Listen to an interview with Dr. Stonehouse
Mari Gonlag, Ph.D.
Mari Gonlag (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) serves as Professor of Religion and Director of the Center for Women in Ministry at Southern Wesleyan University in Central, South Carolina. Previous writing about this person: Gonlag, M. (2004). Catherine M. Stonehouse: Servant of the church, the academy, and children. Christian Education Journal, Series 3, 1 (3), 36-42.
Source: Christian Educators of the 20th Century project, Dr. Kevin Lawson, editor
Dr. Catherine M. Stonehouse (b. 1940). With a tireless passion for doing God’s will, Dr. Catherine Stonehouse has made significant contributions to the field of Christian education through teaching, research and writing (especially in the area of children’s spirituality), mentoring, and administration. Her career has been marked by outstanding service to the local church, to her denomination (The Free Methodist Church), to Asbury Theological Seminary and its students (1987-2011), and to the Church of Jesus Christ. She officially retired from Asbury Theological Seminary on May 19, 2011, but continues to serve as an adjunct professor. She also continues to be involved in the growing international conversations related to holistic child development and children’s spirituality (Christian perspective).
Born in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada), Dr. Catherine Stonehouse (“Cathy”) spent her preschool years in British Columbia. Prior to her parents’ marriage and the beginning of their family, both her mother and father had served as pastors. During the early years of Cathy’s life, her parents served as a clergy couple, sharing responsibility for pastoral ministry. By the time Cathy reached school age, the family had moved to Ottawa, Ontario, where she lived until early adulthood. During these years, her father served as general superintendent for a small holiness denomination that would later merge with the Free Methodist Church, the denomination that would become Cathy’s church home.
Early Years and High School
Cathy’s early years were marked by almost total immersion in the life of the church. Her father’s focus was oversight and administration of the ministry of the denomination. Her mother gave attention to teaching and leadership development, especially through the training programs of the Evangelical Teacher Training Association (ETTA). Camp meetings filled each summer and Cathy quickly became an assistant in the ministry to children. The denomination was one that encouraged young people to become engaged in ministry and service and a woman in her church who led Good News clubs sought Cathy out as an assistant. With these various opportunities to serve she grew up with first-hand knowledge and experience of working with children. By age fourteen, she was leading children’s ministries in camps. At sixteen, she directed her first Vacation Bible School (VBS). In those years, most local churches were small and multi-staff ministries were uncommon. Thus, models for Christian education ministries generally were itinerant children’s workers and music ministers who joined efforts with an itinerant evangelist. While her mother was her strongest model, Cathy also recalls two female Wesleyan pastors she viewed from a distance and respected for their faithfulness in following God’s call.
While in high school, a woman in the church who led a Friday afternoon children’s meeting allowed and encouraged Cathy and some friends to get involved. With no curricular materials, they developed a puppet ministry and began learning the skills of storytelling. Those early experiences fed her passion for children’s ministry, while at the same time nurturing a commitment to the development of effective curriculum for local church ministries.
Cathy describes herself as having a very practical faith, but not being “a very mystical person.” She committed her life to Christ at a young age. As she struggled later with living out the implications of her faith, a key verse guided her thoughts and plans: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13, NLT). But raised in a holiness denomination, she recounts a 12 year struggle to understand the call to be sanctified and find this deeper relationship with God, a struggle that was often met with frustration and, sometimes, despair. She describes her eventual discovery this way: “The day did come when in spiritual exhaustion I stopped striving and collapsed on God. Then I discovered that God had done a new work in my heart and a new relationship had begun” (Holiness Today, 2003, 21).
