Golden graduation May 3 at Graduate School of Religion marks 50 years of Ministry in Memphis
By Mark Parker, assistant vice president
It may be hard to remember a time when graduate education in the United States was a novel idea. At the University, graduate education is now a vital element.
Graduate work was not always this popular, however — especially graduate studies in Bible.
The year was 1952, and Harding's first graduate program was set to begin. The man in charge was Dr. W.B. West Jr., fresh from Pepperdine College, where he had started the graduate program in Bible. Now President George S. Benson had called West to Searcy to do the same thing.
In 1952 there were many reasons such a program in Bible would be a risky venture. There was no precedent in churches of Christ for a successful graduate program in Bible; 20 years earlier, a fledgling graduate Bible program had closed at a sister school, and all other graduate programs were outside the Bible Belt.
West recalled another challenge to starting the graduate program, one that persists even today: "Others believed that we had had good preachers without a graduate school and that we didn't really need it and, consequently, shouldn't take the risk."
Despite these objections, 30 students began advanced course work in Bible during the fall of 1952. Graduate training in Bible had come to Searcy.
But it didn't stay there long.
By 1958 Benson took the bold step of moving the program to Memphis, Tenn., making this the first graduate program in Bible among churches of Christ east of the Mississippi. "A graduate school," he explained, "does not belong on a campus with an undergraduate school."
Harding had already begun an extension program in Memphis, offering classes at the Union Avenue church building as early as 1955. The city had the advantage of a large pool of ministers in local churches and offered more opportunities for students and spouses.
The Board of Trustees soon voted to establish a graduate school of Bible in Memphis, and in the fall of 1958, the Graduate School of Religion was born. Soon the School moved into facilities at 1000 Cherry Road, a Georgian-style mansion on what was then the outskirts of the city.
In August 1959, 21 students graduated from the first class on the Memphis campus. Three made names for themselves as university professors: Jimmy Allen at Harding, Mac Lynn at the Graduate School of Religion and Lipscomb University, and Clyde Woods at Freed-Hardeman University.
Starting a graduate school is a monumental task, but growing that school into an excellent institution is no small feat either.
West insisted that the School have high expectations for its students. After all, ministry is challenging, so why should training for ministry be easy?
Two individuals kept the bar high. Jack Lewis brought his dual New and Old Testament doctorates to Searcy in 1958 and then made the move to Memphis with the School that same year. As the years progressed, he was known as the professor who expected more than one could possibly give. And yet, time and again, students rose to the challenge. His chapel talk, "The Ministry of Study," became a mantra for the School. In it Lewis displays his wit and conviction as he tells young ministers that they should not apply themselves to ministry until they have applied their backsides to the seat of learning. At his retirement in 1989, Lewis had influenced thousands of students who have in turn taught around the world.
But academic rigor cannot be achieved and maintained without significant resources. That means a good library.
Enter Annie May Alston in 1962. Her skill as a librarian might have gone underutilized if she had not also possessed the wherewithal to find the funds that kept the library growing. Today, the foundation she laid has produced the leading biblical research center in churches of Christ.
Of particular note is the course she developed, which is now known as "Advanced Theological Research." Known affectionately as "graduate school boot camp," the course teaches skills necessary to achieve the academic expectations of the School.
No good history is complete without a love story, and Lewis and Alston provide just that. The two married in 1978 and continued to serve together in study and service until Annie May's death in 2007.
As the School matured, many wondered about taking it to the next level. In the 1970s, President Clifton L. Ganus Jr. encouraged Dean Harold Hazelip and faculty to consider offering doctoral degrees. A Ph.D. degree was discussed, but the immediate need of churches was practical training for ministry. After much evaluation of various options, the faculty approved a proposal on Oct. 25, 1976, to offer the Doctor of Ministry degree. Harding became the first school among churches of Christ to offer a doctoral program in a religious field and awarded the first Doctor of Ministry degree in 1979.
