Plenary Speaker for the 2012 AAIF Biennial Conference: Dr. Donald Ottenhoff, Director of the Collegeville Ecumenical and Culture Research Institute (on SJU campus)

Dr. Donald Ottenhoff, Director of the Collegeville Ecumenical and Culture Research Institute (on SJU campus); will speak at 9 AM on Saturday July 14, 2012 to the AAIF Members gathered in Collegeville, MN

Dr. Donald Ottenhoff will speak about: “Ecumenism in a World of Change”

Don Otthenhoff

Dr. Donald Ottenhoff who is the Director of the Collegeville Ecumenical and Cultural Research Institute on the SJU Campus, will be one of the featured speakers at the 2012 AAIF Biennial Conference

The Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research

About the Institute


The Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research is a meeting place and residential center where a diverse mix of people from various faith communities, including scholars, writers, professionals, artists and corporate leaders, gather to connect faith to the world and its pressing social issues.


The organic beauty of the Institute’s setting, combined with the Institute’s rich history, have made it a spiritual destination for many.  Nestled quietly among trees on a lovely lakeshore,with residential and meeting facilities designed by Marcel Breuer, the campus is especially conducive to intellectual reflection, interfaith dialogue and prayer.

The Institute is an autonomous part of the Saint John’s community, which includes Saint John’s Abbey and University, the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and The Liturgical Press. The women’s community of Saint Benedict’s Monastery and the College of Saint Benedict in nearby St. Joseph further expand the resources for residents of the Institute.
Collegeville- About the Institute


The purpose of the Collegeville Institute is to support research, publication, and education on the important intersections between faith and culture.  Participants seek to discern and communicate the meaning of Christian identity and unity in a religiously and culturally diverse world.

The Collegeville Institute exists to mediate religious conflict and disunity and to build bridges between faith traditions.  Here people share in practicing and teaching the art of living together.

To fulfill its mission, the Institute provides opportunities for people to come together for research, study, prayer, reflection, writing, dialogue, and outreach on issues of faith in today’s world.  It functions as a special learning center for teachers.  Though the Institute is rooted in the exploration of the meaning of Christianity, its combined emphasis on ecumenism and culture make it hospitable to adherents of all religious traditions.

First Person Method

The first-person method is shorthand for an approach to theological discourse that has been practiced at the Institute since 1976. It is known in international theological circles as “the Collegeville approach.”

Behind the method is the conviction that every Christian is a theologian-that is, every Christian has something to say about God. The method also assumes that all good theology, however scholarly, has the weight of lived faith beneath it.

In Institute summer consultations and in regular meetings between resident scholars during the academic year, participants are encouraged to articulate their theologies in the context of their life stories-what they have experienced and known to be true of God and the church.

The inspiration for this approach was the powerful ecumenism that formed among great European theologians in the crucible of Hitler’s prisons, as well as the witness of the German Confessing Church associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Robert S. Bilheimer, executive director from 1974 to 1984, had close contact with the veterans of this experience through the World Council of Churches in the immediate postwar years. Under fascism theology could not remain abstract. Confession of faith in Christ became a matter of life and death. Faith was distilled to the core of its meaning, a meaning that redeemed suffering and death. “Under that pressure you had to come clean about what you believed,” Bilheimer says today. “The power of ‘confessing my faith’ was so different from the traditional ‘confessing my sins.’ Your confession of the faith was as personal as your confession of sins. In Collegeville I was interested in helping people become ‘confessing church’ Christians.”

Collegeville Institute - Ecumenical Research

Speech in the first person is but one aspect of the Collegeville approach.

Its other elements include:

a slant subject--a topic with a twist that compels people to speak out of their faith traditions rather than about them;

an uncommon mix of participants--an unlikely ecumenical collection of individuals who would not come together to talk theologically in any other setting;

strong chairing-leadership that strikes a balance between imposing structure and allowing the process to take its course, and that lets the direction of the conversation set the agenda; and ample, protected time for private reflection.

