DMin Project Fosters Close Encounters with Community
When Lyn Pace 02T 17T thinks about community, he returns to Jesus’s words on the subject: Where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them (Matthew 18:20, CEB).
“Two or three people who are responsible for each other,” he says. “That’s my working definition.”
As Oxford College’s chaplain since 2009, Pace has fostered countless opportunities for community among students—certainly more than two or three at a time—on the small two-year campus 40 minutes from Atlanta. But during the fall semester of 2016, he took on a new role: teacher of community.
Pace’s American Studies elective class, “Understanding Community: Oxford Encountering Oxford,” served as his final project as a student in Candler School of Theology’s Doctor of Ministry program. Launched in 2014, the Candler DMin curriculum takes place 90% online, designed with students like Pace in mind. “As someone who’s rapidly approaching the age of 40, I have a family, a child, and a career that I don’t really want to leave,” he says. “Oxford feels like home.”
Candler’s DMin allows students with an MDiv degree and at least three years of professional ministry experience to strengthen the connection between theology and practice while they stay deeply rooted in their ministry contexts. Students make four short visits to campus during the three-year program, and during the rest of the academic year, no matter where they live, they log on to their computers for classes taught by full-time Candler faculty. The state-of-the art video conferencing software the program uses enables the students and teacher to see each other in real time, closely mirroring an in-person class experience.
Pace admits he was skeptical at first. “I’m not a technophobe, but I’m also very much a face-to-face kind of person.” Now, only months away from his second Emory commencement ceremony, he says he’s a big believer in the configuration of Candler’s DMin. “What the online component does for me is create more community. You’re in this structured classroom for the whole semester. Even though it’s on a computer, you get to see people on the screen, hear their voices, see their reactions.” And, he notes, community exists on both academic and personal levels. “There’s time during our classes where we get to check in with each other. Community has really been built for me through the program, and I didn’t know if that was going to happen.”
Not only does the program create community among students, it also puts primary focus on helping them explore the community where their ministry takes place, making that a key element of their academic work. Pace cites his second semester course on engaging local community with Associate Professor in the Practice of Practical Theology David O. Jenkins as being particularly influential. “The class with David moved us toward figuring out the ways in which we engage our particular ministry context with the local community,” he says.
Before Pace began his DMin, he had already been engaged with the local community as a member of Oxford’s city council. His Candler courses only heightened his interest, and helped pave the way for his DMin final project—the dissertation equivalent that students work on throughout their three years, ultimately crafting a ministry practice innovation in their local community.
The original site of Emory University, Oxford the town and Oxford the college “grew up together,” as Pace puts it. Yet he learned early in his DMin research that many Oxford residents didn’t feel connected to the college, and some older residents indicated that had not always been the case. He also discovered that while Oxford students put in thousands of hours of volunteer work each year, barely any did this volunteering in Oxford proper, instead going to Covington, Conyers, or Atlanta. “I thought, ‘Gosh, if residents are looking for a way to be connected, and students aren’t doing anything here, then there’s a real gap.”
Pace wanted to help bridge that gap through his DMin project. The thought of teaching a class came to mind because it could be institutionalized. “If I structure it so that the students have to meet people, and they get credit, then they’re going to do it.”
During the semester, Pace and his 15 students covered three units, each informed by readings, films, field trips, guest speakers, response papers, and class discussions. The first unit explored what community is, and the concepts behind it. The second unit engaged students with the town of Oxford specifically, from its timeline to its racial history and beyond, including visits to city hall and the Oxford Farm (pictured). To further foster this engagement, Pace connected each student with an Oxford community member that they had to interview and record, culminating in a reflection paper about what they learned. Unit three focused on leadership. For their final projects, students chose to work solo or in groups of two or three to create a program aimed at improving town and gown relations that could be feasibly implemented in Oxford.
Even before the semester ended, the course had begun to make a broader impression on the town. During unit two, Pace instructed students to attend an Oxford governing body meeting, take notes, and write a reflection on the experience. Their presence at city council and planning commission meetings did not go unnoticed by locals. “Residents didn’t hesitate to look at the student and say, ‘We don’t hear from students often enough, what do you think about this?’” Pace says. “That, in and of itself, is huge. I think it’s going to be a big win for the community. I’ve already had a city council member approach me and say, ‘I wonder if, in the future, your class might be able to help us as a city engage in some of the pockets of the community where we haven’t been able to.’ It might just give the city its ‘in,’ where we bring everyone into the circle.”
For Pace personally, the opportunity came at a good moment—in his eighth year at Oxford, looking for a fresh way to connect with students. And though he made sure the class itself was not overtly religious, theological significance certainly plays into his final DMin paper reflecting on the experience. “It’s not a religion class, but it does lend itself to being able to talk about how we engage not just community, but meaning and purpose,” he says. “Those are overarching theological goals for me—to help students figure out how they engage this meaning and purpose. I hope this course creates students who might just become lifelong civically engaged people, who, wherever they go, will build community.”
While the class provides an example of how civic engagement can work in any setting, Pace is particularly hopeful that it will serve as a template for churches that want to better understand and engage with their local context. “The class and the interactions between students and residents could be a model for congregations and the communities that surround them. That’s the major theological and missional goal here.”
It’s a goal on the road to being accomplished, thanks to Candler’s innovative DMin curriculum that provides students with the tools to construct projects immediately applicable to their context—projects that others, like Pace’s Oxford undergraduates, can also access in a hands-on way. Students can’t succeed in the program without moving beyond the bubble of academia. It’s this key feature that Pace credits with strengthening his outlook on ministry, and his ministry itself.
“This degree has reaffirmed my commitment to being with people. The work of the church or college or ministry is not to be insular. The work is in being in relationship with the people of the communities in which our ministries are situated. I knew this already and had been doing it—sort of. But Candler’s DMin program gave me the language and gifts to do it well, and to do it now.”
Hear from two of Pace's students on what they learned from "Understanding Community: Oxford Encountering Oxford."
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
Challenge: “Once you learn about something, you expect to be able to apply it, but this is difficult in the world we live in. The more I have learned about community, the more I see the flaws in the system we have built in this country.”
Favorite thought: From Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers: “Apathy is not a mental condition for human beings.”
Final project: “Bringing students into the community through public parks, and building student-friendly study areas in nature.”
Hope for the future: “I have always wanted to start a nonprofit for low-income, minority, and undocumented children. The lessons I have learned from Understanding Community have helped me understand my goals and how to be successful with this aspiration.”
Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Goal for the semester: “I wanted to look seriously at living in community with those we can’t stand, or perhaps, can’t understand.”
Challenge: “Grappling with the vagueness of the concept of community, and wondering if benefits are only truly realized in intentional communities.”
Final project: “Bridging the gaps between separating communities in this area—separations of race, class, and political outlook—by bringing people together with intentionality over food, with the intent to share and record stories.”
Hope for the future: “The course has pushed me into further research of intentional community, and has connected me in significant ways to this little town of Oxford, in which I plan to spend a good bit more time.”