Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology J. Todd Billings has had a dramatic two and a half years. From being diagnosed with incurable cancer to undergoing a near-lethal dose of chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant, to enduring a two-month quarantine and a long, painful recovery, he has surely walked through “the valley of the shadow of death.” Through it all, he has remained an inspiration to many and has now published a book about the intersection of his faith and cancer.

Since his hospitalization in March 2013, Todd Billings has been on the slow road to what he calls the “new normal.” His cancer is in a strong partial remission, and he has returned to his roles as father, husband, professor, and active church member. However, this season of his health is not without its challenges.

“With the deep joys of interaction, work, and family come downswings in energy that involve physical pain, heavy fatigue, and emotional lows. The three can almost seem inseparable,” he writes.

As he remains under “maintenance chemotherapy” to keep his cancer in check, Todd continues to find solace in the Psalms.

“As I noticed in reading Psalm 77 recently, there is little or no ‘mind over matter’ optimism here,” he shares, “but there is trust in the strong love of the God of deliverance.”

I cry aloud to God,

aloud to God, that he may hear me.

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;

in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;

my soul refuses to be comforted…

I will meditate on all your work,

and muse on your mighty deeds.

Your way, O God, is holy.

What god is so great as our God?

In his new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos Press), Dr. Billings is honest and vulnerable about his cancer story, all the while pointing to the larger story of Christ’s redemption. He tells of bringing his pain, anger, and even blame before God, while at the same time always basing these questions in trust that God can handle our laments.

Rejoicing in Lament is both a comfort and a guide for all who labor along the same path as Billings does. It also provides insight to family members and friends of those suffering from cancer or other serious illnesses,” writes John Koessler in his five-star review for Christianity Today.

Rev. April Fiet (WTS ‘07) has found the book particularly helpful in her work as a pastor. It is a “beautiful, raw, and rich work that is hands-down the most important book I’ve read about pastoral care—even though the book is not explicitly written as a pastoral care guide.”

On March 31, Western Theological Seminary will host a conversation between Dr. Billings and esteemed American poet and editor Christian Wiman, who also suffers from incurable cancer.

Wiman’s collection of reflections, entitled My Bright Abyss, chronicles his rediscovery and exploration of faith in the wake of his own diagnosis.

Please join us on March 31 at 7 pm for an evening of rich discussion on life’s deep struggles.  No RSVP needed.

poster2.jpg

When the Rev. Lindsay Small began directing the Bast Preaching Initiatives in the fall of 2013, she was struck by the WTS learning model of continuing education:  Learning happens best as people learn together over time, in and out of specific contexts, and share that learning with others. Lindsay wondered, “How could this model be used for preaching?”

Small-Lindsay.png

With fourteen years of experience as a pastor, Lindsay recognized that good preaching involves dwelling within Scripture, crafting a sermon carefully, and proclaiming the Word boldly.

With these values in mind and alongside a newly formed Bast Advisory Team of WTS personnel, pastors, and college professors, she developed a peer learning model around the concept of “Dwell, Craft, Proclaim.”

This model was used to shape three types of groups: Discern Groups for college students, Discover Groups for seminary students, and Dwell Groups for pastors.

Groups employ the three-fold pathway of Dwell, Craft, Proclaim to guide discussion, but use other resources, too. They begin at the Bast Preaching Festival in November and end at the following year’s festival.

“Early on I started imagining what it would be like to lead a group myself,” recalls Lindsay. “I was growing concerned by the number of female seminarians who dismissed their call to preach to God’s people. It was as if they felt it ‘too presumptuous’ to think that they could be preachers. I do not believe that every person called to ministry is called to preach, but I want these students to see that God’s call is wider than they had possibly imagined.”

Lindsay formed the first Discover Group, “The Pulpit,” specifically for female seminary students.

In the following months, Dwell and Discern groups were established, each with about seven participants and one leader. By November, the groups were eager to begin at the Bast Preaching Festival, featuring Rev. Eugene Peterson.

