Elyse Everhart is three years into a master of divinity program at Winebrenner Theological Seminary, where, like many of her classmates, she’s looking forward to ordination.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean she sees herself pastoring a church any time soon.
“As of right now,” she said, “I don’t see myself doing that.”
The 32-year-old seminarian, who said she’s open to a pastoral calling but can more easily see herself drawing on her degree as she continues to work with children, in some ways exemplifies a shift that Winebrenner Theological Seminary has seen in its 75 years of “equipping leaders for service in God’s kingdom,” as President Brent Sleasman describes its mission.
While that mission has been at the heart of the seminary since its founding in 1942, Mr. Sleasman said that the way the seminary and its students interpret it has broadened significantly. As the institution has added degree programs and adapted to new realities through the years, early classes of all-male aspiring pastors have given way to a diverse set of graduates with wide-ranging ideas on how to implement the faith-based training they receive.
Greg Guzman, vice president of institutional advancement, sees the trend as a “shifting, evolving nature of what a seminarian is and does.”
“We’re serving students from a much broader range and using degrees in a much broader context,” he said, “but remaining true ... to our spirit and purpose.”
Gillian Holzhauser-Graber spoke similarly. She’s been plugged into the seminary since her father, Emil Holzhauser, served as its third president beginning in 1970.
“Now opportunities are so much broader,” she said. “It’s sort of building on that heritage.”
Winebrenner Theological Seminary, which is denominationally affiliated with the Churches of God, General Conference, but which welcomes students from more than 25 Christian denominations, is one of 234 seminaries in the United States to be accredited through the Association of Theological Schools, according to data provided by that organization. Adjacent to the University of Findlay campus, it is also considered the only seminary in northwest Ohio.
The seminary began as the graduate school of divinity of the then-named Findlay College, which is likewise affiliated with the Churches of God, General Conference, and in 1950 moved into the campus’ College First Church of God. Findlay College cited accreditation concerns in jettisoning the seminary in 1960, and, in 1962, Winebrenner embraced its recent independence by physically moving off campus to a facility on Melrose Avenue.
Winebrenner moved to its current location, 950 N. Main St., in 2003. It continues to operate independently of the University of Findlay, although the two collaborate closely and, according to Mr. Sleasman, are working out plans for the university to purchase the building. Winebrenner will continue to operate out of it.
Although Winebrenner is denominationally affiliated — its namesake, John Winebrenner, founded the Churches of God, General Conference — only about 35 percent of its students identify this way. Mr. Sleasman said it is not uncommon for seminaries to welcome students of other denominations.
Like Winebrenner, the majority of ATS-accredited institutions — 132 of 234 in the United States — identify with a Protestant denomination, while an additional 50 are identified as nondenominational, interdenominational, or multidenominational. Forty-seven identify as specifically Roman Catholic.
Winebrenner can prepare a student for ordination but does not offer ordination itself.
The seminary has come a long way in its 75 years, said Mr. Sleasman, Mr. Guzman, and Ms. Holzhauser-Graber, who reflected on its history recently in light of its anniversary year.
In its early days on Main Street and on Melrose Avenue, the community was still speaking in terms of “pastor’s wives” instead of “pastor’s spouses,” Mr. Sleasman said. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s, in keeping with broader trends of the time, that Winebrenner began to enroll a significant number of female students.
Today, Mr. Sleasman said, seminary classrooms are split about evenly in terms of gender.
It has also significantly expanded its offerings from the single divinity degree that it initially offered under Findlay College, although that program remains popular among its approximately 100 enrolled students. Mr. Sleasman said a “high majority” of graduates continue to pursue a pastoral position.
Winebrenner additionally offers a degree in master of arts in practical theology, which stands out in that students can complete up to 49 percent of its requirements online; Mr. Sleasman said the seminary anticipates that the degree will be offered entirely online by the fall semester.
Winebrenner also handed degrees in August to the first graduates of its master of arts in clinical counseling program and is in the final stages of achieving accreditation through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. Winebrenner students enrolled in this program receive the same training that an aspiring licensed professional counselor would in any higher education institution — with, of course, an additional faith perspective.
“It’s an extra component,” Mr. Guzman said. “We’re providing a pastoral sense to their standard scientific training.”
Mr. Guzman and Mr. Sleasman said the programs — and the increasingly varied way they see seminarians draw on their training in their communities — reflect the reality that a faith foundation is being recognized as beneficial beyond the pulpit of a church.
Consider, for example, Ms. Everhart, the seminarian who balances her studies with a position as a youth director at Trinity United Church of Christ in McCutchenville, Ohio. She said she’d like to continue along this path as well as look toward developing a line of faith-based children’s books.
She sees her seminary education as a “good foundation” for this work.
Mr. Guzman does too.
“I think other career sectors are realizing the importance of having some type of pastoral and ministerial training in their own jobs,” he said. “We have [as an alumnus] an executive who owns his own television station, officers who need this type of pastoral training, clinical counselors, you name it. It’s just fitting into much more of a broad context in society.”
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