An upcoming three-day conference at Emory University will celebrate 15 years of Emory’s Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology. The “Practical Matters Conference” to be held March 22-24 is by invitation only, but a panel discussion on March 23 on the practices of vibrant faith communities featuring Abdullah Antepli, Diana Butler Bass, Brian McLaren, and Robert M. Franklin Jr. will be open to the public. Learn more about the public panel discussion.

Supported by a multi-year, multi-million-dollar grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology is a partnership between Emory’s Candler School of Theology and the Graduate Division of Religion of Emory’s Laney Graduate School that responds to the question, “Who will prepare the next generation of ministers?” In answer, the Initiative focuses on educating a new generation of teachers and researchers—those who will prepare future ministers—in the academic fields of practical theology, strengthening their ability to understand and engage with religious practices no matter what subject they teach across the range of theological disciplines.

According to the Initiative’s website, the term “practical theology” focuses on religious practices or patterns of action sustained over time by religious communities. Seminaries and theological schools teach areas of religious practices, such as worship and liturgy, preaching, religious education, mission, and pastoral care, in addition to the expected courses in Scripture, theology, history, and sociology of religion. The Initiative helps to ensure that those who teach across the theology curriculum become thoughtful scholars who understand the importance of religious practices for living communities of faith.

“The purpose of this collaboration is to help religion PhD graduates at Emory be better able to teach the next generation of leaders of religious communities and faith-based organizations,” says L. Edward Phillips, associate professor of worship and liturgical theology at Candler and coordinator of the Initiative. “These scholars will be the ones educating students in seminaries and theological schools across the country, and we want to be sure they are well-versed in teaching practical theology with integrity.”

The program appears to be working. Since launching, the Initiative has recruited up to seven Emory doctoral students each year—92 in all—who have taken on an additional set of requirements in order to study the practices of faith communities in tandem with their primary PhD studies.

The Practical Matters Conference

Phillips says the upcoming conference will engage the work of the Initiative’s “very productive” students, alumni, and post-doctoral fellows—including those now on faculty at Emory—along with major voices from America’s wide-ranging religious landscape.

Those major voices will be featured in Friday morning’s panel discussion “Practices of Vibrant Faith Communities,” the only conference session open to the public. Participants include Abdullah Antepli, chief representative of Muslim affairs at Duke University and an activist for multi-faith engagement, Diana Butler Bass, noted scholar of American religion and culture, Brian McLaren, a leader of the emerging church movement in Christianity, and Robert M. Franklin, Jr., Candler’s James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership, who will moderate. The event will be from 8:30-10:00 a.m. in Emory’s William R. Cannon Chapel, and is free with no registration required.

Candler faculty members Jennifer Ayres, associate professor of religious education, and Gregory Ellison II, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling, will present at the opening conference session, and Ted A. Smith, associate professor of preaching and ethics, will facilitate a workshop on teaching practices. Other speakers include GDR alumni Amy Levad of the University of St. Thomas, Katherine Turpin of Iliff School of Theology, and Brendan Ozawa-de Silva of Emory. Lilly Endowment’s Vice President for Religion Christopher L. Coble will serve as keynote speaker during the conference.

Two other members of the Candler faculty will facilitate conference sessions that explore how scholars of religious practices and practical theology can engage the wider world. Elizabeth Corrie, director of the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) and associate professor in the practice of youth education and peacebuilding, will speak about the work of YTI. Associate Professor of Christian Ethics Elizabeth Bounds directs and will present on the Certificate of Theological Studies program for incarcerated women at Lee Arrendale State Prison. The Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology has collaborated with both programs.

The Practical Matters Conference is sponsored by the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology at Emory University, Candler School of Theology, and Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, with generous support from the Lilly Endowment Inc.