Transformative learning is essential for effective theological education. A case study of a Majority World MTh program explores the extent to which perspective transformation (how people process their experiences, leading to transformed, new ways of relating and acting) occurred in the students and what aspects of the MTh program were transformative for them. The research is based on Jack Mezirow’s ten-phase model of perspective transformation and utilised Kathleen King’s Learning Activities Survey. Implications are drawn from results for enhancing the impact of Majority World theological education on those it serves and equips.


“Theological education is called and committed to educate the whole person for the whole life. Therefore, theological education has a spiritual centre, focussing on the transformation of men and women in relation to God in a way that affects their immediate environment” (ICETE 2022, 4).

As I have written elsewhere, “For Christians, transformation is at the heart of ‘the good news of the kingdom of God’ which Jesus came to announce, was demonstrated in his person and work, and its fulness will eventuate when Christ returns” (Harkness 2017, 139). The Bible speaks frequently of the need for God’s people generally, and leaders more specifically, to be developing holistically – maturing in knowledge, skills, character and empathy – in order to become competent, confident, compassionate and credible in their lives and vocation. So effective service of Christ entails, in the words of Paul’s exhortation, “be[ing] transformed [metamorphousthe] by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2. NRSV).

While “the renewing of your minds” is predominantly a cognitive activity and Paul also exhorts disciples to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5. NRSV), the sort of transformation envisaged is rather more than simply thinking different thoughts and processing new ideas. It is a process that entails a more holistic “metamorphosis” of one’s whole-of-life perspectives, as beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviour become aligned increasingly with the mind of Christ Jesus himself (1 Cor. 2:16. NRSV). This process leads to maturity in Christ (Col. 1:28. NRSV).

The assertion above from the ICETE Manifesto II: Call and Commitment to the Renewal of Theological Education may be easy to affirm for those of us involved in the theological education (TE) enterprise. (The Manifesto was adopted by members of the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) in 1983, and revised in the following decades. A major restatement, ICETE Manifesto II, was issued in 2022. ICETE serves and coordinates a network of nine regional accreditation agencies involved in the quality assurance of evangelical theological education of over 1200 theological schools globally.)

But that quote raises the question, “What sort of learning experiences contribute to such transformation?” Education which enables this outcome needs to be ‘a transformative process: its essence is change (in persons and institutions) from “what is” towards “what could be”, encouraging ownership (personal and institutional) for self-awareness and self-development’ (Harkness 2017, 140). It needs to be holistic: “the significance of a person’s relationships, character and behavior, values and attitudes, passions and emotions for learning and transformation is understood” (ATA 2021, 60).

The thesis of this article is that the potential for transformative learning in TE students is enhanced in settings that provide students with opportunities to reflect on, process, and change their perspectives, and that encourage them to adopt practices consistent with their perspectives, specifically for their ministry roles. A Master of Theology (MTh) program in a seminary in an Asian country is the research context for exploring the validity of the thesis; from it, implications are drawn for broader TE applicability.

Transformative Learning

Since the 1990s, literature on adult education has focused on transformative learning theory. Transformative learning “refers to processes that result in significant and irreversible changes in the way a person experiences, conceptualises and interacts with the world” (Hoggan 2016, 77). Transformative learning theory seldom has biblical insights as a reference point, but Hoggan’s definition is consistent with the New Testament use of metamorphoō, “to change inwardly in fundamental character or condition” (Danker 2000, 639).

Reviewing over 200 articles on the theme of transformative learning, Chad Hoggan identified six categories of learning outcomes that are likely to demonstrate transformative learning. Outcomes may be seen in changes in a person’s

  1. worldview (assumptions, beliefs, values and expectations)
  2. sense of self (in relation to others and to the world in general)
  3. epistemology (the ways of constructing and evaluating knowledge)
  4. ontology (how one exists in the world, their ways of being)
  5. behaviour (acting in a way consistent with a new perspective in
  6. social relationships, and work roles and skills/practices)
  7. capacity for greater complexity in how one sees, interprets and functions in the world, including spiritually. (Hoggan 2016, 69-76)

Perspective transformation, as a vehicle for bringing about these wide-ranging outcomes, is a key aspect of transformative learning theory. It entails “the enduring development of a person’s understanding, the reformulation of their experience, and new ways of acting in the world” (Nichols et al 2020, 43).

The classic authority on perspective transformation, who introduced the term in the 1990s, is North American Jack Mezirow. For Mezirow, perspective transformation focuses on

the recognition of a critical dimension of learning in adulthood that enables us to recognise and reassess the structure of assumptions and expectations which frame our thinking, feeling and acting. These structures of meaning constitute a ‘meaning perspective’ or frame of reference. (Mezirow 2006, 40)

Perspective transformation is more than cognitive processing of information. It involves “that element of education that transcends the addition of knowledge and skill to the broadening of reasoning, perspective, practice, and outlook. Self-reflection, critical discourse, and problem-solving are some of the learning strategies that encourage transformative learning” (Nichols et al 2020, 43).

