Context and Need
Religious leaders clearly need and want competence in peacebuilding in their daily work. The Faith Communities Today 2000 national survey of over 14,000 congregations revealed that about 75% of congregations reported some level of conflict in the five years prior to the survey; that, at any given time, about one-fifth of congregations are experiencing active conflict; and that destructive conflict within a religious community proves to be a major predictor of church decline.
Religious leaders report many positive outcomes of conflict, but also report spending a significant portion of their and their community’s time and resources dealing with personal, religious, and civil conflict. They also lament that they have not received training in seminaries or schools of theology for such work. Practicing religious leaders, in varied settings ranging from Boston to Cape Town, are confronting both the burdens and opportunities of conflict within their congregations and communities without the skills or support needed to meet this challenge effectively.
The Boston University Program in Religion and Conflict Transformation emerged out of this now widely recognized pastoral need and the timely confluence of the collaborators’ institutional interests and capacities. The alumni, faculty, students and religious leaders we assembled with the help of the Luce Foundation in 2004-05 vocally affirmed the need to prepare religious leaders in the theology, theory, and practice of conflict transformation as a central mission of the seminary. This program aims to put the theology and practice of conflict transformation and the ministry of reconciliation back at the center of seminary education.
History of the Program
The Religion and Conflict Transformation (RCT) program have a rich and long history growing out of a collaboration between the Boston Theological Institute (BTI) and the JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation in the United Methodist Church. In 2003 the Certificate program in Religion and Conflict Transformation was formally established by the BTI. Dean Ray Hart agreed to provide an anchor for the certificate program at Boston University School of Theology, hiring Tom Porter in September 2004 to direct this work. In the Fall of 2004 Tom along with Rodney Petersen, the executive director of the BTI, taught a course entitled Engaging Conflict Well, which has been taught every year since in the fall and now is called The Spirit and Art of Conflict Transformation, Creating a Culture of JustPeace, as well as course in the Spring of 2005 entitled Religion and the Ministry of Reconciliation.
A design team of faculty, staff and students spent a year designing the Program, which was unanimously approved by the faculty in 2005. A Faculty Leadership Team was created in 2005 with its members teaching courses that qualified for the Certificate. The RCT Program was officially launched in 2006. The program began with 15 students in 2006 and 29 students in 2007. It has continued to grow.
In 2007, the Program held its first annual retreat, which has been held every year since. This is an all-day intensive led by an eminent scholar/practitioner in one of the program’s focal areas related to conflict transformation. The annual retreat has been a rich opportunity for students as well as faculty and staff to gain new wisdom, new perspectives and new possibilities within the field, as well as an opportunity to get to know those students who are entering the program. This is now referred to as the Fall Retreat.
An Integrative Seminar for graduating students was created in the spring of 2007. Over time this became the Spring Capstone Circle, an opportunity for the RCT community to hear each graduating participant in the program share learnings from their study in the RCT Program as well as how these learnings will guide them in their work in the future. These have been remarkable events, inspiring and educational. In preparation for their presentation, each graduate writes an integrative paper that speaks to their particular journey in conflict transformation.
With a generous grant from the Luce Foundation in 2008, the program was able to expand its work on many fronts, including with practicums, scholarships, a lecture series and the employment of a student Program Administrator.
In the Spring of 2010, the first course in Restorative Justice was taught with students from the law school, school of social work and the school of theology. This has led to many new courses and clinical experiences connecting our students with contextual experiences and partnerships such as nonviolent direct action, mediation, interfaith dialogue and JustPeacemaking, congregational change and conflict, and transitional justice. In 2010 we held a Consultation of Theological Educators in Conflict Transformation and in 2012 a Consultation on the Formation of Interfaith Just Peacemakers.
From 2010 to the present the RCT program has supported contextual education through travel courses to places such as Columbia, Jamaica, Israel/Palestine, South India, and Indonesia.
In 2012 a second generous grant was received from the Luce Foundation to develop our Clinic program of practicums, workshops, and partnerships. This grant also enabled us to hire a co-director of the Clinic, Salma Kazmi, in February of 2014. Salma is now creating an Islamic Seminary in Boston. In 2016 Dr. Judith Oleson joined the RCT program as a co-director, bringing a wealth of experience teaching conflict studies, nonprofit leadership, social work, and transitional justice, working in Croatia and Canada. Among many responsibilities, she leads our work with Hebrew College, our other partnerships, and our research. While the RCT program has a strong record, it is also forward-looking and seeks to continue its collaborative and JustPeace-building work under the leadership of Dr. Judith Oleson and Rev. Tom Porter as co-directors.
Tom Porter and Judith Oleson served as co-directors of the RCT Program for three years. Judith developed and taught a course for the joint Theology/MSW program titled, Transforming Conflict in Families, Organizations and Communities. She also added a course on Transitional Justice and Reconciliation. Judith partnered with the European Center for the Study of War and Peace to adapt this course into a travel seminar, which was offered in Croatia and Bosnia in January 2019.
During their time as co-directors, Tom and Judith developed and taught an online course for the D.Min program, Conflict Transformation for Ministry. They also developed and offered an extensive MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) titled Religion and Conflict Transformation. Featuring over twenty leaders in the field of conflict transformation, this course reached participants in many countries as well as locally-enrolled STH students. It is one of the foundation courses for the Master of Arts in Religion and Public Leadership (MARPL), the first completely online graduate degree program hosted by STH.
Tom Porter retired in June 2019. As part of this celebration, significant funds were raised for the RCT endowment. In July of 2019, Judith became the sole director and initiated a student leadership team for assistance. Both the RCT Newsletters and website were enhanced to increase communications. She added a team of diverse Visiting Researchers to create intercultural and interfaith dialogues on key issues in the field of religion and conflict transformation.
During these years, Judith expanded the RCT internship options and built collaborative programming relationships with CURA (Pardee School for Global Studies), the Jewish Cultural Endowment Program, Essential Partners, The Community Dispute Resolution Center, and Hebrew College. Although she was the scheduled instructor for both the Balkans and Israel/Palestine travel seminars for the 2020 Spring Semester, both were canceled due to the Covid-19 virus.
The following Fall semester, when all courses were moved online due to the pandemic, Judith utilized the MOOC, Religion and Conflict Transformation for the Spirit and Art of Conflict Transformation. From 2020-2022, she and the student leadership team continued to develop RCT initiatives based on student interests and needs. This included programs featuring international students coming from conflict zones, collaborations with other STH centers, and partnerships with student clubs and organizations. Due to her health, Judith retired as the RCT director in June of 2022.
 Insights Into, Series edited by David Roozen (Hartford Seminary and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research: Faith Communities Today and the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership; accessed in 2008: http://fact.hartsem.edu/products/Insights_Into_Congregational_Conflict.pdf). These statistics were roughly confirmed by a 2004 survey of 506 pastors by Christianity Today (http://www.ctlibrary.com/le/2004/fall/6.25.html)