Inevitably, when you gather a large group of theological educators in one place, you’ll find buzz and anxiety. Theologians are excited about their discipline — they love bantering with colleagues about new ideas and old controversies.
But they’re anxious too. Theological education is facing tough challenges with regards to finances, governance, marketing, and administration. These are not areas of expertise for most faculty members who are trained in the theological disciplines. Educators are being called upon to face harsh realities, add administrative tasks, and think about new forms of delivery, retention, and more.
Last spring, Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, addressed just such a group of theological educators at the Educational Models and Practices Peer Group Forum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Speaking to a group of 150 educators, he reminded us to keep in mind three critical questions:
What do we teach?
Faculty members love this question, Aleshire said. It’s a good question to keep in the forefront of a teacher’s mind, but it cannot be answered in isolation: What is taught must be considered in the context of who the students are, their lived experiences, and where they will minister. Good teachers put aside their own preferences — sometimes even what they personally find interesting — to meet the needs of their students, helping to form them for their current and future vocations.
How do we teach?
Aleshire showed how theological pedagogy has developed over time. Initially, he said, the recitation method was popular: Professors would assign students a set text to read and memorize, and then the students would be expected to recite this text in class when the professor called on them. Potentially embarrassing? Yes. Effective? Possibly.
Under this method, fear provoked students to read and be prepared. For the administrators, it was safe because they had control over the text and the expected outcomes.
This method gave way to the risky lecture, which allowed teachers to draw from many different sources and lay out a variety of perspectives. Were there concerns? Initially, yes. Lectures caused some academic administrators consternation because they had less control over their teachers, the content being delivered, and the course outcomes. Risky business indeed!
The subsequent seminar method gave even more control over education to teachers and students. With each change in pedagogy came a simultaneous reaction: fear of something new and appreciation of its merits as a valid pedagogical tool. With the introduction of online education, digital media, and internet technology, there is once again an air of caution and fear among some educators and administrators.
Whom do we teach?
The traditional answer to this question, according to Aleshire, has been that seminaries are in the business of teaching future ordained leaders of churches, and that the bachelor of divinity (which later became the master of divinity) is the standard program. But revisiting this question has empowered seminaries to offer courses for people seeking various non-ordained roles — spiritual directors, counselors, and musicians, among many others. Reconsidering their audiences has also led U.S. and Canadian seminaries to look across the oceans to international partnerships, and for the first time ever, seminaries can offer courses in which “classrooms” are filled with students from different countries and cultures around the globe.
Who are the teachers?
As important as Aleshire’s three questions are, I think that he may have missed an equally vital one: Who is doing the teaching? Who are these faculty members? How are they formed for their own ministry of educating future clergy, chaplains, musicians, social workers, nonprofit administrators, business leaders — and even academics?
It seems to me that theological educators exert a prodigious amount of energy considering what they teach and to a lesser degree on how they teach and whom they teach. This expenditure of energy is often due to the fact, as members of educational institutions, they are regularly assessed according to these questions. I am not so sure seminaries have examined as carefully who teaches except with respect to the teachers’ academic credentials. It seems to me that during this period of decreasing enrollment in seminaries the one question that has not been asked is whether part of this problem is related to who is teaching. It is easier, possibly more convenient, to see the problem in terms of something outside of the teacher thereby keeping the problem at arm’s length. In doing this, the focus of attention moves from the teacher to what modes of delivery are being used or looking for more convenient locations of delivery etc. I wonder if it might be necessary to ask the more personal question, “what kind of teachers do students need to teach them so that they can become effective ministers in the church?”
In the ancient Greek world, teaching was not so much a profession, as we know it today, as a position to attain if you were a citizen of the polis — an individual of means who had the time to pursue knowledge. Over time, some of these people developed a reputation for wisdom, and young people sought to study under them in order to emulate them.
Similarly, the qualifications of a teacher of the Talmud were strict and moral but not necessarily academic in nature. Students sought to be rabbis like their mentors. During the sophistic movement of 300 B.C. to A.D. 200, students sought out teachers to emulate their rhetorical skill but not necessarily their moral character. Moral philosophers likewise gained followers not only because they had a particular viewpoint, but more importantly because they demonstrated a character that was attractive.
And in the New Testament, teachers were expected to be men and women of character who also had the ability to teach. Paul’s authority as a teacher was based on his character and content alike, which were in turn founded on the paradigm of Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 11:1).
My purpose in posing this fourth question is to reflect on the importance of the teacher’s natural ability, skills, and character. I wonder if it would be prudent to survey students, and perhaps especially ex-students who withdraw from seminary, to learn what they seek in a teacher. Would it be helpful ask denominations for their input? And what of non-denominational churches that choose not to send their pastoral candidates to seminaries — what do they feel they need in teachers?
Should we ask faculty members what would help them to be better teachers? Perhaps instead of stressing that faculty members attend their guild conferences only, they should be encouraged to attend conferences or find resources that nurture their inner world, their love of Christ and the church, and their passion for discipleship. How might this perspective affect our theological institutions in the future?