Abstract: Theological education must continue to adapt to changing ministry needs. Adaptation may require transplanting theological education from its traditional location within the humanities and “re-landing” it among the professional studies. Such a move could lead to greater emphases on students’ personal maturity and communication skills, context-driven learning, and supervised hands-on practice – and ultimately improve ministry preparation for greater societal impact.
Mirwan and Dina1 are a couple who studied at our school about five years ago. They are now involved in church-planting and evangelism in a predominantly Muslim country. Rabia and Ibtisam are involved in evangelistic television broadcasting. Hoda and Munir are discipling believers from a non-Christian background and on Bible translation.
As we consider our graduates, we recognize that much in our traditional theological curriculum bear little connection to their current ministry contexts. If we are serious about preparing men and women for the complex world of the twenty-first century, then it is crucial that we reexamine our goals in theological education. In particular, I believe that we need to “re-land” theological education among fields such as medicine and education, instead of maintaining its traditional location within the humanities.
Theological Education as One of the Humanities
The shape of theological education that continues to predominate today is rooted in the university model developed in Europe and North America in the early nineteenth century. Within the modernist framework of that day, it was important that theology find its place within the general schools of knowledge. Theology was consequently “landed” within the humanities, alongside fields such as literature, philosophy, and history. Close parallels between traditional theological disciplines and other fields in the humanities can be observed: biblical studies (literature), theology (philosophy), and church history (history). It is not surprising that in many cases, the “professional” component of preparation for ministry, often entitled “practical” or “applied” theology2 , has been seen (either consciously or unconsciously) as peripheral or even irrelevant.
Even in schools that purport to emphasize, as their primary purpose, training for ministry, the priority of the “humanities” components is often seen in elements such as curricular numbering (precedent numbers are allocated to biblical and theological studies, and subsequent numbers are allocated to ministerial studies) or scheduling (biblical and theological studies are scheduled in the peak learning times of morning sessions and ministerial studies are relegated to afternoon sessions).
Certainly, many graduates appreciate the personal intellectual growth that comes through a greater appreciation of our heritage, and the critical-textual skills that are gained in a classic approach to theological studies. However, many also resonate with the reflection expressed by one experienced pastor: “I came out of seminary knowing how to exegete a passage, but I had no idea how to help a person struggling to find a sense of purpose or to feel God’s love” (Standish 2005, 12-13).
When we consider people like Mirwan and Dina, Rabia and Ibtisam, and Hoda and Munir, I would suggest that a more adequate location of theological studies would be among professional fields such as medicine, education, and social work. While there are often philosophical and ethical studies in these fields, there is also a clear understanding that every element should be preparing more effective practitioners – as better doctors, teachers, or social workers. Elements drawn from the humanities and the social sciences serve to better prepare people for the task ahead.
The Dominant Schools of Knowledge
I acknowledge that any discussion of schools of knowledge actually contributes to the curricular fragmentation that is the curse of education today. Nonetheless, it can be helpful to discuss general areas, as each area has particular qualities and strengths. There are multiple approaches, but here is one common way of looking at schools of knowledge:
- STEM studies: The acronym STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – fields that are notorious for the preponderance of men over women. They also share a high focus on careful analysis, often drawing on the frameworks developed by Greek mathematicians, such as Euclid. The scientific method is seen as a standard, and rationality is all-important. Consequently, the STEM studies tend to emphasize the cognitive domain of learning, giving scant attention to the affective and behavioral domains. Mathematics has always been my strongest subject and my initial training was in statistics. I still smile when I recall one person’s description of a mathematician as a “coldly logical non-person.”
- Humanities: These have traditionally included philosophy, history, and literature. Often, music and the fine arts are included here, although some would separate these out as fields with a high emphasis on aesthetics. Key issues in the humanities include hermeneutics, and how the flow of ideas has impacted and continues to impact the human race. While the development of careful reflective ability is central to these fields, the aesthetic component also urges consideration of the affective domain of learning.
- Social sciences: Over the past hundred years, the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, communications, and politics have come to play an increasingly influential role in the academy and in society at large. In their focus on human and social behavior, there is recognition of the importance of both careful field research and the development of meaningful governing theories. In the past, the emphasis was on quantitative research, and use of statistical tools to identify possible patterns and relationships. More recently, there has been a growing emphasis on qualitative study, which encourages the development of new insights that emerge through grounded theory. The relative strengths of etic and emic research are debated fiercely, but the end goal is shared: to better understand who we are. While the overall focus is on the cognitive formation of the student, study in the social sciences inevitably has affective and behavioral implications.
- Professional studies: These would include fields such as medicine, law, education, social work, business, and nursing. As mentioned in the introduction, the key characteristic of these fields is that every element of the program should, in some way, contribute to a more effective and reflective practitioner. Increasingly, it is also being recognized that good academic ability is not sufficient: quality practitioners need quality character, and consequently, many professional programs are also emphasizing listening skills and empathy.
In light of our inherited understanding of theological studies as a subset of the humanities, it is not surprising that we emphasize textual and historical analysis. As Manfred Kohl once described, 90% of what we do in the seminary is looking backward (Kohl 2010).
