Published February 8, 2007
Spring Hill College of Mobile, Ala., held a dinner Feb. 3 at Holy Spirit Church, the original home of its Atlanta extension program, to celebrate its 10th anniversary of graduate theology programs serving the people of North Georgia.
Holy Spirit’s pastor Msgr. Edward Dillon was also honored for his initiative in bringing Spring Hill, the nation’s fifth oldest Catholic college and third oldest Jesuit institution of higher education, to the burgeoning Atlanta Archdiocese. Deacon Thomas Shuler was also recognized for his efforts to establish the program. So far 58 people have earned a master’s degree in theological studies, and currently 59 students are enrolled there, with a small number now working toward a master of arts degree that requires, beyond the MTS degree, a thesis, additional coursework and an oral exam.
And building on the success at Holy Spirit, in 2006 Spring Hill held its first classes for adults over the age of 23 at its new Gwinnett County campus in Norcross, drawing many busy professionals and parents back to the classroom to finish their bachelor’s degrees through accelerated five-week courses. Others are completing certificate programs in lay ecclesial formation or spirituality to become better church professionals or volunteers in ministries, or to experience personal enrichment.
Located in a brick office park just off of I-85 on Beaver Ruin Road, the Gwinnett site is offering bachelor’s degrees in theology, business, organizational leadership and, at the graduate level with eight-week terms, is offering a master of arts degree in teaching, a master of science in education, and an MBA. Various other graduate and undergraduate certificates are also offered. It has about 25 affiliated faculty members and has already attracted about 50 students—with 25 more entering next term.
Church Professional Pursues Master’s In Theology
Susan Stevenot Sullivan is among the graduate students taking advantage of this Catholic educational resource at Holy Spirit Church. She had been thinking about earning a master’s degree in theology for years but shelved that long-term goal as she raised her three children and reentered the work force as a writer for the St. Vincent de Paul Society and other church-related organizations.
But after Spring Hill began the Atlanta extension program, she found that the time and price were right to realize that dream. She has always enjoyed reading literature related to philosophy, theology and spirituality so reentering the classroom and digesting theology books and writing research papers has been a smooth transition and the natural continuation of her personal and professional interests—as well as spiritually enriching. And her studies help her to “connect the dots” and to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the interconnectedness of dogma, liturgy, and various other aspects of Catholicism she has studied for years.
“Since I’m very focused on spirituality, it’s been interesting to see how the history of the church and Christianity and the developing of so many aspects of the framework of the church, from liturgy to dogma, how that all fits together and how that relates to our lives today and my own spirituality,” said the graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati, who majored in chemistry. “I’m always very intellectually curious. I’ve done a lot of reading for my work for the church and church-based organizations. It was just a continuation of that and with being a writer.”
When Sullivan, who now is coordinator of parish and social justice ministry for Catholic Charities of Atlanta, completes her current course on the Pentateuch taught biweekly over six Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., she will be halfway through her program, which she started in the summer of 2005. Teaching the course is Timothy Carmody, Ph.D., director of graduate theology at Spring Hill, which also has extension programs in Birmingham, Ala., and Jackson, Miss.
“It’s really exciting, and I’m thrilled with the quality and flexibility and availability,” Sullivan said. “I had wondered if it would ever be possible (to get a degree before). It is affordable as well.”
Degree Explores All Major Areas Of Theology
The graduate theology program offers five three-credit courses and a summer program each year. It provides a study of all major areas of theology, which are biblical, moral, historical, pastoral and systematic (which embraces philosophy and the dogma of the church) in the Catholic tradition and from an ecumenical perspective. Carmody said that there is a good mix of professionals working in the secular world, and those who find the degree directly applicable to their professional work for the church. In addition to the master of arts and master of theological studies, the program offers a master of pastoral studies degree.
Carmody is pleased with the growth of the Atlanta extension program, which has enabled Spring Hill to add a certificate program in spiritual direction and two summer weeklong Institutes for Christian Spirituality, both held at the Ignatius House Jesuit retreat center on Riverside Drive.
“Right from the beginning we’ve had good participation in terms of many students,” he said in a phone interview before driving up for Saturday’s course. “Atlanta is a big enough market to be able to offer these programs, and it’s continuing to grow and do well.”
