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Dean Miller-McLemore retires June 30

Posted on May 31, 2018

Dean Miller-McLemore retires June 30

Mark Miller-McLemore is retiring as Dean of the Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt on June 30 after 23 years leading this innovative Disciples theological institution.

Disciples Divinity House is a student residence and scholarship foundation that supports Disciples of Christ students preparing for ministry at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. Students receive financial aid and comfortable, low-cost housing near campus in a community of twenty students. The House’s mission is “to shape outstanding ministers for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in a supportive community of faith.”

Dean Miller-McLemore writes, “I came to DDH-Vanderbilt from 15 years as a solo pastor in a small but strong congregation in the south suburbs of Chicago, First Christian of Chicago Heights, that reversed a decade of decline and became very engaged in ministry with its surrounding community. Among other creative and fun efforts, it birthed a homeless sheltering program in 1980 that grew to involve almost 100 congregations and housed 150 people per night in the winter months. So I brought with me to DDH a vision of the attention to theological depth plus a heritage of social justice at Vanderbilt, combined with a focus on doing transformative ministry in churches. Communities of worship and activism aren’t often seen together in the mainline churches, but they can and should be connected for Disciples especially. I’ve worked throughout my tenure to shepherd ministers, especially pastors, who are faithful, effective, bold, and creative in their congregations and in their communities.”

In 1995, Dean Miller-McLemore inherited and effectively turned around an institution in distress, and he moved it forward on many fronts in a time of increasing costs and complexity and decreasing denominational support. “From 1999-2001, the other six schools of the Council on Theological Education each gave a portion of their Disciples Mission Fund income for three years to the Disciples House-Vanderbilt to give us resources and time to recover and move forward. I am still grateful and amazed at that act of unprecedented institutional generosity by leaders who looked past their own self-interest to the needs of a colleague school and the church’s larger good.”

Dean Miller-McLemore rebuilt the board and organized the institutional, financial, procedural, and compliance-related aspects of the House, leading to two decades of balanced budgets and clean audits. He began and grew the House's Annual Fund, doubled staff, added 25 named funds to the House’s endowment and tripled its size, established the Legacy Society, and oversaw interior and exterior facility renovations that made the House’s 1960s-era building energy-efficient and more attractive. Internal renovations were made possible by cost-saving collaborations with Disciple Men of Tennessee and Volunteers in Mission of Disciples Home Missions, “another collaboration for which I am grateful to the church.”

During Dean Miller-McLemore’s tenure, 113 Disciples students have received the Masters of Divinity degree, 14 have received the 2-year Masters of Theological Studies degree, and 14 Disciples students have completed their PhD degrees in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt. Of those graduates, 103 (at last count) were ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They now serve faithfully throughout the church as pastors, college and military chaplains, counselors teachers, and leaders.

Over 23 years, Dean Miller-McLemore has worked with eight board chairs at DDH; three Deans at Vanderbilt Divinity School; and three presidents at HELM, three General Ministers, and a large number of presidents and deans at the other six Disciple seminaries.

Dean Miller-McLemore also advocated for ministry and kept alive a complicated partnership with the Divinity School and Vanderbilt University on behalf of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He started numerous programmatic initiatives: monthly House Dinners, an Opening Retreat to build community, and the annual Graduation Celebration Dinner.  “I firmly believe in this residential model for educating excellent ministers, so I am pleased that Disciples House-Vanderbilt has thrived and been successful in its mission in spite of a very challenging time for church-related organizations.” The House receives regular requests for information about its model from other seminaries and denominations.

Under the dean’s leadership, Disciples House attracted over $1.5 million in grants, including two major grants from the Lilly Endowment, for the Congregational Immersion Project, a Transition into Ministry initiative that ran for 12 years, placing graduates in two-year pastoral residencies with an excellent mentor pastor in a healthy congregation. He participated in Transition-related meetings and took leadership in the Lilly-sponsored Pastoral Excellence Network. As a former pastor, the dean has been committed to measuring outcomes for graduates in ministry as well as numbers of graduates. Two intentional evaluative events, in 2004 and 2014, gathered first-hand information from graduates serving in congregations three to six years about the effectiveness of their preparation. They were highly affirming of their education at VDS and DDH, and “Wise Practice” was designed to focus on practices of ministry that these minister-graduates reported as needing additional attention: money, conflict, weddings and funerals, and anti-racism training.