Numerous writers have contributed to the discourse on transformative learning and its constituent perspective transformation, with many critiquing and developing Mezirow’s insights (e.g. see Cheney 2010, Hoggan 2016). However, “few studies address how transformative learning theory might be applied to vocational settings” (Nichols et al 2020, 45). In the context of TE as vocational development, since the 1990s there has been a steady trickle of international research specifically on transformative learning and perspective transformation (see Nelson 2021). (Some of these studies are Allder and Ackerman (2019) in Asia-Pacific; Bailey (1996), Bayles (2000), Gale (2005), Nelson (2021, 2022) and Young (2013) in the USA; Ball (2012) in Australia; Emslie (2016) in the UK; Nichols and Dewerse (2010) in Canada/New Zealand; Rasilim (2020) in Indonesia; and Weinski (2006) in Germany.) Though these studies are few, their breadth gives me some confidence that transformative learning theory, with perspective transformation as a sub-set, may validly be used to assess the effectiveness of TE programs.

The categories of learning outcomes articulated by Hoggan above indicate the potential for comprehensive and deep-rooted change in a person. But how does this change occur? Mezirow proposed the dynamics of such change in a model of perspective transformation, a process incorporating ten phases as the means by which adult learners “shift their understanding or assumptions in order to cope with new information” (King 2009, 4):

  1. A disorienting dilemma
  2. Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt or shame
  3. A critical assessment of assumptions
  4. Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships and action
  6. Planning a course of action
  7. Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  8. Provisional trying of new roles
  9. Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  10. A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective (Mezirow 2006)

Mezirow’s model is constantly referenced in thinking about transformative learning, and so it is worth considering as the framework within which to evaluate the transformative potential of the Majority World MTh program that is the context of this article.

Research Project

From 2018-22 I worked closely with a Bible seminary in an Asian country as the seminary ran the first Master of Theology program for that country. For the purposes of this article, the seminary has the pseudonym EBS (Emmaus Bible Seminary).

The stated objective of the EBS MTh program is:

to build the Church in [the country], for the glory of God. Thus, the program is designed to equip a cohort of new leaders – scholar-pastors and ministry/mission practitioners – who can present Christian truth in churches, theological seminaries and Christian organizations in ways that are dynamically appropriate for their context. As they are trained to think theologically and contextually, so graduates from this program will be able to more effectively serve God’s Kingdom and Church in [the country] and further afield. (EBS MTh Program Handbook)

This objective aligns with the ICETE and ATA ideals stated above relating to transformative learning. Thus, the completion of the initial cycle of the MTh/LC and before a new cycle is launched is an ideal waypoint to seek to ascertain the value of the MTh program. To what extent was the stated objective achieved? Are the graduates actually better equipped “scholar-pastors and ministry/mission practitioners … able to more effectively serve God’s Kingdom and Church in [the country] and further afield”?

To answer these questions, I sensed there would be value in trying to discern the extent to which perspective transformation is evident in the EBS MTh/LC graduates as a result of their participation in the program. And if perspective transformation is evident, what factors in the program contributed to it?

The benefit of undertaking this research is to provide EBS and the organisation that funded the MTh/LC with insights on the value of the program. Implications drawn from this research may be applicable to efforts to enhance the effectiveness of similar postgraduate programs in TE institutions elsewhere in the Majority World.

To explore perspective transformation in the EBS MTh/LC, three research questions (RQs) were posed:

RQ1: To what extent was the EBS MTh/LC transformative for the graduates, in the technical sense of Mezirow’s 10 phase model of perspective transformation?

RQ2: What elements of the EBS MTh/LC experience were considered transformative by the graduates?

RQ3: What implications from the findings in RQ1 and RQ2 may be drawn on to enhance postgraduate programs in EBS and in Majority World theological education institutions?


The EBS MTh required coursework and research, all with a contextual emphasis. Concurrent with the MTh program, the students completed a two-year leadership certificate (LC), as an opportunity for them to develop skills needed for competent Christian leadership. The LC learning activities had three strands: spiritual formation, Christ-like leadership development, and pedagogical competence. The MTh and LC programs ran in parallel, both considered as components of one overall, integrated program: For graduation, students needed to complete both components.

The MTh/LC was part-time. From 2018 – early 2020, MTh coursework modules and LC learning activities were conducted in person, usually on-campus; after mid-2020, COVID-19 necessitated solely online group contact initially and then a hybrid delivery format.

The EBS MTh/LC had 16 students, mature leaders in churches, Christian organisations, and seminaries. Four of the students were women. Fourteen of the students completed either a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology (for completed coursework but an incomplete final research component) or a full Master of Theology.

Research method

Learning Activities Survey

Numerous efforts have attempted to quantify and qualify what is entailed in perspective transformation. One expression that correlates to Mezirow’s model is Kathleen King’s Learning Activities Survey (LAS), designed “to evaluate educational practice, perspective transformation and transformational learning” (King 2009, 3). LAS provides a means of “measur[ing] whether a learner experienced a change in perspective during their educational activity and, if so, what factors contributed to it” (Nichols et al 2020, 45). Numerous applications of LAS have been reported in a wide range of educational settings, but it has been used seldom in TE research. (LAS is not without shortcomings, especially when used with small research populations. See Nichols and Dewerse (2010).)

King has identified two questions asked by adult educators as they reflect on their educational practice: “(1) How can adult educators identify perspective transformation? (2) How can adult educators encourage learning related to perspective transformation?” (King 2009, 14). Both of these questions may be informed by the use of LAS. And as these questions are relevant to the present research, it is attractive as a suitable research instrument.

Research Design

King’s LAS template was lightly adapted to take into account the educational activities built into the EBS MTh/LC. The MTh/LC LAS (see Appendix) comprised 15 items, and was formatted for use with SurveyMonkey software. Ethics approval for the research was given by the AGST Alliance Human Participants Ethics Panel. (I am the chair of the AGST Alliance Human Participants Ethics Panel, but I recused myself from the ethics approval process for this research project.) Submission of the survey was assumed to be the students’ consent to participate in this phase of the research.

