The 2018-2019 academic year marks the fortieth anniversary of Candler School of Theology’s international exchange program with Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, Germany. Since 1978, nearly 80 theology students from both Candler and Göttingen have experienced seminary life on the opposite side of the ocean, returning home with broader theological knowledge, international perspectives on Christianity and culture, clarity around vocational call, and deep friendships—not to mention a marriage or two. Supported and nurtured by the late Theodore H. Runyon Jr., former professor of systematic theology, and his wife, Cindy, the exchange has made its mark on more than a generation of global thought leaders in the church and the academy, and will continue to do so for years to come.

Ted Runyon (second from right) in Germany in 1953.The exchange is sponsored in part by the Theodore H. Runyon Sr. Scholarship Fund, named for Runyon’s father, a United Methodist minister from Wisconsin. Runyon first visited Germany in 1953, spending the summer at a Quaker work camp. After graduating from Drew Theological School in 1955, he and Cindy moved to Göttingen, where he undertook his doctoral studies as a Fulbright Scholar. After he completed his degree, the Runyons moved to Atlanta where Ted became a professor of systematic theology at Candler in 1958.

Two decades later, Runyon was instrumental in founding the exchange program between Candler and Göttingen. Until his death in 2017, he and Cindy offered hospitality and a home base for German students who came through the program. “Ted saw to it that the program wasn’t forgotten. He invited every German student to our home,” Cindy Runyon recalls. “I don’t think we missed any unless we were out of the country ourselves, right up until the very end.”

Transatlantic Transformations

Speer during her year in Atlanta.Elisabeth Ostermeier Speer was the first Göttingen student to attend Candler, in 1978. Along with courses taught by Noel Erskine and James Fowler, Speer recalls her experience in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) as being particularly formative.

“I was impressed by the spiritual life at Candler,” she says. “In Germany during the 1970s, theological studies were almost entirely marked by intellectual concern. At Emory, I had the chance to experience how theology and life can go together, and how important faith can be in times of illness.” Speer began pastoral ministry in 1986, and has served in a clinical setting for the last decade, a call that echoes her discoveries at Candler. “I very much appreciated this time in my life, when I met kind and supporting people who enabled me to find my professional way.”

For Wiebke Heine, who came to Candler in 1991, discussion of vocational call in a seminary setting was new. “To talk about vocation was rather frowned upon among German students, or, at least, unusual,” she says. “Our studies were very independent of what we later wanted to do professionally. But at Candler, we met people who already provided for congregations during their studies!”

While talk of future plans may not have been the norm on the other side of the Atlantic, many Candler students in Göttingen have found it to be a space that invites discernment. Professor of Systematic Theology Kendall Soulen 86T says his year in Germany “helped me decide that I wanted to pursue theology as a lifelong career.”

McPhail Ubaldo ice skating with friends in Germany, including Georg Stahlmann.Millie Kim 93C 97T spent the 1995-96 academic year at Göttingen, and admits the transition was difficult. “When winter hit, it was unbearable for this Southern girl. I prayed and prayed to God to help me get out of the rut of depression and existential crisis I was having,” she says. “One Sunday morning, I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Go, find a church!’ Not a booming voice of God, but a gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit.” After hours of unsuccessful searching, Kim suddenly heard a familiar tune. “I followed the sound and walked into the house. A small group was gathered there singing ‘Amazing Grace’—not in German, not in English, but in Korean, my mother tongue. Needless to say, I came home to the U.S., changed my track from MTS to MDiv, and became a Methodist minister.”  

Twenty years after Kim’s holy encounter, Ruth McPhail Ubaldo 17T went to Germany uncertain of what life would bring after she graduated from Candler. One day, as she went on a run through Göttingen, something clicked into place. “I felt this strong invitation to go serve immigrants at the border, and to enter the process for ordained ministry as a deacon in The United Methodist Church. I didn’t expect that invitation to come in that moment—it was so mundane,” she says.

Looking back, McPhail Ubaldo believes God’s call came to her because of the setting. “At Göttingen, everyone worked hard and studied a lot, but they also took time to go for walks just for fun and go to coffee and cake shops. I was surprised that students were doing this and weren’t in the library. It’s a different structure, and that allowed me some space to be listening.”  

