Q&A with Dr. Dustin Benac, Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow
Dustin Benac, ThD, joined the Truett Seminary faculty in Fall 2020 as a Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Practical Theology. Dr. Benac, his wife Casey, and their two children moved to Waco from Durham, North Carolina. In this Q&A, Dr. Benac shares more about his background and what he is looking forward to in his new role.
Tell us a little about your educational and research background.
I was raised in South Texas in a small town called Boerne, and I did my undergraduate degree in the Pacific Northwest at Whitworth University. I was interested in trying to ask a different type of question about religious organizations and life in faith. I didn’t really know what it was, but I had this abiding sense that the Pacific Northwest provided a context where a different type of question was possible. It was this context where the rules of engagement that typically guide religious life—at least, in South Texas where I grew up—didn’t necessarily apply.
I met some wonderful people, had some wonderful teachers, and then shortly after that, I moved to Dallas and spent about a year and a half working—at one point as a project coordinator for a $1.1 million federal training grant and as a grant writer supporting various nonprofits. Through that work, I recognized that the complexities of religious life often intersected with institutions of various forms.
In 2012, I went to do my Master of Divinity at Duke University and began to explore questions about the relationship between theology and institutions. I later enrolled in the Doctor of Theology program at Duke University, working primarily with Craig Dykstra. I was working to develop a conceptual framework that could explore the relationship between theology—more specifically, practical theology—and the various descriptive and empirical work that informs how we understand organized institutional life. Once again, questions moved me forward.
That led to several years of empirical work back in the Pacific Northwest. I sensed that—again, like when I was 18 years old—on the other side of the Rockies, on the far side of the country, a new type of question was possible. And in that context, I wanted to explore how collaborative approaches to religious education, organization, and leadership were supporting adaptive responses to the challenges of communities of faith. The typical way to study religious organizations and leadership is to study a single type—congregations, theological schools, faith-based nonprofits. I was interested in that, but more so I was curious about the various points of intersection between them. I was interested in where people from different types of organizations, different types of traditions are meeting and mingling in response to the challenges that they face.
So I spent about two and a half to three years doing that work, learning from local communities of faith in the Pacific Northwest. I completed that project in March 2020 and then moved directly into a grant funded position supporting a study of digital connection and community at Duke Divinity School.
How did you get connected with Truett and find your way to us?
Out of some existing relational networks, I was connected to Dean Todd Still, and we had some initial conversations about what was happening at Truett. As a student of organizations and innovations, I saw all of the work that Truett was doing, particularly during a pandemic, and I thought to myself, You’re breaking all of the rules! You’re not supposed to be able to stand things up in the middle of a pandemic. You’re not supposed to be able to do things in this moment of crisis. It struck me as a remarkable possibility. Organizational theorists suggest that moments of change, moments of crises, moments of disruption are actually opportune times for innovation. So, I wanted to learn more. As a student of how religious organizations change and innovate, this seemed like an innovative space.
Shortly thereafter, I received a rather generous invitation from the Louisville Institute to fund a two-year post-doctoral position through a grant from the Lilly Endowment. That provided an opportunity to return to conversations with Dean Still about the possibilities of spending some time at Truett. It seemed like there was a mutual fit. And we were grateful after some conversation to be able to move forward in this partnership together.
What will your role and work look like as a post-doctoral fellow and visiting Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Truett Seminary?
In the spring, I’ll teach “Leadership for Ministry,” and I’ll co-teach “Leading in the Kingdom” with Dr. Robert Creech in the Doctor of Ministry. I will be teaching two courses a semester. Part of my hope is to be able to supplement Truett’s already strong curriculum with some targeted classes that address the complexities that communities of faith, current pastors, and future pastors are facing as they try to navigate a complex and changing religious landscape.
In addition to teaching, I will also be supporting various initiatives here at Truett, including the Wesley House of Studies. I’m a Wesleyan practical theologian, and the Wesleyan tradition infuses and informs my work. The opportunity to come here and support the training of future Wesleyan leaders is a real privilege.
And then finally, I’ll be doing research. I have two book projects that are in production right now. I’m working on a co-edited volume called Crisis and Care: Meditations on Faith and Philanthropy. It’s co-edited with my colleague Erin Weber-Johnson and is trying to discern the forms of crisis and the forms of possibility that exist at the intersection of questions of faith, finance, and philanthropy, particularly in the wake of 2020. The volume features meditations from 16 contributors from congregations, higher education, and nonprofit settings. Our collaborative work aims to resource local pastors, theological educators, and communities of faith by offering something back in this moment. This volume will come out in 2021.
I will also be converting my dissertation into a book. It’s currently under review with Baylor University Press. The book describes the conditions, the conceptual frameworks, for organizing practices that can support adaptive change as communities of faith and those who serve them face uncertain circumstances and shifting organizational environments. Pending a successful review, I hope this project will appear within the next two years.
What are you most looking forward to about being a part of the Truett Seminary community?
One of the distinctives about Truett is that it is a confessional seminary in a major research university. As a practical theologian, I understand the work of intellectual inquiry and the work of education as inseparable from the local church. Truett seems to have an abiding and robust commitment to the local church. I’m looking forward to supporting that, encouraging that, and expanding that.
The second thing I’m looking forward to is engaging the Truett community. One of the things that’s become clear to me is the distinctive connective and communal aspect of Truett’s life together. I think you see that in the Tuesday Chapels but also in the ways that faculty, staff, and students engage with one another. So, I’m looking forward to engaging actively with that in less unusual circumstances.
Finally, I’m looking forward to being part of a major research university. I think the gift of practical theology is that it’s an interdisciplinary, contextual, and conjunctive discipline. Practical theology at its best is connected to and engaging with and responding to the challenges in the local church. But in order to do that well—in order to do that creatively and imaginatively—you need interdisciplinary resources. I think Baylor is uniquely situated to resource and support that kind of work.
What else would you want people to know about you?
As a practical theologian and as a person of faith, I think it’s important to know at least three of my abiding commitments. One is that I think listening is the organizing practice for educators, pastors, and researchers. In my work and in my teaching, I work to create an environment where I can listen to a community and listen to my students.
Second, I think it’s critically important for theological education and the local church to imagine ways to partner together. My hope is that our work together can perform the forms of imaginative possibilities that emerge when we can get together in new ways.
Third and finally, I think it’s important to know that I have a commitment to attend to the condition where we can gather around the table. We aren’t just brains in a body; we’re actually embodied creatures. It matters how we gather together and it’s important to think about how we can support the conditions where we can actually gather, meet, and mingle in formative and transformative ways.