The 14 graduates of the EBS MTh/LC were informed about the research in an email sent to them by the Academic Dean/Director of the MTh program. The email included a survey participant information sheet (PIS) and a link to the online survey. Having the dean/director undertake this task raised the possibility of coercion and perhaps conflict of interest, but the ethics approval endorsed that contact with the graduates from EBS’s administration was the preferred approach, and the dean was the appropriate person to undertake that contact. (I note that the culture of the country is not one with a high power distance index (see Geert Hofstede’s 6-D Model of National Culture. https://hi.hofstede-insights.com/national-culture). This factor also mitigated a sense of coercion by the graduates to participate because they received information from the MTh program dean.) The principal of EBS endorsed the value of the research.

Technically the survey was anonymous unless respondents chose to give their name – which they were invited to do if they were open to being interviewed further. However, with only 14 people in the research population (and only two women), all known to me, and their gender and age requested, true anonymity was not possible. The respondents were alerted to this in the PIS. Confidentiality of the survey responses was assured, however, with only me having access to the submitted data. The students were also well aware that I, heavily involved in the MTh/LC administration and undertaking some of the teaching and supervision, was clearly not an impartial, independent researcher.

Eight of the 14 graduates, all male, submitted a completed survey. One of the respondents was aged 30-39 years old, five were 40-49 years old, and two were more than 50 years old.

Five survey respondents indicated that they were willing to be interviewed, and I conducted online interviews (lasting about 30 minutes) with three of them for further detail about their responses. A separate PIS and consent form were used for the interviews.

The number of respondents was small. But I deemed there was still value in collating and analysing the responses for possible trends. However, care is needed in generalising the results: Further research on similar populations could extend the tentative conclusions and implications drawn from this project. (One avenue for further research could include whether there is correlation between the grade achievement of respondents vs non-respondents and their willingness to participate.) A full statistical analysis of the results was not undertaken, as the margin of error would be too high to be able to draw valid statistical results from the data at a reasonable level of confidence.

Most of the respondents answered the survey questions quite fully. I noted that three respondents checked virtually all the available options in their responses to Qs1 and 4-6. This could reflect a generalised view of the impact of the program for them – they appreciated everything that they were exposed to in the program. But their non-selective responses could also be a form of participant response bias, in which the students tended to affirm every aspect of the program because of their view of the focus of this research and the sorts of responses they perceived I, as the researcher, would appreciate receiving.

One respondent was an outlier: The number of items checked by him was markedly fewer than by the other respondents, and he skipped Qs 9 and 10. Two students appear to have collaborated: Both their surveys were completed at almost the same time, using the same IP address, with identical responses to Qs 1 and 4-6, and their additional comments to some of those questions were very similar in content. However, I have assumed (rightly or wrongly) the integrity of these two respondents rather than treating this as collusive.


Tables of the full collated and de-identified data from the LAS are available from the author by request. Throughout this article, written responses in the survey and verbatim quotations from the interviews have been lightly edited grammatically for better reader comprehension.

Identifying perspective transformation

The first question in this study asked, “To what extent was the EBS MTh/LC transformative for the graduates, in the technical sense of Mezirow’s 10 phase model of perspective transformation?” LAS Qs 1-3 are designed to gauge whether respondents reported elements of transformative learning during the program.

Q1 requested respondents to think about their educational experiences in the MTh/LC and indicate which (if any) of 12 statements applied to them in relation to those experiences. The statements were designed by King to reflect Mezirow’s ten phases of perspective transformation. Examples of the statements are: “Something happened that made me think about the way I usually act,” “Something happened that made me think about my ideas of social roles,” and “I thought about acting in a different way from my usual beliefs and roles.” (See the full list in the Appendix). Respondents checked any of the statements that applied to them.

Three respondents indicated that they had experienced all ten of Mezirow’s phases and four respondents indicated that 4-6 of the phases applied to them. All eight respondents indicated they had experienced a disorienting dilemma. Six reported they experienced something that made them think both about the way they usually act and about their ideas of social roles (such as being a ministry/mission practitioner).

LAS Q2 asked respondents to indicate if they thought they experienced a time in the MTh/LC when they realised their values, beliefs, opinions or expectations had changed. All eight responded ‘Yes’. Free responses (Q3) gave respondents opportunity to describe briefly what happened at that time. Examples of their responses include:

“The way to see the word of God and apply it in my life and my church changed from a narrow to a broader view.” In his interview, this student emphasized that “the program really opened my mind to see [the Bible] with the eyes of God.”

“This time transformed my ministerial thinking and practices in some way. It helped me to boost up my confidence… it shattered some dreams and self-esteem…”

“… This study has developed in me a habit and ability of critical thinking on contemporary issues [in my country] and teach and write about it to fulfil the contemporary needs of the Church .”

“The MTh/LC learning experience give me a new way of thinking about my belief and my role in the community…. I started thinking critically on different matters…” Further probing in my interview with this student revealed significant disorientation during the program: “During all my MTh I remained a confused person, I felt lack of confidence, and a lot of pain… but I have one thing in my mind: in this course God has a special plan for me – he wants to change me and work in my life – and so I am blessed by this training.”

