By Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — The Board of Directors of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Elkhart, Indiana, has appointed Leah R. Thomas, Ph.D., of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as assistant professor of pastoral care and contextual education, beginning Aug. 1, 2020.
Thomas brings to her new role an academic focus on pastoral care and Christian social ethics and professional experience in hospital chaplaincy, pastoring and nonprofit management. She currently serves as a visiting professor of pastoral theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary (LTS) and as the designated associate pastor for congregational care at Wisdom’s Table at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster. In her research and ministry, she has actively sought to attend to those voices excluded by the dominant culture.
Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., vice president and academic dean, and chair of the search committee for the position, affirmed Thomas’ interdisciplinary strengths in ethics, mental health and trauma, and culture.
“During Leah’s virtual visit, it was clear that her personal and professional commitments to Christ-centered pacifism, justice, interculturality and undoing oppression align with AMBS’s,” she said. “We were also delighted by her warmth, enthusiasm, and creative and engaging teaching style. Her administrative gifts and ecumenical background will serve her well in overseeing students’ field placements.”
Thomas earned her Ph.D. in 2017 from the Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. Her dissertation, “‘Just Caring’: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Approach to Ethical Pastoral Care with Women with Mental Illness,” received the Reverend Robert W. Edgar Dissertation Prize for Social Justice. In 2019, her dissertation was published as Just Care: Ethical Anti-Racist Pastoral Care with Women with Mental Illness (Lexington/Fortress).
Just prior to and alongside her doctoral studies at Drew, Thomas served as a chaplain at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey (2009–10, 2013–18). As a teaching assistant and then instructor at Drew (2012–18), and in her role at LTS (2017–present), she has taught courses in pastoral care, sociology of religion, preaching, Christian social ethics, ministry with those with mental illness, religious education, grief care, and womanist and feminist approaches to pastoral care. Through an exchange program in 2014, she co-taught a course on global ethics and culture at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe. While at Drew, she also conducted research and created programming for Drew’s Clergy Health Initiative as a research assistant to the associate dean (2010–16).
“Leah’s scholarly expertise, professional experiences and Christian commitments will empower AMBS students to become better practitioners — pastors, chaplains and peacemakers — who are boldly witnessing to God’s healing power in a culturally diverse and racially divided church and society,” said Safwat Marzouk, Ph.D., associate professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and a search committee member.
Thomas also holds a Master of Divinity (2003) and a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Political Science (1999) from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. From 2003 to 2009, she created and managed ministries to college students and young adults with RENEW International, a Catholic faith formation organization in Plainfield, New Jersey. A member of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), she has been a presenter at AAR Annual Meetings (2016, 2019), Manhattan College (2017) and Hebrew Union College (2015), among other settings. She has written for the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion and New Woman, New Church.
“Leah is clear about her own life of faith and attentive to the Christian formation of those around her,” observed Rachel Miller Jacobs, D.Min., associate professor of congregational formation and a search committee member. “She is a transparent, self-aware and contextually-attuned leader; her posture invites colleagues and students alike to love the world and engage both its joys and its challenges, like God does.”
Thomas, who grew up in northern Virginia in the Catholic tradition, said the position appealed to her because its unique combination of teaching and contextual education would allow her to “bring [her] whole self” and [her] varied experiences. She also values the Mennonite theological traditions that she sees AMBS as embodying.
“My desire to teach at AMBS over other institutions is rooted in my own commitment to peace, justice and anti-racism in a world that is reeling from disparity, injustice and divisiveness,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to bring my own passion for intercultural, anti-racist pastoral care to a place that affirms such commitments as both integral and necessary. Our world needs leaders who embody an alternative vision of peace and justice, and I’m humbled and honored to have an opportunity to contribute to that important work.”
Thomas is married to the Rev. Stephen J. Wolma, Ph.D. An ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, Wolma also received his Ph.D. from Drew Theological School, where he studied the intersection of white evangelicalism and critical race theory. He is presently the director of admissions and financial aid at LTS and an instructor in church and nonprofit administration and management. Thomas and Wolma will be relocating to the Elkhart area.
In addition to Miller Jacobs, Lapp and Marzouk, the search committee for the position consisted of Malinda Elizabeth Berry, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and ethics; David Boshart, Ph.D., president (ex officio); and a student representative. The board appointment took place April 17.
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