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A new vision for urban ministry training in Memphis

Harding School of Theology’s planned move to Arkansas inspires the creation of the Center for Church and City Engagement.

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MEMPHIS, TENN. — A move to Memphis shaped Steve Cloer’s ministry focus.

Cloer and his wife, Lindsay, relocated to this gritty urban city along the Mississippi River two-plus decades ago so he could attend Harding School of Theology.

“Part of that formative process for me was coming to HST and the classes and the study and the research,” Cloer said. “Part of it was just being in Memphis and just seeing the complexities of a large city, one that’s racially charged, one where there’s a lot of poverty.”

Steve Cloer speaks at a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

Steve Cloer speaks at a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

Generations of students at the seminary — a branch campus of Harding University, which is associated with Churches of Christ — gained real-world experience in this metro area of 1.3 million people.

After 66 years in Memphis, the theological graduate school will return to Harding’s main campus in Searcy, Ark., this fall.

The planned move has sparked a mix of disappointment and concern among leaders of Churches of Christ in the Tennessee city.


Related: ‘A great, joyful sense of closure’


“Obviously, there’s some sadness,” said Greg York, a 1985 Harding School of Theology graduate who preaches for the Oliver Creek Church of Christ in the Memphis suburb of Bartlett. 

“I feel like just having Harding School of Theology here was an incredible resource for churches,” York said. “Students from HST would come alongside us and help us in ministry as we gave them experience in ministry.”

Minister Cameron Holland has served the Holmes Road Church of Christ — at the corner of Holmes Road and Elvis Presley Boulevard in southwest Memphis — since 2007. 

“Change is inevitable with everything, so you kind of accept that,” said Holland, whose wife, Jessica, will leave her role as the seminary’s library director. “But also, it’s the reality that it’s going to be difficult for Memphis. 

“I mean, so many people have been trained here,” he added. “So many people have come here from different cultures, which gives a blessing to Memphis. Plus, as a minister — with the library and the classes and the auditing and things like that — there have been opportunities with HST being here that a lot of communities don’t have.”

Attendees visit during a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

Attendees visit during a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

‘It’s going to be a loss’

Memphis is the seat of Shelby County, which has the fifth-most adherents of Churches of Christ of any county in the nation, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian. 

Shelby County’s 63 Churches of Christ account for roughly 16,000 men, women and children in the pews, estimates the directory — last updated before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back in 1958, the seminary moved from Searcy — its original home — to Memphis in part because of the access to “more opportunities for employment, ministry, research, and cultural exposure” for students, according to “Near the Banks of the River,” a new book edited by Mark E. Powell and Cloer.

Powell, dean and professor of theology, has worked at Harding School of Theology for 22 years. Like most of the seminary’s 14 employees, he won’t make the move to Searcy as he explores new opportunities. 

“It’s going to be a loss,” Powell said of the graduate school’s return to Searcy, a town of 23,000 about 115 miles west of the Memphis campus. “I just think Memphis is such a great place to train ministers. 

“We have partnerships, obviously, with groups like Agape and HopeWorks,” he added, referring to Memphis-based nonprofits associated with Churches of Christ. 

Mark E. Powell, dean and professor of theology, has taught at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., for 22 years.

Mark E. Powell, dean and professor of theology, has taught at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., for 22 years.

Passion for urban ministry

After earning his Master of Divinity degree from Harding School of Theology in 2006, Cloer spent 15 years as the preacher for the Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas.

“If not for that detour to Memphis, my ministry in Fort Worth would have been much different,” said Cloer, who grew up in Searcy, where his father, Eddie, taught Bible and preaching courses on Harding’s main campus.

Steve and Lindsay bought a house in an older Fort Worth neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Southside church building, and sent their children to a low-income, predominantly Hispanic elementary school, elder Alan Hegi recalled.

The couple started a PTA at the school and helped develop a mentorship program for fourth-graders.

Cloer and the congregation focused on serving broken and hurting people in the inner city. 

“Through it all, Steve was passionate for urban ministry yet humble in his approach,” Hegi said. “He always gave God the glory and encouraged our congregation to participate in these good works of mission and mercy and transformation.”


Related: A church for the broken and hurting


Cloer completed a Doctor of Ministry degree from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., during his time at Southside. 

In 2021, he felt God calling him to return to Harding School of Theology.

He accepted an opportunity to lead the seminary’s D.Min. program and teach courses in congregational ministry, mission and leadership.

“I came to Memphis with this vision,” Cloer said, “of training leaders in an urban setting to do what I was doing at Southside.” 

Monte Cox, professor and dean of Harding University’s College of Bible and Ministry in Searcy, Ark., visits with Mark E. Powell and Steve Cloer during a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

Monte Cox, left, professor and dean of Harding University’s College of Bible and Ministry in Searcy, Ark., visits with Mark E. Powell and Steve Cloer during a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

Hope for the future

Three years later, Harding’s decision to close the Memphis campus — announced last year — saddens Cloer.

But the news has not deterred him from the assignment he believes God gave him.

“I just felt like the Lord hadn’t released me from that vision,” he said.

“While the academic point of delivery moves to the main campus, the Board continues to be committed to our ministry efforts in Memphis with the intention to expand to other cities.”

In its original statement on the return to Searcy, Harding said, “While the academic point of delivery moves to the main campus, the Board continues to be committed to our ministry efforts in Memphis with the intention to expand to other cities.”

Cloer’s discussions with university leaders led to the creation of Harding’s new Center for Church and City Engagement — which he prays will bless not only Memphis but also other urban communities.

The center, led by Cloer, will operate out of an office provided by the Holmes Road church. Cloer will direct the D.Min. program remotely from Memphis.

Carisse Berryhill is a 2001 Harding School of Theology graduate and a longtime professor and librarian for  Christian universities.

Carisse Berryhill is a 2001 Harding School of Theology graduate and a longtime professor and librarian for  Christian universities.

A donor provided a matching gift of $50,000 to launch the center. 

“I’m encouraged that Dr. Cloer is going to be staying in Memphis and connecting with the churches,” said Carisse Berryhill, a 2001 Harding School of Theology graduate and longtime professor and librarian for  Christian universities. “I was really happy to see that because I think the grad school has been such a great resource for the churches in the Mid-South.”

Harding plans to sell the 13-acre campus in Memphis at some point.

But Monte Cox, professor and dean of the university’s College of Bible and Ministry in Searcy, stressed that “100 percent of the proceeds are to be used to continue supporting the Harding School of Theology and its initiatives like the Center for Church and City Engagement.”

The Memphis center will have a dual focus, Cloer explained.

“One is helping Harding students and HST students have urban experiences, cross-cultural experiences in the city,” he said. “And then stretching toward the church, it will help leaders with training and coaching and any kind of resource … to help them engage the city.

“There is hope for the future. I’m trying to lean into that hope and trust in it.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

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Filed under: Center for City and Church Engagement Harding School of Theology Harding University inner-city ministry Memphis Memphis Area Churches of Christ Memphis Tennessee National News People Steve Cloer Tennessee Top Stories urban ministry

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