The History of ETS
Ecumenical Theological Seminary was established in 1980 (as the Ecumenical Theological Center) to respond to the need for theological education in the Detroit metropolitan area. ETS is committed to the city of Detroit as a unique laboratory for ministerial education. ETS has been recognized by its colleagues in theological education as uniquely equipped to prepare individuals to meet the challenges of ministry in urban centers. ETS continues its mission into the 21st century to bring together members of Detroit’s faith communities in an ecumenical learning environment.
The roots of Ecumenical Theological Seminary go back to 1957 when Dr. Reuel Howe, concerned with providing continuing education for ministerial professionals, founded the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies. IAPS was the first ecumenical facility in the nation founded specifically for continuing education for the clergy – a place where persons from different traditions could learn from each other and grow in their own faith. Seminars assisted ministers in focusing on their personal experience and exploring how they actually lived their own theology.
In 1973 Dr. John Biersdorf succeeded Reuel Howe. Biersdorf came to Detroit with a rich background of experience at the National Council of Churches which assisted him in establishing a new focus that emphasized the experience of a life of prayer as the basis and foundation for ministry. Essential to the new expression of mission was the integration of social action with a life of prayer in ministry.
In 1980 IAPS merged with the Ecumenical Theological Center. This new organization was founded as an association of schools and other kindred institutions to develop and enhance the educational resources for ministry regionally, and to foster ecumenical cooperation and service.
The next 15 years brought the achievement of many academic milestones for the institution. The State of Michigan formally chartered the Doctor of Ministry program. The Cooperative Master of Divinity program was born through the affiliation with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois in 1988.
In 1992 Dr. David Swink succeeded Dr. Biersdorf and initiated programs that solidified the infrastructure of the Center, including the funding of the John E. Biersdorf Library and establishment of the ETS Endowment Fund which is held by the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan.
The Urban Ministry Diploma Program began in 1994 as the result of the project of an ETS doctoral student, Rev. Kenneth Harris, who served as its director for six years. Originally called the Diploma in Christian Ministry (DCM), the program was intended for clergy and lay persons who desired a seminary-type educational experience that would ordinarily be out of their reach. The program has evolved over the years, and its new name, the Urban Ministry Diploma Program, better reflects the focus of the program. Also in 1994, the official name of the organization was changed to the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in order to better reflect the changing role the institution was assuming in the leadership of theological education.
Dr. V. Bruce Rigdon became president in 1997 and led ETS to become an Associate Member Institution of the Association of Theological Schools, the first step toward full academic accreditation.
In 2002 the Presbytery of Detroit voted to give to ETS the building, land, and endowments of the First Presbyterian Church, which had been its leased home for 10 years.
In 2003, ETS applied for, and received, a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence grant from the Lilly Endowment. The proposed program was directed at those seasoned in the work of ministry, and was aimed at giving them the tools to sustain the work in which they were engaged. That program commenced in fall 2004 and was completed in July, 2010, having nurtured four groups of ministers each through a three-year cycle. The program was so successful that each of the groups has decided to keep in contact, some groups meeting twice yearly, to continue the support and sharing of insights that was so valuable to them. In 2009, the Seminary was encouraged by the Lilly Endowment to write a new grant incorporating “best practices” from the previous program into the Masters level programs.
In July, 2006 Dr. Marsha Foster Boyd became president of ETS, having served on the ATS staff for seven years. During her years at the Seminary she has strengthened the Board membership, launched the Everyone Eats Program (a meal program for hungry and homeless people in the neighborhood) and established the Institute for Urban Initiatives (IUI), a 501(c)(3) organization to help secure funding for future projects and program development (cf. Standard 2, p. 8). She has provided strong leadership for the continuation of current academic programs, for the addition of the Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry and the Muslim Chaplaincy Programs and for moving the Seminary from years of deficit spending to balancing its budget. For over fifty years this organization has been providing high quality theological education in the metro Detroit area. Dr. Boyd retired in July 2013, and now holds the President Emeritus status.
The seminary continued to evolve in the summer of 2014 when the seminary welcomed Dr. Stephen Butler Murray as President. Previously he had served as the chaplain of Endicott College, Skidmore College, and Suffolk University. He also served as pastor for American Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ congregations in Massachusetts and New York. He was attracted to ETS because of its unique standing in the academic world and looks forward to the future ETS has in the renewal of Detroit.
2016 continued to be a busy year in the life of the seminary. ETS was visited by our accrediting body, ATS, and our accreditation was renewed for another 5 years. In addition, ETS partnered with Wayne State University to provide our students with access to WSU’s first-class library. With a wealth of research opportunities now available in both WSU’s physical library locations and their vast online databases, ETS students have the world at their fingertips.
In September of 2017 the Rev. Dr. Kenneth E. Harris became the sixth President of ETS. No stranger to ETS, Dr. Harris has a long and distinguished history with ETS, beginning as a graduate of the Doctor of Ministry Program in 1996. Before this new appointment, Dr. Harris was Professor of Biblical Studies and most recently served as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Academic Dean from 2011-2016. During his tenure as Dean, he made some important and timely contributions to the life of ETS including the inauguration of Worship Week which is held three times during the academic year. He also was the catalyst for the new Master of Arts (Academic) degree program. ETS was re-accredited for another five years until 2022.
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth E. Harris was inaugurated as the sixth President of Ecumenical Theological Seminary. A Great Year of Celebrations was planned, including a Praise Celebration and inaugural musical, the Frederick G. Sampson Symposium, and black-tie gala. The ETS Strategic Plan for the years of 2018-2023 is being formulated.