Theological Education in Community

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Ryan Glomsrud recently offered a historically-informed and attractive vision for theological education: living and learning in community.

Communal life of all sorts, academic, social, and residential, existed at these institutions both formally and informally. Formally, one thinks of the familiar routine of school-life: lectures, seminars, colloquies, chapels, conferences and activities that take up much of the day. But informal life together was almost as formative and important as the formal, existing alongside of and in support of the academic experience. At the time of the Reformation, countless students, aspiring Protestant pastors, and Reformed scholars exchanged personal letters, travelled extensively, and lived together in shared spaces, cultivating piety and the life of the mind. This served to enhance and supplement what was learned in the classroom and gleaned from books in myriad ways.

Dogs in the post-Reformation Leiden library; table-talk with Luther and Bucer; oranges, cigars, and tennis with Machen … the post on the Westminster Seminary California site is well worth reading.

Those of us who teach and learn together at Oak Hill College will resonate with much in Glomsrud’s piece. In an age when so many other modes of training are on offer, what a blessing full-time, residential training offers at seminaries and theological colleges like this! At Oak Hill many of us literally live together onsite. Faculty and students are neighbours. Discussions in lectures spill over into coffee chats in the Academic Centre or are continued over lunch in the dining room. Our study of the Scriptures, of their implications and applications and of the Triune God who reveals himself and redeems sinners issues in doxology in chapel and prayer triplets. Fellowship groups gather in faculty homes weekly for discussion, prayer and fun. Students (and sometimes even faculty!) are out on the football pitch or the ultimate frisbee field together each week. Student spouses meet regularly for prayer, Bible study and encouragement.

Although Oak Hill is not the church – indeed we exist to serve the church – the relational, intellectual and formational web woven by this kind of full-time residential theological study is dense, beautiful and powerful. In close partnership with sending and placement churches, such an experience for three or four years focuses and amplifies the effectiveness of Gospel ministry training in wonderful and lasting ways.

And what might this kind of training experience mean for the future of the churches and their ministers? Scott Manetsch has written of the kind of nascent yet rigorous theological education in Calvin’s Geneva that generated the sort of biblically and theologically robust ministers who were able to sustain and grow the initial work of the Reformation on the continent over time:

The fact that many members of the Company of Pastors shared the same educational background is important for several reasons. At the most basic level, the Academy’s intensive program in theology and exegesis helped prepare Geneva’s ministers for their vocation of interpreting and preaching the Word of God. In addition, the students who received their theological training at the Academy were exposed to a single system of doctrine and a common religious culture. If the lecture hall introduced them to reformed theology, the pattern of religious life in the city shaped their understanding of public worship, moral discipline, and ministerial comportment … This common program of theological education and religious enculturation – as well as Beza’s formidable leadership – goes far in explaining the confessional solidarity and cohesiveness displayed by the company of pastors during the half-century after Calvin’s death. Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford, 2013).

What a privilege to live in such a learning community – one that embraces and is embraced by the churches but which concentrates theological resources in a way that no single church can. And what a privilege to learn in such a formative community where the goal is to be and become church ministers and workers who are always growing together in their proclamation of the Word of God and their worship of the God who has given us his Word.

Do we need Academic Caesars or Servant-Leaders?

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Steve Fuller, professor  of social epistemology at Warwick, writes today in the Times Higher Education that we need Roman-style dictators to lead our academic institutions in the current cultural moment and political climate:

This probably sounds vaguely threatening and, to a certain extent, it is meant to be. In the first instance, a Caesar of university leadership must be a proven academic who can command the respect of other academics (just as the Roman dictator had to command the respect of the other magistrates). But academic Caesars must also be consummate politicians. They must know the strengths and, especially, the weaknesses of their colleagues, so that they can divide and rule, impose their will and get some radical things done.

Yes, it sounds threatening. It also sounds utterly pragmatic. And it sounds like a place most of us wouldn’t like to teach.

Some of Fuller’s goals (financial stability, enfranchising alumni) are very attractive, even in my own, relatively small theological training institution. But surely there are wiser, more principled – and more theologically reflective – ways to proceed.

Fuller’s points about knowledge for the ‘public good’ and even the ‘vulgarisation of knowledge’ are surely worth considering, especially when we’re talking about Christian theology and Gospel ministry. But I’m sceptical of the values driving his strategic vision for increasing access to knowledge and re-imagining university level education in this country. Moreover, there are cautions here for theological college and church ‘leaders’ – I’d suggest Caesar is not the first-century ‘king’ we want to emulate.

Teaching academic writing

adult-1868015_1280Ben Brabon of the Higher Education Academy (UK) has recently written about ways to help students master academic writing through creative, consistent support. In his post on “Writing in the Mouth” he writes

By facilitating opportunities for students to read, write, structure, critically analyse and revise together (using collaborative technologies such as Peerwise), academic writing skills can be positively nurtured.

Administration and the “fallacy of accountability”

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In Bill Reading’s analysis of the “posthistorical” university, it is “the administrator rather than the professor” who is the “central figure” in what is fast becoming a “transnational bureaucratic corporation.” William Deresiewicz calls this “administrative elephantiasis.” Similarly, Benjamin Ginsberg, in the The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, writes,

‘Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to college and university payrolls, even as schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties. As a result, universities are filled with armies of functionaries – the vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants – who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.’

Particularly striking is Ginsberg’s analysis of universities’ strategic plans which, rather than identifying unique strengths and future directions, are nearly identical. He concludes that the point is “not the plan but the process”: an “assertion of leadership” and the erosion of the power of the faculty. It is the appearance of process that counts. Stefan Collini comments that the “fallacy of accountability” is “the belief that the process of reporting on an activity in the approved form provides some guarantee that something worthwhile has been properly done.”

 

Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 4-5.