Monday, July 13, 2009

A Learning Place

When I was in seminary, field education consisted of meeting every couple of weeks with the pastor of a local church for an hour for dialogue and observing him lead a funeral and worship a couple of times. He was great man and I enjoyed the time with him and my fellow students, but I learned very little about the ministry of the local church. I had more beneficial experiences from my work at a volunteer at my home church in college and the church we attended as lay members during seminary. When I did pastor a small church an hour’s drive from seminary my final year, there was no formal structure to help me process what I was doing (I thank the Lord that the people there were kind and seminary classmates gave me good advice).

During the past year, I have had the opportunity to teach two Ministry Praxis classes. In these classes, each student has a ministry placement in a local church and works with a pastoral mentor. Each student develops a learning covenant in conversation with her or his pastoral mentor. The classes are structured for personal and peer review of the learning that takes place in the placement settings. Some of these ministry placements have been very helpful for the students involved. In other cases, they fulfilled the requirement and little else.

My experience this past year has reinforced what I have learned from my friends in teacher education. The philosophy now is to get the prospective teacher into a real classroom as soon as possible so that they will understand the context of primary and secondary education. Being in the classroom will either make or break the deal for a prospective teacher!

We need the do the same thing in the preparation of ministers. Although students have traditionally come to their seminary studies with some background as church members or lay leaders, this is not the same as being a minister. A friend commented to me recently, “I remember learning more about ministry in the local church in a few months than anything at seminary. I always wondered if we required students to go out into the local church first and then attend seminary while they were in the church if we would not be better off."

I certainly think we have a “both/and” situation here. Ministry students need to be actively involved in a church while pursuing their studies, but certain standards must be met if the placement is to be a true learning experience.

First, the student should have a clear ministry role. Although termed a “resident” or “intern,” the student should be clearly identified as a called minister of the gospel and given some “symbols of office”—a desk, a nameplate, keys to the church, a role in worship leadership, a supervisory structure, and a specific group with whom to work.

Second, the ministry assignment should be a true ministry and not just “make work.” The student must have something worthwhile to do that, although limited by the student’s experience and maturity, can make a difference in the lives of people. There must be an opportunity for the student to apply what he or she is learning in the classroom in the setting of an actual congregation

Third, a feedback loop is needed in the seminary context. The student needs the opportunity to show how his or her academic understanding has been impacted by interaction with those in the local church. In this way, both the classroom and the placement become integral parts of contextual education.

Fourth, the church must be committed to this relationship. The people need to acknowledge their role as part of the learning community in which this student minister functions. This may involve forming a group of laity who meet with the student on a regular basis for dialogue and insights about the church and his or her work there.

Fifth, the student needs a pastoral mentor who will actually fill that role, providing information and feedback as well as supervision. This person may be the pastor or another staff member, but the mentor must agree to a structure that will benefit both the student and the church and then follow that arrangement faithfully.

I haven’t mentioned compensation for the student. If the church can provide such compensation, it would certainly be appreciated and expense money should be expected, but the ministry formation of the student is the primary purpose of the placement rather than financial compensation.

New partnerships among students, churches, and theological institutions are emerging that will benefit all parties. The sooner we can get all of these players together, the better it will be!

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