He explained that the master’s courses are taught in the Catholic tradition but welcome other perspectives. A course on Buddhism would look at how Christians can relate to it and what it means to them as opposed to taking a more secular, detached approach. Compared to a religious studies program, “theology is from within in terms of ‘what do I believe.’ It’s always done from a faith stance. It’s not looking from the outside but from my own faith experience.”
With his class on the Bible he said students closely examine various texts and learn about which questions to ask, the resources and methodology needed to analyze them, and how to articulate their findings in lucid language. In his class they study the historical context and how the artistry of the literature shapes the theological message of the texts.
Carmody said that the Holy Spirit and Gwinnett campuses plan to gradually work more closely together with more graduate theology classes offered as the need arises in the other site. One graduate theology class on science and religion is now being offered at the Gwinnett site. Both campus programs are fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Most classes meet once a week.
Gwinnett Programs Make Bachelor’s Degree Attainable
Spring Hill Atlanta executive director Suzanne Erickson, Ph.D., is enjoying the challenge of establishing the Gwinnett campus, having first worked out of her home before they found a location in the rapidly growing county.
“It’s an honor to be involved in developing all these programs for the diocese. The response is really overwhelming. People are very, very receptive and eager for this. It’s really been a privilege to offer this program within Atlanta where it’s needed so badly.”
She was surprised that the initial interest was greatest for undergraduate theology, and that several of those students are not Catholic, but work in chaplaincy and other ministry-related professions.
The Gwinnett campus, with the support of the archdiocese, is also offering courses of study geared toward formation programs for parishes, and has also just launched the lay ecclesial ministry formation program, with three undergraduate credits for each of the 10 courses, with topics such as the Old and New Testament, spirituality and prayer, and moral theology. Those in volunteer and paid ministry recommended by their pastor receive a discount.Students completing this program will earn a baccalaureate-level certificate or can apply these credits toward earning a bachelor’s degree with a major in theology. Another program is the 12-credit hour certificate in Christian spirituality, with courses addressing everything from marriage spirituality to ethics and Pauline spirituality. Churches are encouraged to contact her about hosting courses. In addition, the school is offering various one-day workshops in pastoral formation on topics including methodology, parish administration skills, supervision skills, leadership and law for ministry.
Erickson, who previously taught corporate finance for 17 years at a Jesuit university in Seattle, believes that Spring Hill’s theology bachelor’s degree and certificate programs are ideal ways for those in professional or volunteer ministries in the archdiocese to deepen their knowledge and understanding of their faith and ability to effectively teach or serve others. She noted that the ecclesial formation program provides intellectual formation based on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” and that the USCCB is moving toward requiring more ministry positions, such as directors of religious education, to be filled by those with specified academic qualifications or certification.
In visiting many parishes to discuss members’ interests, she has found that “many of the people in staff positions in parishes have no background in theology and there’s a need for theology training more basic than at Holy Spirit.”
Erickson said that the school has consulted with Regis University in Denver, which has extensive experience in serving the adult learner, and that professors facilitate more than lecture, which enables students to dialogue more about texts and bring life experiences into the classroom. Students prepare for classes with copious outside reading and paper-writing rather than traditional testing. “It’s very much active learning.”
All Atlanta courses are developed in the main 177-year-old campus in Mobile, ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 15 best Southern colleges.
She said many students at the Gwinnett campus already have some college credits, and this time around are much more focused.
“Five-week terms are intense. It makes a lot of work for them outside of class, but they see the light at the end of the tunnel. We offer nine semesters a year. It makes it achievable,” she said. In consulting on the five-week terms, “everybody told us this is the way you’ve got to go.”
She is proud of the Jesuit tradition, which challenges students to apply their education not to get the highest paying job but to make the world a better place.
“It’s rigorous. We pride ourselves on rigor and teaching students to think critically and also trying to use education for a greater good. That’s been a tradition for 450 years,” she said. “The faculty, I’ve found, embrace that mission and are excited” to participate in it, she said, adding that all of those teaching at the graduate level have doctorates.
She explained that the school’s master of science in education degree is for those already certified as teachers, and the master of art in teaching is for those seeking certification. Both are for elementary education. They also offer an online master of science in nursing degree.
