Why a PhD @ SMU?

During work on my Master of Divinity degree from Brite Divinity School, TCU, I decided that I wanted to pursue a PhD in Theology and to teach. I chose to first spend several years serving in pastoral ministry in local congregations with the expectation that this experience would help me to be better formed as a pastoral theologian and prepared for the season of academic theological reflection in pursuit of the PhD. During that time I also had the opportunity to teach 6 semesters as an adjunct instructor at two colleges – an experience that confirmed my sense of call to an academic career. Over the 15 years since my graduation and ordination, I have paused several times to consider whether the time had come to take this next step in my journey. For a variety of reasons the answer came back each time, “No, not yet.” Since my sabbatical from pastoral ministry during the summer of 2010 I have had a growing sense that this time was coming. I have continued to study and read broadly in various disciplines of theology, ethics, biblical studies and religious studies. This reading has often been in direct service to my congregational and community ministry as I have sought greater understanding of the complexities of pastoral theology as a lived experience.

My ministry over the last 20 years has been largely in middle class suburbs similar to the places where I was raised. These communities are caught in social, intellectual and spiritual tensions with theological, economic and political implications.  The old ways of framing theological conversation seem inadequate for those in the pews, and nonsensical to those in the community. I believe that the opportunity exists to discover a renewed liberative theology in the context of middle class suburbia, and desire to pursue a PhD as a way to explore and help craft that theology. My vision is to focus on Latin American Liberation Theology, particularly as it arose in the context of Base Ecclesial Communities [CEBs] through the interpretive lens of Postcolonial Theology, and in conversation with the current missional/emergent/new monasticism movements.

Our public discourse seems to be ever more vitriolic, with a heightening of dualistic notions of us versus them and good versus evil. In response, our faith communities and their leaders need a clear and compelling message of hope, a different way to converse and commune – which I believe is imaged by Jesus as “the kingdom of God.” At the same time, our religious and cultural dialogue has shifted. We need new ways of understanding both ourselves and God, new language to articulate the historic faith, and a new conversation. I desire as a clergyperson, a teacher, and a public theologian, to help frame and lead that new discourse with others who are hopeful for the transformation of human communities through the incarnational presence of God.

In pursuing a PhD in the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at SMU I wish to concentrate in Systematic Theology as my core discipline and the foundation from which to consider the other disciplines relevant to the above tasks. This work begins with a foundation in liberation and postcolonial theologies, for which I hope to work closely with Joerg Rieger. His understanding of the impact of globalization as the new manifestation of empire in which and to which Christianity must respond will help me think about the unrecognized systemic challenges for the middle class. As I think about how to bring together into conversation the various theologies present in my own community, I look forward to working with Karen Baker-Fletcher and learning from her weaving together of traditional Wesleyan thought, Womanist Theology, and the insights of Process Theology.  I also hope to study with Elaine Heath in her work on contemplative evangelism and missional community as it relates to my interests as a pastoral theologian in a suburban context seeking to bridge cultural and language barriers and break through the many competing claims of our culture to offer a word of transformative hope in my community. In some ways her work reflects a renewal of the communal spirit expressed through Latin American Base Ecclesial Communities, and the liberative theology of hope that they produced and continue to live.

My desire after completing my PhD work is to serve on a university faculty and help to train the next generation of pastors and theologians, as well as coaching non-theology majors to develop their own integrative theology. I intend to remain deeply involved in the life of a local congregation and participate at various levels in denominational, ecumenical and interfaith work. Through these two venues I plan to build on my academic work by establishing an ecumenical center of spiritual life, theological education, personal growth and ministry formation. This last project, A Center for Suburban Spirituality, will be the culmination of my work across diverse fields and will bring the best thought from academic disciplines and offer them to people in the context of a community experience.  Suburban congregations are in need of new tools and renewed expressions of their faith that will address the chronic anxieties of our culture. These will be found within formative communities that offer a liberating Gospel informed by the insights of Postcolonial Theology. Such communities require leaders who can function effectively in the academy, in the congregation and in the larger pluralistic community. Pursuit of a PhD in Systematic Theology at SMU will strengthen my abilities to be such a person.

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