“The year I spent at the Institute turned out to be one of the most important passages in my life. During that time, I completed two books that set a direction for the past quarter century of my work as a writer. The time and space offered by the Institute, the community with whom I shared that time, the opportunity to worship at the Abbey – and to receive weekly spiritual direction – were vital elements in encouraging and helping sustain a vocation about which I was very uncertain at the time. I will always be grateful to the Institute, and for the fact that it continues to offer support to pastors, writers, teachers and scholars at every stage of their vocational journeys.”
Parker J. Palmer
Best-selling author and educator, Former Institute scholar

College Institute - Ecumenical Mission


For over 40 years the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, founded in 1967, has been reconnecting the broken threads of Christian tradition and community.  The Institute, a residential research center, brings together well-trained, creative, articulate women and men for careful thought and dialogue within a community of inquiry.  Wounds that are sometimes centuries old cannot be healed by scholarship alone, but they cannot be healed at all without patient study by people who are learning to live together.

The Institute depends on people who understand that innovative research is crucial for the church, and who know that quick results are not always the best. In the words of one former resident scholar, the Institute fosters “a deepening personal grasp on the important things that so often must be sacrificed to the merely urgent elsewhere.”

The mission of the Institute links past and present for the sake of the future.

The Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research seeks to discern the meaning of Christian identity and unity in a religiously and culturally diverse nation and world, and to communicate that meaning for the mission of the church and the renewal of human community. The Institute is committed to research, study, prayer, reflection, and dialogue, in a community shaped by the Benedictine tradition of worship and work.

The mission is to encourage research.

• Because the quality of research in any field depends on the quality of the people who do it, the Institute admits and invites to its programs people who mix learning, curiosity, tenacity, and originality.

• As in any field, the research sometimes has immediate effect and application and sometimes has results that first become visible in the future.

The mission is ecumenical.

• Ecumenical (from a Greek word meaning “the whole inhabited world”) defines a new way of being faithful Christians today.

• Ecumenism says:  Pay attention to unfamiliar parts of the tradition. Listen to voices you have not heard clearly before.  Search together for common themes, a story that all can claim as their own.

The mission is cultural.

• The search for Christian unity takes place in a complex world of many beliefs, many styles of life.  The combination of “ecumenical” and “cultural” makes the Institute hospitable to adherents of other faiths and cultures.

• The Institute encourages constructive and creative thought not only in theology and religious studies, but also in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences as they relate to the Christian tradition and include the interplay of Christianity and culture.

• Books, articles, reports, conferences, and the influence of participants when they return home make the Institute’s findings available “for the mission of the church and the renewal of human community.”

The Institute each year affects scores of people directly and many more indirectly. The Institute’s size, style, and scope have proven right for the work it has set for itself. Innovation comes from gathering bright, committed people to search together for new modes of cooperation. 

Ecclesial Literature Project

Words Making Worlds: The Ecclesial Literature Project is a multifaceted program designed to encourage the writing and disciplined reading of serious literature that engages matters of the spirit. The project aims to help congregations again become the kinds of intellectual centers that informed and benefited from writers as varied as Thomas à Kempis, John Milton, John Bunyan, G. K. Chesterton, Georges Bernanos, Graham Greene, Shusako Endo, and Flannery O’Connor, among many others. These writers addressed matters of faith both directly and indirectly, and from perspectives that ranged from skepticism to apologia. Despite their great differences, their work holds this in common: it has appealed to broad audiences and helped general readers attend more carefully to spiritual realities.

Writers like Milton and O’Connor represent a literary genius both rare and unique; yet, throughout its history the church has also been fed by unnumbered writers, many of them pastors, whose writing has had a more local, yet no less significant, impact. The Collegeville Institute hopes to provide time, space, and opportunity for new cohorts of writers who have the inclination and ability to serve the church through the written word. Their contributions can take various forms–from a poem for the ages to a compelling pastoral letter that meets the particular needs of a particular congregation at a particular time.

