Recent literature on formation in theological education points to the need to consider Majority World approaches to holistic formation. This article reports on how formation is defined, pursued, and assessed at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. ABTS has had experience in online modalities since 2012, but in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the institution permanently shifted the remaining residential program (BTh) online. As this curriculum has been adapted to the post-Covid reality, challenges to holistic formation have become apparent. In light of this situation, this report offers insight on challenges to holistic formation in settings where relationality rather than individualism characterizes the overall cultural orientation.
Many people consider holistic formation to be an essential part of the mission of theological education in seminaries. Yet recent literature on formation in theological education has identified challenges regarding how formation is defined, pursued, and assessed, particularly across diverse traditions (Porter, et al 2019; Porter, et al. 2021), and especially in online modalities (Naidoo 2019; van der Knijff 2021). In this article, I provide a brief report of formation at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Beirut, Lebanon. I developed this report as part of a collaboration undertaken by ScholarLeaders to consider holistic formation in Majority World contexts. This collaboration especially emphasized the post-Covid realities of doing theological education online.
I first provide background on ABTS. I then explain how formation was defined, pursued, and assessed in ABTS’s residential BTh program. Subsequently, I highlight key difficulties that have emerged in the institution’s ongoing effort to engage in holistic formation in the BTh now that it is online. I conclude by offering some brief reflections about pathways forward.
Background to the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary
Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) missionaries and Lebanese Baptists founded ABTS in Beirut in the 1950s. After meeting in SBC missionary Finlay Graham’s home for several years, the campus opened in 1961 on a parcel of land 8 km outside Beirut in the foothills of Mt. Lebanon.
Early on, Lebanese Baptists were skeptical about ABTS. Many were concerned about an educational and experiential gap growing between Baptist pastors and their congregations if the pastors attended seminary (Trexler 2016, 91). Additionally, Lebanese Baptist leadership feared that the seminary would introduce “liberal ideas” (such as higher biblical criticism) to Lebanese pastors. Theological differences between most SBC missionaries and Lebanese Baptists fueled this fear, as Lebanese Baptists had been influenced by Landmark convictions before the SBC’s arrival in Lebanon. Yet, from the beginning, ABTS’s target audience had been wider than the Lebanese Baptist community; indeed, it served Arabic-speaking evangelicals across the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region (Trexler 2016, 91). Since then, as ABTS has developed, tensions between a local and a regional focus and between institutional stakeholders’ various theologies have shaped the school’s identity. In what follows, I highlight historical examples of these tensions to provide a background for the definition of holistic formation.
Early in ABTS’s history, it explored its regional reach in several distance education projects. The first was a correspondence course about the life of Jesus created by Virginia Cobb, an SBC missionary. Ghassan Khalaf, an ABTS graduate, taught the course at a distance (he later became president of the seminary). When the course launched in 1966, 1,500 people enrolled across the MENA region, and by the following year that number had increased to 3,200. Khalaf corresponded with all the participants, writing personal letters to circumvent government censors in many of the 25 countries in which participants lived (Trexler 2016, 120). In addition to this course, ABTS was the base for a Mass Media Center that in 1968 began broadcasting 15-minute-long programs that attempted to link truths about topics of public interest to spiritual lessons in a winsome way for people of other religions (Trexler 2016, 121). Both programs represent creative uses of the technologies available at the time to offer theological education at a distance.
From the 1970s onward, two distinctive characteristics of theological formation at ABTS began to emerge. The first was the inclusion of learning about Islam as a core component of the curriculum. Gaining a deep knowledge of Islam and Arabic was facilitated by hiring faculty with specializations in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, such as Samuel Shahid (1970-1975). Another distinctive was the prioritization of peacebuilding. This emphasis developed from missionary initiatives in the 1970s, such as Jess and Jeannine Willimon’s Reconciliation through the Arts (RECONART) project. Peacemaking and learning about Islam were combined in the launch of ABTS’s Institute for Middle East Studies (IMES) in 2001 under Martin Accad. IMES sought to foster relationships between Muslims and evangelical Christians to “break down the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that enables each group to stereotype the ‘other’” (Trexler 2016, 193). These two distinctives have continued to animate education at ABTS despite significant program changes in 2008 and 2020.
