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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.

So what does it mean for Buddhists to be trained in a Christian seminary?

And how do they come in and really kind of help us [Union] to stretch our muscles and move beyond the walls of the way we've been thinking about theological education? It's profound.

So it's just this very interesting kind of confluence of so many different things going on at Union, which I mean, we kind of always have been a little bit––what's the word–– “out of the norm”. We have always been a little bit different.

So it's not like saying that this is where it is going for everybody, but for Union, we've seen some of these shifts very clearly and that this is what our students are communicating to us.

We're catching up with our students. These are the people who are coming to us for seminary education.

And then we say, wow, okay, if they're coming here to do this, then how do we support them? What does the curriculum need to reflect? How do we offer the courses they need? Who do we need to be in order to be teaching them?

You know those are the questions we have to struggle with.

In addition to that. It’s not like we're leaving behind all the parts we have always had.

The second largest student group we have at Union is within the Anglican studies. Students who are being trained to be priests in the Episcopal church. People who are really grounded in their tradition.

And there is the third largest component of our students and those are people who are interested in chaplaincy. Actually, that's probably one of the top vocational interests.

Sandy Hong: Thank you so much for taking us through a little bit of your perspective, and also describing in detail how Union is being responsive to that change.

I'm sure that responsiveness is complex, and so hard to execute because again, even the most progressive institutions have to move in very particular ways.

As we’re talking about this rising population of Buddhist students and again, how that path to chaplaincy is not necessarily codified, and as we’re talking about the multiple belongers and the diverse ways of practicing religion, I can’t help but think, isn’t that type of queering norms, that moving beyond the binary, isn’t that what the times are requiring of us now?

It really is kind of curious to me that chaplaincy of all professions is one that's being so highly sought after. And I wonder if it's because chaplaincy actually has such a broad nature, and also maybe because it does have some opportunities to go deep in certain traditions, but also wide in terms of how it's practiced and expressed.

Chaplaincy Innovation Lab is one of our ecosystem partners, and we value that relationship so much because of the symbiosis between how chaplaincy is being practiced and how certain faith and spiritual leaders are leveraging entrepreneurial and innovative models to create new expressions of ministry.

I wonder if you also feel that spiritual entrepreneurship is also being embraced at Union?

Dr. Su Yon Pak: Well, I’d love to talk about the word ‘entrepreneurship’ on it’s own, and it's been used very creatively.

Because we think about the entrepreneur as someone who goes out on a limb, doing some project they thought of, taking a great risk. And there's the American spirit about the whole idea of entrepreneurship, right? It’s touted as someone who just has that willpower and the connection, they have a great idea, and then the means to make it work.

I have a little issue with the word. It means “to take”. It speaks to the extractivist notion of entrepreneurship. That you have to extract resources in order to make money.

But what if it was about giving, instead of extracting, right? So what if we thought about the risk-taking to create something that we offer? Not for our own gain.

[Today] We are so much about extracting everything, natural resources, people's knowledge, particularly indigenous people's wisdom and religion, and for whose benefit right?

So if we're talking about the kind of spirit of the word which is to say that we're not just doing what we are used to doing, which is to train students to be clergy.

Now the way we do “church”, and I put that in the quotation, has also changed, and how we create a community, and the way people gather has also changed. For example, St. Lydia's is the dinner church in Brooklyn. What they saw was a need that their congregants in their 30s were not going to church on Sundays. The church wasn't speaking to them. What they needed was a family or community.

So they started gathering to have meals together, not to set meals together, but to cook together. So when you come to this dinner church, you are given an apron and some tools, and you start cooking. You cook together, then you eat together, and then you study Bible text and sing, and then you clean up, and then you go home.

So even in the church ecosystem, we're seeing these various different forms of how people are gathering and finding meaning, and finding community and finding belonging.

I see a lot of our students who are interested in houses of worship really thinking about what different forms are needed here, and how can I serve the people who are not here.

I see a lot of new forms of gathering led by and for the queer community, for example. Many LGBTQ+ people have been burned and harmed by churches, but they still want to have a spiritual connection. They want a community. They want to be spiritually fed and connected, where they can be themselves and belong.

You know these things are happening, and there are so many other examples, right?

There are spiritual groups that focus on feeding the homeless, and that's what they do, and that's their version of having “church” right?

I mean, there are just various different ways that things are happening. People are sharing a deep desire to connect to spiritual life but have concerns about institutional commitments and institutional baggage. You know they don't want to take that in, and yet, how do people connect? And where are these groups that we can form?

So there are these spaces that are extremely generative with so many different ways that these expressions take hold.

