Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/27 2020

Pastoring During a Pandemic

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still shepherding during pandemicRecently, as all the COVID-19 news began to reach a fever pitch, I had my regular meeting with my spiritual director. We had just heard at the Seminary that we would be moving all our credit-bearing courses online and shutting down all non-credit-bearing training. I found that I needed to take a minute to remember who I am beyond what I do. I do experiential education! I work with students to engage embodied leadership practices! I travel to new cities for immersive educational experiences! But not right now I don’t.

My vocation and my calling are to the same things they always were—but the window through which I am able to respond to that calling has narrowed.

The form this experience, education, and embodied leadership must take has changed entirely. My spiritual director, who is incredibly wise and a great listener, helped me consider all this without me suffering a complete meltdown.


Being a Pastor During a Pandemic

Indeed, this shift has been illuminating—what if embodied leadership right now is being still and asking the question of what it means to shepherd a people dispersed in their homes—and really hanging out with the question before we act? What if it is organizing for needs to be met through distance—and imagining how we might build that kind of community more permanently? What if the experience we are called to right now is simply trusting that the Holy Spirit holds us all together when we are all physically alone? What if the Christian life I am called to in this moment isn’t about a product but a certain kind of abiding?

Is it possible that who I am isn’t contingent on my proving that what I do with my regular work days is so important that I, the “essential personnel” must continue to do it within this crisis, risking life and limb for myself and everyone else?


Going Back to Basics

This is not to say the education, leadership, church, or life together are to be taken lightly or considered nonessential. But what if the basics of these things are actually ordering my groceries online so I don’t come in contact with anyone, and tipping well because this is a scary time for the gig economy.

What if the basics are sitting with the Holy Spirit and my anxious pit bull (pictured above)—because she is only anxious because I am anxious, and the only way we will learn to trust and be okay, is if we do it together?

What if the basics are calling my grandma and holding space for her fear? What if for a minute I am not a “thought worker” but a human being?

This sounds like a small start and maybe it is, but I’m guessing that if we make space for even a little bit of listening and being with—of holding space and sitting still—we might be shocked at the sort of big things we are being called to as pastors, as parents, as frightened people, and vulnerable advocates in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Friends, wherever you are reading this, I am so glad that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are in this together. Wash your hands, take deep breaths, don’t forget to stretch and drink water—but really, take a minute in the midst of all this to just be. I think that just might be the heroism/discipleship the world needs right now.


The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.


3/25 2020

Inside the PTS Curriculum: Intercultural Experiential Learning

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The “Inside the PTS Curriculum” series gives you an inside look at what students are learning in their courses at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Each article focuses on one class, its subject matter, what students can expect to learn, the required texts, and the kinds of assignments students can expect. We’ll let you know whether the course is required or available for the Master of Divinity (MDiv), the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS), or Master of Theological Studies (MTS). Each article will include the professor’s bio.

This week’s course is: “Intercultural Experiential Learning.”

Colombia mission trip

About Intercultural Experiential Learning

During the January Term, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students took Intercultural Experiential Learning with the Rev. Dr. Hunter Farrell in the class “Intercultural Experiential Learning.”  This course is required for students in the Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree program and is open to students in the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS) and Master of Theology (MTS) degree programs.

Intercultural Experiential Learning is organized in conjunction with the World Mission Initiative/Metro- Urban Institute intercultural learning trips and provides pre-trip orientation in cultural competence and anti-racism, intercultural communication, a theology of short-term mission engagement, area studies for the specific communities to be visited, and spiritual practices for mission. After the trip, students explored personal, cultural, missiological, and theological strategies for reflecting on the intercultural experience. This year students traveled to Colombia and Southwest Florida.

During this class, students come to understand basic concepts in intercultural work: the culture concept, ethnocentricity, cultural competence, racism, white privilege, intercultural communication, and intercultural conflict. They develop a theology of short-term mission and a missiological understanding of the role of a missionary. Further, students develop an understanding of the relationship between context and mission, are exposed to and develop spiritual practices drawn from the experiences of the global church, and learn how to lead a short-term mission trip. Throughout the course, students also identify needs and assets through the lens of mutuality.

In addition to a number of articles, students read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Mission Trips that Matter: Embodied Faith for the Sake of the World by Dan Richter, and Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude Steele. Assessment is based on readings and written reflections, trip journaling, participation in an intercultural immersion experience, and class presentation on lessons learned during the intercultural immersion experience and application to local ministry.


About the Instructor

The Rev. Dr. Hunter Farrell assumed his position at Pittsburgh Seminary in 2017 after serving as director of World Mission for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, Ky. His mission leadership and service spans more than three decades. In his years as World Mission director, Farrell managed a 180-member staff in 52 countries while overseeing the areas of strategic direction and partnerships, funds development, operations, and communications. Earlier, as a Presbyterian mission co-worker in Peru, he organized and accompanied an international network of churches, non-profit organizations, and universities that linked social capital in Peru and the U.S. to address issues of poverty and justice. And while working with World Mission in East and West Africa, he supervised the work of mission workers in seven African nations in programs of health, development, evangelism, education, and theological education. He also taught in the Republic of Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of Congo.