By her teenage years, Cathy began to sense God’s call to a life of full time ministry. One Easter weekend, she attended a missions conference where God’s call to service was clear. Here she was faced with a decision as to whether or not she would do God’s will. Sure that she wanted to “keep on walking in God’s way,” she recalls that the experience raised a distinct question about what it meant for her to do God’s will. At that time, the options open to women who chose to serve God vocationally were rather limited and Cathy’s experience and personal knowledge of such women was limited as well. Considering the models of which she was aware, and not interested at that point in teaching, she assumed following God’s call meant missionary service. And if she were to become a missionary … but did not want to teach … then the direction to pursue must be missionary nursing. This event and subsequent reflection upon it set the course for her college education.
Early Career and Seminary Education
Cathy enrolled at the Ottawa Civic Hospital School of Nursing in Ottawa, Ontario. Upon graduation from this hands-on, “in-hospital” nurses training program in 1961, she matriculated to Greenville College, Greenville, Illinois, and completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 1962. Though nursing never became the passion of her life, it became the sustainer of her livelihood for several years of additional education.
With her nursing profession paying the bills, Cathy enrolled at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Lacking a definite call to pastoral ministry, she landed in the Master of Religious Education program. By her own admission, this direction seemed to be more by default than design at the time. But God was directing every step. Throughout her seminary years, Cathy was experiencing a steady transformation of goals toward educational ministry. She found herself becoming more and more excited about what God could do through the laity as they were trained, organized, and motivated for God’s mission.
A few months before her seminary graduation in 1964, Cathy had a timely conversation with a key layperson from Canada. Since the churches of her denomination were relatively small and staffed only by solo pastors, she shared her vision for networking small churches with an itinerant Christian education worker who could disciple, train, and mobilize the laity. As an outgrowth of that vision, upon graduation she found herself moving to the Toronto area to serve as Director of Christian Education for a three-church network. Though working for only two years in this context, the multiple-church “network” also multiplied her experience and she began to understand more clearly the challenges of leading educational ministries in the churches of her denomination.
A “Chance Encounter” with Dr. Donald Joy
During these years as DCE in Toronto, a “chance” encounter with Dr. Donald Joy at a district event led to an open door of ministry with the Free Methodist Publishing House, then located in Winona Lake, Indiana. Cathy began her work with the Publishing House as Publications Consultant in 1966, serving as a communication link between the Publishing House and the local church. For three years, she traveled extensively, interpreting the resources for local church ministries and gathering feedback for the Publishing House as she brought lay teachers workshops within sixty miles of every one of her denomination’s churches in North America.
From 1969 to 1971, Cathy served the Free Methodist Publishing House as Editor of Young Teen Curriculum. During these years, she became involved with the Aldersgate Publishers Association, a cooperative curriculum endeavor among several holiness denominations to produce a variety of products from a Wesleyan theological perspective. Cathy eventually played a key role in their Graded Curriculum project.
In the early 1970s, two things helped provide direction for Cathy’s future ministry. The first was the publication of Dr. Donald Joy’s Meaningful Learning in the Church. Through this lay-oriented training manual on learning theory, Cathy grasped hold of the truth that the goal of teaching in the church is to see lives changed and the key to effective Christian education ministry is to make the process of life changing learning understandable to lay volunteers. She was so committed to the concept that she wrote the leader’s guide to Meaningful Learning that is appended to the denominational training text version of the book. Those truths became part of the very fabric of Cathy’s thinking and they are evident today in the way her writings explore complex truths in a clear and simple manner.
The second critical event occurred when Cathy first faced directly what has been referred to as the “glass ceiling” of women in church leadership and ministry. In 1972, Dr. Don Joy, Director of Curriculum Ministries at the Free Methodist Publishing House and one of her professional mentors/sponsors in ministry, left to teach at Asbury Theological Seminary. Despite Dr. Joy’s recommendation that she replace him, she was not offered the position. She approached church leaders to question why she was not given the position and was told that a woman would not be respected in interdenominational groups such as the Aldersgate consortium. Fearing the loss of the denomination’s voice in such settings, church officials were not ready to offer her the leadership position. With a deep desire to serve God to her full potential, this experience prompted Cathy to start her Ph.D. studies at Michigan State University that same year.
