About The Initiative

Who We Are

The Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology is a collaborative venture of the Laney Graduate School of Emory University, Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, the Candler School of Theology, and the Lilly Endowment, Inc. The primary purpose of the Initiative is to prepare the next generation of teachers and researchers in the academic fields of practical theology. 

The term “practical theology,” although defined in many ways, focuses on religious practices, patterns of action sustained over time by religious communities. These practices are theologically and culturally complex, and they have histories and a coherence that makes them recognizable even as they are adapted and extended in various contexts. Thus, practical theology embraces varied methodologies and interpretive frameworks for understanding them. Engaging in practical theological inquiry requires supple scholars trained in multiple approaches and sensitive to context and culture.

Some practices are of such importance to religious communities – such as worship, preaching, education, and care – that they are taught as specific topics in theological schools by teachers trained and experienced in these practices. Our vision is that scholars who teach in the traditional fields of practical theology (such as pastoral care and theology, homiletics, liturgics, and religious education) are best educated in a university graduate school environment, guided by a top-tier interdisciplinary team of research faculty, in the environment of interfaith conversation, and in the company of students who study these practices from both theological and religious studies perspectives. We believe that this approach is educationally innovative and that it has a dual impact: educating practical theologians in a research university environment enriches the understanding of practical theology, and the presence of practical theologians on a research campus broadens and deepens the nature of graduate education in religion. 

The Initiative is funded by the Laney Graduate School of Emory University, Candler School of Theology, and through two generous grants from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., a $10 million initial grant awarded in 2002 and a $4.5 sustaining grant awarded in 2008.

What We Do

The Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology…

Recruits and Supports Ph.D. students – Students who are interested in pursuing a vocation of teaching and research in one of the fields of practical theology or who are interested in including the study of on-the-ground practices as a part of a PhD program in religion are invited to apply to Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion and, if accepted, to become a part of the Initiative’s Concentration in Religious Practices and Practical Theology. The Initiative funds full financial support for several students each year, and also provides additional funding for research and dissertation completion for Concentrators in Religious Practices and Practical Theology. More information about this Concentration and how to apply here

Provides for Faculty and Administrative Support – The Initiative funds part or all of several faculty and administrative positions connected to the work of the Initiative. 

Sponsors Colloquies and Conferences – The Initiative sponsors occasional colloquies and conferences on various aspects of religious practices and practical theology.

What Difference We Are Making

Emory graduates who have been a part of the Concentration on Religious Practices and Practical Theology are in high demand, even in a tight employment market. No one can predict what the future of the academic job market will be, but the placement record of the Initiative has been exemplary. Our graduates have found placement as professors in theological schools, colleges, university religion departments, and in other academic positions.

As Emory-trained teachers and scholars take positions in schools around the world, they will begin to shape leaders of communities of faith of many traditions. Those leaders, in turn, can be a transformative influence in communities of faith hungry for a deeper practical wisdom about how to live the practices of their tradition in a way that transforms societies toward greater human fulfillment and justice. 

“The Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University is a leading university-wide program for those interested in an approach to religious studies and theology that is sensitive to lived conditions and situations,” says Emory Provost Claire E. Sterk. “It guides the future of graduate education in this area.” 

"Theological seminaries across the country are working hard to develop new, more effective ways to prepare their students to be excellent pastors," says Craig Dykstra, former senior vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment. "Emory University and its Candler School of Theology are at the vanguard of this effort. The new doctoral program in religious practices and practical theology is helping theological education as a whole to re-conceive the ways theology and ministry are thought and taught, while also producing a very talented and much-needed new generation of scholar-educators who are well prepared to teach and lead in new ways."