Could Princeton’s Farminary change the culture of theological education?

Aug 24, 2015 by and

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PRINCETON, N.J. — Eight years ago, Nathan Stucky left a Kansas farm to study youth ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. At the time, he never imagined he would become Dr. Nathan Stucky. Even more surprising was this Princeton doctoral graduate’s return to the farm.

Nathan Stucky describes the Farminary project as “exciting, wonderful and terrifying — in a good way.” — Sarah Bixler for MWR

Nathan Stucky describes the Farminary project as “exciting, wonderful and terrifying — in a good way.” — Sarah Bixler for MWR

Stucky grew up on a cattle and wheat farm and attended First Mennonite Church in Pretty Prairie. He worked for local farmers and graduated from Bethel College in North Newton. After serving as youth minister at Holly Grove Mennonite Church on the eastern shore of Maryland, he returned to Kansas to farm again.

For Stucky, farming was about more than just producing food or raising livestock. Something deeply theological drew Stucky to agriculture, offering a way to put his faith into practice. But until he went to seminary, he hadn’t explored these connections or found words for them.

Stucky’s vocational discernment led him to Princeton in 2007 for seminary training in youth ministry. He assumed he had left the farm. But when a doctoral student approached him with an idea about integrating farming and Christian education, a seed was planted.

Stucky, along with his wife, Janel, and their three children, decided to remain in Princeton so he could enter the doctoral program in Christian education.

The seed began to sprout in 2013. Stucky met with his mentor, youth ministry veteran Mark DeVries, who asked him about his dreams. Stucky described a farm where seminary students could work and learn, bringing theological education to life in an agricultural setting. Stucky called this dream “Farminary.”

DeVries’ enthusiasm for the idea gave Stucky confidence to cultivate the Farminary.

Over the next year, he explored places where his sprouting seed might put down roots. Again, a breakthrough came in the spring. Seminary President Craig Barnes called Stucky into his office and unfolded a property survey on his desk.

“We’ve got a farm,” Barnes informed him. Four years earlier, the seminary had purchased a 21-acre farm a few miles from campus for an auxiliary facilities site and potential real estate investment.

The seed grew quickly. A Farminary steering committee helped Stucky form a proposal. As he finished his doctoral program last spring, Stucky accepted the invitation to direct Princeton’s Farminary.

Anabaptist roots

The Farminary has grown from Stucky’s upbringing as a Mennonite on a Kansas farm.

Peppers are part of the summer harvest at the Farminary, testifying that new life can spring from depleted soil. — Sarah Bixler for MWR

Peppers are part of the summer harvest at the Farminary, testifying that new life can spring from depleted soil. — Sarah Bixler for MWR

“I could not be who I am in this position apart from my Anabaptist roots,” he said. The historical Mennonite experience of agrarianism, importance of Christian community and the centrality of Christ influence how Stucky approaches his faith and work.

Rediscovering the values of agrarianism informs current challenges. For example, the Princeton farm was once a sod farm, stripped of its topsoil 25 years ago. Reflecting on this land that was abused by industrial agriculture, Stucky mused, “I wonder to what extent the church is in the same place.”

Kenda Creasy Dean, a Princeton Theological Seminary professor and member of Stucky’s doctoral dissertation committee, has championed the Farminary. She laments the way seminaries have strayed from their origins — after all, seminary means “seedbed.”

Too many have followed the efficiency model of industrial education. Dean hopes the Farminary “will change the culture of theological education.”

The church needs “pastors who are deeply attuned to the ways God coaxes life out of dust,” she said. “We want graduates who will challenge our 24-7 culture of productivity by following a different rhythm governed by seasons and Sabbath, which spare us the anxiety of ‘not getting it all done.’ ”

Humans from the dust

Stucky witnessed this different rhythm when he taught a course last spring on Scripture and food. Many students had never worked in the soil, but they enthusiastically turned sod over by hand to create a garden. Stucky led them in reflecting on the connection between Adam, the first human God created from dust in the biblical account, and adamah, the Hebrew word for “ground.”

Here, seminary extends beyond the traditional educational fields — biblical studies, theology, history and practical theology.

“All of those fields can be brought to life in new ways in these fields,” Stucky said.

This fall, Stucky will co-teach a course on the Old Testament and land. He also looks forward to speaking at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Just Food conference on Sept. 24-26 and hosting attendees at the farm. Stucky describes the Farminary project as “exciting, wonderful and terrifying — in a good way.”

He sees his mission as the same as that of Princeton Theological Seminary, to develop leaders for the church. He hopes to “grow the project in an intentional, disciplined way, using the best of agrarian sensibilities, paying attention to the seasons, what is prudent and will bear fruit.”

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