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Dr. Julia M. Speller

Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary 1985

Kenneth B. Smith Professor of Public Ministry; Associate Professor of American Religious History and Culture, Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois

From her earliest days, Dr. Julia M. Speller always wanted to be a teacher. She gained initial experience in the local church, where she taught adult Bible Study and youth class, and when she began teaching professionally, she thought she had to put aside her interactive and dialogical approach to teaching in favor of a more traditional lecture approach. She soon realized this was not the teaching method for her, so she returned to her practice of integrating short lecture, dialogue, and interactive teaching. In fact, she describes the essence of her ministry with words such as community, dialogue, people, and engagement.

Within her teaching, there is specified content that students must master, but she also acknowledges what students contribute to the learning process, “I recognize that students themselves bring a part of the content, content from their own experiences and in their own voices.” She provides space for dialogue not only in the classroom, but also in the syllabus, which she believes should evolve to fit the particular circumstances and the needs of students. While not the easiest way to teach, this method allows Dr. Speller to be faithful to her ministry and to her teaching pedagogy.

For Dr. Speller, faithfulness in ministry involves a willingness to move forward when things are difficult and to work through it when one runs into conflict and contradiction. It further involves speaking truth to power, even when it is not the safest or the easiest thing to do. Being faithful in these ways allows for a greater awareness of others and the space for a sense of creative tension.

Her church and church family inspire Dr. Speller to continue in ministry. A member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, she remembers joining as a young adult during the turbulence of the 1960s. At the time, she also was struggling with her own identity as a woman of African descent. On one hand, Trinity helped her sort out parts of her identity and plant her feet on the ground; on the other hand, Trinity gave her the tools to creatively analyze and critique the systems around her. Communities like Trinity, which point toward advocacy, self-determination, and dialogue, inspire and give Dr. Speller hope for her own vocation.

While at Garrett-Evangelical, Dr. Speller earned the Master of Religious Education degree. Her professors—including Dorothy Jean Furnish—as well as many of the course readings, allowed her to name the educational practices she already was employing in her own ministry. As she grew in her knowledge and skill, she also found Garrett-Evangelical to be a positive place of community for her. She often felt as if she was on the margins of the community, especially among the African-American population, because her choice of degree was not the traditional Master of Divinity. However, members of CBE supported her fully in her vocational direction.

Furthermore, CBE also introduced Dr. Speller to the work of Howard Thurman, providing her with access to Thurman’s transcripts and tapes—which she used and still uses to this day for both personal devotion and teaching. She continues to introduce her students to the work of Howard Thurman and others like him. Her hope for CBE is that it continues to explore and support the diversity within the Black community—not just within the Christian world but also across all religions and backgrounds—in order to continue to grow in our understanding of Black life and community across the United States and the world.


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