Nelle G. Slater
By Linda J. Vogel
Dr. Nelle G. Slater (1928-2016) is a United Methodist lay woman called to engage in religious education leadership from that social location. Her work in local congregations, in college and university and in theological education as both administrator and professor, and as a leader in the Religious Education Association and the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education has gifted many educators whom she mentored. Her collaborative approach to research also has empowered both students and colleagues.
Childhood and Education
Nelle G. Slater was born to Charles Arthur Slater and Edna Adele Murphy Slater in Pecos, Texas, in 1928. She had one older brother, John Edward. Her father was a farmer and then had a job with the Texas-Louisiana Power Co. and her mother was a teacher and then became a principal. Nelle was born just before the crash of 1929. The family moved to California where her mother had been raised when Nelle was four years old. She received her early education in Glendale, CA.
Nelle's parents did not belong to a church though her father's heritage from England was Wesleyan. She was sent to Sunday school-attending Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Baptist Sunday schools until she began junior high. She attended a Roman Catholic grade school near her home in the third grade. In the seventh grade, she became active in a Methodist Youth Fellowship group and responded to her vocational call to Christian education leadership at a MYF Christian Adventure Camp when she was in the ninth grade. Thus began her life-long identification as a (United) Methodist.
Nelle chose to attend Whittier College after high school graduation because she was attracted by both its Quaker heritage and its social witness. However, her ties to the Methodist church remained strong and she continued to be involved in the California-Arizona Annual Conference youth programs. In the summer after her junior year at Whittier College (1948), she was one of two women selected to go with seven men to Germany to relate to the Methodists in Germany as a part of the first of many "work teams" sent by her annual conference. She majored in religion and the social sciences at Whittier and worked twenty hours a week during her junior and senior years as Director of Junior High Youth at First Methodist Church in Whittier.
Upon graduation (1950), she moved to the east coast where she completed the M.R.E. degree at Boston University (1950-52). She then returned to Whittier where she served as Director of Christian Education at the Plymouth Congregational Church for five years (1952-1957). During that time she and her congregation were involved with the denominational church school curriculum as well as with planning a new facility at a new location. Some families elected to participate in a Character Research Project of Union College led by Ernest Ligon during this time. She also accepted the invitation by Whittier College to teach the religious education class in their religion department.
After five years of service in this congregational church she decided to take the advice of her major professor at Boston University and she moved back to Boston to enter their Ph.D. program and to teach as a part-time instructor (1957-58). She was granted a Lilly Endowment Fellowship (1958-1960) and received her Ph.D. from Boston University in 1960. Her dissertation was: Children's Conceptual Thinking and Biblical Studies Units.
Nelle studied with Harvard Professor, Robert Ulich, while at Boston University. She reports being strongly influenced by these lines from the last paragraph of his book, The History of Religious Education ."To constantly create and recreate the saving sense of the sacredness of life within a freedom-loving society: this is the noblest and most necessary task of religious education." (1968, 280).
Her Evolving Vocation
Nelle Slater's vocation as a professor of religious education culminated in almost twenty years (1980-1999) as Professor of Christian Education at Christian Theological Seminary (Disciples) in Indianapolis, IN. She was appointed to the Lois and Dale Bright Chair of Christian Ministries in 1993. Always one to organize and empower others, she served on the board of directors of the Religious Education Association (1990-1993) and as design chairperson for the REA Biennial International Convention held in Indianapolis in November, 1992. That conference on adult religious education was truly ecumenical, interfaith, and international and was one of the most successful REA conventions in the last quarter of the 20th century.
She was also actively involved in APRRE from 1977 to the present and served on its executive committee in 1984-85. She was an invited participant at a consultation on revitalizing APRRE in 1994.
During her tenure at Christian Theological Seminary, she created and then served as Director of the Center for Congregational Education where she led one of the center's most important projects-a National Faculty Seminar (1982-1987). Under Dr. Slater's leadership and with funding from the Lilly Endowment, Mary C. Boys, Don S. Browning, Walter Brueggemann, John A. Coleman, Bernard J. Cooke, Thomas F. Green, Karen Lebacqz, Sara P. Little, and C. Ellis Nelson worked collaboratively on seeking to explore education for citizenship and discipleship. The fruits of this work resulted in the publication of two books: Tensions between Citizenship and Discipleship: A Case Study for which Nelle wrote the focal case study as well as edited , and Education for Citizenship and Discipleship , edited by Mary C. Boys.