One participant entered the MTh/LC without a ministry role, and unclear about his sense of call. He identified that “the whole MTh course and LC activities were woven in a way that helped me to think upon my values, beliefs, opinions and expectations….” He expanded on this further in the interview, indicating that his study experience was not radically de-constructive for him, but rather “the base of my doctrine was fine, but the courses helped to strengthen my perspectives, and helped me in my practical perspectives more.”

“I realised a great responsibility as a leader to be an impact creator rather than just achieving activity-based targets.”

Together, these responses reflect significant transformative activity arising from participation in the program. Further, most of the respondents identified their change of perspective occurring generally and incrementally as the program proceeded rather than at one specific time in the program.

LAS free-response Q8 was designed “to verify that the perspective transformation was in fact related to the respondent’s educational experience” (King 2009, 15), and asked “what did your EBS MTh/LC participation have to do with the experience of change in your values, beliefs, opinions or expectations?” Participation in the MTh/LC appears to have enhanced changed understanding leading to changed ministry practice. Responses included:

“…Now I have got the ability of critically thinking on different life issues. Now I can help my people with more confidence…”

“MTh helped me to see all the teachings of the Bible through the lens of Biblical Theology. It changed my perspective of thinking.” But it was more than just cognitive change for this student. Facing internal and external challenges in his ministry, in his interview he reported that the program “… motivated me to thrive in my ministry, and in my personal growth as well… it helped me to persevere in serving.”

“Before this MTh program, I had never undertaken deep concentrated thinking but it happened during the program. It made me to rethink life, and influenced by deep concentrated divine thoughts strengthens me to implement my learning.”

RQ1 asked “To what extent was the EBS MTh/LC transformative for the graduates, in the technical sense of Mezirow’s 10 phase model of perspective transformation?” My conclusion is that the program was a transformative experience for the graduates, as they experienced significant perspective transformation. Aspects of their lives and their ministry/mission practice were influenced significantly and positively in the program as a result of facing disorienting dilemmas, adopting a range of strategies to deal with the dilemmas, and recognising where new perspectives were being re-integrated into their lives.

Mezirow suggested that the ten stages need to be experienced sequentially. LAS doesn’t allow for determining the extent to which this is so for respondents. What is apparent from the MTh/LC responses is that changes seldom arose from one specific, time-bounded event during the program (akin to an ‘a-ha!’ moment of insight and illumination). Rather, for most of the students, change of perspective occurred incrementally through the duration and various learning activities of the program.

Facilitating transformative learning

The second research question asked “What elements of the EBS MTh/LC experience were considered transformative by the graduates?” LAS Qs 4-7 are designed to identify dynamics in the educational process which contribute to participants’ perspective transformation, relating to the support received from others and program-specific activities. Support “is viewed as a learning activity because it is the process of providing emotional, psychological, physical or educational assistance to the learning by students or faculty when needed” (King 2009, 17).

Specific learning activities of the MTh/ LC that respondents perceived to contribute to their perspective transformation were identified in Qs 5 and 6. The listed learning activities span the main elements of widely-recognised productive adult learning: critical thinking skills, discussion with others, self-reflection and self-assessment, discovery of and expressing one’s own voice, and skills development. They may be categorised into two complementary spheres of transformative impact: learning collaboratively with peers and faculty; and the range of specific learning activities which offer scope for both individual and group content and application processing. Six elements for perspective transformation may be drawn from the students’ responses.

1) Learning as collaborative: The value of student peers and faculty: The positive influence of faculty and student peers was indicated by all the respondents. The role of student peer support was endorsed by most respondents, and they clearly valued their interactions with the MTh/LC faculty, these interactions being both challenging and supportive. For example, one respondent wrote “[the facilitator of the Biblical Theology module] helped me see how God works… and in the Mission of God module, [the facilitator] challenged me to read the Bible through a missional lens.”

All respondents indicated that in-class group discussions and other collaborative activities contributed to the change of their perspective, including informal, more casual interactions. This reinforces both the role of their peers’ support in the learning process and the facilitating role of the faculty.

In terms of faculty support and challenge, the comments and feedback faculty gave the students in assessment items were not specified options, but they are likely to be a factor in the students’ responses. It is also worth considering an extension of the role of faculty to include the transformative role of other “experts” who both support and challenge: These are the authors of literature with whom the students interact. These authors never meet the students in person, but can be highly influential (Mark Nichols 2022, personal communication).

2) Learning activities: The value of coursework reading and assignments: A high rate of response was received for the role of coursework reading, research and assignments. As student comments above indicate, some of the students were challenged by MTh-level writing expectations, requiring critical thinking over the rote learning that dominated their previous formal educational experiences. For example, one discovered “a broader view of writing – I had freedom to write in a way quite different to my earlier educational experiences.” He was very positive about his enhanced perspectives on how to approach the Bible and his thinking style; together, these have had a practical outcome: “I’m reading the Bible now for God’s point of view… it has given shape too to how I share God’s word…. Church members have commented to me that when I preach now, I teach much more clearly than before.”

3) Learning activities: The value of personal reflection: The Leadership Certificate predominantly used applied learning activities. The respondents’ consensus was that the LC self-reflection opportunities – journaling, the spiritual retreat and leadership reading and reflection – were especially appreciated. Of special note is the value given to the two spiritual retreats (three days and one day in length), a somewhat new experience for a number of the students, even though they are seasoned Christian leaders. The tone of one student’s comments is representative: “When we are involved in ministry we have a very short time [to reflect] because I am so busy in church, seminary and family…, but the retreat gave me proper time to spend with God, to reflect on the word of God and on life, and to think about our actions and our knowledge, and where we stand.”