Natalie Walker, 24, is among those earning a certification degree in education. She is a University of Georgia graduate who majored in psychology and minored in child and family development. She now is a teacher’s assistant at Christ the King School and finds it manageable to work and take one class at a time. These classes “really get me to think more, and it’s not just memorizing information. It’s great for learning.”
She recalled one class on spirituality and vocation where she reflected in writing and research on her vocation and career goals. She likes the Catholic environment and her current class is taught by the principal of Queen of Angels School.
A Jewish theology undergraduate, Jeffrey Greenberg, 24, already has studied theology in Israel but enrolled in the Spring Hill bachelor’s of theology program while working as a crisis counselor at a hospital, as he hopes to one day open a nonprofit holistic center to provide life coaching for people in crisis. He appreciates the “very, very open-minded atmosphere” and that he is able to freely share his Jewish perspective in classes and in his papers while learning theology from the Catholic perspective.
Undergraduate Mother Studies Alongside Four Children
As more churches collaborate with Spring Hill, St. Brendan’s Church in Cumming is now hosting the new ecclesial formation program taught by Father Tim Gadziala. Their director of faith formation, Alan McGill, reports that they have 18 students, three of whom are staff members, at the weekly class held from 6 to 10 p.m. He is excited to see this “badly needed” educational resource become available, and believes that the Vatican II course is a great way to start as it challenges students to learn about so many other aspects of Catholicism.
“The people have been so enthusiastic about it. News has spread around the parish and it’s likely to lead to more enrollment next time,” said McGill. He encourages other parishes to become involved, too. “St. Brendan’s has embraced this opportunity and we see this as a watershed in development of adult faith formation in the archdiocese.”
One student in that class is mother of four Lisa Dunn, who calls instructor Father Gadziala “brilliant.” Dunn had earned an associate’s degree but once she married and had children she never finished the coursework needed for a bachelor’s degree. For years she wanted to return to school and was accepted at the University of Georgia and Georgia State University, but hesitated to start a program with classes three times a week. Then she walked into Spring Hill’s Gwinnett campus and met with Erickson who did a “degree audit” of her credits.
“I walked in and sat down with Suzanne, and we went over a plan of study and a degree audit. (I knew) it was meant to be. This is what I’m meant to do,” she said. She’s now working to earn her bachelor’s in theology, while also getting the ecclesial formation certification. She may also work toward her teaching certification, as she currently volunteers as a middle school catechist at St. Lawrence Church.
“I was wanting to finish my college degree that I started—wink, wink—awhile back. It’s been some time. I just couldn’t see me going to the University of Georgia where I’d be stuck in an ancient literature class that I didn’t want to study,” she said in a phone interview while driving to pick up her children from school. “It all clicked for me. I’m really happy with the program and the instructors she hired are fantastic. I’m getting to know people from around the archdiocese.”
She added that she was reluctant to take one class on contemporary moral issues and ended up loving it and got “all fired up about the servant aspect of our faith in a way I hadn’t been previously,” she said. “It’s challenging but manageable. … It’s rewarding too because I’m having to look outside the box to get answers I need, and I’m passionate about what I’m studying so it works for me.”
So now she holds family study sessions.
“I’m really, truly where I’m supposed to be and I’m very thankful for that and the kids are thankful I’m not gone four nights a week. It’s a lot easier when mommy’s in charge,” she said. “This one’s doing math and this one’s doing English. … We all sit down and do our homework together. It’s difficult, but it works for us.”
Robert Rivers, director of liturgy and adult faith formation at St. John Neumann Church, Lilburn, is teaching a Theology 101 Scripture overview course this semester, a requirement for all students working toward the bachelor’s degree. He enjoys the collaborative classroom environment to help students better learn and grow, where he lectures and leads discussion and students make presentations, discuss in small groups and write several papers.
“I get to go about it in many different ways. They learn with their eyes and ears and speaking and listening to others. What makes it go very well is they are all very committed and they have to be committed to come here three to four hours once a week and then do all the required work week to week. It’s a big commitment. They certainly have a sense of accomplishment.”
