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Tools for the trade

McCormick Seminary project helps ready church leaders of color

October 20, 2010

Headshot of the Rev. Emily McGinley

The Rev. Emily McGinley

CHICAGO

Much like the local hardware store, the Common Ground Project at McCormick Theological Seminary here is in the business of providing tools for construction and demolition.

"Our aim is to build strong character and a sense of identity among church leaders of color while attempting to break down the barriers that separate us, whether they are racial or generational," says the Rev. Emily McGinley, director of the Common Ground Project.

"We do this by connecting established church leaders of color with new church leaders and those considering ministry as a career," she says. "As stated in our mission, we are committed to building and strengthening the next generation of church leaders of color."

McGinley, herself a graduate of McCormick, knows firsthand the difficulties that new pastors of color can face once seminary ends and a life of ministry begins.  

"Mainline congregations are still primarily Anglo, but our society is continually growing more diverse," says McGinley, who is of Asian and Irish decent. "We need to recruit and prepare pastors and theologians of color so that our church leadership can reflect that change in our society."

The Common Ground Project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, presently has four programs, each focused building bridges across racial and generational divides.

An annual Pastors of Color Network, which will take place this year at the end of October, provides established pastors an opportunity to exchange views, gifts and opportunities with their peers.

"While preparing new pastors for leading the church into a future that we hope is more inclusive than divisive, we also want to be a means of support for those presently guiding our congregations," says McGinley.

The Next Generation Consultation, most recently held two weeks ago on the McCormick campus, brings together pastors and church leaders of color with scholars from related fields to identify and discuss the issues, challenges, commonalities and differences related to the development of the next generations of church leaders.

By creating this connection, it allows established pastors and new pastors to share challenges they are facing, express differences in theological views and provide perspective on the direction in which the church as a whole is moving.

"For pastors who are already committed to a life in ministry, the consultation is a means of continuing education, interaction and fellowship," says McGinley. "For new pastors, it is an opportunity to learn from those who have already been where they are heading."

A  poetic "spoken word" conference entitled "Throwing Down, Expressing Faith," was held in mid-August. Aimed primarily at young adults of faith, it offers an avenue for them to express themselves verbally and bring into the open critical theological questions that they feel need to be answered.

"When I head about the spoken word conference and learned that it was infused with faith, I felt like this was where I had to be" says student Danielle Rouson of Chicago in an internet video about the conference. "I felt like God was calling me to be there and that everything else hadn’t worked out for a reason."

Much of the poetry performed at the conference by young people centered on faith, a society that separates rather than brings together, and a need for self-identity.

"It is very much about finding out who you are and how you fit into God's world," says McGinley. "While we want to bring down those barriers that separate us, the project also wants to help build pride and confidence in who you are as an individual and what makes you who you are. We want to get these young people thinking about who I am, versus who society says I am."

A program called "A Taste of Seminary," invites young people of color from all denominations who are considering a life in ministry to join others in discerning their sense of calling and what is involved in studying theology and ministry. The week-long conference, lead by prominent pastors and theologians of color, allows young adults from different Christian faiths and nationalities to come together and experience different fields of study within the seminary.

"It was an eye-opening experience," says Paul Matsushima of Torrence, Calif. "A lot of the professors made us really rethink what we have been taught and what we believe."

McGinley has been with the Common Ground Project since it began as the Asian-American Discipleship of Vocational, Empowerment, Nurture and Transformation (AADVENT) Project in 2005. She has seen how it has broken ground ecumenically and how it has transformed lives.

"I feel like we are helping to shape the church and our society in a positive way for the future," says McGinley.

Sadly, she may also see the end of the project. Funding from the Lilly Endowment will expire at the end of 2011 and without further funding the common Ground Project will come to an end.

While she has not given up hope, McGinley does not foresee other funding as forthcoming and is working to have other departments of the seminary adopt and take over the individual programs so that they may continue.

"While it is sad to think of the Common Ground Project as coming to an end," says McGinley, "what is more important is for programs like the Pastors of Color Network and A Taste of Seminary to continue to provide a means for the church to nurture itself and to grow."

Bob Sloan is a freelance writer from Hartsville, S.C. and a member of First Presbyterian Church of Hartsville.

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