On November 9, the festival kicked off with Rev. Peterson discussing his book, Eat this Book, with students from Central College, Northwestern College, Hope College, and Grand Valley State University. Twenty-six students are in Discern Groups.

“I am hearing our students engage one another about the call to ministry and to preaching,” said the Rev. Dan Claus, a chaplain at Hope College. “The diversity of interests in our group helps them gain new insights. The studio art major asks different questions than the philosophy major, and they are mutually enriched.”

WTS faculty and local pastors hosted workshops on preaching throughout the Bast Festival, and overall WTS welcomed 163 participants—a great increase from 55 festival participants the year before.

“So many preaching conferences fixate on techniques, pragmatics, tricks, and gimmicks,” said Jared Ayers, pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia. “The Bast Conference and these new collegial cohorts are deeply nourishing for Christian leaders living in a moment in which there is a ‘famine of hearing the words of the LORD’ (Amos 8.11).”

In the five Dwell groups for pastors, there are two local groups in Iowa, one regional group from the East Coast, and two national groups who meet monthly through web chat. That is 38 pastors in all, engaged on the topic of preaching.

The Rev. Small hopes the Bast Preaching Initiatives will continue to grow and bless participants. “I am excited for more and more people—pastors and students alike—to engage peer learning and preaching. We feel like we are just getting started!”

In 2015 a second Discover group for seminarians will be formed.

The 2015 Bast Preaching Festival will feature keynote speaker Anna Carter Florence. There, the Discern and Dwell groups will wrap up their year of learning, and new peer groups will begin.

According to an article in the Financial Times, “The Rise of Christianity in China,” membership in the church there is now greater than membership in the Communist Party. By 2030, China likely will have more practicing Christians than the U.S.A.

Bob_VanVoorst_2013-lr.jpg

Professor of New Testament Robert Van Voorst and his wife, Mary, immersed themselves in this surprising new environment for two weeks last November. Dr. Van Voorst was invited to be a “Distinguished Overseas Visiting Scholar” at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, where the government sponsors a doctoral program in Christianity Studies. The Chinese government paid for the entire trip.

Former WTS student Grace Hui-Liang (Th.M. 2005) coordinated the visit. She is a professor at Zhejiang University and author of three books on the history of Bible interpretation in China.

Bob taught 12 students from Zhejiang’s Ph.D. program in Christianity. Many of these young scholars will get six months of paid study in the West as they write their dissertations. When they finish, they will be placed as Christian religious studies scholars in various Chinese universities.

Dr. Van Voorst discussed cross-cultural Bible study methods and shared knowledge of the historical Jesus. His final lecture covered the present state of religious studies in higher education in the West.

The days fell into a regular rhythm:  lectures and advising students in the mornings and then sightseeing in the afternoon. The students showed their American professor and his wife the sights of Hangzhou—the university, temples, and the beautiful West Lake. The students were very respectful, calling Mary by her first name at her request, but never dreaming of calling their professor “Bob.” 

Bob and Mary visited a local house church and soon found out that “house church” simply means it is not one of the government’s recognized churches.

Mostly university students attended the church, participating by devoutly praying, singing from Chinese hymnbooks, and taking notes.

“At times you could hear the whole room full of whispered prayers,” Bob reflects. “It was quite beautiful.”

The men sat on one side and the women on the other—but a woman preached the sermon.

Following the service, the pastors took Bob and Mary out for lunch, asking difficult questions about the religious futures of the U.S. and China, the rise of secularism in the U.S., and whether there would be any hope for the world if the U.S. gives up its role of promoting freedom.

Asked for his thoughts on avoiding persecution but still spreading the gospel,  Bob reached into the New Testament. “If you suffer for being a Christian, God will bless you,” he told them. “But if you suffer because you break God’s law, then you should accept your punishment as just.”

The house churches are spreading very rapidly as more people come to faith.  

“Frankly, the church in China is doing very well now,” Bob says, “but Western Christians don’t realize that the Chinese government is both encouraging and suppressive.”