Since 2019, Lebanon has faced a series of crises: a financial system collapse and currency devaluation, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Beirut port explosion. Considering the ongoing and likely increasing disruptions in Lebanon and in view of what the ABTS leadership team (Haddad 2020) perceived as fundamental shifts in theological education, ABTS decided to transform the full-time residential BTh into a part-time, online hybrid program, in which students would primarily study online in their home contexts but travel to campus for several two-week residencies (Zailaa 2020). While core courses maintained a practical theological bent, other curricular elements needed to be reorganized – especially the “formational” elements, including theological reflection, mentoring, spiritual disciplines, and chapel.
As of February 2023, ABTS has a total of 245 students enrolled in the following programs:
This background highlights key tensions that ABTS has faced since its inception, as well as some of the distinctive characteristics of theological formation at ABTS before the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent changes made to the basic BTh program. In the next section, I describe in further detail how formation has been defined and assessed at ABTS.
Defining and Assessing Formation at ABTS
During a complete redesign of the BTh/MDiv in 2008, ABTS adopted a holistic approach to theological education under the guidance of Perry Shaw (2014). With this approach, ABTS intends the educational experience to integrate affective, behavioral, and cognitive domains (Shaw 2006), rather than prioritize cognitive learning. This framework was developed in response to the critique that modern Protestant theological education leads to fragmentation. In this framework, ABTS defines holistic formation as follows:
- Cognitive: Formation is the ability to interpret life and ministry through the lenses of Scripture, theology, history, and community (including the social sciences and Islam).
- Affective: Formation involves the ability to be an example to others of a maturing faith in relationship with God and in a commitment to reconciled relationships and restored communities.
- Behavioral: Formation leads to the ability to equip faithful women and men in the Church for effective service (Shaw 2014, 31).
Within this three-fold definition, ABTS identified specific contextual considerations that include, first, awareness of Orthodox theology and the history of the Eastern churches and, second, familiarity with the history, doctrine, and practices of Islam in the MENA region, including consideration of Islam’s positive and negative influences on MENA societies.
Moving beyond curriculum documents and the institutional definition, several of my colleagues at ABTS offered further context-specific detail about formation. One colleague explained the dynamics of residential life at ABTS:
In the 3-year residential program, students experienced family-like community. I believe the major phase experienced that is difficult to recreate in an online program is “brokenness,” which is crucial for transformation and encountering the Divine. Culturally speaking, sharing weaknesses (particularly via descriptions of “wrong” emotions) is taboo. Sharing weaknesses exposes someone to ridicule and patronizing attitudes and behavior. As such, learning how to admit brokenness, explore it, and analyze it is hard work. It is accelerated by living in a cross-cultural community and experiencing “disability” in ways not previously experienced due to living far away from the support of one’s own family and community. Learning to live and grow in a new community full of differences exposes brokenness and weakness, then. And the hard work of engaging one’s own weakness is supported and affirmed when living in community with others and seeing it modelled. (Bassem Melki, former Dean of Students, discussion in faculty meeting, 12 May 2020)
Melki’s account points to two crucial components of formation in the residential BTh program: the experiences of brokenness and cross-cultural community. Living in cross-cultural community at ABTS worked to accelerate the experience of brokenness, as well as providing a context for growing into a new community.