The Ecclesial Literature Project, funded by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., will convene writing and reading groups at the Institute during the summer months; award prizes for exemplary works of religious literature; and, through its writer-in residence program, bring noted writers to the Institute and Saint John’s campus for varying lengths of time during the academic year. The Institute will also sponsor occasional lectures, readings, and panel discussions about matters that relate to a broad theological literacy within church and society.

The Institute is blessed with resources that offer writers the time, encouragement, and instruction necessary to inspire and support their work. It provides fine residential facilities, generous gathering and workspaces, a retreat-like environment, access to the full resources of a major liberal arts university, and a connection to the deep heritage of the Benedictine tradition.

It has an established record of encouraging the production of both academic and ecclesial literature, and an ecumenical commitment to furthering the purposes of the varied parts of the body of Christ. Writers such as Kathleen Norris, Henri Nouwen, Don Saliers, Lewis Smedes, Parker Palmer, and Joan Chittister have already produced solid works of ecclesial literature during their stays at the Institute. Through their own successfully published works, these writers have demonstrated that the Institute is a place where writers from various denominational and vocational backgrounds can convene, converse, worship, pray, behold God’s handiwork in the natural world, and work hard.

Through the Ecclesial Literature Project the Institute hopes to provide a place where pastors, academics, and laypersons-anyone interested in writing that illumines and feeds the religious life-can live together to write, read one another’s work, and talk about that work. The Institute hopes to serve as an incubator for all sorts of ecclesial writing-fiction, drama, poetry, theological essays, memoir, children’s books, biography, history-and offer instruction in the skills of writing. By helping to generate vital, contemporary forms of writing for people of faith, the Institute seeks to contribute to the vitality of faith within congregations.

Integration in Theological Education

Forming integrated ministers is the goal of all theological schools, yet perspectives vary on what exactly integration means and how it should be practiced. While the question of integration has long been a central concern for theological educators, the subject has not yet received significant attention in terms of scholarship. In order to explore more deeply the diverse issues and challenges involved in integration, the Seminar on Integration in Theological Education and Ministry seeks to bring together seminary faculty, administrators, and pastors from a variety of Christian traditions.

In fall 2010 two initial gatherings were held with seminary deans, field education supervisors, and faculty across the theological disciplines to explore the way in which course work, field education, personal formation and the transition into ministry work together to integrate knowledge, practice, and identity.  A core seminar is currently being assembled to explore issues of integration over the next three years.

The central questions for the Seminar on Integration in Theological Education include:

• What models of integration exist in theological education?  How do different ecclesial traditions influence the ways theological schools think about integration?

• What are some of the best efforts in horizontal and vertical integration in theological schools today?  What is missing?

• What can theological education learn about integration from professional education in other areas?  How does integration happen in law, medicine, engineering, nursing, and education?

• What kind of opportunities and literature would help theological educators across disciplines do integrative work? What resources are needed to help students do integrative learning?

• What do we know about integration as it expresses itself in the practice of ministry in forms of learning, vocation, practical reason, judgment, imagination and competent practice over time?

Vocation and Professions

The first topic that the Seminars have begun to explore is the issue of vocation in relation to professional work and identity. While the concept of vocation has received increased attention in recent years, there has been little theological reflection on the meaning of professions in contemporary society. The Seminar on Vocation, Faith and the Professions therefore aims to develop a theological interpretation of vocation as it relates to particular professions.

In the summer of 2010 we held initial meetings with theologians, pastors, professional educators, and young adult ministers to learn about research and ministry that is currently being done around vocation and profession. As we assemble a core seminar to explore the intersection of vocation and profession over a sustained period of time, we have also developed a small group program to engage people in congregations around questions of vocation and professional identity. Called to Work: Reflecting on Vocation and Profession is currently being piloted throughout Minnesota.

The central questions for the Seminar on Vocation, Faith and the Professions include:

• How do Christians in various professions understand their work as vocation?

• How does faith influence Christians’ professional identity and practice? How does professional practice shape religious faith in turn?

• How can congregations become places of vocational discernment, reflection, and celebration?

• What areas of theological inquiry remain to be explored in order to develop a more robust theology of vocation?

