By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
In his inaugural address last February, McCormick Theological Seminary (MTS) president Frank Yamada identified three themes of focus for the school: a new level of diversity, innovation and technology and connecting with the next generation of spiritual leaders.
Yamada joined the faculty of MTS in 2008 as the director of its Center for Asian American Ministries and associate professor of Hebrew Bible before becoming president of the McCormick Theological Seminary (MTS), 5460 S. University Ave., in August 2011. Prior to his tenure at MTS, Yamada was an associate professor at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. A graduate of Southern California College, he earned his Masters of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied Hebrew Bible with an emphasis on hermeneutics, feminist theory and culturally-contextual biblical interpretation.
Once he was president, the MTS community celebrated the fact that Yamada was the first Asian American to lead a Presbyterian Church U.S.A. seminary. His predecessor, Cynthia Campbell, who served as president for 17 years before retiring, was the first female president of a Presbyterian Church U.S.A. seminary.
Yamada said that MTS has been known for having a diverse student body. He said that he’s glad the leadership reflects that.
“McCormick has long been known for having a student body with no racial majority and no denominational majority,” Yamada said. “Demographers have told us that census data suggests that we will not have a racial ethnic majority by 2040. The good thing about McCormick is that we are training people in that environment already and have been for decades.”
Yamada said the focus of innovation in technology is one that is aspirational for McCormick – but also in keeping with the school’s history. He said the seminary has always thought about its student body and ways to innovate to meet its needs.
“In the late 20th century McCormick was offering evening classes long before many of the other Chicago seminaries,” Yamada said. “We realized that the commuter students couldn’t meet three days a week and only during the daytime.”
He said innovation and technology give the seminary another opportunity to deliver theological education to students that have an increasing amount of difficulty being on campus.
“The more flexibility we can offer through distance learning, online learning and hybrid online learning the more we can reach those who are getting a degree while working, getting a degree while raising a family and those who want to go to school but can’t be on a strict schedule,” Yamada said.
He said many of the MTS faculty are trained or are being trained to teach on distance learning formats and the seminary plans to create a curriculum that will offer more online courses in 2014.
Yamada said that when reaching out to the next generation and new audiences seminaries have to be open to change.
“[Millenials] are a very religious group but they don’t trust institutions,” Yamada said. “We have to figure out new ways to do church and we have to figure out new ways to educate these young folks to be religious leaders in the 21st century.”
He said another aspiration of MTS is to figure out how to “reach out to those who for the most part did not grow up in the church but consider themselves religious.”
When reaching out to new audiences Yamada said challenges for MTS will be to seek non-traditional pipelines to enrollment.
“There used to be a direct pipeline from Presbyterian colleges to Presbyterian seminaries,” said Yamada, who said he came to seminary as a non-denominational Christian before choosing to become Presbyterian. “I think we can reach out to different kinds of campus groups that are not Presbyterian while continuing to keep those lanes open for young adult who are in congregations.”
Yamada said young adults feel called and commissioned to do community, live their faith and be disciples of Jesus Christ in new ways. He said that if religious leaders don’t have the skill of working across different racial, denominational and religious paths they will be inept and won’t have the skills to serve their communities.
“We need to create some experiences for young adults that allow them to become aware of the opportunities in theological education and opportunities to lead in faith communities not necessarily found in traditional churches,” Yamada said. “We need to create the opportunities and connections with these groups because when they create these faith communities we want to be able to help train them.”