Throughout her Ph.D. studies, Cathy continued working full time for the Publishing House, conducting seminars with local church leaders throughout North America. She quickly connected with her academic mentor Dr. Ted Ward and through his influence she began exploring research on moral development. Intrigued with the interaction between faith and the social sciences, Cathy describes her discovery of the work of Kohlberg and others on moral development as having “lit my fire!” These were also years of theological development and “owning” of a personal theology. She discovered the work of theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop through her book A Theology of Love. She began to see the connections between the research and theory of developmentalists such as Piaget, Erikson, and Kohlberg, and the process of the Christian’s faith development. Cathy describes this experience as having “discovered the dynamic process of human learning from a theological perspective.” Questions raised in these years became the shapers of her academic career as she has continued across her career to seek ways to “teach the faith” that are appropriate to the learner’s holistic development (cognitive, psycho/social, moral, spiritual).
From 1972-75, Cathy served the Free Methodist Publishing House as a Curriculum Consultant. She also became chair of the Aldersgate consortium’s Committee on Young Teens. In 1975, with the classroom phase of her Ph.D. work completed and her dissertation research underway, she was finally promoted to the position of Director of Curriculum Ministries at the Free Methodist Publishing House. She completed her Ph.D. degree in education at Michigan State University in 1976. Eventually she was appointed the General Director of Christian Education for the Free Methodist Church and served in that position from 1981-1987 (the first female senior executive to serve at Free Methodist headquarters, apart from the women’s missionary society).
Though she had grown up in a home where both parents were ministers (her father ordained and her mother a lay minister who had held pastoral responsibility), Cathy initially avoided pursuing the official blessing of the church through ordination. During seminary, she had steered clear of the Master of Divinity degree because she saw pastoring as a male role. She really did not desire God to call her in that direction and, therefore, saw no reason to seek ordination. While in Toronto, the pastor of her home church at one point assumed she would pursue ordination and initiated the process of licensing Cathy through the Free Methodist Church’s “local preacher’s license.” But Cathy simply let the matter drop. In her early years working with the denominational Publishing House, she saw no need to be ordained. However, when she was appointed the General Director of Christian Education for the Free Methodist Church, she recognized her responsibility to provide “pastoral oversight” for the Christian education team of the denomination. This responsibility prompted her to seek the blessing and commissioning of the church through ordination. In 1986, she initiated the ordination process and she was ordained by the Free Methodist Church two years later in 1988. Seeing ordination as a “covenantal relationship of the blessing of the church for current responsibilities,” Cathy found that her ordination was extremely important to the women students she counseled at Asbury Theological Seminary.
In 1987, Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, invited Cathy to join the faculty as Professor of Christian Education. Her long-time mentor in ministry, Dr. Donald Joy, recommended her for this position. According to Dr. Joy, the position vastly increased her influence since she was now “mentoring leaders for more than thirty denominations.” Her position was particularly historic since she was the first woman to serve as a full time professor on that faculty since the 1940s. At Asbury, Cathy’s teaching areas included the ministry of Christian education in the local church, ministry with children, women in ministry, and curriculum development. Her expertise was quickly recognized and she was soon named to an endowed chair as Orlean Bullard Beason Professor of Christian Education. But her ministry there was not to be limited to teaching alone. In 2005 she assumed the role of Dean of the School of Practical Theology, a position which she held until her retirement in 2011.
Cathy has been honored by a number of special recognitions of her various accomplishments. Focusing on her very practical contributions to the church at the grass roots level, on July 3, 1995, she was inducted into the Christian Educators Hall of Fame for the Free Methodist Church. In 1998, her book Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey received an Outstanding Academic Book Award from Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. As her recent research on children’s spirituality has gained attention, two honors have been granted to Cathy and co-author Scottie May. Their book Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey was recently named to the 2010 Book of the Year list by the Academy of Parish Clergy. In addition, Cathy and Scottie were recognized by the naming of a national research scholarship bearing their names, to be given by the Society for Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives. In 2010, the North American Professors of Christian Education organization, a professional organization in which Cathy invested multiple terms of leadership as a board member, honored her with the Warren S. Benson Distinguished Christian Educator Award.