Called to Life: Reflecting on Vocation

Vocation Through the Lifespan

In our initial gatherings on vocation and profession, participants often voiced questions of vocation related to particular periods of the lifespan, from youth and young adulthood through retirement and the elder years. It became clear that in order to develop a more robust theology of vocation, a closer look at vocation through each phase of the lifespan was needed. The Seminar on Vocation through the Lifespan was thus created to explore the emerging development of vocation over a lifetime.

The Seminar on Vocation through the Lifespan is being launched in 2011 with a core group of pastors, social scientists, and theologians from across the disciplines. The Seminar will explore dimensions of vocation in relationship to childhood, youth, young adulthood, adulthood, retirement, and the elder years.

The central questions for the Seminar on Vocation through the Lifespan include:

• How can a theology of vocation account for God’s call in relationship to our whole lives, our whole life long?

• How does an understanding of vocation develop throughout the evolving stages of the lifespan and the particularities of age, context, and challenges that change over time?

• What could a theology of vocation through the lifespan offer to the social sciences in terms of understanding identity construction and the search for meaning and purpose in life?

Collegeville Institute Seminars

The Collegeville Institute Seminars are an interdisciplinary, ecumenical, collaborative initiative designed to gather scholars and ministers to explore issues of importance for today’s Christian communities. The Seminars were launched in 2009 around two initial areas of interest: vocation and the professions, and integration in theological education. A third seminar on vocation through the lifespan was added in 2010.

Through conversation, study, and research, the Seminars seek to draw from the wisdom and experiences of experts in different fields and disciplines, with the goal of creating scholarship and programming for congregations, seminaries, universities, and other places of ministry.

By paying close attention to the lived realities of Christian faith, the Seminars will be developing resources that will serve both the academy and the church. Participation within the Seminars is by invitation only.

Generously funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, the Seminars are a project of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, located at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The Seminars are directed by Kathleen A. Cahalan, Associate Professor at Saint John’s School of Theology.

“The Institute inspired me on many levels. It was good to be among so diverse a group of scholars, and their families. It was good to share with my husband a lovely home on the tree-lined banks of a river, observing peregrine falcons, snowy egrets, blue herons, and turtles. It was good to be able to pray the liturgy of the hours with the monastic communities of St. John’s and St. Ben’s. Above all, I found the atmosphere of the Institute conducive to writing. I finished Dakota there, and began both The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace. I am deeply grateful.”
Kathleen Norris
writer and poet   

Called to Life: Reflecting on Vocation   Welcome to the online version of Called to Life:

We hope this site will provide a space for you to reflect before and after meeting with your small group.   All materials from your Participant Guide are available on this site.    Please visit Learn More for information about using this online version of Called to Life.   We hope that this space will help you to share and explore your own story of vocation.

Learn More About Called to Life

Called to Life gathers small groups for conversation on questions of God’s call in our lives. The program consists of five sessions on aspects of vocation. Each session includes:

*time for prayer through the practice of lectio divina
*a short reading on the session topic
*questions for personal reflection
*questions for group discussion

To begin each session please click on Sessions to make your selection.  You can also choose to print out a pdf version of the entire Participant Guide – Download PDF version of the Participant’s Guide.  

“Our year in Collegeville was one of the best we have ever had.  The library was good, the librarians were helpful, and having studies in the library was wonderful. We are now encouraging colleagues to consider coming to the Institute.  Our sabbatical year in Collegeville offered the kind of renewal that can come only when all the aspects of one’s life are honored and balanced.  Both of us are immensely grateful to have had the privilege of sharing a year in the life of the Institute, Saint John’s, Saint Benedict’s, and the beautiful spot in Creation that they occupy.” 
Dorothy Bass and Mark Schwehn
Valparaiso University, Former Institute scholars

Summer/Fall Programs 2012

Women Writing: A Week with Lauren Winner
For women writing autobiographical non-fiction prose
June 17 – 23, 2012
Lauren Winner, facilitator
We are no longer accepting applications (due date was Monday, January 23)

