Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP, PhD, is at Home in Community of Learners
Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP, PhD, has made a home for herself as Associate Professor of Theology and Preaching at the Dominican graduate school, Aquinas Institute of Theology. Her wide-ranging ministry involves teaching at the master’s and doctorate level; teaching deacon candidates from the Diocese of Tallahassee-Pensacola, Florida; working with doctoral candidates on their thesis projects; serving as a reader for master’s level theses; and working on committees.
Sister Sara has been teaching at Aquinas for four years but experienced the college earlier as a master’s student. Since then, she earned her PhD at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, and taught for 20 years at Barry University in Miami – sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters – before returning to Aquinas.
As Associate Professor of Theology, Sister Sara teaches a number of courses, including Foundations of Preaching, Ecclesiology, Christology, Theology of Preaching, and Core Homiletic Seminars. She also teaches one-credit courses for the Diaconate Program.
Much of Sister Sara’s time is spent in the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Preaching Program, directed by Father Gregory Heille, OP, DMin. The two work closely with the doctoral candidates, teaching the courses – often team-teaching – and dividing the thesis projects. They guide the doctoral students through the process of writing the proposal, defending it, and writing it.
The current 47 DMin students are unique and diverse. Many are seasoned ministers – Catholic priests and deacons, Protestant minsters, lay women, and lay ecclesial ministers, Sister Sara said. Because of their full-time ministries, the DMin students typically take online courses, often with a week in residence at Aquinas.
“Right now, we have 25 who are actively in course with us and a number that are at a different phase,” Sister Sara explained. DMin students at Aquinas are required to take two courses at a different institution on topics related to their thesis project, such as psychology, human development, racism or feminism, she said.
Sister Sara finds diversity not only in the programs she ministers in but in the types of courses she teaches. “When you’re teaching systematic theology, it’s a lot of theoretical research to prepare for the classes,” she explained. “When you’re teaching preaching, you are more involved in teaching effective homiletical practices and coaching students to learn by doing.”
Still, she added, preaching requires solid, practical theology. “Good theology does strengthen your preaching, but it has to be more than theology,” she said. “It’s knowing Scripture and theology but also knowing your audience and trying to connect the Gospel message to people’s lives.”
Through it all, Sister Sara brings her love for God, her students, the Dominican family, and learning. “I really enjoy the students,” she said. She finds joy in “working with committed ministers who want to know more about the faith so they can give it to others. I love working with preachers in making their preaching more effective and more alive and connected to people’s lives. …I love the process, both at the doctorate and the master’s level, and I really enjoy directing all these theses because I learn so much from them.”
Although her ministry is demanding and varied, Sister Sara leads a balanced life. She lives in an apartment building shared by six Sisters of Mercy, who form community with her. Every Sunday they have prayer and dinner together. Also, on Sundays, her day off, she typically spends a couple of hours at Forest Park in St. Louis.
Sister Sara was drawn to theology through her love for God. She fell in love with God before entering the Adrian Dominican Congregation. “I wanted to develop my relationship with God, and studying theology is part of that for me, but I’m also a teacher by temperament,” she said. She had served in other ministries – campus ministry, elementary education, and social work, as well as vocations ministry for the Adrian Dominican Sisters. “But I knew that teaching really is what I enjoy doing and what I have the gifts and talents to do.”
She encouraged others who are considering a call to listen to their hearts. “Love what you do,” she said. “If you love what you do, you’ll do it well. It’ll nurture you and renew you.”
For her part, Sister Sara has found a good sense of community at Aquinas Institute. “There’s a good morale in terms of faculty and staff getting along well and working together,” she said. “If you enjoy learning, it’s fun to be part of a learning community and to support students in their educational development.” Through my ministry at Aquinas, I continue to challenge our Church to recognize the importance of the role of women in every aspect of Church life and ministry, including every dimension of the Church’s preaching ministry.