COLUMBIA, SC — The students in Bill Mitchams Grief and Loss: Hope and Healing counseling class have yet to amass the kind of wisdom and experience that years of pastoral counseling will yield, but already they have discovered that a quiet presence in times of trial can be as powerful as the spoken word.
Sometimes you think you have to have all the words, said Corwin Scriven who is earning a master of divinity degree at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. But sometimes just our presence, handing them a tissue, giving them a hug, gives them a lot of comfort.
Scriven and his fellow students are headed to the ministry, to become pastors or military chaplains. But come January, the seminary, now merged with Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina, will offer a masters in counseling program for non-ministerial students as well. Both institutions are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Mitcham heads the program, which still awaits final approval from government and accrediting bodies. The seminary plans to offer two classes on its campus in January. They can be taken for credit or as an audit to gain new skills. The classes will lead to a masters degree from Lenoir-Rhyne, and can be applied toward the universitys Advanced Certification in Counseling from a Christian Perspective.
I tell my students they will do more counseling than they can imagine, Mitcham said.
Brandon Whitehurst, a seminary student who already pastors the Little River Baptist Church in Newberry, has found that advice to be true. Ive discovered counseling takes place even when you are not aware of it, said Whitehurst, who is from Greenville. A lot of people just want someone to listen to them. Having an attentive ear makes all the difference.
Mitcham, who taught at Lenoir-Rhyne before retiring to Columbia and is now back as an adjunct professor, said he believes the counseling program will attract a number of non-seminary students, many of whom may seek second careers.
Child, Individual and Family Development, an overview of the developmental approach to counseling, will begin Jan. 29, and will be held from 4-5:15 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the semester. Emphasis will be on the major theories of development, including stages of faith development.
A second course, Counseling Techniques and Practicum, will be offered 7-8:15 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and will focus on skills that are essential to provide effective counseling and pastoral counseling to individuals. Courses will be available to current seminary students and will be credited toward the three graduate degrees offered by the seminary.
Andrew Boozer, the universitys director of enrollment services center and communications, expects the masters program to gain approval as early as next summer.
The Lutheran seminary, on North Main Street in Columbia, officially came under the auspices of Lenoir-Rhyne in July. The university in Hickory, N.C., also operates a new Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville.
Such mergers are part of a growing trend among ELCA seminaries, as these small Christian institutions struggle to maintain academic integrity and a full roster of students and programs, Boozer said. At least two other seminaries are involved in such talks, he said.
The trend is to find partners, whether another independent seminary or a college or university where you can gain some synergies, Boozer said. It is hard to keep a full-scale campus for 108 students.
The Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, which had already opened its doors to those of other Protestant faiths, has its own identity and its own degree program, although it has no president.
But the merger has not been without its pain.
Three tenured professors, Mary Havens, Robert Hawkins and David Yeago, were let go. An online petition that garnered nearly 300 names and a wealth of comments attested to the sadness the merger engendered among some seminary alumni.
We have lost three dedicated, beloved faculty members who are outstanding in their field and central to the formation of students for pastoral ministry, the online petition read. Drs. Havens, Hawkins and Yeago are gifted teachers, faithful Christians and dedicated to the whole church. Their loss represents a fundamental shift in the direction of the Seminary and the theological education it will be able to provide in the future.
Boozer said that sense of grief was natural given the historical connections each institution had created through the years. But he said accrediting agencies have been on campus and indicated the merger is progressing smoothly.
Boozer said once the masters in counseling program is up and running, the seminary will look to add other programs that can stand alone or integrate with seminary classes, leading to the blending of two different student populations.