She also served as President-elect and then President (1994-1999) of the United Methodist Association of Scholars in Christian Education. During the time of her leadership, that organization did significant work around issues of cultural pluralism.
Dr. Slater's vocation blossomed in her years at Christian Theological Seminary. But it was planted and grew profusely in the blending of higher education administration and teaching that prepared her to become a leader in theological education. Following the completion of her Ph.D. she served as Assistant Professor of Religion and Dean of Women at Whittier College (1960-1965). She returned to Boston University School of Theology as Associate Professor of Religious Education (1965-66) and then returned to Whittier College as Professor of Religion (1966-1972). She was Academic Dean and Professor of Religion at Colorado Women's College (1972-1975). She served as visiting professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University (1975-1976). Once again she returned to Boston University as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Christian Education (1977-1980). These experiences prepared her for twenty productive years at Christian Theological Seminary where she was a leader in the faculty.
Mentor of Students
Nelle Slater leaves us with fewer books than many who are included in this 20th Century project, though she has done some significant writing. But I believe her greatest legacy is to be found in the lives of her students who attest to her self-giving support and influence on their own development and ministries. Themes that run through these testimonies include how she mentored and continues to mentor them long after they graduated, how she offers "genuine concern and encouragement," and how she lifted up their gifts and helped them claim a ministry beyond what they had envisioned.
One student whom she mentored, Debora Junker, earned her Ph.D. and returned to teach in the Methodist Seminary in San Paulo, Brazil in 2003. Dr. Junker's work is informed by feminist and liberationist scholars as she seeks to develop a strong model for religious education in her South American setting. She says, Â“For me, Nelle Slater embodies the true image of a teacher who is able to walk with students until they are able to open new avenues for themselves. She is a faithful person who honors and encourages others to discover their gifts and who has a deep concern towards women around the globe. Certainly, her influence in my life will be revealed to others beyond the United States as I am returning to teach in my country…Each time that I will be able to pass on what I learned from her, I think I will be giving her thanks for what she has done for me" (from an e-mail to me dated 1/30/02).
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso says Nelle Slater's encouragement led her to pursue writing for children-books that have won many interfaith awards. Her first book, God's Paintbrush, includes this acknowledgment: "This book was first conceived in a class taught by Dr. Nelle Slater. My gratitude for her encouragement and the freedom she gave me to explore this idea" (Jewish Lights Publishers,1992). Since that time, Rabbi Sasso has written numerous books for children including God Said Amen, In God's Name, God In-Between, Noah's Wife, and But God Remembered. She and her husband, Dennis, are co-rabbis at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis where they have served for over 25 years.
Rabbi Sasso describes Nelle Slater like this: Nelle understood the importance of a solid theological education for children. Religious education for her was not just the transmission of ritual, history and ceremony but the exploration of ways which nurtured the spirit of the child. She never talked down to children; she respected them. She was less concerned with their answers than with their questions and their conversation. She taught that in taking the hands of children on their spiritual search, adults enriched their own journey (letter from Sandy Sasso to me dated 12/19//01).
Another former student, friend and colleague, Dr. Jay Southwick, writes and teaches for laity and is committed to empowering laity to engage in serious biblical study. Ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Dr. Southwick taught at Butler University for ten years before choosing to leave academia to teach and write for and with laity. She serves as director of Honeycomb Resources, Inc. -an interfaith and not for profit institution that creates and produces educational materials relating faith and daily living.
She observes that "Nelle exemplifies what is the very best in an educator. She stays on a growing edge in her profession and she exhibits an all-around interest in current, national and world events." She "continues to open new vistas for study and meaning-making" (e-mail to me dated 1/01/02).
I must acknowledge the way Nelle served as a mentor to me as well. I was a young college professor of Christian education from a small United Methodist Iowa college. I was asked to serve on a United Methodist Professors of Christian Education task force chaired by Alan Moore to examine what it might mean to consider Christian education as a discipline in its own right. I did not yet have my Ph.D. and Nelle and I were the only women on this task force. She treated me as a valued colleague and a friend and mentored me into my identity as a Christian religious educator and a professor. Her keen questions, careful listening, and considered insights were formative in my life.
