Miracle on East Parkway South by Shelia O’Mara (MDiv, ’83), originally published in Cumberland Presbyterian Magazine

What a year 2020 was. Like many of you, my thoughts and prayers are that 2021 will find us out of the grips of a global pandemic that has changed our lives, in some ways permanently. I have been thinking (and praying) about what kind of message of hope and inspiration could I bring to the Church for the new year. And just like that, God shed a light on an important event in the life of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Some would call it a Christmas miracle. So, I will share that story. I mean, who does not like a good Christmas miracle story. One of my favorite Christmas movies is “Miracle on 34th Street.” So, in that vein I will call this story “Miracle on East Parkway South.” Here is the thing. I will give you the ending of the story upfront and then fill in some details that led to this miracle.

FYI-a miracle is defined as a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences. That definition fits this miracle story.

On Dec 7, 2020 Rev. Dr. Jody Hill, president of Memphis Theological Seminary (MTS) was notified that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) reaffirmed the accreditation for MTS for the next ten years. This organization is one of two accreditation organizations that MTS reports to. The other is the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).  Back in 2018 both SACSCOC and ATS did a comprehensive review of MTS to determine reaffirmation of accreditation. ATS reaffirmed for seven years (through 2025) but with notations. MTS had follow up reports on assessment, strategic planning, and finances. Those reports were required because of “notations” from ATS, which indicate areas in which there are accreditation problems. The reports were well received, and all notations were lifted as of spring 2020.

In December 2018, SACSCOC denied MTS reaffirmation, continued in accreditation, and placed MTS on Warning.

In December 2019, the SACSCOC Board reviewed the First Monitoring Report. MTS was denied reaffirmation and was continued on Warning for twelve months for continued deficiencies in compliance with three standards: quality enhancement program (QEP), student outcomes: educational programs and financial responsibility.

As a result of a second denied reaffirmation, MTS was requested to submit a Second Monitoring Report on October 15, 2020. The SACSCOC Board made a ruling in December 2020 to reaffirm accreditation for ten years. As your moderator, I am an advisory member to the MTS Board of Trustees and have attended all board meetings during my term as moderator. I was invited to attend a Zoom meeting for faculty/staff/board of trustee members/former interim president to learn the results of the SACSCOC board ruling. What I witnessed was indeed a miracle. It was as though the dark cloud of at least the last two years was lifted. One could see it on the faces of those at the Zoom meeting. A Christmas miracle indeed.

Now for a bonus to the miracle story. SACSCOC and ATS approved MTS for comprehensive distance education. This is huge and important to MTS as it continues to provide education during a pandemic and beyond as well as responds to declining student enrollment (as many mainline Protestant denominations face these days) and seeks creative ways to deliver education in the 21st century.

But there is more to the Miracle on East Parkway South story that most Cumberland Presbyterians do not know about. As an ex-officio member to the MTS Board of Trustees as GA Moderator, I have had the privilege of following this journey over the last year and a half. It is a story of hardship, a faculty/staff who did not get pay raises or bonuses yet took on additional responsibilities as the faculty/staff operated at a bare minimum level. It is one of low morale and just trying to hang on, survive and get through this crisis. Yet what I see is a solid team of dedicated people who love the MTS institution, what it stands for (scholarship, piety and justice), fought hard to save its accreditation and are stronger and more dedicated than ever. The faculty continued to teach, the staff continued to support and all during a global pandemic these last nine months.

When the time came to close the campus to in person classes, they pivoted to online and did not lose a beat, all while still with the cloud of losing SACSCOC accreditation hanging over them. Even more impressive is that the leadership of MTS (Interim President Rev. Dr. Susan Parker and current President, Rev. Dr. Jody Hill) empowered everyone to work towards getting reaffirmation. It was a total team effort, each one contributing from their strengths and areas of expertise.

While all faculty/staff contributed to getting the warning removed and reaffirmation of accreditation, here is a list of individuals who directly contributed:

-Associate Dean of Institutional Effectiveness, Planning, and Research: Gail Robinson

-QEP Director: Mary Lin Hudson

-QEP Committee: Mary LIn Hudson, Pete Gathje, Gail Robinson, Diane Love

-Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean: Pete Gathje

-Vice President of Operations and CFO: Cassandra Price-Perry

-Faculty Chair: Janel Bakker

-Business Office: Chris Phiffer, Mary Byrd, Elaine Morrow, and Linda Harris

-Marketing and Communications Coordinator: Martha Park

-Jeff Futrell (Cannon, Wright, & Blount Accountants)

-Board of Trustees

-CP General Assembly Evaluation Committee

-Former Interim President Susan Parker

-Office of the President: Laurie Sharpe and Jody Hill

Of note: Interim President, Rev. Dr. Susan Parker was able to stabilize a downward spiral. Rev. Dr. Jody Hill became President in January 2020 and as we say in the Navy, “hit the deck running.” It has been amazing to watch his leadership and infectious, yet realistic, enthusiasm. Today there is some good momentum going. There is still much hard work ahead. As MTS leans into 2021, it is a much different picture than it has been in quite some time.

So, there you have it. A “Miracle on East Parkway South” Christmas miracle story. Join me in celebrating this momentous occasion in the life of MTS and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It is a joyous event. At the same time, join me in prayer for MTS, its leadership, faculty, staff and student body as it seeks to remain a healthy institution and live into its mission: to educate and sustain men and women for ordained and lay Christian ministry in the church and the world through shaping and inspiring lives devoted to scholarship, piety and justice.

Shelia O’Mara graduated from Bethel College, McKenzie, TN, in 1978 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting.  She received her Master of Divinity from Memphis Theological Seminary, Memphis, TN, in 1983 and was ordained a Cumberland Presbyterian (CP) minister in January 1983.  She was commissioned in the United States (U. S.) Navy Chaplain Corps in June,1983.  Chaplain O’Mara retired in August 2013 from the U. S. Navy after 30 years of active-duty service.  Following retirement, she worked two years as a chaplain for the Veterans Affairs (VA) Mental Health & Chaplaincy. Reverend O’Mara is a member of Presbytery del Cristo and a member of the Presbytery Council.  She served for six years on the Unified Committee on Theology and Social Concerns, serving as Chair for two years.  She is a member of the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel.  Reverend O’Mara is currently the moderator of the 189th CP General Assembly.  Rev. O’Mara resides in Gadsden, TN, and is married to Duncan O’Mara, a retired Naval officer and retired professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.