Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Reimagining Theological Education: Contextualization

For the past six years, I have had the opportunity to work with the leadership of Central Baptist Theological Seminary to “create a bridge as we walked across it.”  The bridge is the Murfreesboro center of CBTS, now known as “Central Baptist Theological Seminary Tennessee.”  Our goal has been to offer quality graduate level theological education that is affordable and accessible.  During these years, we have offered thirty-four classes, enrolled some forty individuals, and graduated six students with the Master of Divinity degree. 

Although now fully accredited, the model of theological education we offer in Tennessee is still something of an experiment.  The ongoing viability of that experiment is contingent on three things:  contextualization, creativity, and cooperation.  I will address the first here and the other two in subsequent posts.

In our situation, contextualization can mean many things, but I believe that it begins with recognizing who our students are and what kind of churches they represent.  Most of our students are pulled in at least three ways if not more.  Our typical student is married with children (some out of the household), holds down a regular job during the week, and serves a church in a paid or volunteer role on the weekend.  Of course, there are students who are full-time ministers seeking to complete a theological degree and they have their own stresses.  The churches that these students serve range from small family-sized churches to large downtown congregations with many variations and examples in between.    The students are Anglo and African American, men and women, and represent at least four denominations.

What do they have in common?  They are passionate about their call to ministry.  They are highly motivated to become properly equipped for that ministry.  Their churches are looking to them for leadership. And they have many obligations in their lives. 

In order to effectively serve them (and their churches), we offer classes in a non-traditional format.  Our classes met on weekends, usually Friday nights and all day Saturday, on four weekends spread throughout the semester.  We also offer online classes through the Shawnee campus that allow students both accessibility and flexibility in their scheduling. 

Although some of our instructors come from the main campus in Shawnee, we most often enlist qualified adjuncts from the area. The combination of using both Shawnee faculty and local adjuncts strengthens our program.  Career faculty from the main campus bring a strong teaching background, ministry experience in varied contexts, and an understanding and commitment to the overall mission of the institution.  This helps to build the “one seminary concept.”

Like our students, our adjunct professors have other “lives” as well—college instructors, counselors, and ministers of congregations.  All either have their terminal degrees or are in the process of receiving one.  Three of our adjunct instructors are retired ministers and bring years of experience to their teaching.  Every one of our instructors brings real life experience to the table, and this is essential since most of our students also carry lifetimes of experience with them as well.

A helpful aspect of using local adjuncts is that they often come out of churches in the area where they either serve on staff or in lay leadership roles.  This means that they understand the worship, polity issues, and ministry challenges of churches in the middle Tennessee and surrounding areas.
One of the greatest assets of contextualized learning is that students have the opportunity to use immediately what they are learning.  This is true not only in the field education or ministry praxis part of the curriculum, but also in courses that deal with biblical and theological content, counseling and caring ministries, spiritual formation, and ethical practice.  Instructors often give assignments that challenge students to find ways to integrate their learning with their present ministry situations.

Our experiment in Tennessee will be sustainable only if we recognize the needs of our students, our churches and our area, providing the educational resources that speak to this particular context.  WE do this by exercising creativity and fostering cooperation.  Those are our next topics.



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