Hope College and Western Theological Seminary have established a “3-2” pastor-preparation program that will provide specialized training for ministering to underserved communities.

The new “Vita Scholars Program” (“Vita” is Latin for “Life”) will enable students to graduate both from Hope with a Bachelor of Arts degree and from the seminary with a Master of Divinity degree after a total of five years instead of the usual seven. It’s a model described as “3-2” or “accelerated degree” because it involves completing a four-year bachelor’s in three years and three-year M.Div. in two.  The program will also emphasize preparing the participants especially for ministry in rural and urban settings.

“We’re excited to be partnering with Western Theological Seminary on this innovative program, which will prepare students to serve the communities that have a need and hunger for pastoral care,” said Dr. Stephen Maiullo, who is interim dean for the arts and humanities at Hope — and who as a professor of Greek will also be teaching in the program. “The curriculum provides opportunities for students to understand the circumstances of people who are different from them — people working in the fields and factories, on construction sites and in offices — so that the Vita Scholars can serve them more effectively all while easing the financial burden associated with earning a bachelor’s and a master’s.  The program provides a path for students whose own circumstances might otherwise make this career seem like a dream they can’t achieve.”

“I am delighted that Hope and WTS have the opportunity to work together on this new initiative. I’m also grateful for the tremendous opportunity that this program provides students to experience exceptional classroom learning across both institutions, intentional mentoring, and transformative work and cohort experiences,” said Dr. Kristen Deede Johnson, who is dean and vice president of academic affairs, and G.W. and Edna Haworth Professor of Educational Ministries and Leadership, at the seminary.  “These students will carry into their ministries a deep sense of the importance of the working lives of their parishioners in ways that draw on the best of the liberal arts and the Reformed tradition.”

The Vita Scholars Program is being directed by Dr. Keith Starkenburg, who is an associate professor of theology at Western Theological Seminary. He has offices at both the seminary and Hope — whose campuses are adjacent to one another — to help provide ready access to students at each location.

The students will be participating in the Vita Scholars Program within cohorts organized around the time of their entrance into the program.  While pursuing their degree from Hope, they will also be taking courses in the seminary’s three-year M.Div. track that will simultaneously meet requirements for their Hope degree.  They’ll remain at Hope for four years and graduate with the rest of their Hope classmates, but as seniors will be taking all of their courses at the seminary.  After graduating with a B.A. from Hope, they’ll have just one year to go at the seminary for their M.Div.

The students will also engage in a variety of cohort-based experiences beyond the classroom throughout the five years, ranging from cohort-based programming designed by Starkenburg, to worship experiences, to co-curricular campus organizations, to related summer employment and church-based internships. “The goal is relational learning that is driven by big-picture theological realities within concrete, day-to-day experiences,” Starkenburg said.

“At first, they will explore a variety of spiritual or devotional practices, learn about the basic storyline of scripture and the church’s history. They will read and discuss contemporary and historic theological readings that address economic dynamics, led by a variety of faculty and pastors,” he said. “They will participate in an undergraduate ethics and economics group led by an economics professor. They will spend two summers working in different contexts, based on their interests and background. For example, they may work in a factory one summer and intern at a marketing agency the following summer. They will interact with frontline workers, managers and other business leaders in guided discussions.”

The Vita Scholars Program started this fall as a pilot initiative with two students. The goal is to begin in earnest with five more students in the fall of 2023, another seven in the fall of 2024 and 12 in the fall of 2025.

It’s the first time that either Hope College or Western Theological Seminary have offered accelerated-degree programs. However, although they are separate institutions, the initiative builds on and benefits from a close relationship and shared history going back more than 170 years.

While drawing students from many faith traditions, both the college and seminary are affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a relationship that began in 1851 with the denomination supporting establishment of the Pioneer School from which Hope and the seminary eventually grew.  Hope was chartered as a College of Liberal Arts by the State of Michigan in 1866, and the seminary was established by the denomination in 1885 based on what had previously been the college’s “Theological Department” for the preparation of ministers.

Hope and Western Theological Seminary jointly sponsor a variety of presentations for each other’s campuses as well as the surrounding community.  Since 2019, the college and seminary have operated the Hope-Western Prison Education Program to provide a Christian liberal arts education to incarcerated men at Muskegon Correctional Facility.

More information about the Vita Scholars Program is available at hope.edu/vita