The Rev. Dr. Garnett E. Foster will retire as Director of Field Education and Ministry Placement, May 31, 2009.
By Toya Richards Hill
Last fall, The Rev. Dr. Garnett E. Foster, announced she would retire as Director of Field Education and Ministry Placement of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary at the end of the academic year.
When Rev. Foster completes her ministry at Louisville Seminary, in May, it won’t be difficult to identify her legacy.
Foster’s legacy walks around campus and sits in the classrooms of Louisville Seminary; graces the pulpits of churches throughout the United States and abroad; paces the halls of hospitals, emergency rooms, and prisons; and fills diverse and unique spaces wherever ministry takes place. Current students at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Seminary and those who have graduated and taken calls in ministry are shining examples of what Foster will leave for future generations of men and women who come to Louisville Seminary to follow God’s call to ministry.
As Director of Field Education and Ministry Placement, Foster has worked with more than 700 students over her tenure, ensuring they have the necessary tools and hands-on training to effectively serve.
“I want them [students] to have the skills to assess where a congregation is, to be able to deal with complexity, and to work for change,” said Foster, who was ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1982. The hope is for “students who can reflect theologically and keep growing in ministry.”
Certainly, they are skills that Foster has fine-tuned personally over the years. She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, where she earned a Master of Arts degree in Christian education; and McCormick Theological Seminary, where she received a Doctor of Ministry degree in parish revitalization.
Foster also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Michigan in educational psychology.
“I played with ideas,” she said of her educational experience. “You let stuff percolate and see where it goes. That is what I enjoy doing.”
That exploration of ideas has translated into her own real-life experiences, such as a “life transforming” job in the mid 1960s with the Urban League in New York’s Harlem. There, Foster said she learned “you can’t love anyone without doing justice for them.”
Foster also has held a number of positions as director of Christian education in congregations such as Red Clay Creek United Presbyterian Church, Wilmington Del.; The American Church, Geneva, Switzerland; First Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, Mich.; and First United Church, Oak Park, Ill.
Throughout her ministry, her commitment to serving and enhancing the multicultural church led her to provide leadership to ethnically and culturally diverse congregations, such as Teaneck Presbyterian Church located in urban Teaneck, N.J., where she served as pastor from 1984 to 1991.
“We struggled a lot with learning from one another and what was important to one another,” Foster recalled. But when we could talk through things, “we could learn.”
For eight years, from 1991 to 1999, Foster also served as the pastor of the multicultural Takoma Park Presbyterian Church in Takoma Park, Md.
A mixture of race, culture, economic status, and sexual orientation made service there challenging, Foster said. But again, “You just keep trying to get people to keep talking to one another,” she said.
Theological education took a prominent role in Foster’s life in 1999 when she joined the faculty and administration of Louisville Seminary as Director of Vocational Formation. In the 1980s, she had served as assistant director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at McCormick Theological Seminary.
“I was interested in spirituality... and adding a new dimension to seminary life,” she said. Foster’s plan was to stay at Louisville Seminary three years and then head back to urban ministry. But things didn’t quite happen that way.
In 2003, Foster filled in as Interim Director of the Seminary’s field education program following the retirement Dr. George D. Carter, who helped shape the nationally recognized program since 1988. Two years later, she was asked to officially become Director of Field Education and Ministry Placement. It was her love of and dedication to parish ministry that made her the standout choice.
“What I care about is the parish, and that has been reflected in what I’ve done,” she said. Plus, “I want students to have broad-base experiences,” everything from preaching to officiating at funerals, Foster said.
At Louisville Seminary, students in the Master of Divinity degree program are required to take four semesters of field education, and they are strongly encouraged to seek placements in diverse settings—unfamiliar places that are counter to their upbringing. Under Foster’s guidance, students have been expected to immerse themselves in ministry situations that stretch, challenge, and expand preconceived notions of ministry and service.
Just talk to those around her and you’ll find evidence of Foster’s commitment.
“Garnett has been the most incredible champion for our students in field education and in making sure that they explore different areas of ministry that they may not have sought for themselves,” said Fran Schnuerle, who has served 16 years as the administrative secretary in field education and placement at the Seminary. “Number one with her has always been students.”
Enhancing a top-notch field education program under Foster’s leadership has meant such things as expanding the pool of field education supervisors and deepening their training, refining the field education manual, and working more collaboratively with her colleagues at other Presbyterian Church (USA) seminaries.
“As Foster has nurtured diverse and creative ministry partnerships and quality supervision in our hallmark program, the variety of field education has also grown, and our students are better prepared for relevant ministries in the world,” said Louisville Seminary President Dean K. Thompson.
She has streamlined the program and “made it more renowned than it already was,” Schnuerle said. “Her church experience and her experience with supervisors allow students to get the best possible field experience that will help them in their ministry.”
Foster has served extensively in the Presbyterian denomination, including at the General Assembly level, with presbyteries and synods, and internationally in locations including the Middle East, Central America, and Africa.
After she retires, Foster said she wants to explore the issue of Christian-Muslim dialogue, and is contemplating traveling back to the Middle East.
“Garnett is a real treasure,” said third-year Master of Divinity degree student David Jewel. Coming to Louisville Seminary from a background in government, Jewel said he particularly recalls Foster’s openness to helping him shape a field education placement in 2006-2007 that combined the Seminary and the local human relations commission.
“Garnett displayed the willingness to try something that had not been tried before,” said Jewel, who currently serves as the Stated Student Supply Pastor at Mount Lebanon Presbyterian Church, outside Henryville, Ind.
“It demonstrated the willingness of both the Seminary and Garnett to experiment with agency placements in addition to typical church placements,” he said.
A “great encourager” is what Louisville Seminary graduate Rev. Marie Hanselman (MDiv ’03) recalls of Foster. “She was always there to listen to me and to talk to me and to encourage me.”
Hanselman, who earned her Master of Divinity degree and now pastors Presbyterian churches in Ripley, N.Y., and Erie, Pa., said she was chapel coordinator during her second year and that Foster was her supervisor.
“She helped me to design worship services that were a little more creative than had been done in the past,” Hanselman said. Through Foster, she said she gained “the freedom to try new things, freedom to question areas of faith and to work through them.”
Rev. Foster will serve as Director of Field Education and Ministry Placement through May 31, 2009. A community gathering will be held later this spring to celebrate her accomplishments and her contribution to the preparation of men and women for redemptive ministries in the church and in the world.