Think Theological Education is just for pastors? That ministry is only done from the pulpit? Think again! Check out amazing alum Rev. Laura M. Cheifetz and see how she proves that #MinistryStillMatters.
Who benefits from theological education? Who should our writing and teaching serve? If the Church is serious about having an informed and empowered laity as well as clergy, then the answer to both those questions should be “everyone!”
This, however, goes against a widely-accepted-as-truth myth that seminary, and all adjacent readings and publications, should only be geared towards scholars and pastors. According to this myth, “ministry” has a narrow definition, applied specifically to pastors, priests, and chaplains. Rev. Laura Mariko Cheifetz (MDiv ‘05) feels called to bust this particular myth, and has worked to educate all kinds of ministers and disciples ever since graduating from McCormick. “I love that we…are focused on the importance of being a learned group of people,” she says. “Everyone is called to study, learn, and apply knowledge.”
In her first position, Laura worked at McCormick Theological Seminary to coordinate the Asian American Discipleship for Vocational Empowerment, Nurture, and Transformation (AADVENT) initiative (funded by the Lilly Endowment), which sought to cultivate theological reflection and spiritual discipline as part of discipleship for the diverse Asian-American Christian community.
She brought together Asian-American youth, young people, and pastors for conferences and workshops centered around faith and racial identity formation. The conferences fostered long-standing relationships and networks between attendees, some of whom went on to seminary and some who pursued other careers. “The point was to integrate Asian-American and Christian identities, and to think about ministry broadly.”
Formation and education became the focus of Laura’s ministry, and central to her understanding of her call. After five years with the AADVENT Project (which became the Common Ground Project), Laura moved on to work for the Fund for Theological Education (now the Forum for Theological Exploration; FTE). “I started working out with alumni network development, formation of new pastors, that sort of thing.” Although the position envisioned a more traditional approach to education and leadership development (i.e., workshops and reading material), Laura found that teasing out community wisdom and sparking dialogue was a much better method. She facilitated conversations, networked between different voices, and arranged conversations between people who wouldn’t otherwise have crossed paths. This led to her work with a diverse network of clergy and other faith leaders thinking innovatively about theological education and ministry formation.
In her dedication to education, Laura has also developed materials for congregational discernment and development, specifically around social justice and discipleship. During her time at AADVENT, Laura co-authored a curriculum for congregations and faith leaders for racial justice in faith communities with Jessica Vazquez Torres. A History of Racism in the United States pulled together a conversation of professors, students, and staff members at McCormick who had done research on the topic. “It was very user-friendly, and was meant to help churches discern what they could do to advance racial justice, particularly White Churches.” These studies have been updated and collected for a new book due out in 2016, Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds. “The curricula had a much longer shelf life than we initially thought it would,” Laura says. The updated material will include reflections on the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2013, Laura joined the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s publishing entity (the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, PPC) becoming the Vice President of Church and Public Relations. “I’m the person who goes and talks to churches about what they want and need in terms of education.” Laura provides them with resources that already exist and helps the PCUSA discern what to publish to best serve faith communities and leaders. The position is a great fit for her, “I love books! I really do, I feel like most of us who went to seminary are pretty nerdy.” Her current ministry allows her to promote that nerdiness in the wider church, and to foster the love of learning in all kinds of people and communities. “I love that I get to look at and serve a broader context [than one denomination]. I like being able to interact with so many different kinds of people; I’m always learning.”
The Rev. Laura Mariko Cheifetz is a double pastors’ kid of Japanese and white Jewish descent born in California, and raised in Oregon and Washington. After stints in New York City (Presbyterian United Nations Office), Chicago (McCormick Theological Seminary), San Francisco (pastoral internship), and Atlanta (The Forum for Theological Exploration), she now lives in Louisville and works as the Vice President of Church & Public Relations for the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She co-edited a book named Church On Purpose and has written various articles and chapters for publication. Laura blogs at churchrelations.blogspot.com. She enjoys food, friends, her dogs, bad pop music, and television marathons.
You can follow her on Twitter @lmcheifetz, and on her blog.