Integrating Theory and Practice

Contextual encounters have long anchored Candler’s curriculum, integrating the practical elements of real-world ministry alongside classroom learning. German students who studied at Candler found the program refreshing, in and out of the classroom. Hans-Hermann Tiemann, the second Göttingen student to study at Candler, who was on campus in 1979, says, “To learn about church and community ministries from Luther Smith, to experience the groundbreaking of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center with Vice President Walter Mondale, or to hear church growth expert Peter Wagner tell his exhilarating stories during Ministers’ Week all got me closer to concrete parish reality than most of our German theory.”

Elisabeth Lang (left) traveled to Niagara Falls with Candler student Jiwan Dhaliwal during her year abroad.Wiebke Heine calls her practical ministry experience—then known as Supervised Ministry—the most memorable part of her time at Candler. “I spent it in the soup kitchen of St. Luke’s. The people in my Supervised Ministry group worked next to me there and we had a wonderful time together. Our supervisor was Palmer Temple, from whom I learned a great deal.”

Karen Schepke, the Göttingen exchange student in 1996-97, served at the Open Door Community on Ponce de Leon Avenue, and recalls, “spending the night of Good Friday with a group on the streets of downtown Atlanta, giving out shoes at the shower-line, a fun Halloween party… All of this and much more was engraved in my mind.”

Kira Eiben came to Candler from Germany for the 2015-16 academic year, and completed Contextual Education at the Gateway Center, an organization that works to end homelessness in metro Atlanta. At Gateway, Eiben led an LGBTQ Safe Space group, which she says deeply affected her. “I felt like the impact this group had on my life was so much bigger than any influence I could ever have had. It taught me so much about the cultural context of the U.S., the intersection of not fitting the heteronormative scheme and being homeless.” And, Eiben adds, though she had already been on her ministry journey for several years, “this group helped me find my call more concretely. They showed me what my spiritual gifts are and taught me a great deal about who I am.”

Khalfani Lawson representing Emory in Göttingen.Elisabeth Lang, who studied at Candler during the 2017-18 school year, says that she has wanted to be a pastor since she was 15 years old—but in Germany, the emphasis on the theoretical sometimes got in the way. “I think going to Candler was the right moment for me to be reminded why I actually do this. Candler is amazing when it comes to taking theory into practice, learning something and knowing what you can use it for in your real life and in your job. It definitely changed me.”

For Candler students in Germany, living and learning in a new environment is its own form of Con Ed. Candler alumnus Khalfani Lawson 18T, who studied at Göttingen during the 2016-17 academic year, says that international study was the most rewarding of all his practical ministry experiences. “I considered my journey in Göttingen to be a ‘Contextual Education III’ of sorts that proved to be beneficial beyond measure,” he says. “As an American, it became apparent immediately how often our universities function in a linguistic and intellectual vacuum of sorts. A ‘new’ language and context provides access to a broader world and broader understandings of one’s vocational discernment.” 

Exploring New Topics

While at Candler, Heine took advantage of courses that weren’t offered at Göttingen. “We listened to lectures on black and feminist theology; José Miguez Bonino, who was spending a sabbatical year at Candler, offered courses on liberation theology; and, of course, a lecture by Ted Runyon on John Wesley was not to be missed!”

Dominick Wolff, who came to Candler for the 1998-99 academic year, credits Emory with being the place where “I came of age as a human being as well as a theologian.” The caliber of the faculty was noteworthy: “I still remember the ethics class of Professor Liz Bounds, the lectures of Archbishop Desmond Tutu [then a distinguished visiting professor], and a special course on Jesus in the letters of Paul with Luke Timothy Johnson.”

Stahlmann (back) with his Con Ed I site group.Georg Stahlmann, who attended Candler during the 2016-17 academic year, recalls studying preaching with Associate Professor of Preaching and Ethics Ted Smith, pastoral care with Professor of Pastoral Care and Theology Karen Scheib, and doing his Con Ed I placement at Lee Arrendale State Prison as a chaplain intern. “These experiences especially changed me in many ways,” he says. “Since then, I have had the feeling that I would not only be able to be a pastor, but also that I would love serving as one.”