3/18 2020

The Ministry of Marco Polo: How a Video Chat App Helped My Ministry (and Me)

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pastors experiencing the shalom of GodIn the fall of 2018, I received a call from a former colleague, asking if I would be interested in being a part of a cohort-covenant group of other women pastors. One of her pastor friends was working on her doctor of ministry degree. This group would be a part of her study in pastoral leadership.

Little did I know how these seven other women would affect my life.


Experiencing the Shalom of God

Julia, the convener of the group, sent us an e-mail describing her project. Her focus was on experiencing the shalom of God, and how covenant community helps pastors experience shalom, both as individuals, and together. We committed to doing readings, praying for one another, and meeting online every week.


But after our first meeting, we decided that we needed a way to stay in touch throughout the week. So, one of the Shalom Sisters—the name we coined together as a nod to Julia and her shalom project—suggested we use the video app Marco Polo. It was new for a few of us, but we agreed it was better than texting, e-mail, or using Facebook messenger.


Over the next few months, we continued to meet and pray together, doing our online check-ins every Thursday. We started to get to know each other better by sharing our joys and concerns. We talked about our faith journeys, our current ministries, and our personal lives. And as we walked alongside each other we started to communicate more and more on Marco Polo.

We sent messages (known as “polos”) from our homes, our offices, our cars, and our local coffee shops. Julia gave us a tour of the Christmas lights in her neighborhood. Jamie showed us the view from her hotel room in Kenya. I shared a video from the beach while on vacation in Florida.


Doing Ministry, and Life Together

Marco Polo was helping us do ministry, and life, together.


Over the past 17 months, we’ve supported one another through community tragedies, discerning new calls, online dating debacles, StepBet challenges, new hires, deaths, surgeries, home sales, engagements, retirements, marriages, challenges with colleagues, and across-the-country moves.


Soon Julia will be defending her dissertation. She has been working for months on this paper, part of which will share the research and data she collected from each of us—data from what was only to be a nine-month covenant group. Several of us are planning on meeting up again this spring in California.*

I always smile when I get the little “ding” on my phone that one of my sisters has left me a message, wondering what funny story they will tell, what prayer request they will share, or what update they will give from the last time we talked. I smile because that “ding” is a reminder that I am not alone in ministry.

Here is just a glimpse of how Marco Polo has allowed us to share life together:

“We will be praying for the doctors to have wisdom, and for you . . . for you to take care of yourself as you try to take care of them.”

“I got connected with another church in the area who is having serious conflict issues. It’s a small church, and I am just praying I’ll be able to help them.”

“Thank you for your prayer for me. Since mom fell it’s been really hard. Exponentially hard.”

“Working on our women’s retreat, and the theme is prayer. If you have any thoughts or feedback I sure would appreciate it.”

“I only got four hours of sleep last night. I’m running on fumes. This is brutal. No family should have to go through this.”

“So have any of you had issues with wild turkey? We got a wild turkey that is pooping all over! Trying to get rid of him. One of my Buildings and Grounds guys is going to come and have early Thanksgiving I think!”

“Love you. Praying for you. Just holding you up this weekend.”


Coming Alongside One Another

In her dissertation, Julia writes about how ministry leaders face unique challenges that hinder their ability to form intentional communities and collegial relationships. She concludes, “Through mutual encouragement and by establishing healthy rhythms, pastors can come alongside one another to seek and to know the full shalom of God.”

Marco Polo has enabled the coming alongside for our group despite the fact that we live in the north, south, east, and west of the United States.

Pastors and ministry leaders, if are feeling alone, don’t limit yourself by finding a group to meet in person over a meal or coffee. I wasn’t able to find that myself because of everyone’s commitments and schedules, let alone my own. Marco Polo is a tool that allows us to connect, encourage, listen, vent frustrations, and share ministry. Share life. As Julia’s dissertation reminds us, “Paul encourages his readers in 2 Corinthians 3:11 by writing, ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.’ The God of love calls us to be in community, reconciled and transformed through relationship, and to receive the promised gift of shalom.’”

I know I experience the gift of shalom, thanks to my God, my Shalom Sisters, and yes, even thanks to a video app called Marco Polo.

*The Shalom Sisters have postponed their gathering as they are also working to follow the CDC guidelines and help their people through the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Rev. Ellen Dawson a 2009 graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (M.Div.) who has years of experience in mission leadership, campus ministry and parish ministry. Ellen serves as associate pastor at Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church, where she preaches, teaches, and works alongside the Mission and Membership committees, as well as the deacons. She currently serves on the advisory board of the Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. When Ellen is not working, she’s usually reading, visiting with friends and family, or walking her dog, Ziggy (pictured above).

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