Words that Sing II: Advanced Writing with Mary Nilsen
A writing seminar for pastors and others with advanced writing skills
June 24 – 30, 2012
Mary Nilsen, facilitator
We are no longer accepting applications (due date was Monday, January 30)

Working Pastors, Writing Pastors: A Week with Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver
Helping active pastors integrate writing into their vocational lives
July 8 – 14, 2012
Lillian Daniel, co-facilitator
Martin Copenhaver, co-facilitator
Marge Barrett, writing coach
We are no longer accepting applications (due date was Monday, February 6)

Theology in the Real World: A Week with Kathleen Norris
Helping pastors, academic theologians, and independent writers unpack theological concepts for a broad audience
July 22 – 28, 2012
Kathleen Norris, facilitator
We are no longer accepting applications (due date was Monday, February 13)

Believing in Writing: A Week with Michael Dennis Browne
For poets, novelists, essayists exploring religious themes in their work
July 29 – August 4, 2012
Michael Dennis Browne, facilitator
We are no longer accepting applications (due date was Monday, February 20)

Apart, and yet a Part
Independent, unstructured work in community
August 5 – 11, 2012
Michael McGregor, writing coach
We are no longer accepting applications (due date was Monday, February 27)

Words that Sing: A Week with Mary Nilsen
An intensive seminar focusing on the craft of writing for pastors and others
August 14 – 21, 2012
Mary Nilsen, facilitator
We are no longer accepting applications (due date was Monday, February 27)


Writing Public Theology: An Interfaith Writing Workshop 
A workshop designed for interfaith public theologians
September 30 – October 6, 2012
Held at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island, Washington
Mary Lane Potter, facilitator
Applications are due electronically by Monday, June 18, 2012

Where we are located

The Institute is part of the 2450-acre Saint John’s community in Collegeville, Minnesota. It includes Saint John’s Abbey, University and Preparatory School, the Liturgical Press, the Hill Monastic Collegeville Institute - LocationManuscript Library, the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, and the Episcopal House of Prayer. Woods, lakes, a wildlife refuge, an arboretum, a bird sanctuary, and a wetlands restoration area make the complex a beautiful natural retreat. Just five miles away, in Saint Joseph, are Saint Benedict’s Monastery and the College of Saint Benedict, with programs fully coordinated with those of Saint John’s University.

A ninety-minute drive on Interstate Highway 94 takes you to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. With more theater seats per capita than any other metropolitan area in the nation, as well as museums, ethnic arts groups and diverse religious congregations, the Twin Cities offer the Institute community important connections to a variety of social, cultural, and spiritual activities.

Everybody wonders about winter. Thermometers do go down and snow does pile up. Collegeville Institute - LocationBut four-and-a-half-million people live in the state, and most of them like it, even in December and January. Minnesotans know how to cope: good heating, warm clothes, a sense of humor. Highway crews plow a foot of snow faster than their counterparts in places farther south move an inch of it, and seldom are schools closed or roads blocked. You will remember the deer leaping across the frozen lake long after you forget that your nose got numb. (With proper gear, even your nose will stay warm.)

How to get to the Institute

Driving Directions:  From I-94, take the Saint John’s University Exit (#156). At the top of the ramp, turn south, into Saint John’s.  Follow 1.2 miles on County Road 159. Just after the bus stop on the right-hand side, turn right on Fruit Farm Road.  Go 200 yards.  You’ll see the Collegeville Institute logo sign on the left. Turn into the driveway and park along it. The Institute office is in the building marked Butler Center.

If you are flying:  The closest airport is the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.  It is a large, international airport about 90 minutes from the Institute.   

From Minneapolis, there are a couple options to get to the Institute, both of which require 1½ – 2 hours driving time, depending on traffic.

  • You may make reservations in advance for a shuttle with Executive Express  Be sure to tell the shuttle driver that you want to be dropped off and picked up at the Collegeville Institute (on the campus of St. John’s University).
  • You may reserve a car at the Airport.

If you have any questions about travel, please contact us at 320-363-3366.

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