Stahlmann also cites Laney Professor of Moral Leadership Robert Franklin’s class “Faith and Politics,” which coincided with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with deepening his interest in political observation from a theological-ethical perspective. “My time in the U.S. ignited an ongoing curiosity and will to get in personal contact with individuals of foreign cultures. In my opinion, this is the most low-threshold way to do one’s part in keeping up positive relations between nations in times of growing political tensions.”

Discovering Denominational Diversity

Heine notes that the cultural thinking behind Christian denominations was different from Göttingen to Atlanta as well—when asked what denomination she identified with, “I could only answer ‘Protestant,’ as in Germany we knew Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians only as marginal phenomena of the Protestant Church.”

Björn Fischer, who came to Candler for the 2005-06 year, echoes this shift in thinking. “When I think of my year at Emory, probably the most defining experience was the colorful variety of Christian liturgies found in America. Oftentimes I think of Christmas and Easter, when I attended as many different services in all kinds of churches—Anglican, Baptist, AME, Greek Orthodox, and many more. Religious life at Cannon Chapel remains a lasting memory for me: to see faculty members celebrate faith, each in their denominational tradition, deeply shaped my understanding of living as a Christian in this whole world of various impressive ways to praise God.” 

The Gift of Hospitality

From her year in Atlanta in the early ‘90s, Wiebke Heine says several things still stand out in her mind: “The great warmth with which we were received; everyone was very anxious to make us feel welcome. Then there was the weather. In my memory, the sun was always shining, it was always warm, and the one time in winter when a few snowflakes fell, the whole world stood on its head.”

Georg Stahlmann with the Candler Creation Keepers.Heine also emphasizes the hospitality she received from the broader Atlanta community, especially an older neighbor who invited her and her boyfriend to attend First Baptist Church of Decatur. “The memory of the friendliness and warm atmosphere still remains,” she says, noting that they remained friends with the neighbor until her death. There was also the larger community of international students at Emory, and events with them that “made it possible us to get in touch with people we wouldn't have met otherwise.”

Stahlmann says, “While in Atlanta, I experienced so much hospitality from my classmates for which I am still thankful. They took me everywhere, showed me so many things and taught me the deep joys of ‘y’alling’ and grits. Back in Göttingen, I recommend this exchange as the best that our theology department offers and I hope for many, many German and American students to continue to go abroad in the future.”

The Little Things

The memories of these years abroad differ in the details for every one of the 79 alumni (so far) of the Candler/Göttingen exchange. But it’s clear that the program, which now spans multiple generations, has had a profound impact on each person, from the massive shifts in cultural context to the small moments that continue to resonate decades later.

Dominick Wolff recalls one of those moments that he still keeps close. “During my year at Candler, many books had to be read. And for that, one place became very special for me: a certain tree at the mumbling and burbling creek in the shades of Hahn Woods [on Emory’s campus].” The person who introduced him to this sacred spot? None other than Ted Runyon.

“Sometimes when I think of my readings back then, or when I turn a page in my Greek New Testament, I can hear a distinctive burbling, soft and low, and refreshing.” Wolff says two decades later. “Thank you, Candler! And thank you, Ted!”  

Read more from Candler/Göttingen exchange participants through the years:
Wiebke Heine, 1991-92
Dominick Wolff, 1998-99
Gabriele Albrecht (1997-98) and Wallace Bubar (1998-99)
Björn Fischer, 2005-06
Kira Eiben, 2015-16
Ruth McPhail Ubaldo, 2015-16
Khalfani Lawson, 2016-17
Georg Stahlmann,
2016-17
Jiwan Dhaliwal, 2018-19

Video: Jiwan Dhaliwal and Elisabeth Lang talk about their experiences studying at Göttingen and Candler, including the friendship they've formed.

Story photos courtesy of Cindy Runyon, Elisabeth Ostermeier Speer, Ruth McPhail Ubaldo, Jiwan Dhaliwal, Khalfani Lawson, and Georg Stahlmann.