by April L. Bogle
Ann Lister is promoting racial understanding. Stacey Harwell is revitalizing a church on the brink of closing. Ben Gosden is learning the power of listening. Jad and Shelly Denmark are following their call to seminary while parenting three young children. Gretchen Van Ess is working for safe water in Haiti.
Emory University's Candler School of Theology is sharing these and other real-life stories of students, alumni and faculty as part of a major new marketing campaign designed to highlight the school's distinctions, particularly the "realness" of its community and approach to theological education.
"At Candler, we prepare real people to make a real difference in the real world," says Jan Love, Dean and Professor of Christianity and World Politics. "Our student body is richly diverse, and our faculty is revered for its distinguished scholarship and service to the church. That combination gives our graduates the broad perspective and real-life experience they need to face the challenges of ministry in the 21st century."
The "Real" campaign is designed to attract the attention of millennials and second-career boomers who want to do their part to improve the world of the church and global society in general. It features dramatic, "real-life" photos of people making a difference, along with brief stories about each person's success.
"We hope students recognize themselves in these photos and stories, feel a connection, and realize Candler is the place for them to be transformed into multi-dimensional Christian leaders who put faith and love into action," says Love.
It's no secret that there's stiff competition for students in these times of declining mainline Protestant denominational affiliation and seminary enrollment. Yet a new kind of Christian faithful is emerging, and Candler hopes this group will be especially attracted to its "Real" campaign. These "Next Christians," as author Gabe Lyons calls them, "evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Orthodox and others of all ages," want to know more about how to intermingle their faith with the wider world, and how to approach cultures and people who aren't Christian.
Sari Lynn Brown fits the profile. An anthropology and religion double major at Marlboro College in Vermont, she has served as a missionary for the Bolivian Methodist Evangelical Church and wants to attend seminary so that she can be a pastor in Latino ministries, where she can address gender equality and other social justice issues in the church.
Brown heard about Candler from a pastor in her community and requested information be mailed to her. The first item she received was Candler's viewbook, which features dramatic photos and stories and is designed to give prospective students a first impression of the school beyond the website, one they could hold in their hands.
"I opened it up and began crying as I turned every page," she says, still in disbelief three months later. "I said to myself, 'Why are you crying? It's just a promotional thing from a school!' It affected me so positively that I realized intuitively that there's something special about this place."
What moved her were the stories she still recalls: the Candler community gathered for the Eucharist, the Denmark family playing on campus between classes, and students working with mentally challenged parishioners at Holy Comforter church in Atlanta.
Brown applied to Candler and was selected to attend Leadership Candler, a three-day scholarship event for top notch applicants held in late February, after which Candler offered her a prestigious Woodruff Scholarship. She had applied to four other schools but said "Yes!" to Candler.
"I really liked Candler's application process. It showed their emphasis on academic rigor, and they've presented themselves as holistic and encompassing of the whole person. I sense a vibrant involvement in the real world and a strong commitment to diversity," Brown says.
The viewbook Brown received, as well as postcards, electronic materials and a redesign of Candler's website, were part of "Real" Phase 1, timed with Candler's 2011-2012 recruitment period. Early results are positive: not only is there an increase in applications for Candler's Master of Divinity Program compared to a year ago, the school's admissions officers are reporting positive feedback from their recruiting road trips.
"A student came up to me after an information session and pointed to the 'We're Certain' page of the viewbook, saying it spoke to him," says the Reverend Richard M. Landers, Associate Director of Admissions and Recruitment. The page contains the statement, "Students who flourish at Candler School of Theology are generally not the 'I'm certain' type. One thing they are certain about is their calling to join a Christian community."
Continues Landers, "As the son of a pastor currently discerning a call of his own, the student read this as a welcome sign he could find room at Candler to figure out his vocation."
In addition, Landers says that several applicants have incorporated some of the campaign's language and ideas. "The fact that they used messages from the 'Real' campaign shows that it invited them into a conversation with Candler that they could relate to, and it provided inspiration for them as they crafted their application submissions," he says.
The campaign's second phase launches spring and summer of 2011 in the form of ads in major religion outlets and "Real" stories in denominational media, targeting audiences who refer students to Candler or help fund its programs.
Dee Shelnutt, chairman of Candler's alumni board and senior pastor of Johns Creek United Methodist Church, says the campaign is "wonderful" in part because it is unique among seminaries. "I think Candler is really onto something with this approach. I haven't seen anything like it in the materials I receive from other seminaries."
The story of Jad and Shelly Denmark particularly resonated with Shelnutt because he has two clergy couples in his church. "It's expensive to go to seminary, and Candler making it possible for a husband and wife to both attend is just great," he said, adding that he is trying to convince his congregation to start a scholarship fund for students interested in attending Candler.
"Real" was inspired by the stories faculty, staff and students shared during the campaign's marketing research phase: what they hoped to do with their lives, why they chose Candler, and how Candler is preparing them for ministry with tangible positive impact. From all walks of life -- some 50 denominations, 20 countries, numerous ethnicities, ages ranging from 23 to nearly 70, and a wide span of socio-economic backgrounds -- these people all had one thing in common: their desire to contribute in a meaningful way to the world. This authenticity prompted the school's new branding theme, "Candler Prepares Real People to Make a Real Difference in the Real World," and the creation of six key messages (Real People, Real Commitment, Real Dialogue, Real Possibilities, Real Change, and Real International Engagement) that are supported by a series of "Real" stories.
Reverend Stacey Harwell (MDiv '10) is an example of a "Real Change" story. As Minister of Community Building at Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, GA, a church on the brink of closing its doors a few years ago, she is helping to rejuvenate her church and her community -- starting a co-op grocery store to increase access to healthy food in the neighborhood, offering church space for on-site computer classes, creating a Hispanic/Latino advocacy group, and working with local education and business partners to make other quality-of-life improvements.
"I will be forever grateful to Candler for giving me the confidence, the vision, the tools, and the language to do what God called me to do," she says.