Q&A with Northeastern Seminary Vice President and Dean Dr. Douglas Cullum
As a founding faculty member of Northeastern Seminary, Dr. Cullum joined several others to form an alliance with a clear vision for theological education. Nearly 20 years later, Northeastern Seminary’s vision has remained constant, with a bright and promising future: The vision of Northeastern Seminary is to be a vibrant source for Christian theological formation, graduating students who are formed in a biblical vision of gracious Christianity, and impart wholeness to the world in an expansive array of vocations and contexts.
Q. How did Northeastern Seminary begin at Roberts Wesleyan College?
We launched the Seminary in 1998 but had begun work on the idea several years prior. Key players at that time, in terms of administration and getting initiatives rolling, included several of my dear colleagues. Dr. Paul Livermore and Dr.Wayne McCown were two key leaders who fleshed out the initial vision for Northeastern Seminary. Dr. Livermore was the chair of religion and humanities at Roberts Wesleyan College and Dr. Wayne McCown served as professor and former provost. They, along with then President Dr. William Crothers and Provost Dr. John Martin, collaborated with other founding faculty in launching the Seminary.
Q. What was the initial goal for Northeastern Seminary?
Originally, our goal was to meet the need for graduate theological education among the constituents of Roberts Wesleyan College that was becoming increasingly apparent in our region. The goal was not to compete with the other seminaries in Rochester. In fact, there were already two seminaries in Rochester with a long history of service to the region: Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. We found that our niche — the growing evangelical and Wesleyan branch of the church — was less served in the Rochester region, so we saw an opportunity and a space to fill.
Q. What kind of student comes to Northeastern Seminary?
We’ve always marketed to a broad spectrum of individuals. Our niche is nicely summarized in the Seminary’s tagline: deeply rooted, faithfully responsive. We ask ourselves, “How can we immerse ourselves in the rich sources of Christianity, of the faith itself?” We teach our students to be responsive to the world around us. Our goal is that our seminarians are firmly rooted in the rich resources of Christian faith and faithfully engaged in the needs of the world.
Students at Northeastern Seminary are formed so that they might impact the world with wholeness and serve Christ and the church in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes it’s standing at a pulpit and preaching; other times it’s crying with a family who’s lost a loved one, or doing other things in social justice arenas to care for the world. A seminary education in the 21st century is broader than simply preparing those who want to work in the church.
Q. What is unique about Northeastern Seminary?
The average age of a seminarian is 35 across the United States and Canada. Our seminarians generally graduated from college 10-15 years earlier and now have ministry responsibilities, mortgages, jobs and often times multiple dependents. Our program was designed to offer a very classical package of seminary theological education, but with an innovative delivery system — our students complete fully-accredited degree programs but only need to attend class one evening per week.
We proactively seek students from the full spectrum of Christian traditions. They may be Methodists, Baptists, Roman Catholics or even Eastern Orthodox. They are immersed in the most formative primary resources of Christian faith at the same time as they are asked to think about the difference these materials make in order to serve God in today’s world. Those are the students we’re seeking to attract, and they have come.
In an average snapshot of the Seminary, you can see 28-30 different denominations or Christian faith groups represented, so it’s a very diverse group. That diversity is also represented in gender and race and ethnicity. We are very grateful for this. 35% of our student body are women, sometimes more than that. Among the racial and ethnic representation in the student body, approximately 40% are African-American. In this way, Northeastern Seminary is closely reflective of the demographics of the regions we serve. Our purpose is to prepare people for the real world, and the make-up of our student body is effectively that.
Q. How have you seen the Seminary change in the past 18 years?
Our goal has always been to put individuals together in an innovative and creative way. In comparison with other seminaries, we are not very old. We are grateful that after 18 years, we have a fully established Seminary, but we must always remain flexible to meet the needs of the world around us. This DNA of creativity and innovation has always been a part of Northeastern Seminary’s culture.
Q. Where is the Seminary headed?
We have a new strategy map that articulates what we’re focusing on for the next few years, coming out of a very successful 2009-2015 strategic plan. The three major themes of our 2016-2020 Strategy Map are to embody diversity, accentuate relevance and extend impact.
Our goal organizationally is to reflect our regional diversity, not only in our student body, but also in our faculty and staff. We believe if we align our enrollment strategies and curriculum with our diversity goals, the great missional benefit is that we are truly preparing people for multicultural competence in today’s world.
We are engaged in a program review focusing on two questions: “How does our curriculum actually help people serve in the varieties of contexts in the world today?” and “How do we accentuate and make clear the enduring relevance of the Gospel to the needs of the world?”
We think this is going to result in people who are genuinely ready for ministry in the 21st century.
Today, through interactive video capabilities, we teach courses in Rochester that are offered simultaneously in Syracuse, Buffalo and Albany. We are also looking more seriously at high-quality methods of offering fully online and hybrid programs that will extend our impact even further beyond upstate New York.
Q. What does it mean to you, personally and professionally, to be part of the founding team of Northeastern Seminary?
Very few people have the opportunity to be a part of the founding an educational institution. It’s been an exhilarating journey. Being a part of the founding of Northeastern Seminary has been an opportunity to provide solid theological preparation for ministry in a fresh and different way.
Our graduates have found their experience to be truly transformative. At the end of their Seminary journey, graduating students often say, “If you change anything at Northeastern, don’t change the core curriculum and spiritual formation program. These were the most formative pieces of my Seminary experience.”
It’s been very gratifying to be a part of this journey. We aren’t teaching something different. We are doing it in a different way that we think meets the needs of the millennial and postmodern culture.