CHICAGO — A Chicago seminary plans to pioneer a new way to train clergy in the context of many faiths other than their own.
Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Hyde Park, Ill., hopes to join Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant institutions to train clergy together, including offering some shared courses where there is common ground. Andover Newton Theological School, a United Church of Christ seminary in the Boston area, is the only partner so far.
Leaders say the interreligious approach heralds the future of theological education and could save financially strapped seminaries nationwide.
"We live in an era when religious tribalism affects us every day," said the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. "We need to learn to appreciate the traditions out of which we come and to live in an atmosphere of acceptance that goes way beyond tolerance. A seminary like this can help lead the way."
Claremont School of Theology, a historically Methodist seminary in California, announced last month that it would add clerical training for Muslims and Jews to its curriculum this fall. Meadville Lombard and Andover Newton estimate it will take about a year to roll out its multifaith vision.
Although there are other seminaries that accept students of multiple faiths — Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park offers a master's in theology with a concentration on interfaith dialogue — the new model is part of an effort to train students who will go on to serve as clergy of their own religious communities in the context of a diverse religious landscape.
It also demonstrates a growing awareness of the role religious differences play in global diplomacy.
"The world is really shrinking and fracturing around religion," said the Rev. Lee Barker, president of Meadville Lombard, who will become a senior executive of the new "theological university."
The multifaith model presents uncharted territory for denominations, which historically have counted on seminaries to ground students in their particular religious traditions.
For American Muslims who have no institutions in the U.S. to train imams, the model opens a potential pathway for second-generation Muslims who don't want to travel overseas for training but want to lead congregations.
"As long as it's a cooperation with an Islamic institution, I think it would be very good," said Mohamad Nasir, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, whose organization is developing guidelines and educational recommendations for aspiring imams in the Chicago area. "We do live in a multifaith society. Our religious leaders have to be able to relate and communicate with other faiths."
The Rev. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton, said the success of the interfaith laboratory hinges on the ability of each faith to be clear about its own identity — a lesson learned from a longtime partnership with a nearby Jewish seminary.
"When we emphasized the difference, we found a greater level of learning occurred and that our graduates were far clearer about their own identity and better prepared to give witness to their faith in a pluralistic world," Carter said.
Carter and others also see the potential for new revenue at a time when seminaries need it most. Many endowments took a hit during the economic downturn, and enrollment has declined. More aspiring clergy are pursuing ministry as a second career after they have families, making relocation for a residential program less realistic.
University of Chicago church historian Martin Marty cautiously commended the venture, saying he hopes leaders find a way to balance the interfaith component with the fundamentals of leading a congregation.
"If they can't do preaching or pastoral care, the fact that they know about Buddhism won't help them much," Marty said. "It's adventuresome. It's daring. It's a good reading of the cultural situation. Pluralism is not some global thing far away. It's down the block everywhere."
Barker expects inevitable conflicts and tension as the program develops. There are, after all, irreconcilable differences between religious traditions on matters such as salvation and the Middle East conflict.
"What we really believe ... is that there's actually more that unites us than separates us," he said. "Our differences are real, but when we go beneath the difference, we're going to be able to lead ... and help our students heal that fractured world."