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"My path too seldom crossed with counterparts from Catholic, African American, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or other communities. The chance for us to relate, cross-pollinate, and collaborate has already been invaluable.”

Grant Spotlight: The Senior Fellows Program at Auburn Seminary


In daily life and extraordinary circumstances, many people rely on faith leaders to provide guidance and community. In moments of political strife, faith leaders are often critical voices in social justice movements, offering the nation, and the world, a moral conscience. Yet faith leaders – particularly those at the peak of their careers – are often isolated, lacking the sort of guidance and emotional support that they provide for others.

Before the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, the Senior Minister of Middle Collegiate Church became a Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary, she felt a constant obligation to be a source of strength for her community, and as a result, she had few opportunities to process weaknesses or doubts. “I just was exhausted,” she reflects. “The toughness of the work in a multiracial congregation, trying to do racial justice work… I thought, I’m working on Black Lives Matter, and I’m acting like my Black life doesn’t matter – I’m not taking care of myself at all.”

Rabbi Justus Baird, Auburn’s Dean, notes that while faith leaders play a critical role in social justice movements, “the activists leading a movement too often have not discovered how to sustain their work over the long term without burning out or getting too frustrated to keep going.”

Founded in 1818, Auburn Seminary is committed to innovation, constantly seeking new ways of fostering and supporting faith leaders. In the early 2010s, the Auburn team noticed that continuing education programs available to members of the clergy tended to focus on leading congregations, but did little to prepare faith leaders to take theological perspectives beyond their local churches to address the world’s needs. Auburn’s leadership set out to design a program that would offer influential leaders of various faiths the emotional and professional support they needed to carry on and expand their social justice work. Auburn Seminary received a two-year grant from the Foundation’s Theology Program in 2014 to support the development of the Auburn Senior Fellows Program, designed to "equip, platform, and network faith leaders who have great potential to catalyze and advance movements for justice.”

The program has two main components. First, selected Fellows receive individualized coaching tailored to their current interests and needs, including media strategy, online campaigns, and financial consulting. Second, the Fellows become part of a growing network of professionals engaged in similar work, participating in twice-a-year retreats dedicated to relationship building, leadership reflection, spiritual renewal, and the exploration of collaborative action. Membership is ongoing: Fellows remain a part of the program for as long as they are continuing to participate in faith-rooted social justice work. Added to by four or five new Fellows a year, the Fellows community provides an ever-renewing culture of support.

Baird compares the program to the training offered to Olympians. “Olympians, at least the Americans, have pretty substantial coaching and support behind them on their journey towards becoming a world class athlete. But when you look at faith leaders, who are trying to do maybe some of the most holy work that exists – trying to shape society for the better – they’re alone. They don’t have teammates, and they certainly don’t have coaches. So we’re saying, we have your back, we’re going to study what’s working and not working alongside you and we’re going to coach you on the way and cheer you on and connect you to people who you need to connect with.”

A first class of Fellows was selected in the summer and fall of 2014 and attended their first retreat in April 2015. Since then, the program has expanded to include eighteen Fellows from a wide variety of religious, political, and institutional backgrounds, including: Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention; Sister Simone Campbell, the leader of the Nuns on the Bus movement; immigration reform advocate and Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño; Linda Sarsour, co-founder of the first Muslim online organizing platform, MPower Change, and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York; and Valarie Kaur, an award-winning Sikh filmmaker and the founder of Groundswell, America’s largest multifaith online organizing community.

For many Fellows, the most important element of the program has been the sense of belonging to a community of peers. Auburn leaders took care to create a space for honest dialogue, where Fellows can share both dreams and vulnerabilities. As Lewis observes, “Suddenly you have a tribe, a tribe of absolute high achievers who are not competitive, who are celebrating your gifts and understanding the hard stuff. We amplify each other’s voices, we commit to having each other’s backs.”

Rev. Brian McLaren notes the particular impact of having a chance to connect and collaborate with peers from other racial and religious communities. “As a progressive white Protestant, I already knew most of my progressive white Protestant colleagues. But my path too seldom crossed with counterparts from Catholic, African American, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or other communities. The chance for us to relate, cross-pollinate, and collaborate has already been invaluable.” In fact, McLaren’s new project—the We Stand With Love campaign—was the result of a conversation that happened on a bus ride on the way to a retreat. He also dedicated his new book The Great Spiritual Migration to the Auburn Senior Fellows, many of whom are profiled within.

The Theology Program renewed its support for the Senior Fellows Program with a three-year grant in June 2016. As the cohort expands by four or five fellows a year, Auburn has continued to explore innovative ways of supporting leaders. Fellows are collaborating on new initiatives, and the Seminary is experimenting with investing institutional resources in Fellow-driven campaigns. The Senior Fellows program continues to be flexible and responsive, a real-time laboratory for understanding and responding to the needs of some of the country’s most important champions of social justice.


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“When you look at faith leaders, who are trying to do some of the most holy work that exists – trying to shape society for the better – they’re alone. They don’t have teammates, and they certainly don’t have coaches. So we’re saying, we have your back, we’re going to study what’s working and not working alongside you and we’re going to coach you on the way."