Pastors heal souls. Hospitals heal bodies. Given those natural connections, it’s not surprising that a United Methodist seminary’s hospital setting is creating unique learning opportunities for students as well as for hospital staff.

Since the fall of 2018, students in Perkins School of Theology’s Houston-Galveston Extension Program have reported to Houston Methodist Hospital to attend many of their classes. The hospital provides classroom space, along with tech support and meals, for the two one-week sessions in which students gather in person every semester. Perkins and Houston Methodist are both affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

“As far as we know, we are the only seminary in a hospital, anywhere,” said Hugo Magallanes, director of the Houston-Galveston Extension Program and Perkins’ Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. “It’s an incredible benefit for our students, to have access to a world-class research hospital.”

The partnership was shepherded by the Rev. Charles R. Millikan, an ordained United Methodist clergy and the hospital’s Vice President for Spiritual Care and Values Integration.

“Perkins shares a similar culture and sense of mission as Houston Methodist, which is a faith-based hospital system,” said Millikan. “It is a great training ground for anyone who aspires to go into ministry, and especially for those with an interest in the chaplaincy.”

The partnership has sparked some unique collaborative courses, including an elective course called Health Care Holy Care, usually offered during the January term. Taking advantage of the hospital setting, students “shadow” chaplains at Houston Methodist and attend lectures on pastoral listening skills, bereavement, spiritual care, confidentiality, compassion fatigue and topics such as suffering and God’s will, or how to deal with patients who pray for miracles, or those whose religious beliefs may lead to harm. This course is open to all Perkins students regardless of their campus location but tends to attract students who have a particular interest in the chaplaincy.

The Houston-Galveston Extension Program also occasionally offers an elective in Bioethics, team-taught by Dallas Gingles, associate director of the Houston-Galveston Extension Program, and Baylor University’s Janet Malek, who is also director of the Houston Methodist Biomedical Ethics Program.

Some of the benefit boils down to the simple fact that students study in a place where birth, death and healing are taking place round the clock.

“The hospital setting provides an opportunity to do theological reflection in really interesting ways,” said Gingles. “At the beginning of the year, I give a lecture in my Systematic Theology class, and I talk about how the theologian Karl Barth taught in a bombed-out building at the end of World War II. I tell the students, ‘We’re going to spend the next year talking about God, and we’re doing that in the midst of people who are literally dying and being born.’”

Millikan expects additional courses and seminars will be added down the road for physicians and other hospital staff with an interest in spirituality and medicine. Houston Methodist is part of Texas Medical Center; the complex is home to 50 different medical agencies – hospitals, clinics, medical and nursing schools – and employs 100,000 people.

“People who work in the hospital setting love to learn,” he said. “We have many MDs and PhDs along with a variety of hospital clinicians, nurses and administrators who are interested in exploring their spiritual side. Perkins can offer opportunities to talk about culture, purpose, mission and philosophy in a high-quality academic education.”

In addition to the dedicated courses, many of the courses taught at Perkins have bioethics, health care or chaplaincy components. In the long-term, leaders of the Houston-Galveston program hope to offer a concentration for those students interested in hospital chaplaincy.

Millikan believes training in hospital chaplaincy can open up additional job opportunities to Perkins grads.

“Many churches are no longer hiring ordained persons,” he said. “Graduates need to find places where their ministries can flourish.”

Relaunch in 2018

Perkins School of Theology’s Houston-Galveston Extension Program has been thriving since the 2018 launch of the hybrid format, combining in-person and online coursework. The program allows students to earn the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) in three years, or Master of Arts in Ministry (M.A.M.) degree in two years, without having to take courses at the Dallas campus. The program is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Today, enrollment in the M.Div. and M.A.M. programs at Houston-Galveston is about equal to that of the Dallas campus.

“Our numbers continue to increase,” said Magallanes. “Many of our students are working in full-time ministry or in secular jobs. They find our program accessible and attractive.” While some online seminary programs rely largely on part-time faculty, he added, Houston-Galveston students take courses with many of the same professors as those students based at the Dallas campus.

“This is a program that is accessible but doesn’t water down the academic, rigorous aspects of the program,” he said.

Houston Methodist is one of four partner sites that host classes, along with Moody Methodist Church in Galveston, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and St. John’s United Methodist in downtown Houston.

Magallanes added that much credit is due to Millikan, who played a key role in the birth of the Houston-Galveston program in 1994. Then senior pastor at Moody, Millikan noted the lack of an ATS-accredited seminary in the Houston area, and discussed the possibility of an extension campus with Robin Lovin, then dean at Perkins. An Inside Perkins event was held in Houston at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church to gauge interest. Organizers expected a dozen or so potential students; more than 150 turned up and 64 enrolled. Moody donated $400,000 to help launch the program, and St. Luke’s provided office space. The Houston-Galveston campus was born. Among the members of that first class were United Methodist Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey and BJ Hightower, now a senior chaplain in the Houston Methodist system.

More recently, Millikan was involved in re-invigorating the program with the 2018 relaunch offering the hybrid program.

“Houston Methodist is unapologetically Methodist,” Magallanes said. “They treat patients holistically, with an eye toward spiritual values as well as physical care. This is a great partnership for us.”