Authored by Kelly Lamon
In seminary cafeterias across the country, students are having the same type of conversation over lunch.
“When am I actually going to use my understanding of…
etc., etc., etc.
How much of this actually matters to my future work?”
The cry for relevancy is an age-old song of students. If the cafeteria tables could talk, they would tell of generations of students who questioned the applicability of their classes. After all, research on adult learning has exhibited the importance and power of relevancy.
The rate of change in the ministry field is magnified due to the shifting landscape of religion in America and also technology. In order to stay relevant, theological educators need not only reassess what is taught but also reconsider how they are teaching it. The traditional model of ministry training requires students to take a series of classes in history, tradition, and pastoral skills. Near the completion of these classes, students are deemed “prepared” to advance to a placement in “field education” or “contextual studies” where they supposedly put all this good classroom learning to use.
This traditional model, however, isn’t consistent with best practices in education.
The interaction of thinking (learning content) and doing (practicing skills) is like swing dance. The two partners—theory and action—twist and turn around each other, over and over. One dancer doesn’t sit out watching his partner dance while he patiently waits his turn for the next song. Field education should not sit on the sideline while content/classroom learning is dancing, and content/classroom learning shouldn’t sit out while field education is dancing. Instead, the two dancers must move together. Thinking and doing exist in the same space; if they are to form the dance, a way of being, they must complement each other. In education, this is called experiential learning—a cycle of thinking and doing that never ends, an intertwining that is never separate. Practical theologians call this “doing theology.”
Our pedagogy working group for Reimagining Theological Education is working to change the old model. We believe that the most productive learning happens when field education and the classroom experience (whether online or face-to-face) exist together. The field setting acts as an incubator or lab for professional formation, innovation, and experimentation. In the new model, students learn content and skills, practice them immediately, reflect on their effectiveness and outcome, and adjust as necessary.
Too often the competencies expected for successful program completion in ministry are generated from a professional class of seminary professors who—for the most part—live outside the trenches of active ministry. This creates a divide between what is expected from learners when they are students and what is required of them when they actually enter the ministry field. Seminary students write lengthy papers for the classroom but have to write short blogposts, or even shorter tweets, for the field. In the best-practice scenario, it is the ministry setting which shapes the competencies needed to develop insightful, creative, and innovative ministry leaders into the future. The needs of the field are central and form the students’ program.
Over time, practicing skills (doing) and reflecting on the needs of the field (thinking) will turn students into reflective practitioners with pastoral imagination (a way of being).* Professional formation is a developmental process; it never stops but intensifies while one is in an educational program. Adult learners are not blank slates. They come to the learning environment with a huge suitcase full of existing skills and knowledge. They already have a way of being in the world. In their openness to a new formative process, they decide to engage more intensely and intentionally in the developmental process. It may be as simple as adding knowledge to knowledge or skill to skill, but may be as radical as finding completely new ways to be a faith leader in the world.
Relevance is a powerful force. The dancers (thinking and doing) become the dance (one’s way of being) . When one recognizes this, learning becomes transformative.
Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary of the talkers who talk. -Anonymous
*See Eileen R. Campbell-Reed and Christian Scharen, “’Holy cow! This stuff is real!’” From Imagining Ministry to Pastoral Imagination,” in Teaching Theology and Religion from October 2011.