For Houghton theology professor Dr. Richard Eckley, teaching and practice go hand in hand. In nearly 30 years as a full-time professor, Eckley has increasingly engaged in settings where applied theology doesn’t always yield textbook answers. From local church to inner city education, Eckley is always finding new examples for his students of how the rubber meets the road when it comes to theology.
“If I were teaching pastoral theology and weren’t interested in local church ministry, it would come across as disconnected and not authentic,” Eckley said. “It keeps it all real.”
Since they first moved to Western New York after pastoring a church in central Pennsylvania, Eckley and his wife have purposed to support congregations who could benefit from their gifts. While Eckley has served as a mentor for young pastors, his wife is a talented pianist and a full-time public music teacher.
“We have not wanted to appear to be church hoppers, but in almost 30 years, we’ve attended three or four churches in the Buffalo area,” said Eckley. “We’ve always gone places that needed people.”
“It’s a lot like when I was pastoring. We feel God saying, ‘You’ve done what I needed you to do here, I’d like you to go to this place.’”
Eckley and his wife are currently at a church of 125 members, in a southern suburb of Buffalo, where most of the congregation is of Irish heritage.
“My wife and I are some of the only people in the church who don’t have tattoos,” he chuckles.
But Eckley’s passion lies not just within the walls of church buildings. He and his wife are also part of the community of inner city Buffalo, a highly diverse area that welcomes hundreds of refugees every year.
“We’ve always had a heart for the urban core. We’ve tried to make linkages and networks in the urban parts of Buffalo and find connections between urban and suburban churches.”
“I’m interested in fighting the homogeneity in local churches. I want to get them interested in what’s happening in cities in America,” Eckley explains.
Eckley teaches at Houghton’s downtown Buffalo campus, which draws quite a different mix of students than the main campus, many of whom are refugees and immigrants.
“It’s a challenge to teach there, but these are very hardworking students,” he says, laughing that the illustrations and jokes he uses at Houghton’s main campus are often met with blank stares, across language and culture gaps.
“The one thing that is obvious is their hard work, their willingness to take on any challenge offered.”
Given his devotion to practical church ministry, it comes as no surprise that Eckley’s passion is the intersection between theology and the world around us.
“I’m most interested in ideas about how to move the church into the cultural complexities we find ourselves in today,” he explained. “Theology is one of the first skill sets needed in the local church. Pastors have to respond and react to the big ideas that are out there.”
Naturally, Eckley’s students benefit from his own grappling with applied theology.
“I think my students notice my examples are not just coming out the book,” Eckley said, noting that the church today is much different from when he was a pastor. “I help students to think theologically about pastoral work.”