In the mid-1950s, an extraordinarily extensive and original study of theological education was conducted by H. Richard Niebuhr, Daniel Day Williams, and James Gustafson. Their report produced the influential publication in 1956 of Niebuhr's The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education, which was hailed as a "provocative interpretation" and a "rethinking of the aims of theological education." Jim Laney, then completing his Ph.D. in ethics at Yale University, was asked to participate as the fourth member of this illustrious research team. Declining the offer, he instead went on to serve as the pastor of a United Methodist church, a missionary in Korea, and a professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. During his Vanderbilt years, Laney continued his commitment to the local church by jointly teaching ethics and serving the Pegram Station UM Church on the outskirts of Nashville.
This experience as a teacher-pastor foreshadowed his later initiatives and it emulated his mentor, H. Richard Niebuhr. Laney had discovered how the interaction between the parish and the classroom could deepen and enrich an understanding of ministry.
In 1969, Laney accepted the deanship of the Candler School of Theology (Atlanta, Georgia) where his commitment to the local church, informed by an intellectual grasp of the theological issues inherent in the Niebuhr report, found expression in the Supervised Ministry program, a design that he initiated during the first year of his deanship.
A visionary leader, committed to the church and the academy, Laney convinced the entire faculty of Candler to join in the teaching of the practice of ministry. This was the first time in the history of theological education that faculty representing disciplines outside those traditional to practice assumed pedagogical responsibility for ministerial practice. Laney's design was at once intellectually sophisticated and practical. It was, in its own right, earthshaking.
Faculty members and supervisor-pastors who were involved in those early years, well remember both the excitement and the challenge of this new initiative. It embodied the visions of academy and church. It exemplified the understanding of praxis that Niebuhr had described. It also extended Candler's commitment to ministry. Some faculty questioned both the design and their own placement, but Laney continued to urge them to accept his challenge. He persisted and, over time, he prevailed.
Supervised Ministry is the foundation for the Contextual Education program that still distinguishes the work of the Candler School of Theology. The Laney legacy lives on and it not only sustains and informs the work at Candler, it continues to influence theological education broadly.
James T. Laney Responds
As I think of my own life, over and over again I see a providential hand. When I was appointed dean at Candler, it was such an extraordinary privilege and opportunity. At that time, a preponderance of the faculty were "young Turks." It was a propitious moment. The faculty was eager to do something, to break new ground.
Of course, they had to see the purpose in Contextual Education and believe that it would work, and they had to get over their initial feelings of uneasiness to venture beyond their fields of expertise, as we all do. But as I have thought about it, here was the eager faculty ready to go, here was a relatively young dean, and here was a rich array of supervisory talent both in institutions and in the community. Not only did we have Clinical Pastoral Education in abundance -- because Atlanta even then was a really fine city -- but we also had urban training. We had all of these resources and it was natural to pull it all together and have the components begin to comprise a whole.
In any case, we had this faculty, we had the supervisory cadre, and we had eager students who needed training. It all fit together because deep in me I was convinced education was not only cerebral and intellectual and academic -- it was that, in the most rigorous sense -- but it was also formation. And especially for the ministry, it was important to formation for there to be community, a community which could break down the barriers of defensiveness. To be able to receive and give and share at a level that means something not only to faculty and students but to others is a very precious thing. So we began trying to build the Supervised Ministry -- now Contextual Education -- Program.
The first year consisted of clinical placements because they were the most rigorous and the second year was urban training. We had no church placements in the first few years, and the genius of the program was Chuck Gerkin working with the faculty. He brought out the latent strengths in faith and personality and caring and sharing among the faculty, and it really began to transform the faculty. I don't mean transform them individually but rather it built togetherness. We became more of a community. We were always fractious, but underneath there was a genuine community. It emerged.
All this is predicated on the deep conviction that if we can get in a situation where we can share things that matter most and become vulnerable -- not weak, but vulnerable -- and out of that vulnerability find strength of the spirit, then something happens that is truly providential.
What we want our graduates to be able to do is to be real persons, who in their seeking in faith, can inspire that seeking and discovery in other people and do it in a way that combines common study and prayer and sharing and mutual confession. I'm sure that none of us has improved on John Wesley's original idea of the class meeting as the matrix of faith. It was reading Wesley's sermons in seminary that helped me to understand how deep that kind of experience could go and how much it could accomplish.
This idea was to open up the possibilities for the richest and most meaningful and profoundest kind of experience while the students were in school. And if the faculty could share that experience with them both vicariously and directly, then everything would be enriched as a result. This was the aim and the richness of the contextual practice of ministry work.