I also believe there will be some clergy, those who already have a theological education, who will be well served by this degree. Those already engaged in various forms of public ministry will also benefit those who would like to strengthen their capacities to make a difference in their communities. In that case, it’s possible they would be able to transfer in a set number of credit hours.

Why does Garrett-Evangelical think this degree is important and relevant in today’s world?

Public life today is marked by a host of very troubling trends. Some of these are more recent, and others have deep, even ancient, roots. We can name the more visible rise of white supremacist ideologies and racist groups. We can point to the mass incarceration of black, brown, and red peoples in this country. We can identify the obscene gap between the most wealthy and the very poor, the bottoming out of middle class wealth and middle class institutions oriented toward the common good, and the increasing number of those threatened by extreme poverty. Related to this are the growing threats to a democratic society and what the scientific community is telling us about the implications of climate change is terribly disconcerting. So how do we understand these trends, these dynamics that are impacting public life and that are being expressed in the public sphere? Are we able to make connections between them, identify patterns, and see how they reinforce one another? Mental health professions are tracking a rise in
depression and anxiety in the United States, as well as an increase in drug addictions, especially in impoverished communities. Surely, among the many factors involved, there’s a connection here to the feelings of vulnerability that so many are experiencing on so many different levels.

So, what does it mean to believe in the God of Jesus Christ at such a time as this? What is the meaning of Good News today, not just for individuals but for the world? And what role do people of faith have in understanding and addressing these issues in redemptive and transformative ways?

At the same time, there are many signs of hopeful resistance and creative responses emerging all around us. I very much believe that the various crises we are seeing present opportunities for transformative, and even radical, changes to our public institutions and our common life. Again, what role might Christians play in joining together with other faith traditions and with people of goodwill in building and wielding power through movements and organizing and direct service? Do Christians have unique resources and perspectives we might offer at this just time in our history? I believe we do. I know we do.

So one of the things I am most excited about in directing and teaching in this degree is bringing together students for whom racial justice is a primary moral concern with students oriented primarily around issues of climate change, and then others who bring expertise from their experiences in public health professions or the field of education, and then others committed to issues of economic justice who want to bring about change through public policy advocacy. And then exploring, together, the relevance and implications of our shared Christian faith in addressing these overlapping crises. The opportunities for mutual learning and transformation in and out of the classroom are going to make for a very rich educational experience. That is my hope, at least!

What does a degree in public ministry entail exactly? What are the requirements?

To earn the degree, students will be required to complete 56 credit hours, which they can finish in four full semesters over two years. Twenty-four of those hours will be in foundational courses alongside students in the master of divinity program and students from other MA degrees. Those courses are crucial in grounding students at a master’s level in the basics of theological refection, biblical interpretation, historical understanding, personal and contextual awareness, and the spiritual life. That also includes a required field education placement under the direction of a site supervisor and alongside peer group refection. From there, starting from their first semester in the degree, students will be taking 20 of those credit hours in a set of specific public ministry courses: eight of those hours spread out in three courses that all MAPM students will take together, and then 12 hours across four courses for an area concentration. The remaining 12 semester hours are elective hours that students can use to fill in with additional coursework in their area of concentration, to fulfill ordination requirements for deacons, or to take other courses of interest.

Why is the field education component so important?

One of the commitments of the program as a whole is to take seriously the contexts our students will be coming from as they enter the degree and the contexts they will be heading to upon graduation. We know our students bring experiences and expertise that can contribute to the classroom environment, and at the same time, we want to help facilitate critical refection upon where they come from, how they have been formed, and what they believe. The field education experience is crucial in this process because it provides an opportunity for students to be engaged in a form of public ministry while they are earning their degree. That allows for a certain level of experimentation. We want them to ask questions like: Do I like this kind of work? Am I good at it? What are others reflecting back to me? What do I need to learn to be a more effective leader in this environment? What are the challenges and the goods internal to this setting? By being paired with a site supervisor and a peer group for facilitated refection, our students are allowed to think through practical and career-oriented questions at the same time they are engaging at the level of critical theory, ethical analysis, and theological exploration. The great thing about being located in Chicagoland is just how many organizations, initiatives, centers, and movements there are in the region oriented toward social systems, social justice, and the public good. Our field education office works hard to find the right ft for students based upon their prior experiences and vocational interests.

You mentioned the concentrations – tell me about the available concentrations and what students need to do to earn one.

The concentration provides an opportunity for students to engage in a more sustained study of a certain set of public concerns and to be equipped for public ministry in a more specialized way. Right now, we are beginning with three concentration tracks: one in child advocacy, another in racial justice, and a third in ecological regeneration. We are launching with these three because of the growing interest of our students in these areas and our understanding of the importance of all three in the public realm today, but also because we have excellent faculty equipped to teach within and oversee these three tracks. It is also likely we will be adding new concentrations in time as we identify emerging interests and can organize the resources to support additional tracks.

I understand students can propose their own concentrations? How does that work?

Yes. A student can propose a concentration different than those three. It is conceivable that a student might want to focus a concentration around issues of immigration, for example, or homelessness, or economic justice. In that case, we would need to see if we could identify at least four appropriate course offerings either at the seminary, through another seminary or divinity school in the area, or perhaps through courses offered at Northwestern University. A student interested in exploring that option would meet with me, as the director of the program, and we would work together to see what might be possible. I cannot make any guarantees that we would always be successful, but I would hope we could be more often than not.

What kinds of careers would these students pursue?

We anticipate our graduates will pursue a variety of different career paths, and there will be many who continue on in their existing careers but desire the theological grounding to support and better equip them in what they’re already doing. Many may be people who lead nonprofit organizations, community organizers, and child or family service workers. We may have alums who are politicians or who work in government offices as staff members writing public policy. Others might contribute through think tanks. I could imagine there will be socially minded entrepreneurs who find ways to live out their faith through business models that benefit the common good. Still others might work at a more general level for the church, working on public advocacy and justice issues for their particular denomination or through ecumenical work. And I’m sure there will be careers that we haven’t even though of that our alums will pursue—or maybe even create!

One of the commitments I have in directing this degree is to find ways of staying connected with our alums in ways that support them in their public ministries but also in ways that impact the degree program in terms of what we teach, how we teach, what we can learn from their experiences, how we can build power together through their networks, and how current students can connect with their work.

Who will benefit from this degree?

Ultimately, I hope those who benefit from this degree will be the people and the places our graduates end up serving in public ministry. I hope vulnerable children benefit. I hope incarcerated populations benefit. I hope black neighborhoods and communities and individuals and institutions benefit. I hope poor rural communities struggling amidst drug addictions and high cancer rates benefit. I hope degraded landscapes and threatened wildlife and polluted waterways benefit. If we can look back in 20 years at the impacts our graduates of this degree have had in the public realm, and if we can point to specific lives and particular organizations and particular places that are flourishing because of their work, then we’ll know we’ve succeeded as a school through this degree program.

And that gets back to who we understand God to be and what God is doing in the world. This is a theological matter. Christians affirm that God so loves the world—the whole of it and every part. So to follow a call to serve in public ministry is to participate in God’s aim to heal the world— the whole of it and every part. And in that sense, I am very much looking forward to being wonderfully surprised at the unexpected benefits that might come about as a result of this degree.