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Enrollment decline leads to shutdown of theology institute

Little Rock Theology Institute ends after 21 years; some students given options to finish

Published: January 22, 2018   
Arkansas Catholic file / Guy Lancaster
Father Lawrence Stasyszen (right) and Father Charles Buckely (left) of St. Gregory University confer the first theology degrees earned through the dioc-esan Theology Program on Tom Jakobs and Linda Webster in 2002. Then-Bishop J. Peter Sartain was on hand for the graduation.

Faced with declining enrollment, the Little Rock Theology Institute will close in June after 21 years of teaching Scripture, theology and philosophy to lay Catholics.

It is estimated that at least 600 people enrolled in the program, some as casual participants wanting to expand their knowledge to more serious students looking to earn a bachelor’s degree in theology.

The then-Office of Religious Education and Christian Initiation opened the institute in 1996, bringing in college professors from around the country, such as Christian Brothers University in Memphis and St. Gregory University in Shawnee, Okla., and as well as using local Catholic leaders, such as Father Jerome Kodell, OSB, of Subiaco Abbey and Cackie Upchurch, director of Little Rock Scripture Study.

“In a diocese that does not have a Catholic college or university, adult Catholics were — and continue to be — hungry to grow in their faith and to better understand the Church, its teachings and how it makes a difference in the lives of individuals and parish communities,’ said Upchurch, who taught “Prophets, Psalms and Wisdom Literature” and other Scripture courses from 1996 to 2015. “I am saddened that this program seems to have run its course, at least in the way it has been offered up to this time, but I do hope Catholics around Arkansas will take advantage of enrichment and learning offerings in their parishes, diocesan offerings such as the annual Bible Institute, distance learning through Catholic colleges and universities and faith formation conferences in our region of the country.”

Former director Barb Minczewski started the program after starting similar programs in Illinois and North Dakota.

“This sounds like we are going to have a Catholic college here in Little Rock — overnight,” Minczewski said at the sight of 100 people signed up in September 1996 for the first year.

The program originally was two years of basic theology classes, such as Introduction to Scripture and Introduction to Christology, and a third year of “specialty courses” for those working in religious education or related fields. Participants could earn up to 16 college credits through St. Gregory University in Shawnee, Okla., if they wanted, but a degree wasn’t possible.

Around 2002 the program expanded to three years for all participants and offered the bachelor’s degree to those who already had a different bachelor’s degree.

Minczewski said she was concerned that the diocese would need more trained Catholics in parishes and schools as the number of priests and religious declined. She wanted to empower more “critical thinkers” to be theologically grounded in the faith.

From the start, the program has always been offered for one weekend a month for 10 months — a Friday night and all day Saturday — to allow for the most participation from around the state. Some parishes, like St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Mountain Home and St. Edward Church in Texarkana, were sending so many parishioners at one time that they carpooled and studied together between sessions.

Chris Thomas, a member of St. Edward Church in Texarkana who earned her degree in 2011, said, “The Little Rock Institute of Theology was the foundation and catalyst for much of the growth of my adult faith. … The institute was a center point for us from across the diocese to feel a part of the larger community, which is especially important for those of us living on the geographic edge such as Texarkana. Our parish family has benefited from more than 10 people receiving our theology degrees and many more obtaining their certifications.”

Enrollment in the program increased at various times when the diocese hosted other programs, such as Parish Administrators Program, diaconate formation or spiritual direction program and required attendance in Little Rock Theology Institute if the participant didn’t already have a theology degree.

According to Arkansas Catholic archives and the diocesan Faith Formation Office, at least 100 people from 2002 to 2017 earned a bachelor’s degree through St. Gregory University while hundreds more earned diocesan certificates.

Faith formation director Father Erik Pohlmeier, who oversees the institute, said the diocese needed a minimum to 15 to 25 students in each class to make the program work financially.

“The students pay tuition but that doesn’t cover the cost of the program,” he said. “The diocese has invested to cover the costs. We are bringing in teachers, paying them a stipend and there are costs for the rooms and food. The tuition fee covered parts of that. … We evaluated the program. It started out as a way to provide training for those in ministry. Over time it evolved because the interest was mainly among lay faithful who wanted to know (their faith).”

Father Pohlmeier said when the program started online degrees were not available. Now students have other ways to get continuing education or earn a degree.

Father Pohlmeier said the sudden closing of St. Gregory University in December didn’t play a factor in closing the Little Rock Theology Institute. He said he knew interest in the program was declining in 2016 when they set a minimum of 15 new students. They got 17 students initially registered but through attrition the number dwindled to 10 students. Last fall the program didn’t reach its minimum goal of 25 new students so the first-year program wasn’t offered.

The second-year program continued last fall with seven students, of which four are studying to earn their degree. The third-year program has 13 students, with seven of them earning their degree. Those seven third-year students were originally supposed to get their degree from St. Gregory but instead will earn their degree this summer from Newman University in Wichita, Kan. 

Father Pohlmeier said the four second-year students are unfortunately in the position to have to find somewhere to transfer their credits and finish their degrees online or through another Catholic college.

He said his office will be looking into ways to offer regional training for catechists and other leaders and encouraging enrollment in online programs.

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