After nineteen years of serving in instruction and a variety of leadership roles at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry, Rev. Dr. Richard (Dick) Cunningham will be transitioning into retirement.
So much has changed in the past 20 years that it is difficult imagining the distance that existed between Protestant and Catholic educators in the years prior to the founding of Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry. When Dr. Cunningham took a position at the Institute for Theological Studies (ITS), it had a long history of preparing mostly Catholic women and men for ministry. He was not only taking on a complicated job, he was pioneering a new kind of school that brought intentional diversity and difference into the ranks of the faculty in preparation for doing the same thing more dramatically with the student body. Now, almost two decades later, Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry has an international reputation for bringing all kinds of difference under one roof and working with the challenges that occur in any truly diverse group. But, as Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD shares, "It took a special kind of person to take those first steps."
Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD commented on Dr. Cunningham's participation in the school's evolution:?
"The school needed a person who could listen carefully to others, ask relevant and often uncomfortable questions, and especially stay in relationship when difference leads to tension, as it so often can. Dr. Cunningham has been a great faculty colleague and has been a faithful, pastoral presence to the lives of the students he has served. The school is a much better institution because of the time he served here."
We spoke with Dr. Dick (as he is known to his students) this past month about the transition and he shared his heartfelt response:
"Thank you.? These have been absolutely the best years. My teaching is in the moment. I have been able to create a safe place for students to explore their secrets, fears, anxiety and apprehensions, share their doubts, test their faith assumptions and discover their own truth. In many ways I am not looking forward to retirement, as I will miss the interaction with and between the students. They have been my teacher.
I have come to work every day with deep gratitude for my faculty colleagues. They are the best in the business! When the faculty gathers, we come to a table and break open the stuff of life.? We are creative, thoughtful, and engaging. There are some faculty meetings I will not miss, but I know I will greatly miss the interaction, the bonds of respect, solidarity, the dedication to the church and the education of its leadership. Never before have I been part of a group that when conflict arises--we stay in the room. What a gift. We have a competent, engaging staff. They keep the wheels on the school's wagon.? With out them we would not be!? From my point of view they are absolutely the best. They treat each other, faculty and the students with respect and they make the mission of the school work."
We asked Dr. Cunningham about his experience almost two decades ago as the first full-time Protestant faculty member and being a part of the ecumenical intentionality of the school since its inception. He reflected on the experience:
"Since I have been at the school, I have continued to discover the rich history of the church in its various manifestations, some of which has been liberating and healing to the church and society. At the same time, there are eras in human history when the church has been shameful in its struggle for power, leaving humanity scared and disillusioned. No one tradition has the whole truth, however when you center down to engage a faith that does justice, the rich tapestry is visible. It is the students? quest for understanding that is the most exciting as they seek to construct a theology that works for them in the world.
My denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), certainly had formed me as a person concerned about traditions in Christendom working together.? Our history and roots as a tradition are steeped in looking for what unites us rather than what divides us as Christians."
One of the most significant contributions Dr. Cunningham made to the school has been within the Contextual Education area of the school's degree programs. Field education or practicum language has been re-shaped to embody a holistic and multidimensional focus that addresses all areas of the human experience as a part of the learning process. Dr. Mark Hearn will be transitioning into the role of Contextual Education Director, taking the baton from Dr. Gloria Burgess who is serving students in that role currently.