Many Firsts Mark Northern Seminary’s Commencement 2018

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Grad Focus
Kendra Spearman | Russell Zehr | Phil Landin | Melissa Champs

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Fifty-five graduates, making up Northern Seminary’s Class of 2018, will begin the next chapter of their ministry lives at the 103rd commencement ceremony Saturday, June 9. In a service of celebration, challenge and corporate worship, this diverse group of scholars will gather with their families and friends in the sanctuary of Christ Church of Oak Brook (IL) to receive their diplomas. Two-time alum of Northern, Rev. Dr. Fay Quanstrom will bring the commencement address; 2018 graduate Micah Massey will sing his Grammy-award-winning worship song, “Your Presence Is Heaven to Me.”

This class, one of the largest at Northern in recent memory, represents a number of firsts: The first graduates from the new Lisle (IL) Center. The first graduating cohort in the Master of Arts in Worship (M.A.W.) program—a group that is releasing a first-ever CD of music developed while at Northern. Then there are the first D.Min. graduates with an emphasis in New Testament Context, who have accomplished yet another first: they published a book together as part of their studies. According to Dr. Bill Shiell, president of Northern and Professor of Pastoral Theology and Preaching, “This group is historic, courageous and entrepreneurial. They helped us design, develop and deliver new programs and crossed with us into a new home. They’re the real deal!”

A Diverse Group

Dr. Shiell has solid, substantive basis for his claims. In particular, he lists examples of just how diverse this graduating class is. Among all the pastors, executive ministers, or ministry professionals you’d expect from a group studying to advance their Bible knowledge and ministry skills, are “a former NFL football player, an award-winning Christian recording artist, an ABC regional executive,” even a civil rights attorney. He adds, “Oh yes, and they’re pastors, preachers or worship leaders in one way or another. These students trained to be pastors and leaders in the local church, and many are already innovative leaders in their denominations and ministry networks.”

The president traveled to Israel with the D.Min. in New Testament Context group, where he observed their individual gifts and passions up-close. “They love people; they love Christ’s church.” This is the cohort that published a book together: Conflict Management and the Apostle Paul: An Exploration of Paul’s Interactions with His Churches In Light of Modern Conflict Management Theory, with Dr. Scot McKnight (Julius R. Mantey Chair of New Testament) and 2018 D.Min. recipient Greg Mamula (Associate Executive Minister for American Baptist Churches of Nebraska) as editors. It came about as a result of a seminar the students prepared and held during the semester.

Other faculty and staff are impressed with the potential of this year’s graduating class, as well. According to Dr. Jill Fleagle, Affiliate Professor of Formation and Internship, and Director of Supervised Ministry and Student Formation, “As I review the list of our 2018 graduates, the word that comes to mind is obstacles! These students have faced obstacles—life-threatening illnesses, loss of loved ones, loss of employment, adjusting to increased responsibilities in new ministerial appointments, and transitions including moving from their on-campus homes to new ones in the midst of spring term. They have faced and overcome these obstacles through their lived theology, holding on to the truth of God’s presence with them, and discovering new meaning through the work of the Spirit in challenging circumstances.”

Dr. Jason Gile, who is experiencing a transition of his own—from Interim Dean of Academic Affairs to his new role as Dean of Program Development and Innovation—says, “These graduates are prepared to address the unique challenges of ministry in the 21st century. They have been equipped with the skills needed to interpret Scripture, articulate Christian faith in a post-Christian culture, and lead congregations and other organizations. I am thrilled to see a new graduating class go out to lead the church and engage the world.”

A Diverse Commencement Program

Such a diverse collection of graduates calls for an equally diverse celebration ceremony. The president and his team have prepared a program that includes all the expected, traditional elements—classic hymns, processionals and recessionals. But they’ve intentionally blended those elements with contemporary worship, to take the best advantage of this new era for the Seminary and the greater church.

Dr. Sam Hamstra, Affiliate Professor of Church History and Worship, and Director of M.A.W., is especially pleased about his program’s integral role in the commencement program. “This group of students is already impacting the way thousands of Christians worship by planning and leading spiritually formative services that are not only rooted in Scripture but also engage minds, inspire hearts and prompt obedience.”

As an example, Dr. Hamstra points to M.A.W. Graduate Micah Massey, who has seen the greater church music world take notice of his talents. Massey won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Song, and he’ll present that song as a heartfelt vocal solo during the commencement ceremony. Additionally, members of the M.A.W. cohort will present the gospel song, “Total Praise,” just prior to the conferring of degrees and diplomas.

