It was a situation I had never before encountered. To determine the level of integrity of the students in one of my ethics classes, I required each of them to be interviewed by a professional mentor. Skilled in the art of assessing character, the mentor knew the right questions to ask and how to elicit honest and thoughtful answers from students.
When the reports came back, all of my students received glowing reviews — except one.
One particular student, the mentor told me, displayed a clear lack of integrity. Until then, I hadn’t noticed any kind of problem, but once the mentor brought this student to my attention, I began to notice some disturbing behavior.
That brought me to a startling realization: As the student’s professor, perhaps I wasn’t the best person to assess his character.
Character is longitudinal
Programs that prepare students for ministry have long been concerned with character and related concepts like personal and spiritual formation. But character is hard to define. It is related to values, attitudes, personality, patterns, and habits. Put another way, character has to do with the things a person loves.
Theological schools care deeply about this sort of thing and take seriously their identity as communities of moral formation. Many seminaries offer certificates or entire degrees in spiritual formation and personal development.
Yet it is hard to evaluate formation and character. Character does not have a universally agreed-upon definition, for one thing. And it’s not easy to measure the outcomes of character and moral formation — that is, determining the extent to which students have developed a virtuous character, and to what extent that virtue can be attributed to their seminary education.
Character is part of the “affective domain” category of learning (to employ psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives), which includes the way people feel, the way they react emotionally, their self-awareness, their attitudes, and their emotions. Objective tests are suitable methods of measuring knowledge (“cognitive domain”) and performative skills (“psychomotor domain”), but they are not very helpful for assessing a student’s character. Affective outcomes must be assessed in a different way.
Imagine you are an evaluator who has been tasked with assessing a student’s humility. Requiring the student to write a paper or take a multiple-choice test will not provide you with the insight needed to understand the condition of the student’s heart. It is much more effective to have them keep a journal you can read, talk to them in a structured interview, or observe how they respond to a difficult situation — such as when their “amazing” ministry idea gets rejected when they present it to others in a parish setting.
Character assessment is usually personal, behavioral, and longitudinal: personal in that it involves the person’s inner self, behavioral in that its tangible evidence tends to reveal itself in life patterns, and longitudinal in that true character is revealed over a long period, not in one or two instances.
Considering this, it is no wonder professors have a hard time assessing the character of their students. Most do not have enough interaction with their students, particularly on an individual basis, to assess their character accurately. In fact, most professors are used to assessing students on the spot and have little opportunity to observe them over an extended period.
If not faculty, then who?
Recognizing the problem of using faculty members to conduct student character assessment, theological schools have been seeking outside help. In an October 2018 Colloquy article called “Five Things We’ve Learned About Assessing Personal and Spiritual Formation,” Jo Ann Deasy of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) reports that more than 70 percent of ATS schools use external instruments or personnel to assess their students.
Seminaries turn to all sorts of people to do this job, including pastors, counselors, mentors, spiritual directors, missionaries, coaches, and even parishioners. These people are often better suited to the job than faculty members because they are more involved in students’ daily life, are not part of their academic world, and are more attentive to the personal, behavioral, and longitudinal aspects of assessment.
To assess the character of students who take part in field education programs, particularly those working toward an M.Div., many schools are increasingly relying on field education supervisors. Field education is a “living laboratory” internship for students. On-site supervisors, usually ministers or ministry directors, work very closely and regularly with their interns and therefore are in a good position to assess a student’s character.
However, using field supervisors to conduct assessments has limitations. For one, it is a huge job for field supervisors to oversee every element of a student’s formation over the many months they work with them. Also, it can be difficult for site supervisors to report their assessment of a student’s character back to the seminary. Moreover, sometimes schools do not carefully articulate all of the specific character learning goals they have for a student, and even if they do, field supervisors may not feel prepared to evaluate so many different facets of a student’s life.
Who is my mentor?
Noting the disadvantages of using field education supervisors to conduct student character assessments, some seminaries have turned to mentors. While definitions of “mentor” abound, in the seminary context it generally refers to someone who serves as a guide for students, someone who is trustworthy, wise, and imitable. Such people can be ideal for conducting character assessments.
The assessments conducted by mentors can be done formally or informally. Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary uses a less formal method. When students enter the Vocational Network program, they are paired with a Garrett-Evangelical alum with similar vocational interests and gifts. These mentors help students develop character through prayer, emotional support, and vocational discernment. They provide their assessments of the student’s formation to schools in the form of casual, ad hoc feedback.