Qs 9 and 10 provided further information on the participants’ perception on the role of reflection in their lives. Six (of seven) respondents indicated they would “characterise yourself as one who usually thinks back over previous decisions or past behaviour” (Q9); and seven (of seven) respondents responded that they “frequently reflected upon the meaning of your studies for yourself, personally” (Q10). The near unanimity of these responses is significant in the light of broader research findings that demonstrate that “critical reflection has a very important role in perspective transformation in the content of educational experience” (King 2009, 19). (There is some ambiguity in the data that bears further enquiry, relating to the responses to Qs 9 and 10 to the Q1 statements that relate to the self-examination phase in perspective transformation (which only a minority of respondents ticked). Indeed, ambiguity is a wider issue in LAS, especially when used with small research populations.)

It is worth noting that reflection was not always presented in the program as a totally distinct learning experience, nor was it just in the LC. MTh coursework assignments often intentionally incorporated a reflective component. It may be reasonably assumed that the students were continually reflecting on and evaluating their perspectives and practices even when it was not set as a distinct learning activity.

4) Learning activities: The value of explicit skills development: The more explicit skills-development elements in the LC were widely considered to be influential, e.g. the Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills and adult learning/teaching skills workshops that each spanned several days. The highly interactive Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills workshop is “designed to enhance the knowledge, attitudes and skills of Christian workers in how we relate to family, co-workers, friends as well as those from other cultures” (SYIS brochure). The objective of the adult learning/teaching skills workshop was to help the students “to grow in awareness of, and ability to apply, adult learning principles and appropriate teaching skills in a variety of contexts” (Workshop Guidelines). The main post-workshop assignment was to teach two classes in each of two Christian growth contexts, demonstrating methods and skills from the workshop. These were practical events, encouraging the students to review, acquire and practise skills for more effective ministry/mission practice and leadership.

5) Learning activities: The value of field experience: An unfortunate oversight in the adapted LAS was specific reference (especially in Qs 4 and 5) to the two-week field trip to Jordan that the students took during the MTh/LC, embedded in one of the coursework modules. Feedback on this non-formal learning activity showed it was highly beneficial. In LAS, several respondents spontaneously referred to its value for their change of perspective:

“My experience [in Jordan] was to experience biblical truths physically. It was just like going through the biblical stories personally, as the Israelites did.”

“Visiting biblical sites [in Jordan] was a wonderful experience that helped change my views and ideas.”

“My understanding about the role of the state of Israel has totally been changed after visiting Jordan and seeing the other side of the coin too.”

The dynamics of the field experience for perspective transformation in the MTh/LC certainly warrants further consideration in further cycles of the program.

6) The place of external events on perspective transformation: So far, focus has been on the dynamics of the MTh/LC’s “internal” (program-specific) processes on perspective transformation in the students. LAS also enquired about significant concurrent life experiences “because such precipitous events may lead to transformational experiences. People are often encouraged to respond to new ways of thinking because of “trigger events” in their lives…. and some may interact with educational experience” (King 2009, 17). LAS Qs 7 and 12 related to such external events.

Seven respondents reported at least one significant life experience during their participation in the program which influenced a change in their perspective. Five of them identified 2-4 such experiences, which ranged over family and ministry/mission events, as these examples show:

Personal security threats brought about by a family crisis, leading to an identity crisis.

Death of a senior colleague, leading to recognition of God’s preparation through the MTh/LC for taking on greater responsibility.

Severe health issues in a new-born child, and recognising God’s enabling to continue MTh/LC studies during this time.

Marriage and the death of a parent, resulting in the need to adopt greater responsibility and influencing a rethink about life.

These sorts of issues are a reminder that the context of students’ life journeys cannot be ignored for effective learning. The extent to which perspective transformation from these experiences would have happened and the quality of the transformation are not measured by LAS. What can be noted is that life context is the crucible within which learners situate and process their more formal learning. Inevitably one’s study program can’t be “silo-ed”, isolated from life experiences. What is of greater significance is how the experiences are recognised and integrated into the study program.

RQ2 asked “What elements of the EBS MTh/LC experience were considered transformative by the graduates?” The data has highlighted the value of collaborative learning with peers and faculty for both support and challenge, and of a range of learning activities which encourage holistic formation for more effective ministry/mission practice and leadership within the students’ churches and organisations. These factors need to be set in the context of students’ external-to-the-program personal life dynamics for enhanced perspective transformation. The interplay of these elements will doubtless vary between students, and indeed it is possible that not all need to be present all the time for effective perspective transformation.


The thesis of this article is that potential for transformative learning in TE students is enhanced in settings that provide the students with opportunity to reflect on, process and change their perspectives, and that encourage them to adopt practices consistent with their perspectives, specifically for their ministry and mission roles. The analysis above has demonstrated the validity of this thesis for the EBS MTh/LC. I contend that insights from this study are more widely generalisable, hence my third research question: “What implications from the findings in RQ1 and RQ2 may be drawn on to enhance postgraduate programs in EBS and in Majority World theological education institutions?”

King has highlighted that LAS addresses “How can adult educators encourage learning related to perspective transformation?” (King 2009, 18). While LAS doesn’t put sufficient emphasis on the spiritual dimension of transformative learning, from the findings of the present study a number of implications may be identified for Majority World TE programs. While the focus of this study is on post-graduate programs and the data are from a very small sample, the implications are likely to be generalisable across all levels of TE programs. Four implications may be highlighted in order to maximise transformative learning as education for “the whole person for the whole life” (ICETE 2022, 4).