A highlight of the June 9 program is the keynote address to graduates by Dr. Quanstrom. “Fay is a pioneer as a woman pastor, and she’s a student of the Old Testament,” according to Dr. Shiell. “She has served churches in the Midwest and Southwest, as well as in London, England. She has blazed a trail for future women pastors in the church. Now she serves as Associate Pastor of Gold Canyon United Methodist Church in Arizona. We are fortunate to call her a Northern alumna twice!”
Dr. Quanstrom, whose address will be in the form of a prayer drawn from Colossians, says “My words to this year’s Northern graduates are an appeal to continued personal growth and to fortitude through the inevitable, surprising turns in the roads they will be taking.”

She says her return for commencement is likely to evoke positive recollections of earning her M.A.Th.S (O.T.) and D.Min. in Preaching among the Seminary’s “diverse student body, challenging classwork, invested faculty, and research opportunities.” In particular, one professor and several courses stood out to her, “I believe I took every class Dr. Claude Mariottini offered, and if I missed any, I am sorry!” Her takeaway from Northern has proved invaluable throughout her years of ministry. As she prepares sermons and approaches pastoral work, she often recalls “professors reminding me to look for the surprise in the text, to admit that mystery and questions remain, to work with less familiar texts, to listen to new and sometimes uncomfortable viewpoints. I was prepared to teach and preach through the two programs I completed at Northern.”

Dr. Shiell hopes to engage and encourage a new generation of women toward seminary education with his choice of Dr. Quanstrom as commencement speaker. “Last year, we launched a new scholarship from the Baugh Foundation for women who come to Northern without home church support. Fay represents the best and brightest of those who have gone before these women and continue to serve Christ’s church.”

Other moments of note in the commencement program are the presentation of faculty publication awards and student awards including both academic achievement and the Bryan F. Archibald Preaching Award.

Dr. Jill Fleagle sums up the potential, hopes, and dreams of Northern’s faculty for its class of 2018: “We celebrate God’s faithfulness evidenced in each of our graduates—Christ in you, the hope of Glory!”

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Grad Focus: Kendra Spearman, MA in Christian Ministries

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When I started at Northern, I was reluctant about balancing ministry and my career as a lawyer. I took classes with Pastor Wayne Gordon and was reminded that my calling as an attorney is an extension of ministry. It was through Northern’s Christian Community Development Program that I learned you could use traditionally “secular” career paths to show others the love of Christ. I was able to understand how my desire to become a civil rights attorney aligned with God’s call for justice. The program taught me that salvation is not just spiritual and future, but it is also physical and present. As a civil rights lawyer and a minister, I get to help people understand both sides of salvation.

My career as a lawyer is ministry. Some of the challenges I deal with include working to remove negative connotations associated with individuals who are incarcerated. I try to help Christians understand that the forgiveness and love we experience in God should be given to everyone, even if they are accused of a crime. Part of present salvation is restorative justice: healing those whom social systems have caused to become “outcasts” in our society. Working with my juvenile clients can be challenging because they struggle to “see God” with all the issues in their communities: poverty, segregation, and gun violence. I try to show them God through my love and presence with them, because I believe where there is love, God is present.

I think I was able to help some of my classmates understand the deep systemic and racial issues prevalent in the legal system and the African American community, and how we as Christians can work together to mitigate them. My awesome classmates have encouraged me in my calling; they’ve reminded me that God is with me.

I get discouraged and drained sometimes, but when I hear a prospective client say, “I heard you were a woman of God, and I want help with the Bible or help with getting back in church as well,” it is uplifting. I want people to see God in my work as a lawyer. My ultimate dream is to start a legal aid clinic at my church. If I can look up and see people coming on Sunday to worship God and to get help with legal issues, I’d feel like I am doing what God has called me to do in addressing both spiritual and social needs of the people I serve.

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Grad Focus: Russell Zehr, M.Div.

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Prior to seminary I did not feel equipped to engage in ministry. Even though others affirmed the gifts they saw in me, I struggled to recognize my place in the church. My seminary journey involved more than just acquiring knowledge about God or the Bible. I sensed God shaping me spiritually in all the classes and studies.

  • In my theology class with Dr. Cherith Fee Nordling, I encountered the Triune God in a way I had not before. I felt myself drawn deeper as I recognized how I was a part of a larger story—the story of Jesus. I also rediscovered the Church as the koinonia participating in the Triune life.
  • My studies in church history with Dr. Sam Hamstra and Dr. Rudy Heinze broadened my perspective of the historic church and gave me a love and appreciation for the saints who have gone before us.
  • My studies with Dr. Scot McKnight gave me a clearer focus on the Kingdom of God and the gospel and a fresh perspective of familiar texts.
  • Dr. Claude Mariottini helped me understand the larger picture of God’s mission in the world and God as revealed in the Old Testament.