At other schools, mentors play a more clearly defined role in assessing character. For example, Lexington Theological Seminary uses program mentors, usually seasoned pastors, who work with students throughout the entirety of their time in the program. These mentors, who are local clergy, but preferably not the pastor in a student’s church, help students process both work and life events. They offer support, explore ministerial identity, and evaluate competency exercises. This gives the local program mentors numerous opportunities to shape students in personal ways. Lexington takes the quality of the mentoring relationship so seriously that 5 percent of every course grade is based on the mentor’s evaluation of the student’s engagement with them.
In the Deploy competency-based program at Grace Theological Seminary, each student has a formation mentor who provides general support and helps with personal development. According to Deploy director Gabe Tribbett, formation mentors are “skilled in handling matters of the heart in a nuanced way,” and therefore are especially qualified to help students with hard questions about their spirituality and personal identity. This mentor is responsible for evaluating a range of assignments and determining if a student has reached proficiency.
Students may find it preferable and more valuable to have a mentor who is neither a faculty member nor a denominational official — someone who is not in a position of authority over the student — because it may discourage them from being forthcoming and honest. As organizational coach Lisa Slayton points out, students may be afraid that if they share their deepest fears and pain with their professors, they run the risk of being disqualified from ministry.
Yet, there are also drawbacks to using non-professor evaluators from outside the school. Emily Askew, associate professor of theology at Lexington, reports that while her school has been successfully using professors to conduct character assessments, they would also like to enlist the help of congregants. However, congregants have not always been accurate or fair in their character assessments. For example, church members tend to describe students in glowing terms even when they have clear deficiencies. The opposite can also be true. One of my own students received a review from a local minister that was so harsh, it made the student question his call to ministry. While it is essential that character assessments be honest, this particular evaluation was so harsh, it was traumatizing.
An array of voices
Because character is best assessed from multiple angles, by multiple people, the idea of using formation teams makes sense.
“When it comes to character, a ‘both/and’ approach to formal and informal assessment is the most helpful,” says Katye Chambers, director of vocational networking at Garrett-Evangelical. When a multipronged approach is employed the affective development of students is nurtured within a high-feedback environment. Assesors may include a peer group facilitator (a ministry professional who facilitates a student field education group); a site supervisor (a theologically trained ministry professional, such as a pastor, who works at the student’s ministry site); and a site committee (a group of three to five individuals from the student’s ministry site).
The network of mentors at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University ensures robust character assessment of its students. In spiritual formation courses, each student is assigned a faculty mentor who then helps the student choose a spiritual mentor to accompany them throughout the degree program. The mentor offers feedback on coursework and assists with goal setting. On a more personal level, the mentor reads and offers feedback on the student’s reflective journal entries.
In addition to having faculty and spiritual mentors, each Wesley student is assigned a professional mentor at the ministry site where he or she works and who is there to witness the student’s actions and attitudes. This mentor is “the first to recognize if a student is going off the rails vocationally,” says Colleen Derr, Wesley Seminary’s president.
Together, these three mentors are able to address a wide range of issues relating to a student’s character development. “It takes a community to raise an M.Div. student,” says Derr.
Roman Catholic seminaries also typically employ teams of people to assess the character of students. The Program of Priestly Formation, the official document governing training of ordained leadership in the Catholic Church, offers a comprehensive process of development for prospective priests who are focusing on intellectual, pastoral, spiritual, and human formation.
A Catholic seminarian usually has a team of three or four “formators.” The formation advisor (or director) oversees all formation and gives special attention to the spiritual and human components. Each seminarian is always assigned a spiritual director. The seminary rector and the student’s sponsoring diocese provide further counsel.
There are also people who, while not part of the official team, may be part of the mix for character development. For example, a student may be required to pursue further human formation with a counselor. Some seminaries provide opportunities for, or even require participation in, support groups. And when it comes to formation for a life of celibacy, seminarians benefit from conversations with men and women who are already living that commitment, along with meaningful interaction on the topic with laity, says Franciscan Sister Katarina Schuth, professor emerita at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Minnesota, who is a leading scholar on Catholic theological education.
Room for improvement
Seminaries have room to improve and innovate as they explore the most effective ways to conduct character assessments of their students. It is worthwhile to keep an eye on seminaries that are experimenting with non-professor assessments. Also of interest are the promising research projects being conducted by scholars on character development and assessment, such as the app being launched by researchers at Biola University (see “Mission in the Balance” in the Autumn 2019 issue of In Trust). There are sure to be more research projects on the horizon.
A lesson learned
What happened to my ethics student — the one the professional outside mentor believed lacked integrity?
A few weeks after the assessment, at the end of the semester, the student turned in his final paper. With the mentor’s warning still ringing in my ears, I checked to see if the student had plagiarized his paper. He had not.
It was worse. He had paid someone $200 to ghostwrite it for him.
Maybe some professors can conduct the character assessment of their students by themselves, but not me. There is a whole network of people out there who are right for the task — and I will take all the help I can get!