1) Ensure that transformative learning is an intentional focus in TE curriculum design.

In the EBS MTh/LC, students reported that they experienced perspective transformation in the activities of their classroom-based settings as well as other activities like retreats and field experiences. The survey revealed this, and it was further validated by the coursework module feedback, with the students commonly agreeing that through participation in each module they reconsidered some of their viewpoints and added to their vocational effectiveness and to their personal faith journeys.

Some of this transformative process may happen spontaneously, but enhancing in students an integrated theology that demonstrates a Christian integrated worldview is much more likely to happen (both in quantity and quality) when a TE institution’s educational processes give intentional and comprehensive attention to the principles and practices of transformative learning. For this, an appropriately-broad understanding of curriculum is essential by the leaders and faculty of TE institutions. Curriculum needs to be perceived to be much more than the subject matter of education: Good curriculum design ensures all the intentional learning experiences of the institution – classroom-based and beyond – are planned and used effectively for integrated, multi-faceted transformative learning. (For more on curriculum design, see my book chapter “The role of academic leadership in designing transformative teaching and learning” (Harkness 2017).) Good curriculum design adopts a range of experiences that span the continuum of formal/non-informal/informal modes of learning (Harkness 2017, 144).

Wise curriculum designers are also alert to the power of the hidden curriculum in reinforcing or working against effective learning: These are the elements in the psycho-social and physical environment that influence what how students receive the explicit teaching positively or negatively (Harkness 2018, 62-63).

2) Help students develop an integrated, whole-of-life theological framework.

My research revealed that during the EBS MTh/LC program, most of the respondents had a significant life experience that changed their perspective. Effective transformative learning processes will intentionally encourage students to recognise their life contexts and will provide a framework to help them integrate their studies with whatever is transpiring in their lives, personally and in their ministry/mission and community settings.

We cannot assume that TE students – even at the graduate level – can intuitively undertake this integrative and holistic activity. Rather, they are likely to benefit from a facilitated process to help them recognise that God is present in all of life, and that all the challenges they face are opportunities for theological reflection that is likely to inform the other aspects of their lives. While this was happening to some degree through the EBS MTh coursework modules, the final coursework module Word, World and Witness: Doing Integrative Theology was designed explicitly to help the students to integrate theology (Word), to understand their context (World), and to make informed responses (Witness). This module spanned late 2020-early 2021, so the obvious contemporary issue chosen was faithful Christian responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The positive student evaluations of this module were consistent with the data on perspective transformation in my research.

As evidenced through the EBS MTh/LC and the Word, World, and Witness module, facilitated learning processes that help to develop an integrated, whole-of-life theological framework to better ensure transformative learning include these elements:

  1. Ensuring that the students “get God on the agenda” in the various events impinging on them, including what they might consider to be the “un-spiritual” parts of their lives.
  2. Creating a hospitable, non-coercive environment that allows them the space – cognitive, social, emotional, and spiritual – to explore issues and their responses to them with personal integrity. (See Soh (2016) on hospitality in TE.)
  3. Helping them acquire sufficient information of the right sort to be able to make informed responses to issues, especially to counteract rampant misinformation and the false ideas they have picked up, not least from the internet.
  4. Providing them with the skills to make sense of what is happening to them within a holistic theological framework.
  5. Ensuring that their proposed and actual responses are contextually relevant.

Learning activity that is integrated and holistic is consistent with andragogical principles (the dynamics of effective learning in adults – see Knowles 1980), especially readiness to learn, learning from experience, and immediacy of application. Along the way, debriefing with students on why particular strategies are being used in the teaching learning process will help them develop their skill of “learning how to learn” (meta-learning), providing them with a scaffold for a disposition for whole-of-life, life-long learning.

3.) Plan for complementary individual and collaborative learning experiences.

The data in this study points to the role of both individual and collaborative elements for transformative learning. The EBS MTh/LC studentreported how both their coursework and their interactions with peers and faculty encouraged and challenged them. At face value these might be seen to be distinct aspects, but in reality coursework and interactions have a complex interrelationship.

“Ecological factors” that contribute to effective learning are related to students’ culture (whether it tends towards individualism or towards being communitarian), prior education, personalities, and preferred learning styles (Harkness 2018, 71-76), and all of these contribute to the dynamics of a person’s individual and collaborative learning processes. It’s not possible to quantify precisely how much each of these factors contributes to transformative learning. But informed educational leaders seek to ensure that all these factors are intentionally applied in the transformative learning process – and especially a range of individual and collaborative experiences. In doing this, a key Christian value is reflected:

In its essence, Christian growth and ministry is a collaborative, co-oerative affair… “Co-labouring” for Christian formation and transformation is primarily with God, mediated through the Holy Spirit; and then in relationship with others. Such interpersonal mutuality, expressed in committed responsibility and accountability… is encapsulated in koinōnia, with its connotation of deeply supportive relationships, which leads to completeness and wholeness both of individuals and of the corporate communities of which they are part. (Harkness 2008, 197)

A balance of individual and collaborative learning opportunities can permeate all aspects of TE educational processes, in both formal and non-formal modes (see above). In the EBS MTh, for example, this was reflected in the blend of learning activities and assignments in the integrative coursework module described above. In saying this, I do not negate the importance of frequent individual critical thinking and self-reflection. Rather, these individual activities are ideally set in an intentional community of learning embedded in the DNA of the culture of the seminary. (See Harkness (2017) on how a collaborative culture for transformative learning may be expressed in seminaries; Deininger (2017) on developing a learning community in TE; and the literature on communities of practice.)

