A Covenantal Community of Alumni/ae
Left to right, front row: Len Tang, Lynne Faris Blessing, Elizabeth Gibbs-Zehnder, Brandi Wolfe Drake; back row: Nancy Moomaw Goodwin, Scott Palmbush, Cindy Frost, Roger Dermody, Craig Goodwin, Paul Yeager, Mark Swaner, Joelle Beller. Not pictured: Dan Hoffman, Steve Steele, Ellen Steele, Matt Russell, Doug Satre, Pam King.
Last month, 14 Fuller alumni/ae gathered at the Pasadena campus to sing, pray, break bread, and reflect on another year of life and ministry. Members of the Fuller Covenant Group--a collection of MDiv students from the 1990s--may come from homes and workplaces sprawled across the West Coast and beyond, but their commitment to each other brings them back to the seminary each year for four days of sharing, book discussion, and dialogue with a selected Fuller professor.
Brandi Wolfe Drake (MDiv '96) and Len Tang (MDiv '96) founded the Covenant Group shortly after graduating. "I believe our group as a whole believes we had a rich community life during our time at Fuller, and that was part of what we wanted to recapture with the formation of this group," says member Joelle Beller (MDiv '99), a minister at Pasadena's Knox Presbyterian Church. As students, most of the alumni/ae had been united by their membership in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and all had a significant connection to someone else in the group. Today many serve in church ministry, but members also include a hospice chaplain, a pastoral counselor, a Fuller professor, and a non-profit organizer.
Though a formal covenant has never been written, the group has devoted itself to staying in touch through email and conference calls in addition to meeting annually at Fuller. The exact shape of the meetings has changed since the group's beginnings, says Beller, as scheduling and logistical challenges have made it harder to include married members' families. The core components, however, remain the same: time to foster deep, transformational relationships and a continuing education element. At gatherings, members ask each other about their personal growth, spiritual influences, and most joyful and challenging ministry experiences of the past year. This year, one afternoon was spent in conversation with Ryan Bolger, Fuller professor of church in contemporary culture, and another discussing the book Surprised By Hope by Anglican bishop N. T. Wright.
"I cannot emphasize enough how much this group means to me," says Beller. The hectic nature of their lives in ministry sometimes threatens regular communication, and, in the Fuller tradition, difficult conversations and diverse opinions have been a part of their journey. However, for Beller, the benefits have far outweighed the costs. "I am constantly renewed and reshaped when I am with these people," she says. It is also a community of support during trials: in Beller's case, the Covenant Group walked with her after the very premature birth of her twins, one of them significantly disabled.
Bert Jacklitch, associate director of Alumni/ae and Church Relations, notes the distinctive role of this self-organized group and sees its members' annual return to Pasadena as an opportunity for today's Fuller community and alumni/ae to continue learning from each other. "This is a group that, from my perspective, is a great model for our current students--to take time to develop friendships while they're here as students that will carry into the workplace," she says.
Beller also encourages those who have already graduated that it's not too late to get started--she hopes more alumni/ae will form groups that nurture spiritual and professional growth. "My mentor always would say, 'Community or die.' This group has solidified that statement for me as a reality."