In contrast, de Gruchy’s comparison of medical and theological education challenges us to see as imperative a continual process of assessment, review, and curricular revision:
In the former [medical education], the education of the next generation of health professionals is driven by constant attention to clinical practice, drug trials and technical breakthroughs. It makes no sense, and in fact endangers lives, to train students in procedures which are no longer up to date. By contrast, theological education often proceeds on the basis that we have learnt nothing new about the Christian faith in the last centuries, and students can be educated solely on the basis of the wisdom of the ages. Without negating the importance of history and tradition, the truth is that missional practice provides an ongoing contextual laboratory for theological reflection raising new issues and new perspectives on old issues almost daily. Our commitment to life, and to being on the cutting edge of responding to life, should be as profound as that of medical educators (2010, 45).
If we were to re-land theological within professional studies, then there would be a number of implications for practice:
- Awareness of students’ personalities: It has been found in many of the professional studies, and particularly in the so-called “people” professions, that the best students often make poor practitioners, as they are more comfortable with books than with people. Consequently, many schools of medicine, nursing, education, and social work are now conducting extensive psychological testing and personal interviews with prospective students. While solid academic achievement is still foundational, it is no longer deemed sufficient. Likewise, many theological schools have already intuited the need to take into account the personal maturity and communication skills of prospective students.
- Problem-based learning: Because professionals need to learn to deal with real-world dilemmas, problem-based learning (PBL) has become common in virtually all fields of professional education. Howard Barrows, who has been instrumental in establishing PBL in many North American medical schools, describes the process of PBL as follows: “The basic outline of the problembased learning process is: encountering the problem first, problem solving with clinical reasoning skills and identifying learning needs in an interactive process, self-study, applying newly gained knowledge to the problem, and summarizing what has been learned” (Barrows 1996, 5). The strength of PBL lies in its demand upon students to integrate material from multiple disciplines in addressing specific real-life situations. Students are thus better empowered to develop skills in reflective practice. PBL also opens the possibility for engaging knowledge that ordinarily “falls through the cracks” of the traditional disciplines. Problems and life issues inevitably raise questions that a traditional curriculum ignores, taking students into areas that are highly significant for effective practice, but that don’t naturally fit traditional boundaries. A re-landing of theological education among fields like medicine and education would likely require a shift from text-based courses to context-driven learning.
- Early and continuous supervised experience in hands-on practice: It is becoming increasingly common for medical schools to place their students in hospitals from the first year of their studies, and for schools of education to expect student teachers to be in the classroom from the very beginning of their training. These practical components are carefully supervised and are granted a substantial amount of “academic” credit – in the case of my own experience, one-third of the credits in my teacher training program. Many programs of theological education already strongly emphasize in-ministry training, but too often, this training is largely divorced from what takes place in the text-based courses and is perceived as peripheral to the “real” classroom studies. In many cases, only a minimal amount of “academic” credit is granted for these significant learning experiences and supervision is exclusively at the hands of local church leaders. A more “professional” approach to theological education would place a greater emphasis on theological reflection on life and ministry.
At the same time, we need to be careful in “landing” theological education among any sort of secular studies. Quality theological education acknowledges and affirms a spiritual dimension to learning that distinguishes theological education from virtually all other fields of study. While theological education bears many similarities to the “people” professions in terms of growing concern for holistic formation, quality theological education will take seriously the reality of the Triune God.
Quality theological education takes seriously the transcendent work of the Spirit in the teacher, the student, and the community in the educational process. Similarly, our education must recognize that pastoral skill goes beyond a good “bedside manner” to include sensitivity to what the Spirit is doing in the lives of those we serve.
The relationship between the Church and the seminary is also of paramount importance. Evaluating societal impact and its implications for leadership formation is a cooperative process in which the seminary must take seriously the vision and practices of local faith communities.
All this being said, our practices and processes could benefit enormously from “re-landing” theological education within the professional studies, especially as we seek to make ourselves understandable to the secular academy and to government accrediting boards.
For too long we have allowed our programs to be shackled to questionable understandings of theological education’s nature and purpose. In a world where integral mission must be at the forefront of our Christian leadership training, and as we consider leaders like Mirwan and Dina, Rabia and Ibtisam, and Hoda and Munir, we can learn much from contemporary educational practices in professional training programs. First, we will need a paradigm shift in our selfunderstanding. As we do so, the potential for significant qualitative change will become enormous.
1 All the names in this introduction have been changed for security reasons. The descriptions are accurate.
2 Both the title and position of ministerial studies in traditional curricula imply that “true” theology can or perhaps should be abstract and “impractical.”
Barrows, H. “Problem-Based Learning in Medicine and Beyond: A Brief Overview.” In Bringing Problem- Based Learning to Higher Education: Theory and Practice. New Directions for Teaching and Learning Series, no. 68, edited by L. Wilkerson and W. Gijselaers, 3–11. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1996.
De Gruchy, S. “Theological Education and Missional Practice: A Vital Dialogue.” In Handbook of Theological Education: Theological Perspective, Regional Surveys, Ecumenical Trends, edited by D. Werner, D. Esterline, N. King, and J. Raja, 42–50. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010.
Kohl, M. “Curriculum Development: An Overview.” Plenary presentation at the Overseas Council Institute for Excellence in Christian Leadership Development, Taipei, Taiwan, April 6-9, 2010.
Standish, N. Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005.