By Heather Walker
ROME — Rev. Dr. Karen Petersen Finch spent a six-month sabbatical in Rome in 2018, and resided at The Lay Centre. Her longstanding interest in dialogue with Catholicism led her to Rome. At the time, she was beginning to write a training manual for lay people, particularly Reformed and Catholic, to support the formation of local ecumenical dialogue and wanted to use the excellent libraries in Rome, such as those at the Centro Pro Unione and the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Rev. Dr. Petersen Finch is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and an ecumenist in the Reformed tradition, who specializes in dialogue with the Roman Catholic tradition. She is a member of the National Reformed-Catholic Dialogue in the United States.
Inspired by Jesuit Father Bernard Lonergan’s theological method, she equips local dialogues between Roman Catholic parishes and Presbyterian churches, speaking and writing about the dialogue to spur the development of new models for local ecumenism. Her book, “Grassroots Ecumenism: The Path Towards Local Christian Kinship,” will be published with New City Press within the next 12 months.
She is currently completing her appointment as associate professor of theology and assistant director of the honors program at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, prior to her move to Montreal.
Q. Congratulations on your recent appointment as professor of pastoral leadership at the Presbyterian College in Montreal. How is your new role similar to or different from your past work? What are you looking forward to?
Thank you. It is exciting for me to move into teaching theology at the graduate level. At Whitworth University, I taught a master’s-level course every two or three years. It was one of my favourite assignments because I could pour theology straight into the lives of the churches, while learning from the students — who were pastors and other church leaders — about the needs and concerns of their communities.
I have spent a lot of time in church and parish settings during the past two years of theological dialogue between Family Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church of Clarkston, Washington. That experience gave me a hunger to continue teaching church leaders, both clergy and lay. At the Presbyterian College, I will be working primarily with the Master of Divinity program and supporting ministry students vocationally as well as theologically.
Q. Could you tell us something about the Presbyterian College in Montreal?
The Presbyterian College was founded in 1865, and it is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Canada. It is Reformed/Calvinist, but students from many denominations study at the college because it is one of three collaborating seminaries within the Montreal School of Theology. They say the challenge is to maintain a Reformed identity while fostering an atmosphere of “generous orthodoxy.”
One of the alumni who interviewed me during the search process commented that the college “punches above its weight.” He meant that while it is small, it has a positive impact on the Presbyterian Church in Canada and on Reformed communities around the world. As an ordained pastor, I appreciate how they prioritize three goals in their mission statement. The first goal is rigorous academic training in the Christian tradition. The second is to form students’ character and spirituality through a community of prayer and worship. And the third is preparation for transformational leadership in the local church. This is the kind of training I would choose for myself.
Q. You mentioned that there is a connection with McGill University. Could you tell us something about this?
It helps to visualize the Montreal School of Theology as a medium-sized sphere with three smaller spheres within it: the Presbyterian College, Montreal Dio, an Anglican seminary, and the United Theological College, associated with the United Church of Canada. Then imagine a line connecting that bigger sphere with McGill University. What is unusual about this situation is that McGill University does not have a church affiliation — it has always been a public university. Because of the connections, faculty in the School of Theology can end up teaching not only for their own seminary but also for one of the partner seminaries or in the religious studies department at McGill.
It is also possible for us to teach for Université Laval or the Institut de théologie pour la francophonie, training leaders in local French-speaking congregations. So the reach of my position is potentially very wide.
Q. You have been involved in ecumenism, in particular in dialogue between Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches, for a number of years. Will this ecumenical aspect be part of your pastoral work in Montreal?
Absolutely. I felt really pleased when the board of governors noted in my hiring announcement that they were interested in me because of my ecumenical work. They value it because their setting in the Montreal School of Theology is inherently ecumenical. It has been challenging to maintain a strong tie between my ecumenical scholarship and practice and my everyday teaching at the undergraduate level, as much as I wanted to keep them tied together. In this new setting, even when I am teaching on Calvin and the Reformed tradition, MST students will need to hear about where that tradition stands within the wider world of Christianity. It will be a joy to reflect with non-Presbyterians on the differences between the Reformed tradition and their own.
Q. Co-ordinating field placements for seminary students will be one of your assignments. What does this entail? What is the purpose of the placements and where do the students go?
The third year of the Master of Divinity program at the college is focused on ministry practice, to complement the emphasis on systematic theology, history, biblical studies and cultural studies in the first two years. For the third year, 40 per cent of a student’s credits comes from their internship. I gather that most of the internships are in local congregations, but it is also possible to complete the internship in another Canadian province or even in the United States due to technology, like Zoom.
I will be administering the internship program, facilitating connections to the host churches, and making sure that the other 60 per cent of credits in the third year are helping students make the most of the internship by reflecting on it personally and theologically. It is a praxis model: teaching that involves both action and reflection.
Q. You will be teaching in French and English and living in Montreal. In what ways are you looking forward to this new phase in your life?
I have been speaking French as a hobby since I was 12 years old. I visited Montreal in 2019 for a meeting of the North American Academy of Ecumenists, and it was fun to walk around the city and practice speaking French. My new colleagues tell me that it takes a long time and serious study to be strong enough in French for classroom teaching. I feel both intimidated and excited about the prospect.
I will be moving from a suburban American context to a cosmopolitan Canadian city that some people call “the Paris of North America.” My old neighbourhood was full of pine trees and single-family homes, while my new neighbourhood will be full of apartments, restaurants, diversity and activity. I am certain there are kind and interesting people in both settings, but the Montreal neighbourhood has the added feature of an Italian coffee bar just down the street!
Photo courtesy Rev. Dr. Karen Petersen Finch