Another colleague’s account provides contextual pointers to understanding formation among Arab Christians:
For Arab Christians, formation is better understood using the language of maturity. Students do not seek theological education for “formation” (tashkeel تشكيل), but rather to grow towards maturity (nuDūj نضوج) which literally means “ripeness or doneness.” The primary marker of maturity is wisdom (hikma حكمة). Wisdom itself is understood as the ability to say appropriate words at the appropriate time or to behave in the appropriate way at a time. Crucial to this understanding of wisdom is the acquisition of “wisdom sayings,” also known as proverbs, which are popularly or religiously encoded pithy sayings that capture the “appropriate words” or meaning that should be conveyed. Knowing and using proverbs appropriately is a key marker of maturity in many of the contexts that make up the Arab World. Notably, this wisdom tradition is present in the religious contexts of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. (Riad Kassis, Board member, presentation at faculty retreat, 28 October 2022)
Kassis’s description highlights the wisdom tradition of Arab Christians. Ability to utilize this tradition is a key marker of formation or maturity. Both Melki’s and Kassis’s accounts identify the indispensable role of community in defining and assessing formation.
It is important to notice, here, that the trajectory of formation in view is not of individualists learning to grow in community. Rather, it is of relationally enmeshed individuals growing in maturity in and for community. That is, ABTS draws students from cultural orientations that can be characterized as primarily connectivist. This cultural orientation contrasts with more individualist orientations in how it prioritizes relational selfhood rather than boundaried selfhood. That is, connectivity describes patterns of relationality characteristic of many cultures where individuation, self-reflection, and autonomy are not valued (Joseph 1993, 457). Such connectivity can be expressed as “persons reading each other’s minds, answering for each other, and anticipating needs or reactions” (Joseph 2005, 79). Individual preferences conform to others’ preferences, so that one sees himself/herself as an extension of others and others as an extension of oneself. Maturity in relational cultural orientations is demonstrated in part by being able to enact relational enmeshment to direct others as though they are oneself or to receive direction, depending on one’s position in the relational hierarchy (Hutcherson 2022, 123). Thus, connectivity prioritizes the enmeshed self and largely treats autonomous selves as immature and antisocial.
This being the case, connectivity provides a lens for understanding the trajectory of formation for people from relationally oriented cultures. Brokenness and the cross-cultural experience of residential life facilitate an intense disruption of their place in community (brokenness) and a subsequent reconstruction of their personal agency and ability to direct others or to receive direction in this new community, predicated on the study of the ultimate “wisdom tradition” for Christians: Scripture, theology, history.
Understanding formation in this Arab evangelical setting provides crucial insight into the contextual practices of formation discussed in the next section, as well as why the shift to distance education caused by the Covid-19 pandemic was so disruptive.
Pre-Pandemic Practices of Formation at ABTS
Due to ABTS’s three-fold, holistic understanding of formation, formation has not been understood as taking place solely in a program’s “spiritual” components. Rather, formation translated into learning outcomes that touched the affective and behavioral domains in addition to the cognitive. Learning activities both in the classroom and outside it aimed for holistic growth, and students were assessed on this growth. As a result, it was not unusual to see students working on unusual assignments, from engaging in a full day of silence to forming eco-care programs to creating art to fulfill course requirements.
Of course, more traditional formation practices were part of seminary life too. Students participated in spiritual life retreats; attended daily chapel meetings that included singing, prayer, and a short devotional delivered by students, faculty, or staff; and met one-on-one or in groups for mentoring. Students could also join service projects, many of which, post-2011, involved ministry to and with Syrian refugees.
Because ABTS follows the European Area for Higher Education’s credit-counting procedure, all mandatory learning within the curriculum is “formalized.” In relation to formation, formalized practices for which students could receive credit included (as stated above) mentoring, independent learning, ministry practicums, small groups, and chapel. In other words, all these avenues for practical learning had an educational descriptor that stated outcomes, expectations for hours required, and assessment procedures. On this basis, students earned credit for a variety of practical learning activities that fostered their formation.
