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Our Classroom is Western Canada: We meet there in mission

To become more deeply missional, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon (LTS) is shifting to a model that emphasizes course offerings in an immersion format throughout the locations we serve—Canada from Thunder Bay westward. This mission-focused context will incorporate instruction from various local figures alongside faculty direction, inviting both laypeople and those preparing for rostered ministry to participate in our classes. This approach supports LTS’ continuation of its work of decolonization, learning from Indigenous educational models. Immersion courses will be supported by online offerings and Saskatoon-based classes. 

Karen Stiller interviewed the Rev. Dr. William Harrison, president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, about LTS’ project.

Briefly describe the project.

Our Classroom is Western Canada is built on the fact that we serve a vast geographic area. With the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada operating two seminaries in such a big country, we are committed to the land and the people we serve across that very large area.

This project has two specific goals: one focuses on decolonization and connecting with Indigenous peoples. Recognizing the significance of land and place in our educational approach, we aim to move beyond the historical model where our students have primarily come from Saskatoon. Instead, this is about getting out and actively engaging with the land, with Indigenous peoples, so we can be in their place and space.

Centralizing in Saskatoon limits our ability to engage with the people and the mission where our students are going to serve. We aim to engage with what is going on in landscape and cityscape where our students are, and what’s happening with mission.

For instance, we offer courses in Winnipeg, home of the ELCIC headquarters. It’s also possible to visit the Human Rights Museum and meet with people at a downtown church-supported mission context, which relates extensively to Indigenous peoples, blending these great experiences in one course.

In Red Deer, Alberta, we conducted a course that included a visit to a small congregation in a nearby town, exemplifying our commitment to contextual education.

Our project is partly a reflection of who we are. It’s trying to spread and connect our faculty and leadership across the four western Synods.

What have you learned so far?

Our first and most important learning has been recognizing that our relationships with Indigenous peoples are not strong enough. We had hoped to teach a course in an indigenous context, but this proved impossible. While Covid restricted some of the settings we had been interested in, we realized the need to build much stronger relationships before engaging in deeper conversations. This is more of a reminder, not a surprise, emphasizing the importance of allowing Indigenous people the space they need to focus on their priorities. Consequently, we must focus on our own learning about the best ways to connect with them.

It's also been a surprise to see how much students enjoy the one week in-person intensive, and this personal engagement fosters community building and transformation for them.

We have three courses that are dedicated to Lutheran formation, and we’ve decided these three will all take place outside Saskatoon, but within our service area. Some might be held specifically at camp locations, creating a summer camp atmosphere where students can engage with the material and each other. There is also strong engagement with place, including the land, which we aim to foster. These intensives unite the connection to land and place.

What have been a few of your successes?

What I’ve described represents some of our biggest successes. The context of students doing more online with more virtual connections has been significant and beneficial, providing educational opportunities that might not have been otherwise accessible. This alternative way of learning is proving to be very effective. And, in a world where that is increasingly the case, we find that the retreat experience, which is also an educational experience, is strong and powerful. It fulfills our goal of connecting land and people.

What aspects of the project are you hopeful about?

One of our challenges in responding to the contemporary environment is serving a shrinking denomination across a vast geographical area. However, by reaching out and engaging more directly, I’m hopeful we will see a boost in recruitment. As fewer traditional people are in pews, we must explore different ways to be church and mission practitioners. These possibilities are best encountered at ground level. I’m optimistic that we will develop the capacity to recognize and respond to these mission possibilities, connecting with the land and addressing the needs of our world.

What have you learned that can help other schools?

Logistics for these projects can be complicated. Allow for ample planning time, especially around technology and other essential components.

Although it requires significant effort to launch these projects, the outcomes are well worth it. We must also continuously consider expenses and funding for courses, especially for the students. Hosting a group in a retreat setting is more costly than having them come to Saskatoon or take an online course. Funding is a crucial factor to keep in mind. We’re blessed to have significant student assistance available, but it’s a consideration we need to keep in our minds and plans.

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