Monday, September 24, 2018

My Involvement in Theological Education: An Unexpected Journey

Ircel Harrison, Molly Marshall, and Rita Harrison at 2018
 commencement in Shawnee, KS
Thanks to the reminder from LinkedIn, friends started sending me congratulations on my work anniversary last week.  I had to think for a few minutes but realized that these messages were in connection with my tenure at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

In 2004, I was serving as the coordinator of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Mike Smith, my pastor at First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, and I began talking about the challenges of theological education for those who were called to ministry but had families, jobs, and were already serving churches. They couldn’t easily pull up roots and go elsewhere. He mentioned specifically Beth Duke, someone I knew but he was more aware of her desire for a theological degree. She certainly fit the profile. She was a nurse at Southern Hills in Nashville, living in Smithville, Tennessee, where her husband had an established practice as a dentist, and had two grown kids living nearby.  She was called to ministry, but her options were limited.

The challenge was, “How do you provide accessible, affordable, quality seminary education for someone like Mary Beth?”

I contacted several seminary presidents that I knew, but their response was, “We don’t do that kind of thing.”  I was still looking for possibilities when I saw Connie McNeill at a CBF General Assembly. I knew Connie from campus ministry days when she worked in Missouri. She was then serving as Vice President for Internal Development at Central.  She suggested that I talk with President Molly Marshall. We had a good initial conversation.

Mike and I had been thinking about offering a few courses locally with the idea that a student would have to do some of their work on campus in Kansas, but Molly responded by e-mail that she thought the seminary could offer an entire accredited degree program in Tennessee.  I think there were times that she regretted sending that e-mail, but it showed clearly her visionary approach to theological education.  She stuck with us through some difficult days.

We launched in September 2005 with First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, as host church.  The first two classes were Hebrew Bible I, taught by Laura Moore from the Shawnee campus, and Christian Heritage I, taught by Mike Smith, the host pastor.  I served as volunteer site director.

Much has happened since then.  I was asked to teach some classes and then became part-time site coordinator upon my retirement from the state CBF organization.  The site was moved to Nashville in 2012 and Dr. Sally Holt became our site coordinator.  TCBF, under the leadership of interim coordinator Don Dixon and coordinators Terry Maples and Rick Bennett has continued to support the work.

We have had our challenges, but we have also had our successes:

  • Many students have been exposed to theological education, even if some who never completed their degrees;
  • We have offered lifelong learning for over 20 adults;
  • We became a full-degree granting site in June 2011; 
  • We have been inclusive, ecumenical, and egalitarian;
  • We have graduated 14 students with the Master of Divinity degree;
  • And Mary Beth Dunbar-Duke was our first graduate in 2009 and is now an ordained minister and a full-time chaplain at Vanderbilt University.


After completing my work as site coordinator, I was asked to teach in Nashville, teach online classes, and serve as interim director of the Doctor of Ministry program.  The opportunity to develop deeper relationships with colleagues in Shawnee and the other satellite locations as well as students around the world has been remarkable.

There have been major changes over the time I have been affiliated with the seminary.  Curriculum for the Master of Divinity has changed with all classes now being offered in a synchronous, online format.  The curriculum for the Doctor of Ministry degree was redesigned.  The Nashville site became home to the Women’s Leadership Initiative which recently launched its third cohort.

The opportunity to work in theological education has been a blessing but it has also been exciting to be part of the creative and fluid approaches to theological formation led by Robert Johnson, Provost and Dean of the Faculty.  Central continues to be on the cutting edge of seminary education.  I have enjoying being a part of that innovative community.

(Based on remarks to the Women Leadership Initiative cohorts on September 7, 2018, in Nashville.)

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