Additionally, one primary method for guiding students’ formation was ongoing theological reflection exercises on life and ministry. This component made up between 10-17% of students’ learning hours in the BTh program. Such journaling guided students in an ongoing action-reflection cycle in whatever ministry setting they chose. During these exercises, analytical questions asked students to identify a specific important incident and to analyze their own emotions in relation to that incident. In my own research (Hutcherson 2022, 101ff) on students’ experiences of this process, the strangeness of writing down or discussing emotions led to a sense of “foreignness” in practicing theological reflection. Yet as they learned this practice, students demonstrated increasing autonomy within community, ultimately using the practice of reflection to build community. This process, therefore, was important for students’ formation, as it nudged them to integrate their seminary learning with the lived details of ministry.
In addition to journaling, ABTS used the following procedures to assess students’ growth:
- Upon arrival at ABTS, as a part of the introductory induction module, new students were asked to do a self-evaluation based on the ABTS Graduate Profile.
- At the beginning of the second and third years, as a part of the September diagnostic, students were asked to complete self-evaluations again based on the ABTS Graduate Profile. Each student would give an oral report to a faculty member or administrative leader on how they saw their pilgrimage over the previous year.
- At the middle and end of each academic year, the entire faculty discussed and assessed together each individual students’ progress (a long process that proved impossible to scale for a larger student body).
- Mentoring involved both mentor assessment and student self-assessment of growth.
- Reflection involved both supervisor assessment and student self-assessment of growth.
- ABTS’s Dean of Students used all this material for ongoing one-on-one assessment.
- At the conclusion of the student’s time at ABTS, a final faculty assessment and student self-assessment took place. These formed the basis of a final interview between an individual faculty supervisor and student.
Formation in the residential BTh program had been thoroughly shaped by a connectivist cultural orientation that prioritized relational selfhood. The program facilitated guided learning opportunities for students to experiment with self-reflection, individuation, and growing autonomy within a safe community that fostered an increasing personal agency within students’ relational networks. Although the values behind the practices outlined in this section remain the same, the practices themselves have changed extensively since the Covid-19 pandemic. In the next section, I describe how distance education and the increased reliance on technology impacted formation in this BTh program.
The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Formation at ABTS
In 2020, shortly after pandemic lockdowns were announced, ABTS’s leadership decided to shift the residential BTh program online permanently. Even as they did so, ABTS’s leadership and faculty reaffirmed the curriculum’s basic structure and underlying definition of formation. The Dean of Students (Melki 2020) explored expanding the domains of formation from three to six or eight (six – spiritual, physical, mental, missional, relational, emotional; or eight – hands on, core academics, critical thinking, conflict resolution, character formation, healthy social skills, manners). This more detailed framework provided a way to dream about what formation could mean in the online classroom.
In practice, however, the previous methods for fostering holistic formation have been difficult to reproduce online. Internet infrastructure weaknesses in the region frustrate smooth synchronous meetings online. Written language customs can contribute to stilted asynchronous interactions. Overall, the new online learning environment struggles to replicate the spontaneous, face-to-face community learning that happened on campus and that several participants in my research named as important for helping them to practice theological reflection in life and ministry (Hutcherson 2022, 128ff). As a result of these challenges, leadership and faculty began to perceive that fostering formation online could not be done by merely recreating online versions of in-person, residential activities.
Consequently, ABTS’s leadership prioritized situated learning in local contexts, increased faculty involvement in practical learning, and segmented instruction about the practice of theological reflection into a new “life and ministry program.” This program within the BTh was intended to gather all the residential curriculum’s practical learning components, so that theological reflection on ministry would be integrated with other formation elements, overseen, and assessed in three-month periods.
Yet at the time of writing this article, four versions of this new practical learning program – the primary channel for student formation – have been attempted. Each one has broken down for different reasons. Each new iteration has shifted towards less complexity and increased separation of individual components (chapel, practicum/field ministry, mentoring, independent learning). In this way, formation within the online BTh has reverted to the structure used in the previous residential modality. However, the previous ways of assessing students’ formation have significantly altered due to the new online modality:
- As a part of the new 1 week induction residency, new students are asked to complete a self-evaluation based on the ABTS graduate profile.