Of special contemporary interest on this point is appropriate information and communication technologies (ICT) for instructional design in Majority World seminaries. The COVID-19 era has led to accelerated adoption of new approaches. A challenge facing seminaries is how collaborative learning may be done online. Significant (and collaborative!) processing of this is taking place in Majority World TE; as an example, see the topic of the September 2022 Asia Theological Association Triennial Assembly, The Digital Turn in TE: Its Impact, Challenges and Opportunities.

4) Equip faculty members to facilitate transformative learning.

The present survey results demonstrate that faculty members played a particularly crucial role in transformative learning, as students recognised their support. This finding is reinforced by students’ feedback on modules, with wide affirmation of their teachers for both academic and pastoral competence: their subject knowledge, variety of teaching methods, approachability, sensitivity to and respect of the students, and fostering collaborative learning environments. In any TE institution, investment in building competent faculty members who are able to draw similar positive comments is likely to be well-rewarded in the quality of graduates.

Faculty members in the EBS MTh/LC may not be able to explicitly articulate Mezirow’s model, but they demonstrated the phases of it when they applied strategies to encourage and up-skill students which resulted in reported perspective transformation. This is seen, for example, when they helped students to recognise and name potential disorienting dilemmas (Phase 1), to understand and assess the assumptions underlying their present perspective on an issue or dilemma (Phase 3), to explore options for new roles, relationships and courses of action (Phase 5), to plan (Phases 6 and 7), and to try out a new course of action (Phase 8).

For the international, well-seasoned faculty members co-opted into the EBS MTh/LC, the ability to do this arises from years of TE experience, as they have used the opportunities and challenges along the way to hone up their competence as informed and competent TE practitioners. Newer faculty members are unlikely intuitively to possess such the range of academic, pastoral, and technical skills necessary to be effective facilitators of transformative learning. Most likely they will tend to “teach as they have been taught” or to imitate what they observe their colleagues doing. These are unlikely to be productive strategies for them to become more fully-functioning, effective mediators of transformative learning.

A much more effective strategy will be consistent and continuous institutional commitment to, and practice of, faculty development. When this is undertaken, the competences faculty members do have are affirmed, while their underdeveloped skills are addressed. This institutional commitment will help to overcome the tension many (if not most) faculty members struggle with: They recognise the need for vocational development but don’t (or can’t) give it priority. Institutional encouragement and initiation of opportunities for its faculty members to explore the rationale for “why we are doing what we are doing” and to enhance their faculty effectiveness is likely to address this tension positively. (For the domains that competent TE faculty members will benefit from developing, see “Faculty Enrichment for Impact: A Schema for Holistic Faculty Development” (Harkness (2022). The article also refers to AGST Alliance’s Faculty Enrichment Initiative (https://agstalliance.org/fei), which partners with faculty members of Asian TE institutions for their vocational development.)

The thesis of this article is that the potential for transformative learning in TE students is enhanced in settings that provide the students with opportunity to reflect on, process, and change their perspectives, and that encourage them to adopt practices consistent with their perspectives, specifically for their ministry and mission roles.

The EBS MTh/LC case study of the present research has provided evidence that students in that program experienced perspective transformation during the program. Key elements of the MTh/LC that enhanced the transformative learning process included a blend of individual and collaborative learning activities, both formal and non-formal. These program-based activities could not be separated from the students’ life experiences.

This research was undertaken in only one institution and with a small number of respondents. However, the tentative trends from the data suggest generalisable findings; further research is warranted, with a broader geographical spread and larger research populations.

What can be affirmed even now is that transformative learning is essential for theological education that effectively serves the Church in its partnership with God in fulfilling his redemptive plans. Perspective transformation is a key element of transformative learning, as TE students understand and process their experiences, leading to new ways of thinking, relating, and acting. Adopting the mindset and dynamics for transformative learning will be well worth the effort by Majority World TE institutions, as they seek to “live in such a way that [they] are a credit to the Message of Christ” (Phil. 1:27. The Message).


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Appendix: EBS MTh/Leadership Certificate Learning Activities Survey

This survey helps us to learn about the experiences of adult learners. Important things happen when adults learn new things. With your help can we learn more about this in the context of the recent EBS MTh/Leadership Certificate programs (MTh/LC).

The survey will take about 15-20 minutes to complete, and your responses will be anonymous (or kept confidential if you indicate your willingness for a follow-up interview). You are free to skip any questions without answering them. You may also withdraw from participation by not submitting your survey.

1. Thank you for being part of this project; your cooperation is greatly appreciated.

  Think about your educational experiences in the EBS MTh/LC. Check in the box any statements that may apply.

  Something happened that made me think about the way I usually act.

  Something happened that made me think about my ideas of social roles. (Examples of social roles include the role of a ministry/mission practitioner; or how a mother/ father, husband/wife or adult child should act).

  As I thought about these things, I realised I did not agree with my previous beliefs or role expectations any more.

  Or instead, as I questioned my ideas, I realised I still agreed with my beliefs or role expectations.

  I realised that other people also think about their beliefs.

  I thought about acting in a different way from my usual beliefs and roles.

  I felt uncomfortable with traditional social expectations.

  I tried out new roles so that I would become more comfortable or confident in them.