“I can appreciate that commitment very well because frequently their home and work life is very busy and with lots of demands on them and I do teach, but it’s a team approach and we find we get through it together.”
He noted how the more one learns the faith the better one can appreciate the mystery of Christ in the church. And “the more I learn the more I can appreciate the sacraments or the role of Scripture in the life of the church. Education is from the Latin word that means to lead. We’re all leading and being led. You can think of learning as growing. It’s not just about the intellect but the entire person growing.”
As students introduced themselves in his first class, one man explained that he had entered the work force before completing college, but enrolled now to set an example for his son who said he wanted to skip college. One woman was getting the last credits she needed to graduate from another college, while another young man who already holds a bachelor’s from Georgia Tech had enrolled to learn more about his faith for ministry in the Vietnamese community.
Rivers, in his opening class, provided an overview of Old Testament history from the exodus from Egypt to the united kingdom of Israel, to the split and the fall of the north in 722 B.C., to the Assyrians and the south in 587 B.C., to the Babylonians, before the Persians and then the Greeks conquered Babylon before the Romans. The Greek culture remained a strong influence, he said, and the New Testament was written in Greek.
“Certainly we see the Old Testament as inspired, but our focus is on the Gospel and we see everything in light of Christ,” he told students, noting how the church is the spiritual Noah’s ark carrying the saved through the world despite the floods, and how baptism is a spiritual Passover from death to life.
Graduate Students Savor Scripture, Deepen Faith
Back at the graduate theology campus at Holy Spirit, Cullen Larson recalled how he introduced himself in his first class explaining that he was there in order to qualify for a pay cut—as his hope is to work for the church. The 55-year-old had attended seminary years ago but came to view celibacy and the priesthood as two different callings and eventually married. So he became a lawyer and later became executive director of the Georgia Economic Developers Association, but he still felt called to serve the church. A few years ago the idea crystallized in his mind to serve as a layman full-time for a church in a rural area that has difficulty staffing a priest; however, he believes he would need a master’s degree.
“The Spring Hill program is excellent. They have a depth of faculty and the fact that we have so many in the Atlanta area that are interested and working on degrees in theology is nothing but good news for the Atlanta diocese. The program is very high quality,” he said. “I’d encourage anyone with an interest. I’d highly recommend it. We’re lucky to be one of the cities in which Spring Hill has an extension program.”
Having previously studied philosophy and theology, “I had a point of comparison. At the graduate level it’s been an experience both of continuity and challenge because it’s been awhile ago.”
He loves studying Scripture and learning more about its different types of literature—from poetry to history to law book—to the history and the context in which books were written and their intended audiences. He’s also very interested in social justice theology and at his parish has taught on principles of Catholic social teaching.
His classmate, John Bott, retired in 2001 after about 30 years working at United Parcel Service, and began working toward the master of theology degree in 2002, the same year he completed a master of science in technology management at Mercer University. Now 64, he also volunteers as a computer teacher at two senior centers, and, along with his wife, teaches fifth-graders at St. Brigid Church in Alpharetta and substitute teaches for religion classes at Holy Redeemer School.
He finds Spring Hill’s Saturday class schedule “very convenient” and added that the program allows for two classes to be taken elsewhere, which enabled him to take two “wonderful” classes one summer at the University of Notre Dame.
Before he retired he had been training others in a “corporate university” for professional development at UPS so it was also an easy transition back into the classroom. Throughout his career he stayed involved at church as a lector, in the choir and on the parish council. But now he’s glad to peruse Scripture and understand more deeply how the Old Testament covenant with the Jews reveals God’s involvement with mankind throughout history. Now Bible reading is part of his daily routine. “Now I see a very loving, involved God who is always there to help us through life.”
He completed his master of theological studies degree in 2004 but “got hooked” and decided to keep working on for his master of arts in theology, and is even contemplating pursuing a doctorate in theology at another school after that. He loves learning about his faith and applying his knowledge through teaching, having found that children can ask very sincere and intelligent questions that challenge him to think quickly and respond articulately.
“My primary goal is to be a better catechist. I enjoy working with young people, and I’d like to get more involved with adults,” said Bott. Furthermore, “I enjoy going to school. I like the classroom interaction between professors and students and the challenge of doing papers and I want to keep mentally active.”