Concern for Women in a Global Context
Nelle's vocation has consistently embodied her commitments to women and to global and inter-faith concerns. She was the first woman professor invited to a lectureship by the Russian Initiative to the Russian United Methodist Theological School in Moscow where she lectured in the summer of 1996. In 1994 she spent six weeks in Guyana, South America on a cross cultural/faith studies experience. She has participated in an Association of Theological Scholars Summer Institute including a site emersion in Nicaragua (1990). She was invited to present a paper in Seoul, Korea in 1984 at a conference on "God: The Contemporary Discussion." She participated in the United Methodist Woman Administrators and Faculty group and was chair of that group from 1978-1980. She was one of the founders and a member of the Board of Directors of the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute (1973-1975).
In a recent letter to me, Nelle shared these reflections on her vocation as a lay religious educator who has lived out her calling as administrator and as professor. She wrote:
As a youth a prayer room was constructed in our junior high department. It was a memorial to one of our teacher's recently deceased wife. It was large enough for a small group to meet and share our words about E. Stanley Jones' Abundant Living. A half circle kneeling rail provided room for up to ten of us at a time. On the center of the wall we faced while kneeling hung a copy of Holman Hunt's painting, "The Light of the World."
It included the visualization of these words from the book of Revelation: "Listen, I am standing at the door knocking: if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me" The mystery in this pre-Raphaelite painting gives the spiritual invitation; yet, it seeks my active choice in the response. The Divine guest awaits, garbed as prophet, priest, and King. I am to be the one who may open the door. If, and when I do, we meet each other and each of us is given "between" us creative space. The Divine awaits, garbed as prophet, priest and King.
Across the years I find I continue the visitations I began in response to this art. It may serve to share my understanding of creative Christian religious education. It remains regenerative…
As teacher with students, among colleagues with institutional decisions, and as an institutional administrator in undergraduate and graduate education, I have reflected upon the context as a social participant in institutional life. The inadequacies of institutional traditions and practices need to be examined in the dialogue with the One who still stands at the door. Religious education calls forth aliveness that is food for the meals with the "invited in" Guest (from an e-mail to me dated 1/30/02) .
Reflecting on this e-mail statement during a phone call in July of 2003, Dr. Slater laughed as she said, "Isn't it amazing! Prophet, priest, and king is certainly strong male imagery, and yet I never doubted that it was speaking to me as a young woman."
Dr. Slater retired to Redding, CA, where she is actively engaged in designing and teaching in the adult education program at First United Methodist Church (Redding). She is a member of the design team of the Inter-faith Witness for Justice and Peace in Redding and has facilitated conversations and mutual understanding among Islamic, Jewish and Christian believers.
Addendum: Dr. Nelle G. Slater passed away on June 27, 2016, in Redding, CA.
Books and Articles
- Slater, N. G. (1958). Services of Worship. Church School Worker, 8 ( 9), June/July, 27-36.
- Slater, N. G. (1958). Write Your Own Drama. Christian Advocate, 2, (9), September.
- Slater, N. G. (1960). Children's conceptual thinking and biblical studies units (Doctoral dissertation, Boston University, 1960). Microfilm: Ann Arbor, MI, LC:BF723.C5.
- Slater, N. G. (1964). An Effective Climate for Supervision. The Church School. 18 (2), October, 3-4.
- Slater, N. G. (1967). Toward Whittier College's Community. Unpublished manuscript. Whitier College.
- Slater, N. G. (1967). Toward Whittier College's Community. Address at Annual Scholarship Recognition Convocation, Ma6 9, 1967, 1-15.
- Slater, N. G. (1968). Dialogue of Convictions: Education in a Free Society. The Rock, XXV (2), Summer.
- Slater, N. G. (1970). A Model for Undergraduate Education. Unpublished manuscript. Whittier College.
- Slater, N. G. (1982). Faithful Participation in Seeking to Know. Encounter, 43 (70), Autumn.
