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Shifts in Seminary Education: A Conversation with Dr. Su Yon Pak

(Image: Wix)

As the American religious landscape has continued to dramatically shift and transform over the last decade and more, there are few other sites more attuned to these changes than on the frontlines of religious and theological education.

Glean Network's Assistant Director, Sandy Hong, sat down with the Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Union Theological Seminary School, Dr. Su Yon Pak, to discuss how seminary education at UTS is responding to the massive changes, and recognizing the many different ways individuals are bringing their call to social justice, service, and spirituality to life.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Sandy Hong: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today, Dr. Pak. For context, I wonder if you could please start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be at Union Theological Seminary.

Dr. Su Yon Pak: Thank you. Well, I suppose, I always like to start with my familial identity. The identity that is most present in my heart is as the grandmother of two amazing granddaughters and the mother of two amazing women. That's how I like to start with locating myself and where my priority lies. And my priority lies with my family, and my partner, and so that's kind of being in this Korean American, queer, interracial relationship, and how we cultivated our blended family over many years. And now, the grandchildren see us as ‘halmoni’ and ‘nonna’! It's just beautiful, how normalized it is. Because our whole family, our extended family, are very supportive through this process. It was hard getting there. It wasn't easy. I won't sugarcoat all that. But it was a challenge worth taking and being faithful to the process.

That's a little bit about myself and in terms of where my heart is.

And then there is work! Which is also a priority. But I always start with this positionality. This is what grounds me. My ancestors, My grandchildren are my grounding. The ones whose love I feel when I walk out the door in the morning.

I am the new VP of Academic Affairs and Dean at Union Theological Seminary. I've been at Union since 1994. I came first as a doctoral student. I finished my doctoral degree in 1999. And I had always looked to Union as a place to study because at the time there was a joint degree with Teacher's College. It no longer exists today, but I always wanted to be in that environment. because I am an educator first, and I always wondered: what does it mean to ‘do education’? Not just in a premiere educational institution; Teacher's College, Columbia University, but also within a premiere theological school and the intersections of both institutions? And so I was very privileged to do my doctorate then and there.

And after I graduated there was a Dean of Students position that had opened up. I had no intention of taking it at first because I thought I would first look for a teaching job. But my family had just moved from Scotland and I just really couldn't think about another move for our children to get an academic job.

So, I tried the position for a year and I kind of fell in love with the work. I stayed for six years. And then the president of UTS at the time asked me if I was interested in development work. I said no. He said I should think about it. So I tried it and did it for another five years. I rose to VP of Advancement at Union. And from there I came to my previous position as the Senior Director of Field Education and became a part of the Faculty. I was in this position for the next 13 years.

And so now I am currently in this position here as Academic Dean. It has been intense but so meaningful.

Theological education is at an inflection point. A lot of schools are closing and merging. And post-COVID it's gotten to be very challenging in terms of how we think about education delivery. The format and platform have changed since COVID and there are a lot of important questions educationally and otherwise that need to be explored. I feel honored to be in this position, in this time of really important transition.

Sandy Hong: Thank you so much for sharing a little bit about yourself, Dr. Pak. It's so wonderful to hear the rich history of how you came to be at Union, and how it has progressed. And it has clearly been a site for such incredible thinking and action to take place.

You've seen UTS go through so many changes. I’d love to hear more about the inflection point you raised earlier. From your perspective, how have the massive shifts and changes in the religious landscape in America, especially post-COVID, been reflected in the massive shifts and changes you see in seminary education?

Dr. Su Yon Pak: The one big shift that we all talk about is the movement away from institutionalized religion to either spiritual but not religious or practicing religion in different ways.

I'm not saying that Americans are less religious, I don't see that. In fact, they're perhaps even more hungry for a connection to spirituality, because they're not going to the places they used to go to, which are the churches, synagogues, and mosques that they used to attend on a regular basis as a way of getting some of that need met. That's not necessarily the place they go to anymore.

At Union, we see this huge influx of students for whom “houses of worship” are not where they're going to, and instead they're exploring elsewhere. Furthermore, perhaps they feel the drive to do some sort of ministry of service. And that opens up a whole host of other conversations about their vocation, and their direction.
And so, what do we need to teach at Union to really support people who are not just going to parish ministries, but something else? Nonprofit leadership, movement chaplains, and chaplaincy, in general, have been on the rise in the last 10 years.

What else I see happening, at least in our school, is, I mean, we talk about this as multiple belonging. Belongers to various different religious traditions. It's not uncommon that you see a Jewish person who's also a practicing Buddhist, for example. There are people who identify as Christian and they are also rediscovering practicing indigenous religions, as another example, because that's their heritage.

I know I do, right? Korean Shamanism is still a part of my practice, although I am Christian and Buddhist.

I mean, some of what is being practiced is new. But I think it's also recognizing that we have always practiced this way, particularly in communities of color.

At Union, we have a huge contingent of Buddhist students coming because we have created a program in Buddhism and Interreligious Engagement. In the US, in order to be a board-certified chaplain, one of the requirements is a degree, usually in theology and ordination/endorsement by a religious entity. . –In order to be ordained in, say Christian or Jewish tradition, one goes to seminary or Rabbinical school. But of course, that's in tandem with the denominations that require a degree from a seminary.

Not all, but most. Some denominations do not have these requirements. But this system works in tandem with religious organizations.

Buddhist are not trained this way. Buddhists are trained monastically, and through their teacher’s lineage. They do not get a degree from school to be a religious leader or a priest. Therefore they don't actually fit into this U.S. model of how to be certified as a chaplain.

So again, we find ourselves in a situation where we must ask ourselves, which religious traditions are not recognized? And so you can go through the system, but it's much harder because it's not streamlined.

At Union, we created a Buddhist track in response to this constraint and to support students who are interested in becoming Buddhist chaplains by offering a degree. And so we had to create this whole area of Buddhist studies at Union, to support this need.

And right now at Union, this is the largest group and fastest growing group. Buddhist students make up one-fifth of our student population.