The Urban Cohort Celebrates 10 Years at GRTS
In 2007, a feasibility group that consisted of local urban pastors, ministry leaders and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary administrators convened to discuss the disparity of seminary-trained ministry professionals in the pulpits of churches located in marginalized and under-resourced areas of Grand Rapids. The team sought to remove barriers for bi-vocational pastors who desired advanced theological training. In response, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary launched the Urban Cohort program for emerging urban ministry leaders in 2008.
"I have fond memories of those original conversations between the administrators of GRTS and a diverse set of urban ministry leaders from Grand Rapids," Dr. John VerBerkmoes, executive vice president for academics and dean of GRTS, said. "Together we explored how GRTS might be more useful in service to the urban ministry leaders of West Michigan. Through this collaborative process, the need was clarified, a shared vision and commitment forged and the model of the Urban Cohort program was crafted. I believe the program has been mutually beneficial, providing a unique educational opportunity for urban ministry leaders and igniting important cultural transformation at GRTS."
For GRTS, it became imperative to onboard new ministry partners to offset program costs for students through scholarships, recruit ministry leaders who could engage courses as soon as possible, ensure admission requirements reflected an inclusive strategy and create flexible degree structures that allowed for rigorous interaction with biblically-based instruction in spiritual formation, Christian social ethics, fiscal stewardship and ministerial and public leadership.
"From the beginning, it was important for potential students to know that the relationship between the church and the academy did not have to be an adversarial one but one of reciprocity," Rev. Dr. Royce Evans, assistant professor of pastoral ministries and executive director of ministry residency and the Urban Cohort program, said. "Ministry leaders could benefit from biblical, theological and ministry competency development and these same students would bring the wealth of their experience, culture and diversity to help the institution develop an awareness of and sensitivity to persons doing ministry in different contexts."
With the support of the Kern Family Foundation, in addition to other corporate and private donors, the first student cohort was comprised of 28 students who represented significant ministry endeavors in the inner city of Grand Rapids.
"Ministry leaders who became our students were impressed by the expertise of faculty in various disciplines accompanied by a transparency that there was a lot to be learned by and from persons on both sides of the podium," Evans said.
Today the Urban Cohort program continues to provide transformational learning opportunities for ministry leaders from Lansing, Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Grand Rapids. The program has served over 250 persons, resulting in 94 master's degrees and six doctoral degree candidates. Currently, there are four enrolled student cohorts in various stages of degree completion.