Beyond her professional achievements, Cathy is particularly revered and loved by two other constituencies that are quick to honor her: her family, especially her nieces and nephews; and the friends and colleagues with whom she has shared life and ministry. The latter group also includes former students, who had an unusual way of becoming personal friends of this very down-to-earth professor! Though never marrying or having children of her own, Cathy has taken the privilege and responsibility of nurturing future generations in her family as a sacred trust. Stories of her nieces and nephews (and eventually grand nieces and nephews!) fill her books and two of those books ( Joining Children and Children Matter ) are dedicated to those nieces and nephews. She has taken the role of “Aunt” to a new level; loving, learning from, and delighting in sharing the faith journey with her precious family who recognize in her life the unique blending of deep faith, active ministry, and a welcoming invitation to share life and the journey of faith together
Likewise, her colleagues in ministry (both faculty and students), especially at Asbury, consistently honor her with recognition of her thoroughgoing scholarship. They note the unusual combination of one who thinks theologically and biblically about ministry, all the while keenly aware of the local church as the primary context for ministry. Recognizing her gifts in administration, they also mention her careful attention to detail, balanced by an unusual ability to keep the big picture and the views of various constituencies in mind. Yet overall, testimonies to her life and ministry emphasize the personal dimension — her sincere faith, warm personal relationships, generous gifts of time and willingness to listen, and fierce advocacy for those in need. At her retirement celebration, colleague Dr. Christine Pohl characterized Cathy’s basic outlook and approach in the remarks of her retirement tribute: “If I had to choose one word to characterize how Cathy approaches life, faith, and people, I would choose delight. Whether she is talking with a four year old child and explaining to him how an old mill works, or discussing with a colleague the implications of biblical emphasis on the people of God, you see her delight in the conversation” (Pohl, Tribute, 2011). Other faculty colleagues described her as “beloved” (Kiesling, 2011) and as a “true friend and guide” (Pohl, interview, 2011). Her ability to integrate her understanding of the Bible, theology, and learning theory does not end with academic subjects, but translates into a faith enacted in a life lived with integrity and grace.
When asked about her plans for retirement [which has begun as of the time of the publishing of this blog post], Cathy identifies as many goals as marked her formal professional career. She shares a “growing passion” to help find ways to provide children and others with the whole story of redemption, not in the isolated bits of Bible stories but with the exciting, engaging, and unfolding story of God – from the Old Testament through the New Testament to the testament (i.e. witness, covenant relationship) of each believer. She believes that it is as Christians get a sense of this whole story that they begin to understand the very character of God. She also anticipates being able to be available for a “manageable number” of teaching opportunities, especially in the area of children’s spirituality. She already has a list of engagements which include both seminars for children’s pastors and more formal seminary intensive courses. She has also already had informal invitations for teaching opportunities in the Philippines, India, and Taiwan. In recent years, as her research in children’s spirituality has progressed, she has become a part of the growing global conversation about holistic childhood development in a variety of venues. As these various pieces come together, she anticipates a growing ministry of mentoring leaders and those who are equipping the grass roots leaders in ministry with children. She is fascinated by the idea of building networks and partnerships internationally that can make a difference for children around the world. But even in the midst of her growing international vision, she is also looking forward to retirement as a time to invest back into the lives of those in her family, especially her nieces and nephews and their children. She looks forward to having time and space to invest very personally into their lives, sharing the journey of life and, hopefully, the journey of faith with them. Ultimately, she reveals again that, even after such an illustrious career, she is ultimately focused on people and their relationship with God.