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Lisa M. Hess, Professor of Practical Theology and Contextual Ministries


My journey of faith at United is indelibly marked by Spirit’s nudges, winks, sometimes outright pushes into unfamiliar but faithful endeavors. One I will highlight here: a sacred vocation in teaching/learning Christian discipleship became, in Spirit’s creativity and tether, something I had never conceived nor imagined: a pathway of Christian discipleship that requires deeply intimate spiritual friendships with those of other traditions, or no tradition at all.

This goes against the popular way of seeing or conceiving religion in our world, I know. Seminaries have shaped today’s leaders of congregations to create silos in our society — Christians for the Christians (like me/us); Rabbinics has done the same for the Jews. It’s not news that religious people gather most easily with “their own.” United is trying something new in the power of the Spirit: learning to become befriended outsiders (even in the host denomination, one could argue!), guests of others’ wisdoms, Christians receiving hospitality and learning humility along the way Jesus invites.

We fail regularly, of course. That’s why it’s called Christian practice. But I find it a most hopeful way of being in a world primed only for ‘what bleeds,’ or conceptually, primed mostly for debate and division.

Contextual Ministries Immersion Experience

This commitment instigates United’s requirement for an Immersion Experience for each Master of Divinity student, intended as a “living lab” of sorts for students to integrate and live into their understandings of being disciples of Jesus in deepening-intimate encounter with a painfully divisive and pluralistic world. The faculty committed us to solely international, and non-European locations, given so many of our students come from smaller-town USA and our curriculum is nearly wholly shaped by Western-European thought and practice. Cuba, South Africa, and Israel/Palestinian Territories were the three options before the pandemic shut down all global travel.

This January 2022, however, 24 students entered into a beautifully crafted, innovatively conceived Virtual Pilgrimage of the Holy Land/Israel/PTs, made possible by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL (the Center for Learning and Leadership) and blessedly, a dear spiritual-friend with whom I have travelled for over a decade now. I was initially unsteady about its legitimacy, whether it would deliver on the curricular goals of the program. But what choice did I have, really? I know we say Spirit’s the One in charge, but what if “it doesn’t work”? Heart in mouth, we began — two rabbis, two Christian teaching-elders, a Jewish educator, and two tour guides (one Jewish, one Palestinian-Christian). We entered into the planning and implementation. You can read more about it here, if you’re curious for detail.


The Virtual Pilgrimage accomplished 85-90% of the curricular goals of the program sequence. Participants came in with a sense of their “model of encounter” from deep study in the theologies of religious pluralism and some engagement with spiritual practices of other wisdom traditions, all held in devotion to Jesus Christ. They began to enter into the sites and spaces — some via GoPro camera, tour-guides on the land itself, and some via videos and additional teaching commentary. The Land began to speak to the participants, inviting them to encounter previously unconscious assumptions about scripture, its interpretation, our shared and conflicted histories across Christian, Rabbinic, Muslim communities. So many assumptions had to shift when seen and heard with the Land as it actually IS, as it could be seen in archaeological evidence, as it became alive in the passions and yearnings of a pilgrim community. Other teaching voices were woven into the mix of the itinerary as well. The teaching team held spaces for the participants’ questions, surprises, challenges, and even weariness. It was a pilgrimage as pilgrimages always are — uncomfortable, unexpected, frustrating, surprising, sacred, communal, intimate, isolating, integrating. What is impossible for us is never impossible for Godde, for those who love Godde. (Godde here is my compromise of feminine-masculine balance in a genderless Divine, broken open by feminist discourse requiring Goddess and silenced by traditionalist insistence upon God. Godde disrupts and reminds that Godde is genderless).


Our world needs religious leaders who can innovate, who can go on pilgrimage together without ever leaving their homes or root traditions. United’s Contextual Ministries curriculum that starts with spiritual formation of Christian leaders in ministry groups concludes with an integrative capstone-like experience that requires synthesis and integration so shaping disciples of Jesus Christ need not be its previously imperialistic, colonial practice. Shaping disciples of Jesus Christ becomes more and more Real, grounded, when leaders can open to, welcome, even befriend more ambiguity and irreconcilable difference within him/herself, on behalf of her/his community of service, toward the Reign of Godde in which these differences will weave the most Grace-filled and Salvific Tapestry any of us could imagine.

I’m glad to be at United, even as I recognize each of us here holds this Sacred Work of shaping Christian leaders quite differently. Precisely as Godde intends.

Final Thoughts

If you are interested in United's Contextual Ministries program, you can find more information here: united.edu/contextual-ministries/

If you have any questions, contact Madeline Henners, Director of Contextual Ministries, at [email protected].

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