Integrating Work in Theological Education
Kathleen A. Cahalan, Edward Foley, Gordon S. Mikoski, eds.
Pickwick Publications, March 2017, 268 pp.
What do pastors need to know before embarking in ministry? David Rylaarsdam, a participant in the Collegeville Institute Seminar Integration in Theological Education, shows how theological institutions can better equip pastors with the knowledge and experience they need to lead their congregations. This modified excerpt is a case study that was originally published in Integrating Work in Theological Education, a new book from the Collegeville Institute Seminars, which was released in March, 2017.
In 1989 I entered an MDiv program at Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS), the denominational seminary of the Christian Reformed Church. At orientation, the president showed new students the following pie chart in order to illustrate that CTS took preparation for ministry very seriously.
An entire year—one fourth of the MDiv program—was dedicated to internships. As a new student, I remember being impressed. When I entered full-time ministry four years later, I was not. In my seminary training, the two worlds in the pie chart intersected rarely and superficially. Although I learned a lot of good information and some skills, my fragmented education did not integrate the theory of courses and the practices of field education. My acquisition of theological knowledge prepared me for a doctoral program more than it equipped me for the complexity and ambiguity of sin and grace in the everyday life of a congregation. Moreover, as I began ministry, I had no idea how my preaching, administration, pastoral visits, and other ministry practices could work together in a coherent way.
When I became a faculty member at CTS, the pie chart process of formation was still operative for a few years. However, the school was increasingly facing challenges that persuaded a majority of the faculty that the curriculum needed to be overhauled. The general consensus was that CTS should form students effectively for ministry, but some faculty feared that intellectual rigor would be compromised if ministry skills and character formation were more thoroughly integrated into the curriculum and fewer courses in each traditional academic subdiscipline were offered.
Other faculty argued that integrating work that developed students’ practical wisdom was more intellectually rigorous than simply knowing lots of information. The following case study summarizes the ways in which the new MDiv curriculum seeks to value integrating work in the formation of students for ministry.
Integration in a Curricular Structure
Prior to curriculum revision, the structure of Calvin Seminary’s MDiv program consisted of an equal number of courses in three academic divisions (Bible, Theology, and Ministry), plus two internships. Courses or assignments were rarely interdivisional and the internships were largely disconnected from coursework. The pedagogical assumption seemed to be that correct theory would lead to good practice. This assumption was so strong that for decades faculty were bewildered that intellectually gifted graduates adopted ministry practices remarkably inconsistent with the straight A exams that they wrote in seminary. Faculty lamented that these students had failed to apply the good theory they were taught; little did the faculty suspect that their own theory-application pedagogy might be problematic.
In 2008 CTS formed a curriculum revision committee, and the president adjusted my teaching load so that I could lead the revision process. After seeking the wisdom of alumni, church leaders, faculty, and other seminaries, the committee spent several months discussing the structure of the new curriculum. The committee considered many curricular frameworks, rejecting any that would unwittingly maintain dichotomies between theory and practice. Versions of knowledge, skills, and character or biblical, theological, ministerial paradigms were not accepted. The committee eventually persuaded the faculty to adopt a curriculum built around four areas of competency: person, message, context, and goal. This framework assumes that all ministry is interpersonal, that God chooses to minister to people through human beings. Drawing on an interpersonal or rhetorical model evident in patristic sources, the new CTS curriculum claims that every vocational situation for which students are preparing involves four elements: a biblical message communicated by a person in a particular context and for a specific goal. These competencies are intimately and necessarily related, whether one is visiting someone in the hospital, writing a theology book, leading a council meeting, having coffee with an agnostic, or preaching a sermon.
The curriculum committee favored this fourfold curricular framework for many reasons, including its integrative promise, its potential to push faculty to teach from a stance of practice, its focus on students’ ability to use knowledge, its grounding in the Christian tradition (the ingredients of this rhetorical model can be found already in Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana), and its relevance for ministry in the twenty-first century.
Encouraging Integrating Work within Courses
Our next strategy was to connect each course to the fourfold curricular framework. All core course syllabi are required to list course objectives under the four curricular areas of person, message, context, and goal. Although many courses primarily develop one of the four areas, all core courses need to consider how other areas are represented in the course in some way. A course in history, for example, will focus primarily on context. Students will parachute into particular times and places in history and learn to think contextually by discerning the ways in which the ministry practices and theology of a particular community were shaped by and responded to their context. Students are pushed to investigate the degree of coherence in a particular community’s interpretation of scripture, worship, ethical practices, and so on.
However, a history course must also strive to develop student competencies in other curricular areas. Faculty are expected to ask the following questions as they design a course: How can this course intentionally develop the character of a student? How can the knowledge and skills developed in this course help the student form a community of disciples? It is no longer adequate for a faculty member to simply ask, How can I cover the content of my subdiscipline most efficiently?
Although one goal of the new curriculum is that all courses should be integrative to some extent, some courses are more integrative than others. The third year of the MDiv program has integratively thick courses, because the curriculum has a vertical pedagogy. The predominant pedagogy in the first year is literacy; it moves to analysis and exploration in year two and to integration in third-year courses. During their first year, students receive the basic vocabulary and distinctions—the building blocks of their theological education—that they can further analyze, explore, and integrate in upper-level core, electives, and capstone courses.
Such work is a process, and progress is not straight and steady. The pedagogy of an increasing number of faculty reflects the belief that churches do not need leaders who are merely brains on a stick. The increasing desire is to facilitate the formation of leaders who have practical wisdom, an intelligence that is embodied, emotional, creative, spiritually mature, contextual, and theologically knowledgeable.