- Slater, N. G. (1989). Book Review: Education for Reverence by Victor Gross. Religious Education, 87(1), 161-163.
- Slater, N. G. (1989). Book Review: The Dark Lord: Images and the Hare Krishnas in America by Larry D. Shinn. Religious Education 84 (Sum), 467-468.
- Slater, N. G. (1989). Forward. In M. C. Boys (Ed.), Education for Citizenship and Discipleship (pp. vii-viii). New York: Pilgrim Press.
- Slater, N. G. (Ed.). (1989). Tensions between Citizenship and Discipleship: A Case Study. New York: Pilgrim Press.
- Slater, N. G.. (1989). A Case Study of Offering Hospitality: Choosing to be a Sanctuary Church (pp.1-26). In N. G. Slater (Ed.), Tensions between Citizenship and Discipleship: A Case Study.. New York: Pilgrim Press.
- Slater, N. G. (1991). Book Review: A Teachable Spirit. by Richard Robert Osmer. Theology Today, XLVIII (1), 94-98.
- Slater, N. G. (1991). The Heart's Warmth Is Not So Strange: A Feminist Paradigm. In E. C. F. Price (Ed.), By What Authority: A Conversation on Teaching Among United Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon.
- Slater, N. G. (1992). Book Review: Educating for Reverence: The Legacy of Abraham Heschel by Victor Gross. Religious Education, 87 (Win), 161-163.
- Slater, N. G. (1995). Changes in visions. Illif Lectures, 1995 (Side 2 of 1 sound cassette recording). Boulder, CO: Perpetual Motion Unlimited.
- Slater, N. G. (2003). Making the Implicit Explicit: A Fence around Hospitality. In Janet F. Fishburn (Ed.), People of a Compassionate God: Creating Welcoming Congregations (pp.63-81). Nashville: Abingdon.
Excerpts from Publications
From Dr. Slater's inaugural address as Professor of Christian Education at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana given May 6, 1981.Encounter (1982), Faithful Participation in Seeking to Know. Vol. 43, Autumn.
The church in mission needs a ministry, of people and pastors, whose orienting horizon includes a vision that is: hoping toward God's fulfillment and loving in its intentional actualization, and drawing on faithful resources to enable our becoming among the cloud of witnesses. (331) To live love with others and self is to experience life abundantly. To learn to live such love and to love to learn such living is to faithfully participate in seeking to know. (336)
From Tensions between Citizenship and Discipleship: A Case Study (1989), Nelle G. Slater (Ed.,) New York: Pilgrim Press.
The vitality of a congregation, like a person, may be informed by reference to a "significant other." To formulate a sense of who we are as citizens and disciples, we may gain as we see ourselves in juxtaposition with reference to another. Circumstances in question will be perceived as differing in some respects, but transformation begins when members receive and construct meaningful symbols. The spirit of hospitality is incarnated, not when there is perfect consensus, but where men and women are able to sustain their faith-living lives tenaciously. (1-2) Hearing the ministers of Covenant Church, ordained and lay, the listener notes that Christ continues to be revealed to the congregation in ever-new ways. And closer scrutiny leads the observer to a stark realization that this ongoing revelation is fraught with ambiguities for The Church of the Covenant: unrest and peace; pain and solace; hurt and healing. To interpret the gospel's mandate of hospitality in terms of offering sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees is to accept these ambiguities and, thereby, part of the cost of discipleship. (25)
Slater, N. G. (Ed.). (1989). Tensions between Citizenship and Discipleship: A Case Study. New York: Pilgrim Press.
Slater, N. G. (1991). The Heart's Warmth Is Not So Strange: A Feminist Paradigm. In E. C. F. Price (Ed.), By What Authority: A Conversation on Teaching Among United Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon.
Slater, N. G. (2003). Making the Implicit Explicit: A Fence around Hospitality. In Janet F. Fishburn (Ed.). People of a Compassionate God: Creating Welcoming Congregations (pp.63-81). Nashville: Abingdon.
Linda J. Vogel
Linda J. Vogel, Ph.D. (University of Iowa, 1981), served as professor of Christian education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, IL) for sixteen years before retiring in 2003 as Professor Emeriti and Senior Scholar. She is a deacon in the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.