The Chinese government sponsors the largest Bible printing operation in the world. It has printed 125 million copies of the Bible, given to churches for use and distribution—even house churches. The government would rather have a mainstream form of Christianity influenced by the Bible than to have Christian cults.

However, the government remains wary of any movement becoming too large, and as Christianity grows among intellectuals and business leaders, the government tries to control that growth.

 “As Tertullian said around A.D. 200, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,’ Bob remarks. “The more you try to suppress faith, the more the faith grows.”

Professor Van Voorst hopes to participate again at Zhejiang University. He believes both the academy and the church are going to be important for Christianity in China.

“It’s simply amazing that a political system pledged to atheism would sponsor the high-level study and teaching of Christianity,” he says. “We may wonder why, but we thank God that such research and teaching are being done.”

By Diane Shircliff,

Fourth year Distance Learning student

Diane.jpg

I have dreamed of going to Israel since I was 15 years old. Thanks to the Intercultural Immersion program of WTS, that dream came true in January. Led by our guides, RCA missionaries Marlin and Sally Vis, our group of jet-lagged—but excited—seminarians left the plane in Tel Aviv, donned warmer clothes, and hit the ground running.

For the next several days, we trekked to and through as many sites as the weather and practical logistics would allow, both in the Galilee region and in and around Jerusalem. Eagerly and intentionally absorbing the view from the hill, the unevenness of the ground, the cold of the stone, the beauty of the architecture, the undeniability of the ancient Roman power, we were consistently challenged to think what that culture brings to biblical teaching, to remember that knowledge of Jesus and the gospel must carry in it a deep understanding of Jesus’ humanity and the culture in which he lived.

I cannot adequately explain the different feel of the land. There is a continuity we touched momentarily through the stones and ruins that inform millennia of culture and conflict. We felt it when we climbed to the caves in Mt. Arbel and heard the story of the slaughter there. We saw it in B’et She’an, with its Greek-influenced layout and immensity, a foreign template for power demanding recognition. We saw it at Herodium, the five-story palace fortress looming from its perch just outside Bethlehem. We saw it in the wall and checkpoints and red tile roofs of Jewish settlements sprawling down the mountains in the West Bank. We heard it in the voices of the people we met and grew to love.

Israel 7.jpg

Our first night in Jerusalem marked a shift of focus from the past to the present and future. In those next few days, we traveled to the West Bank to Hebron, guided by a hospitable, gentle Muslim woman, experiencing more freedom in our movement than she was allowed.

We toured Yad Veshem (the Holocaust memorial) while winding through Israeli military training groups. We listened to the heart-wrenching stories of Muslim and Jewish daughters killed by the enemy, saw first-hand the non-violent resistance of Palestinian Christians at the Tent of Nations farm, visited a settlement, meeting with two Jewish settlers, attended a lecture by Dr. Salim Munayer at Bethlehem Bible College, and were welcomed into the homes of Palestinian Christian families, who shared their stories of life in this land of occupation.

Western media falls short in giving us the whole picture. Consistently, we heard this plea: “Tell our story. Come back. Bring people with you.”

The politics are harsh. The fear is palpable. It is easy to claim sole ownership of a connection to the land, to assign blame, to take sides. While governments stake out political positions, individual Americans are free—free to seek peace, not merely cease-fire, to join hands with any and all who seek justice. We cannot fix the problems or force solutions, but can walk alongside, lift up, and do the work of Jesus in his homeland.

I hope to return someday and bring friends along to meet the people and learn their stories. Meanwhile, I will keep listening to the stories, the living history of the land. Regardless of whether I am able to return, the cycle of power and oppression, wealth and poverty played out over thousands of years in Israel/Palestine serves as a clarion call to address injustice wherever it is met, whether that is in the Middle East or the American Midwest. We are called to do the work of Jesus in our own homeland as well.