Disciples Divinity House-Vanderbilt Alumni/ae Lunches at the last twelve General Assemblies were the largest gatherings of Vanderbilt Divinity alumni/ae in the country and were marked by hilarity and high spirits. In 2007, the Disciples House began the musical event “Talent 4 the House.” In ten years, it grew from a spaghetti dinner with a student talent show to a spectacular series of events that raised over $100,000 to support ministry students and attracted almost 500 Disciples to an evening of song and celebration. In later years, it featured Nashville musicians such as Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Allison Krauss, Andrew Peterson; and Disciples Jonell Mosser, Gabe Dixon, Thom Schuyler, Stuart Duncan; as well as students, church members, and (occasionally) the dean on banjo.

“I am thankful for so many people who have been supportive of this place over the years—excellent board chairs and board members, Disciple friends in middle Tennessee, our graduates all over the country, some incredible musicians and volunteers, the larger church, former deans on whose shoulders I stood. Their belief in the House and its good ministry sustained me and our students. I am hopeful of more good at Disciples House even in the face of ongoing changes.”

As part of his role as dean, Prof. Miller-McLemore taught numerous courses at Vanderbilt in the area of Leadership and Ministry, as well as the class for ordination candidates in the History and Theology of the Disciples of Christ. He advised Disciple students and oversaw numerous senior projects. He teaches currently as associate professor of the practice of ministry, as well as playing bass in the VDS faculty cover band, the Soul Providers.

In addition to his administrative and teaching responsibilities, Dean Miller-McLemore is a member of the Academy of Religious Leadership and a founding member of the Association of Disciple Pastors for Theological Discussion (ADPTD), a group of pastoral colleagues that has met continuously for 31 years for reading, writing, and theological conversation about ministry. He has published numerous articles on ministry, including a chapter on the Disciples’ theology of ministry in the Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology. He has lectured and spoken to congregations, Regional Ministers, and groups throughout the church on the theological tradition of the Disciples of Christ. One of his next projects is a book on a usable Disciples tradition for congregations today.

He has been a member of the Council on Theological Education for 23 years, chairing the group for four years and serving on the board and Executive Committee of Higher Education and Leadership Ministries. He is a member at Woodmont Christian Church, Nashville. 

Mark is married to Bonnie, a Disciple minister and professor who teaches pastoral care and practical theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School. They have 3 wonderful grown sons, all living in Colorado.

Mark will lead his 45th and last meeting of the board on June 4, 2018. “At my first meeting in 1995, few had email, so meeting materials had to be mailed a week or more in advance; the board chair had served for 35 years; the roof was leaking; and the inherited budget was a work of fiction. A lot has changed.” But some things will remain the same: he intends to bring with him to this last meeting the same three juggling balls he brought to the first, symbols of what his work has been like, then and now, in an important, meaningful, small, church-oriented institution in a fast-changing world. He can still juggle.

Mark will continue to teach at Vanderbilt and give more attention to writing projects, his family, musical pursuits, and other interests forced to the back burner.

The board of trustees have named Rev. Beth Pattillo of Nashville as interim dean and will use this next period to assess the House’s work and conduct a search for the permanent position.

The Disciples House model is unique to the Disciples of Christ. The Disciples have established two Disciples Houses at ecumenical, university-based divinity schools in order to provide the best in theological education in a cost-effective way. By affiliating with an established school, the Houses avoid the expenses of libraries, faculty, and educational structures, which holds down costs to the church and to students, reducing their debt. The House at Vanderbilt, with its beginnings in 1927, is focused on building community that fosters supportive collegial relationships in ministry that last decades, as alumni/ae consistently attest. The combination of an intense community of Disciples in the context of an ecumenical school provides solid grounding in the Disciples tradition, while enhancing ecumenical openness, all with a commitment to an active faith with a focus on justice.