In my second year at Northern, I had the opportunity to study in Israel at Jerusalem University College. This trip would change my life as I again found myself immersed in the story of God. Through these experiences I discovered the voice God has given me. In my internship class with Dr. Jill Fleagle, I sensed myself grow into my pastoral role and discover my heart for God’s people. I am also grateful for the opportunity to complete a unit of clinical pastoral education at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, IL.

The most meaningful part of this journey was sharing it with my peers. We laughed and rejoiced, cried and lamented. We became a part of each other’s journeys and together were shaped into Christ’s image. All of us brought into the classroom our stories and brokenness, but we witnessed God bringing deep healing.

For almost eight years I have served as a worship pastor at a small rural American Baptist Church in El Paso, IL. This fall I was called to fill the role of interim pastor. I cannot imagine trying to do this job without seminary training, as it has required me to put into practice everything I have learned. I have used skills from pastoral care and preaching. I have led the church to rediscover what it means to be the body of Christ and worked to define their place in the neighborhood as a people of worship, prayer and mission.

I plan to pursue ordination in the American Baptist USA while I remain open to the Spirit’s guidance and wisdom.

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Grad Focus: Phil Landin, M.Div.

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My wife August and I attended North Park University. After graduating we felt the Lord calling us to connect with students there, as well as down the street at Northeastern Illinois University. We felt God calling us to be a presence on campus that would connect young people to the Spirit and equip them to reach their peers with the gospel. Northeastern, meanwhile, is a state school of 10,000 students that until a few months ago had only two Christian student organizations.

The calling is personal for me. I was raised in a Christian home, but I don’t think I would be following Christ now if it hadn’t been for my encounter with the Holy Spirit as an eighteen-year-old. Our desire is to create for young people the same kind of space others created for me—a space to discover their deep belovedness by God through the power of the Spirit.

I came to Northern because I felt a call to pastoral ministry and wanted to learn how to minister faithfully. My most significant growth came under Dr. Fleagle’s gracious guidance. God showed me that my efforts in ministry had become an attempt to prove myself. As I examined these feelings and learned how to repent, my relationship with God and with others transformed. Ministry flowed more naturally. As I am rooted more deeply in the truth that I am eternally loved, my need to be liked diminishes, and I am free to love others for their sake and not for what they can give me.

Having companions on the journey helped anchor me. I benefited especially from the space for fellowship created by Dr. Fleagle and Dr. Nordling. Being able to pray, encourage and seek the will of God together made what we were studying together real. It’s one thing to read about racial injustice; it’s another to be sitting in the room with brothers and sisters of color, to hear about how it affects them and their ministry, and to be confronted with my inaction. The community has given me glimpses of what it means to be the Church in her brokenness and in her beauty. I will be a more faithful leader because of it.

We are prayerfully launching a congregation in the fall, as part of the Greenhouse Movement, an Anglican church-planting network. Greenhouse’s model of planting churches is drawn from the East African Revival that began in the 1920s. It empowered laypeople to lead congregations where there were not enough ordained pastors. We are assembling the leadership team and seeking a worship leader. We are in need of prayer and are getting ready to launch a fundraising effort.

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Grad Focus: Melissa Champs, Master of Divinity, Emphasis in Biblical Studies

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I enrolled at Northern because I felt lead by the Holy Spirit to do so. At that time I knew credentials were important; but as I grew in the Lord, I realized that the preparation is what’s important, not the credentialing. Through my seminary journey, I heard God’s voice affirm ministry and purpose within me but most importantly, I heard Him affirm that I am His!

Both the male and female voices I had grown up with ingrained in me that women were not supposed to be preachers. In retrospect, I realize God placed “the call” in me a long time ago, but the enemy went into overtime to ensure that I thought the call wasn’t for me.

My seminary training included class lectures, formational moments through self-reflection, interactions with peers, studying abroad in Jerusalem and engaging different contexts through internship and chaplaincy. The experiences shared in community helped equip me to walk alongside people. They also helped develop my ability to quickly gather myself and my thoughts so I can respond to people in a way that produces a healthy outcome.

I have grown in ways that allow me to assess what I am experiencing and recognize whether it’s a reflection of my struggle or a deflection of someone else’s. I can now own what’s mine and discard what isn’t. Seminary has helped me see God’s hand in all things, which speaks volumes for where I was a few years ago.

I know my preparation work is not over. For now I know I’m planted on a firm spiritual foundation in Him. I am still discerning the ministry direction He has for me. I know it will include preaching, teaching, and walking with His people intimately. I have a passion to help lead people into new revelation around Christ’s genuine love for them.

I’d love to become a professor at a divinity school and an author. Most importantly, I’d love to create a ministry of helping women and men overcome brokenness they’ve experienced due to patriarchy and gender inequality, relationally disconnected decision-making and lack of knowledge.

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Article by Julie-Allyson Ieron, author of The GOD Interviews and The Overwhelmed Woman’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents.

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