In recent years, the seminary became aware that our students’ debt load was increasing, but we didn’t know the scope of the problem nor did we have personnel available to focus on the issue. Through the generosity of Lilly Foundation, Inc., we have been able to direct resources toward delving into the complex issue of student debt, and for that we are grateful.

Western Theological Seminary is one of 67 theological schools in the USA to receive $250,000 over three years from Lilly to examine and strengthen financial and educational practices with the goal of improving the economic well-being and financial literacy of future ministerial leaders.

Jeff Munroe, V.P. of Operations and Advancement, and Carla Capotosto, who has been responsible for marketing/communications efforts at WTS for the last 15 years, are heading the student debt initiative. The lessons Carla learned while navigating her own life circumstances have given her a passion to help students in this area. She and Jeff both want students to experience the freedom that comes with careful fiscal management.

Western is using the funds from Lilly to research the scope and systemic nature of student debt, provide financial counseling and economic education to our students, and explore creative partnerships with undergraduate institutions to lower the cost of a seminary education.

Already a clear picture has emerged by studying the debt loads of our last three graduating classes and our current Master of Divinity and Master of Arts students.

Consistently, one-third of students are either completely debt free or have not taken on seminary debt. This is cause to celebrate! The middle third are carrying debt that will be manageable on their expected salaries (with careful budgeting). The last third are looking like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress with huge loads on their backs, making every step difficult. We don’t know each situation, but from a distance their debt looks unmanageable and certainly like something that will affect their future home life and their ministries.

So what kind of salary can M.Div. graduates expect as they consider debt load? The starting salary including housing allowance for a first year pastor of an RCA church (with less than 250 people) begins at $42,291 in one classis and averages around $53,500 across the country. Ideally, a student without resources for additional household income would keep his or her debt under $37,000.

The sidebar to the right gives the approximate cost of seminary. It is important to note that without donors contributing to the work of the seminary and defraying the total cost of education, we would need to charge over $30,000 a year in tuition per student.

Western is also pleased to be able to offer lower tuition rates than our peer seminaries.

The issues surrounding student debt are complicated, but we are starting with some basics. In addition to helping our students become more aware of the implications of debt, we have added financial literacy training to the curriculum, starting with our junior in-residence class. The first class was held in January and covered topics such as cash flow, budgeting, insurance, investing, etc.

finance class 2 web.jpg

Other workshops are being created for middlers and seniors that focus on topics such as clergy taxes and church administration. We are also offering financial counseling to students.

The seminary is revisiting our financial aid policies, we are doubling our efforts to solicit private scholarships from donors, and other ideas are in the works.

We welcome your feedback: carlap@westernsem.edu

The Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan lets seminary students live alongside those with cognitive disabilities.

In 2007, the Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House at Western Theological Seminary became the first seminary housing of its kind. Friendship House is a pod-style apartment complex where 18 students live alongside six young adults with cognitive disabilities, and the partnership has led to astounding results.

Friendship House gives the six Friends an opportunity to live independently and work in the community, while the seminarians get the opportunity to learn what it means to live alongside someone with a disability. We at Western Theological Seminary would be diminished without the presence of our Friendship House Friends. They have enriched the lives of seminarians and given us a deeper appreciation of all people and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.

In 2018, the six “founding” Friends graduated. They transitioned to new living arrangements and have made room for new Friends to come live at the house. New Friendship House Director Carlos Thompson will be living at Friendship House and serving on the faculty of WTS as a Nouwen Fellow for 2018-2020.

The Friendship House has inspired other seminaries to create similar communities. Duke Divinity School started their own Friendship House in 2013, which was followed by others at Vanderbilt and George Fox University, another in Fayetteville, NC and soon, one at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Click play to hear about Friendship House from those who know it best:

With the upcoming release of his new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ, Dr. J. Todd Billings reminisces on how the community at Western Theological Seminary supported him during some of his darkest days. Dr. Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at WTS.

To order Dr. Billings’s new book, please visit The Sacred Page bookstore at WTS.

To hear more from Dr. Billings about Rejoicing in Lament, please visit our Vimeo page.

