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YDS students learn ABCs of immersion baptism

How do you perform an immersion baptism?  It’s not a question that frequently comes up in casual conversation – not even at an institution as dedicated to training for the ministry as Yale Divinity School.  But the question did arise this fall, and the result was the first “practice baptism” in recent memory at YDS.

BaptistThe idea emerged during the 2009-10 academic year, as the class in Disciples polity, taught by Professor of Old Testament Robert Wilson, began discussing the historical significance of immersion baptism.

“It suddenly occurred to me that if I had to baptize someone by immersion, I probably wouldn’t know how to do it,” recalled Caleb Lines, now a third-year Disciples of Christ student in the M.Div. program.  The problem, said Lines, is that many of the student intern sites are with denominations that are popular in Connecticut and that typically adhere more to sprinkling or pouring rather than immersion, such as the Episcopal Church or United Church of Christ.

“Unlike our classmates who are able to pick up the more practical aspects of ministry at their internship sites, many Disciples and Baptist students intern in other denominations that do not practice baptism by immersion,” explained Lines, who hails from Monett, MO.  “It’s something practical that may look easy, but there is actually a skill to it—especially for those of us who are shorter than the people that we are going to be baptizing!”

On Oct. 26, Associate Dean of Student Affairs Dale Peterson took four students in his Baptist polity class— along with four United Church of Christ and two Disciples of Christ students—to First Baptist Church in New Haven for a practice session.

“They came prepared to get in the pool of water that is the baptistery of our church, i.e., swimsuits and shorts and tee shirts, etc., and each one practiced immersing someone else,” said Peterson. “It was lots of fun, a great learning experience, and a moment of true ecumenism.”

Instructing the students was Erica Wimber Avena ’88 M.Div., ’94 S.T.M., interim pastor at First Baptist.

“We learned all of the logistics and took turns ‘dunking’ each other,” Lines reported.  “At the end of the day, we all felt like we could perform an immersion baptism. I am very grateful to Bob Wilson and Dale Peterson for their roles in organizing the event and to Erica Wimber Avena for sharing her wisdom.”

Peterson said the Oct. 26 session was, to his knowledge, the only time in his 10 years at YDS that practical, hands-on instruction in immersion baptism has taken place. So successful was the session, Peterson said, that he hopes to make it a yearly affair.

For Peterson himself, who is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the session was also instructive.  Despite many years in the ministry, Peterson said, he has conducted just one immersion baptism in a baptistery.  The other baptisms he has performed have all been either in the ocean or in a river.