Since our founding in 1844, Meadville Lombard Theological School has played a leadership role in Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism. As a school that educates liberal religious professionals who serve all people in need, our emphasis has always been on the inextricable relationship between the spiritual life and the quest for justice. As such, we have endeavored to maintain an institution that embodies our values and aspirations. In some decades, we have been more successful in that endeavor than others. All in all, we are here today, because our friends and supporters see that—as we engage the larger world—we listen to a variety of voices, try new solutions, learn from our mistakes, and change with the times. Not a day goes by without us feeling deep gratitude for the generations of support we have received.
In our 175 years, we have undergone significant transformations: Meadville Theological School moved from Meadville, Pennsylvania to Chicago in 1926; the Divinity School of Lombard College moved from Galesburg, Illinois, to Chicago in 1912 and merged with Meadville in 1928. And in the past decade, we pulled off what may be the most daring transformation in our history.
Some years ago, shifting trends on the religious landscape began to seriously impact theological education. Since that time, a number of seminaries have merged into larger institutions, others have closed operations completely. Meadville Lombard anticipated the trends and saw them as the expression of a need for a new kind of theological education, one that is attuned to the times, that trains students to become religious leaders with the ability to minister across change and difference. We saw the need for a theological education that placed at its center the ability to build community among people of diverse beliefs, races, cultures, nationalities, and ages. Such an education would take into account the need for students to learn in the context of service, and would provide those opportunities for service and learning in a variety of communities—both domestic and global. In order to meet this need, we took a bold risk and created an innovative educational model. We discontinued the traditional residential program, and committed ourselves to a learning program in which students live and work in cities around the world. They serve in congregations and other faith-based communities, and then travel to our campus in Chicago periodically where they bring their internship experiences into an intensive learning environment. It is almost as if their experiences are like one of their textbooks!
And while we were at it, in order to best serve our students, we also relocated from the campus of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park—our home for 82 years—to downtown Chicago where, while having achieved financial sustainability, we reside in a contemporary LEED-certified building that is appointed with the latest in smart classrooms. Our new location in the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership has also led to educational and administrative partnerships, which we expect to replicate and grow with additional partners in the coming years as we expand our global focus.
This monumental change didn’t come easily, especially for an institution with a long history and cherished traditions. But it was necessary. Along the way, many ideas and plans were tried, and failed. Sometimes, as we felt our way forward, we were met with skepticism within our own community. But we kept the lines of communication open, listened to our community, re-evaluated and revised, and did our best to create a new program that would prepare the leaders the world needed. We gained our community’s trust and that allowed us to make big changes in a relatively short period of time. Now, even as we see other schools following in our steps, we are again reviewing our programs, noting things we have learned, and working on changes we must make now in order to meet the evolving needs of students and the communities they will be serving.
Naturally, our success in the past decade brought us another challenge: living up to the expectations that our supporters have for us, and to the expectations that we have for ourselves. Yet we are confident that we can meet those challenges, because of that steady stream of people who continue to be in our corner. They help us immeasurably—with financial gifts, time, devotion, ideas, and skills—for they see clearly that our graduates make a difference in their own religious and spiritual lives and in the lives of all people who are transformed by their service.
Ours is a story that evolves almost daily—not only because the shape of religious leadership must shift as our world changes, but also because we are continuously learning and transforming to better serve our students, their communities, and the larger world. We intend to stay nimble and continue to evolve, so we can always provide a real-life based education that has intellectual integrity, that is anchored in the values of religious liberalism; that is inclusive and expansive theologically, culturally, and racially; and that is anchored by the intricate link between the quest for justice and the spiritual life. This is how we take our part in making the vision of Beloved Community a reality.
(Below is a photo album we put together for this anniversary. Click on the images to see the uncropped images.)