One of the things that makes WTS distinctive is how we teach Hebrew. Learning Hebrew doesn’t have to give you an ulcer. It can be fun and formative, and at WTS it is both!

Distance Learning through WTS fits all sorts of schedules and lifestyles — just look at Jordan and Jason White. These brothers take classes online from their homes in New York, but when they’re not studying, Jordan and Jason serve at their church and spend time at the brewery that Jordan runs. Listen in as the White brothers talk about how their seminary studies connect them with their work, church, and each other.

Jeffrey Hubers, a Master of Divinity degree graduate at Western Theological Seminary, had an an internship at Riverview Reformed Church in Yankton, South Dakota.

The internship that M.Div. student Jeffrey Hubers had at Riverview Reformed Church in Yankton, South Dakota was no summer vacation—but the relationships he made and the ways he experienced God’s love will affect him forever.

Jeffrey had been excited about the preaching aspect of his internship but intimidated by the idea of pastoral care.

“I was being handed an entire congregation—yes, it was small, 100 people—but suddenly I was responsible for them,” he explains. “I was called to love and serve and give my life to these people—even if it was just for three months—that’s huge. But God is so faithful, and that really is the theme of my summer.”

Within those short months, Jeffrey performed two funerals and comforted a family who lost their son in an automobile accident. As challenging as his internship was, Jeffrey says it has given him a passion for pastoral care, which he wouldn’t trade for the world.

About three weeks into his time in Yankton, Jeffrey met an elderly woman who was battling cancer. As he was visiting with her and her husband at the hospital, the doctor came in and asked, “Is this a good time?” The couple nodded toward Jeffrey and said, “It’s okay. He’s our pastor.” Then the doctor told them that she had fought hard, but the fight was done.

“Everything changed in that moment,” Jeffrey recalls. “I didn’t have any words… No one tells you what it’s like when someone faces death. What do you do? So I read some scripture—I read Psalm 23, and I was crying because my heart was broken.”

During those moments, Jeffrey prayed that God would help him to be calm and give him a voice for the people whom he had grown to love, and God answered.

“God is not absent from us in our sorrow. God is with us, our Emmanuel, and that was a beautiful thing to experience. It was such a privilege for me to be able to enter this family’s life at such a time,” he says.

Jeffrey took on the role of head pastor while Riverview’s pastor was on sabbatical. Because one of the pastor’s normal roles was as the chaplain for Yankton’s fire department, Jeffrey served there as well.

When a 27-year old man was killed after rolling his car, Jeffrey accompanied the deputy fire chief to break the news to the man’s family.

Again, Jeffrey prayed that God would give him the right words to comfort the family. He prayed with them that peace would eventually come into their lives.

In addition to some grim periods of the summer, Jeffrey also had a lot of fun.

He got to work with the youth group and prepare them for “Rocky Mountain High,” an RCA retreat that takes place in Colorado every three years.

He remembers going to the retreat when he was young and the impact it had on his own faith. When the students returned, he asked them to lead worship and share about their experiences in front of the whole church.

“These youth, these brothers and sisters in Christ, are not the future of the church—they are the church now. And they are on fire for Christ,” he told the congregation.

Now that he’s back in Holland, Jeffrey has returned to serving at North Holland Reformed Church as his teaching church. His experience in Yankton has continued to have an effect on his seminary studies as well as his service at North Holland.

“I’ve tasted what it’s like to be loved by people and to be loved by God so completely that I just want that to be the guiding point for where my life will go,” he says.  “People died. People got sick. Real life happened. How do I live that out now at North Holland? How do I live out this faith that I’m learning more about? How do I truly profess Christ as Lord of my whole life?”

Jeffrey is staying open minded to wherever God calls him. He has a year and a half left in seminary, but says that he’s in “a gray area” when it comes to what’s next.

“I could go anywhere because it’s a big world, and I have lived in just a tiny piece of it,” he explains. “I know that wherever I’m at, God is there.”