Learning that lasts starts on “the edge of your own incompetence.” Dr. Ellen Marmon, Professor of Christian Discipleship, learned that phrase from her mentor while she completed her Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky. Now as the director of Asbury Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry Program, she weaves that philosophy into the D.Min. experience. The three-year applied doctoral degree program creates opportunities for participants to develop the humble posture of learner and embrace a season of intentional academic and spiritual formation.
“Discipleship is more than what you memorize, and we’re not just brains on a stick,” she said, referencing author James Smith.
Discipleship starts by recognizing a soul gap, a need to know more about God and experience God authentically. It’s a whole body experience that embraces a lifelong, intentional journey with God and others. As she tells her classes, there’s no surefire discipleship program, but there are practices and dispositions that are essential to spiritual growth.
“We’ve been focusing on the means of grace this year at Asbury Seminary, and those are historically tried and true practices–prayer, really being in God’s word, worship, the spiritual disciplines, being with believers, serving people in our community outside of the local church—these all open up room for God to really do his work,” she said.
Most of the students in the D.Min. Program have completed their M.Div. and have at least three years (usually more) of ministry experience. With high competencies and leadership capacities, it’s unusual for these women and men to encounter something completely unfamiliar, like a five chapter dissertation.
“But I actually tie this into discipleship because this is where researching and writing a dissertation will become part of their own discipleship experience. At what other time are we more aware of our need for God than when we have bumped into the end of our own ingenuity, and we don’t know what’s on the other side?” she said. “I mean that’s basically where you start discipleship, especially with adults.”
As director of the program, Dr. Marmon does her share of academic and administrative tasks, but her role is also pastoral. She and her team have found that ministry leaders are often isolated and long for shared experiences that they don’t have to organize, but in which they just participate.
“We’re really committed to students’ academic rigor,” she said. “But if the students haven’t changed as men and women of God, by the time the experience is over, then we feel like we failed completely. So we just try to create really fertile spaces. And then we’ve seen it over and over again, how God uses that space.”
In addition to attending classes, researching and writing, students must also participate in a Legacy Group, or small group, experience with others in their cohort. Within the Legacy Group, students meet with other like-minded leaders to reflect on specific issues such as worship, classes, dissertations, their own relationship with Jesus, and physical, mental and emotional health, to name a few.
Before Dr. Marmon guided others on their faith journey at the Seminary, she actively participated in her church’s discipleship ministry. She moved to Lexington, Ky., after undergrad and joined Centenary United Methodist Church. The church had a significant focus on prayer, scripture reading, discipleship classes and learning more about the Holy Spirit. Dr. Marmon fully engaged and when the Christian education director left, the senior pastor invited Dr. Marmon to lead adult ministries, part-time.
“I literally went home that weekend, and I had a little think,” she said. “I thought, well, I love my church. I’ve always loved grownups, and I love learning. So, my big theological conclusion was, I’ll give it a shot.”
In less than a year, she was the full-time pastor of adult discipleship. She earned her M.A. in Christian education while working full-time at Centenary, and she joined the Seminary faculty full-time in 2005, after also completing her Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky. She still attends Centenary, but now in a civilian role, volunteering to substitute teach Sunday School classes, directing traffic in the parking lot, and often participating in memorial services for the saints who influenced her faith walk so much when she first arrived in Lexington.
This year’s D.Min. cohorts include Spiritual Direction for Ministry Leaders, Organizational Leadership, Missional Leadership in the Sacramental Tradition, and Preaching and Leading (both in Wilmore and Orlando). To learn more about the Doctor of Ministry program, visit asbury.to/dmin.
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