For all the years of their married life Liam and Precious Atchison had met for coffee and talked about their ideas for helping pastors , missionaries, and their families understand themselves and the people to whom they ministered. Because of their own experiences in ministry, they knew some of the loneliness, frustration, and struggle that was part of being a spiritual shepherd in volatile times. Liam was an administrator and professor in a traditional evangelical seminary on the rainy day in October 2001 when he and Precious met for a date at a coffee house in Mukilteo, Washington. The recent events of 9/11 had a sobering influence on their decision to translate their dreams into reality. They believed that the time was ripe to take the risk of prayerfully launching out on their own.
Liam unfolded a napkin and began to sketch his idea for a model that emphasized the importance of spiritual formation and emotional health as a major outcome of theological education. He envisioned a small classes and personal mentoring with learners exposed to their mentors' daily lives, joys, and struggles in following Christ.
That day Precious also shared her dream, a place to offer spiritual direction to individuals and groups of people who wanted to grow in their relationship with Christ. She envisioned a place to meet one-on-one and to offer retreats. The retreats were for anyone who might be interested, but she particularly thought of a place for pastors and their spouses to get away for a reflective and recharging time.
The Lothlorien Retreat and Study Center was born in April 2002 on Whidbey Island in Washington State. The first retreats were held on an island property loaned by a friend. Later retreats were held at various conference centers and a beach house provided by a friend who believed in the vision. Emmanuel House, the household seminary part of Lothlorien, enrolled its first ten students in September 2002. In 2003, board members affirmed the household seminary model, but thought it was better suited to a university city rather than an island that had to be reached by ferry. So, in the summer of 2003 Liam and Precious moved Lothlorien and Emmanuel House to Manhattan, Kansas and the first class of ten students met In Liam and Precious' home in August 2004.
The first commencement for Emmanuel House took place in May 2007, honoring two third-year graduates, Jeremy Krause and Tony Classen. Later that fall, the first classes began in Lincoln, Nebraska and Brent and Jenni Watson joined the Atchison's as staff members. In May 2009, Liam and Precious moved to Kansas City to lay the groundwork for Emmanuel House there, while Brent and Jenni became the directors of the Manhattan branch of Emma House.
When Liam and Precious Atchison first started the retreat center they began working with a number of people who had been deeply wounded by family members, churches, or leaders. They wanted to communicate that this retreat center would be a safe place where stories would be heard and healing and forgiveness would take place. Liam has been a lifetime fan of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and thought that the retreat center was similar in some ways to the forest and refuge of the wood elves Tolkien describes in the first volume of the book. One of the principal characters in the story, Aragorn, described Lothlorien as a place where all who enter leave changed though some fear change (calling it perilous): "Perilous indeed," said Aragorn, "fair and perilous; but only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them. Follow me."
Thus, Lothlorien is a place of healing and rest where evil is not permitted, and where those who experience it are completely changed. This seemed to Precious and Liam like a pretty fair description of what they wanted the retreat and study centers to be.
While doing doctoral research Liam had discovered an old ministry paradigm used by the English Puritans in the sixteenth century called a "household seminary." The household seminary was a personal educational model that involved experienced, mature, and scholarly pastors mentoring small groups of Oxford and Cambridge graduates who were preparing for pastorates. The Puritans built no seminary campuses, they carried out their biblical, theological, and practical ministry preparation in the homes of these mentors. Students accompanied their mentors each day as they carried out the tasks of ministry. Now over four centuries later and an ocean and a continent away, Liam shared with Precious a fresh idea that was influenced by these old models.
Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom was founded in 1584 by Puritan Sir Walter MIldmay. He designed the college as a "seedbed of learned ministers" and it employed one of the original household seminary models. Emmanuel House takes its name from the college, but is "House" both to emphasize the household seminary aspect, and to speak more clearly to an American culture which thinks of colleges as undergraduate schools rather than communities of scholars and learners. "House" then communicates a sense of family or community, which is much nearer to what Emmanuel House really is.
"Emma House" was a nickname that was given by the first Kansas class. it was first used as part of the name for a concert benefiting the household seminary. The concert was called "Emma House Live," and the Emma House name has stuck ever since. It has always been used with affection, again emphasizing community and family. It even shows up in the URL of this website: emmahouse.org .