If I look at the Buddhist communities, they're really getting into their practice and they want, you know, like, Brooklyn Zen Center, as an example, a few years ago, they built this monastery because they want to have this monastic training.

It's not just meditation, because I want to be calm, and you know it's less about it is for you personally, it’s more about, the creation of a just society, right so these are tradition-specific places that are really looking outward into the world. And to say: this is what we need. It’s time.

These are some examples that our students have been involved in terms of field sites. These are our partners that help us to think through what our education should be, how we could support the work they're doing, and what do they need to know.

What do the students need to know if they want to do this kind of innovative ministry? Broadly speaking, what do they need to be learning while they are in seminary? This rethinking of seminary education is so very exciting.

Our students are just so attuned. They have their tentacles out! They are the ones that really lead away. And I'm just following what they're doing. I mean, their creativity and their sense of being connected to all that's out there is just amazing. And my job as an educator is to support them, to do that, and to legitimate their interests and to figure out how we can make this happen.

Sandy Hong: I'm so glad that you brought up historical notions of entrepreneurship and innovation, looking at figures like Steve Jobs for example, and having that be almost the meme for what an entrepreneur needs to look, sound, and be like. And again, finding opportunities to complicate that image by challenging “entrepreneurship” to be instead about taking greater risks to bring about good, to create impact in areas of deep need, like your example of the ways “church” is changing to meet the needs of community and belonging.

And I think something that just continues to sit with me with everything that's been said in our conversation is about how the forces at play in the world, our realities are informing the ways that we're moving and changing to adapt to these needs. Social justice movements have paved the way for so many of us to be bolder about what we're asking for, and it's empowering to know that whether it's through an entrepreneurial lens, whether it's through artistic or cultural organizing lens, a social justice lens, things are moving and we’re not asking for permission.

And how important it is, then, for there to be a change, a transformation, for institutions to also take less of a position of permission granting. And instead, be the backers, right?

Dr. Su Yon Pak: Right. We're not a gatekeeper. We shouldn't be gatekeepers.

Sandy Hong: This conversation has just been so inspiring, and I hope it will be for many others.

Maybe the last question I have for us today is centered on legacy faith-rooted institutions or faith leaders who are kind of at a crossroads themselves about where they may go next.

A recent statistic from Barna describes how more and more faith leaders are leaving the pulpit. These faith leaders may be questioning where they might take their gifts and calling next.

What do you think is important for leaders leaving the pulpit to really understand about this next generation of faith-rooted leaders coming out of seminaries, like Union?

Dr. Su Yon Pak: Perhaps the first thing I should name about this generation of seminary students is that –– and I’m speaking more from the perspective of students at Union –– there is this general distrust and suspicion of institutions.

And again I'm sort of generalizing, but we have to regain the trust of people who've been disenfranchised and harmed by institutions for us to have a say in their lives. This is not a given.

We have to prove that we are here, not here for the propagation of ourselves and the institution, making sure it survives for the sake of itself. We have to disrupt and interrupt that to say institutions are not here for self-preservation. It is here to support the work that needs to be done.

So I think yeah, I think that's about gaining trust.

Finally, the hunger for connection and belonging is so present, and the way in which that is expressing itself is beautiful.

Here's the other thing, there needs to be more education about each of the traditions.And this is the danger of multiple belonging–that we are appropriating religious traditions, without giving what it’s due for all the richness that it is.

I mean, Yoga is one prime example. Even mindfulness is another example.

I don't know if you read the book, Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi by Sophia Rose Arjana,

She makes a powerful argument about how everything is up for consumption.

Religion, particularly Asian religions, are not for consumption. These orientalist notions that these are things that we could extract from, take and own, sell and buy. So that's a cautionary voice to say, the capitalist instinct is so present in all of us that we just want to consume, consume, consume these practices. There's got to be education so that we are accountable to the traditions and communities that hold these traditions.

Sandy Hong: This caution, I think, is absolutely valid and critical. I'm just thinking about the body of knowledge that we really want to integrate now in the way that we're interacting with the sacred and with ourselves and one another. Our realities are demanding something else than what has been institutionally named, as the path.

I think I'm still just left with the holy, sacred work of being responsive to what is actually here, and I'm just so grateful that there are people like you who, have been leading and taking a huge part of the shift we are seeing in seminary education.

You've been doing this, and been observing this and witnessing this, and being in it, learning yourself, and so thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, and what you're seeing. Thank you so much. Dr. Pak!

Dr. Su Yon Pak: Thank you. It was a joy. It was delightful! Thank you.

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