I have been giving a great deal of thought to charting new horizons in theological education because of wide-spread cultural changes, especially as they impact churches. A lead learner for the rest of us is Leonard Sweet of Drew University. Borrowing from rabbinic thought which held that Jacob's ladder had 18 rungs, Sweet has written "Forward: 18 Rungs in The New Ladder of Learning." I have found his perceptive insights helpful as Central considers further innovation in ministry training. I will cite his rungs and offer a brief commentary on them.
Ministers must become life-long learners. We know that it is not possible to learn in a Master of Divinity or Doctor of Ministry program all one needs to know for faithful service; more important is learning how to learn. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a continuous learner.
Theological education is more important than ever. This does not mean that the present form of delivery is best, however. More important than the degree is whether one can do ministry. Further, in a culture where Christianity is increasingly assimilated to market forces, the seminary may be the only place where serious thought is given to the meaning of robust Christian identity.
The new learning methodology of the emerging culture is Wiki. This idea means that knowledge is collaborative and dynamically constructed. Cyber space allows disparate folk to share ideas, improve content, and stimulate new insight.
The Web is the primary delivery system for learning and faith development. Most of us do not start in the card catalogue of the library when researching a topic. We head to the internet and see the array of options to consider. Sweet says that the web facilitates "just-in-time-learning" as learners pursue the relevant questions when needed.
Leading learning theorists are critical to shaping theological education. Rather than viewing the professor as the "font of knowledge." this educational theory focuses on shared learning with students shaping much of the curriculum. (Central's create program desires this kind of shared learning.)
Seminaries and "teaching churches" need to talk to one another. Theological education and ministry formation require both, and we must strengthen our partnership. Everything needed for ministry cannot be taught in the classroom of the theological school; congregational contexts are essential.
High Impact Learning experiences will continue, but will become more collaborative. The short conferences (2-3 days) can have significant impact, but only to the degree that networking and sustained learning occur. Central will be offering more continuing education of this sort as we move forward.
Leveraging change in existing theological schools . . . has proven to be slim." Central may be proving to be the exception to his analysis. In the last five years we have radically changed our delivery systems, curricula, and portals of access. We have used our resources to make theological education much more accessible and much more focused on congregational life.
The mission of ministerial education needs redefining. Sweet believes that it needs to be missional education; I agree, but the spiritual formation of the minister remains key to successful leadership. The best predictor of sustained excellence in ministry is the character of the minister, the personal qualities brought to the mission.
An action-reflection model is assumed for the future. The practice of ministry is critical for theological education, and this part of ministry preparation must be enhanced. An apprenticeship dimension of ministry formation is absolutely necessary.
Determining what will be the "core curriculum" for seminary is challenging. More important than a discipline-focused curriculum is the "character, spiritual authentic, and missional passion" of the mentor, according to Sweet. I agree, and believe that new aspects of curriculum such as leadership/entrepreneurship must be integral.
Contextual learning must include global opportunities which allow not only teaching churches but public/corporate sector contexts, also. Our professors understand that ministry is as varied as social contexts and seek to encourage students to pursue global immersion experiences as well as settings beyond the walls of churches.
Key words going forward are: narrative, systems, strategic, missional, relational, incarnational, prophetic, contextual, culture-engaging, open-source. Sweet's list echoes many faculty discussions and classroom conversations. Two words I would like for us to probe further are: prophetic and culture-engaging.
The mis-education of church leaders occurs when a seminary believes that the accumulation of courses leads to the formation of a person. Some of the metrics are off, Sweet argues. The expense of travel, tuition, length of time, nature of assignments and written examinations are not having the desired outcomes.
Ministry training should be more shoulder to shoulder than face-to-face learning between Teacher and Learner. Both should be learners, and each enhances the learning of the other.
The church must become a learning organism focused on mission. If the congregation will truly become the partner of the seminary, it must be similarly missional.
Every baptized disciple has a ministry to the Body of Christ and a mission in the world. Sweet believes that if we keep ministry "clerical," true mission will not occur. For a number of years Central has practiced a "community of faith" paradigm, believing that theological education is for laity as well as those pursuing ordination.
In the 21st century, WHO you studied with will be more important than WHERE you studied. Once again, Sweet emphasizes the importance of mentoring; the key will be the "mentor who can steer the spiritual formation of the person through forming a life shaped by biblical relationships, a passion for knowing God, and an indigenous expression of faith in a specific cultural context."
There is much good thinking here, and we will continue to engage best thinking and practices for the sake of the church, for the sake of the world.
Molly T. Marshall
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