For years counseling had been a part of the School's curriculum because founders realized that so much of ministry engages personal and family issues. But in 1995, the Master of Arts in Counseling was added, spearheaded by Dr. Bill Flatt, dean at the time. The degree brought together counseling classes into one degree that allows students to seek counseling licensure upon graduation. The distinctiveness of the degree is its integration of ministry and counseling. "Ministry and therapeutic skills can go together," says Dr. Ed Gray, program director. "Counselors with ministry knowledge are able to serve churches as well as their clients."
The next level also meant verifying that it was achieving the high standards set for itself, so the School began considering membership in the Association of Theological Schools, the accrediting body for all major theological schools in North America.
Today, this move seems like a natural progression of a maturing school, but at the time, discussions about accreditation contained notes of caution. Some were concerned that accrediting bodies would dictate policy or even doctrine. Those fears proved unfounded, and in 1996, the School received membership into the Association of Theological Schools, the first school among churches of Christ to be accredited by that association.
The world of education continues to change with new technologies. Theological education is changing as well, and the School continues to deliver innovative ways for students to access resources available here.
The School was the first of the University's programs to offer online courses, beginning in the fall of 1998. Today, 10 online courses are available each year, with participants from across the nation and several foreign countries. Dr. Allen Black's course "The Gospel of Mark" and Dr. Richard Oster's class "Corinthian Letters" have been staples of the online program.
In order for students to take full advantage of innovative learning formats, in 2003 the School launched MinistryConnection, a distance-learning program for those living beyond an easy drive from Memphis. Combining online courses with weeklong courses on campus, MinistryConnection allows students from around the world to earn a degree with minimal travel. More importantly, established ministers are able to stay in their communities while developing their skills.
As the School continues to grow, it serves as a bridge for students wishing to explore the Bible with academic rigor and wanting to study in an environment that supports their Christian convictions and fuels their passion for ministry.
Leading the way
Any assessment of the future of the Graduate School of Religion will reflect its history: bold initiatives, academic rigor and creative programs.
In 2006, President David B. Burks named Dr. Evertt W. Huffard vice president/dean. Huffard has served as dean since 1999, but the new position of vice president provided more leadership on the Memphis campus.
Such administrative changes may have seemed small, but they were actually a bold initiative that allows the School to continue its focus on academics, but with added flexibility to develop creative programs.
Any evaluation of the School's future will also take into account the work of the 4,069 alumni serving in churches and ministries around the world. At the start of the 21st century, the School had had enough students pass through its halls to determine the value of graduate theological education for the kingdom of God.
Alumni teach on the Bible faculty of nearly every Christian college associated with churches of Christ. They lead churches — from small to huge — around the globe. Graduates who have committed to meeting the high expectations of training here become leaders of vibrant ministries.
"Leadership is the key," Huffard explains. "Our churches will not rise above the level of their leaders. We need ministers whose bar for excellence is set high."
50 years later
The fears some voiced when the School began turned out to be unfounded.
Some feared that a graduate school in Bible would lead to fanciful theology that lost sight of our Restoration heritage. Instead, the School has continued to be a stable voice during turbulent times. Open inquiry has allowed the School to avoid excess on either extreme.
Although some feared that accrediting bodies would place strictures on the teaching, in reality the accrediting process has been a valuable resource for the School and a blessing for students. The self-evaluation process required for accreditation ensures that the School is honest about its strengths and challenges. Accrediting teams have proven to be a valuable resource for maintaining a strong institution. In the end, students have a degree recognized and accepted from a world-class theological school.
The University takes pride in its distinctive facility focused solely on ensuring that the next generation of spiritual leaders in our churches is trained for a lifetime of faithful service.
What began as a risky venture has yielded an institution that provides encouragement, skills and transformation to ministry leaders.
At a glance
Average age of students: 35, many second-career
Location: Memphis, Tenn.
Context: Metropolitan, with opportunities for ministry in the inner city, Hispanic communities and college campuses, in addition to established congregations
Current enrollment: 210
Number of states in which students live and serve while enrolled: 25
M.A. (academic focus),
M.A. in Christian Ministry (practical focus),
M.A. in Counseling (for MFT or LPC licensure),
Master of Divinity (foundational ministry degree),
Doctor of Ministry (professional terminal degree)
Web site: www.hugsr.edu