  I tried to think of a way to adopt these new ways of acting.

  I gathered the information I needed to adopt these new ways of acting.

  I began to think about the reactions and feedback from my new behaviour.

  I took action and adopted these new ways of acting.

  I do not identify with any of the statements above.

2. When you were in the EBS MTh/LC, do you think you experienced a time when you realised that your values, beliefs, opinions or expectations had changed?

  Yes. Please go to Q3 and continue the survey.

  No. Please go to Q9 and continue the survey.

3.  [Complete this question only if you answered’ Yes’ in Q2.] In Q2, you indicated that you think you experienced a time in the EBS MTh/LC when you realised that your values, beliefs, opinions or expectations had changed. Briefly describe what happened.

4. For Qs 4-7, think which of the following influenced this change in your values, beliefs, opinions and expectations. (Check all that apply.)

Did a person influence the change in your values, beliefs, opinions or expectations? Yes/No. If ‘Yes’, please check all that apply; If ‘No’, go to the next question.

  Your MTh/LC classmates’ support

  A challenge from a MTh module facilitator/supervisor

  A challenge from a LC mentor/facilitator

  A MTh module facilitator/supervisor’s support

  A LC mentor/facilitator’s support

  Another ministry/mission practitioner’s support

  Other (please specify):

5. Did a MTh assignment task influence the change in your values, beliefs, opinions or expectations? Yes/No. If ‘Yes’, please check all that apply, If ‘No’, go to the next question.

  Class/group discussions during a module

▢  Class/group activities/exercises during a module

▢  Module readings

▢  A module essay/paper

▢  Major paper/thesis research

▢  Deep, concentrated thought

▢  Informal interactions during a module (e.g. at mealtimes, during breaks)

▢  Personal reflection

▢  Other (please specify):

6.Did a EBS LC learning activity influence the change in your values, beliefs, opinions or expectations? Yes/No. If ‘Yes’, please check all that apply, If ‘No’, go to the next question.

▢  Self-reflection journaling

▢  Spiritual retreat

▢  SYIS (Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills) workshop

▢  Leadership reading and reflection

▢  Writing a social issue article

▢  Being mentored

▢  Being a mentor to someone else

▢  Adult learning/teaching skills workshop

▢  Teaching practice with another group

▢  Other (please specify):

7. Did a significant change in your life outside of the EBS MTh/LC influence the change in your values, beliefs, opinions or expectations? Yes/No

(A significant change in your life is any event or circumstance occurring during your educational experience with the EBS MTh/LC that caused you to reconsider your priorities or relationships. Examples might be a change of ministry/mission organisation or role, moving house, death of a loved one, persecution, children and family, etc.).

▢  If ‘Yes’, please specify:

▢  If ‘No’, go to the next question.

8. What did your EBS MTh/LC participation have to do with the experience of change in your values, beliefs, opinions or expectations?

9. [If you checked ‘No’ in Q2, recommence the survey with this question. If you have answered Q8, continue the survey with this question.]

Would you characterise yourself as one who usually thinks back over previous decisions or past behaviour?

▢  Yes.

▢  No.

10. Would you say that you frequently reflected upon the meaning of your studies for yourself, personally?

▢  Yes.

▢  No.

11. Which of the following have been part of your experience in the EBS MTh/LC? (Please check all that apply).

▢  Your MTh/LC classmates’ support

▢  A challenge from a MTh module facilitator/supervisor

▢  A challenge from a LC mentor/facilitator

▢  A MTh module facilitator/supervisor’s support

▢  A LC mentor/facilitator’s support

▢  Another ministry/mission practitioner’s support

▢  Class/group discussions during a module

▢  Class/group activities/exercises during a module

▢  Module readings

▢  A module essay/paper

▢  Major paper/thesis research

▢  Deep, concentrated thought

▢  Informal interactions during a module (e.g. at mealtimes, during breaks)

▢  Personal reflection

▢  Self-reflection journaling

▢  Spiritual retreat

▢  SYIS (Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills) workshop

▢  Leadership reading and reflection

▢  Writing a social issue article

▢  Being mentored

▢  Being a mentor to someone else

▢  Adult learning/teaching skills workshop

▢  Teaching practice with another group

▢  Other:

12. Which of the following occurred while you in the EBS MTh/LC? (Check all that apply)

▢  Change of ministry/mission role

▢  Loss of ministry/mission role

▢  Marriage

▢  Birth/adoption of a child

▢  Moving house

▢  Death of a loved one

▢  Persecution

▢  A significant ministry/mission experience

▢  Other (please specify)

13. What is your gender?

▢  Female.

▢  Male

14. What is your age?

▢  29 years old or younger

▢  30-39 years old

▢  40-49 years old

▢  Over 50 years old

Earlier in Q2 you were asked ‘When you were in the EBS MTh/LC, do you think you experienced a time when you realised that your values, beliefs, opinions or expectations had changed?’
If you answered ‘Yes’ to Q2, would you be willing to talk further about your experiences? If you are willing to participate in a follow-up interview of up to 30 minutes, please include your name here.

Thank you for your participation.


Allan Harkness

Dr. Allan Harkness, New Zealand, has over 30 years of theological education experience in Asia (including as the Founding Dean of AGST Alliance). An ICETE Senior Consultant, he is an educator at heart, fascinated by transformative learning, adult and theological education, and what educators bring to – and receive from – their educational roles. Allan may be contacted at allan.harkness@gmail.com.