- Mentoring, theological reflective practice, chapel and small group spiritual formation have undergone several redesigns, none of which have been carried out successfully for a full cycle. This problem indicates the ongoing complications of online/distance education that the program has yet to resolve.
- The entire faculty no longer discuss and assess together individual students’ formation.
- Initially, the role of Dean of Students was reconceptualized as the work of individual faculty members who directly interface with students in their courses. Subsequently, the Dean of Students became the Dean of Faculty. After two years, ABTS leadership felt the need to reinstitute a position of chaplain for students, who will mentor students in monthly meetings.
- Some assessments through one-on-one interviews have been envisioned during two one-week residencies that all BTh students are required to complete during the 5 year part-time program.
Overall, these changes indicate some of the difficulties with moving residential learning online. These difficulties are amplified in the “practical learning” components within the online BTh, where it seems that distance-based learning design is not working as well in practice as was imagined in planning. For example, while some students and faculty were able to connect fruitfully for individual or group mentoring on Zoom, most found the online mentoring meetings stilted and hindered by insufficient internet speed. In more recent iterations, a local mentor and discipleship group have been envisioned for students, with written reflection on ministerial practice providing topics for discussion and an artifact for ABTS to assess and to use for assigning credit. Likewise, another proposal has been for students to become guides to others in their local communities even before they graduate from ABTS, being formed as they mentor others, not just as they receive mentoring.
However, this kind of locally situated mentoring program has not been activated yet. Additionally, situated practical learning for holistic formation meets new dilemmas when students are located in situations where no viable local mentor or community is available to them. Many students in ABTS’s BTh program come from majority-religious backgrounds and may not have a local community of Jesus-followers in which to participate in these “practical learning” activities. So implementing the situated learning that online education requires may not be as straightforward in practice as it appears in planning.
The other programs offered at ABTS, each of which was “born digital,” have continued as planned. Each of these online or hybrid programs were designed with holistic formation in mind, yet in the case of these programs, formation has been integrated more closely within individual courses or within overall program design. For example, in the MRel program, spiritual formation components are included in core course learning activities (focused forum questions, faculty-led discussions, etc.). Likewise, in the CertMin program, spiritual formation and practical learning outcomes are included in individual course learning activities. To my knowledge as a non-administrative faculty member, this sort of integration of formation has not been included yet in the BTh. That is, “formation” continues to be treated as separate courses within the overall program. And the design for these courses in the new online program modality is still being worked out.
In summary, the move to online education in the BTh program exposes some noteworthy dilemmas for fostering holistic formation among more relational cultural orientations. It also stirs up old tensions that ABTS has faced from its founding, like the tension between the local and regional, and how to come to terms with the Islamic contexts that situate student learning and formation.
Reviewing the procedures for enacting and assessing formation reveals how many of the practices that facilitated student formation were dependent on ongoing community interaction – on life done together in the campus’s confined environment. The BTh’s shift online has meant that ABTS’s faculty and staff are disabled in their ability to intuit (through real-time observation and interaction) students’ progress in formation. This is not to say that there is no faculty-student interaction online. Much of a person’s character can be demonstrated in their writing and in their engagement in online forums, written exercises, and posts. But we must also acknowledge that faculty and students are expressing limits about their ability to know and be formed through written interactions.
Because of Covid-19 and the subsequent shift to online learning, ABTS has seen many new possibilities. Students can “do theology” outside the classroom walls; they can be embedded in their local ministry contexts scattered throughout the MENA region while they are pursuing education. Yet, perhaps ironically, the technological shift “forward” evokes ABTS’s history of theological education at a distance. Perhaps investigation of those experiences of formation in the 1960s might give ABTS insight for shaping formation now, as the institution moves forward primarily online. Further exploration of how a student’s local community can contribute to that student’s formation could be usefully studied in order to determine how the institution and faculty can foster formation in context. Taken together, this report exposes the importance of community for holistic formation in relational cultures, as it also raises questions about which community is best situated to foster that formation.
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