Monday, September 30, 2013

Theological Education and Diversity

Last year I was part of a discussion around the book Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination prepared by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  This in-depth study addressed the formation of clergy from the standpoint of the Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant (including Evangelical) traditions.  The book raises some challenging questions, but since it was written in 2006 based on field research in the years before, its picture of theological education is already dated in many ways.

One of the issues addressed which is still relevant and has become even more critical in recent years is diversity. The authors comment, “The increasing diversity of students in programs of clergy education has significantly challenged the ethos and mission of seminary education during the past forty years.” (p. 54) This diversity includes the greater involvement of women (both as students and faculty), historically marginalized (ethnically and racially) students, older students, and the variety of religious traditions (or lack thereof) within a student body.

If a seminary professor really wants to connect the subject matter with the student, then he or she   must consider how to provide spaces for dialogue while not abdicating teaching goals. Communication is a two way enterprise.  Just because I say something does not mean that you understand me, especially if we come from widely divergent cultural, racial, social, or ethnic perspectives. 

I have experienced this challenge myself as an adjunct professor.  I have particularly enjoyed the dialogue with African-American clergy in class.  They bring a rich, layered, and alternative point of view to many discussions.  Often when have I talked about the way that things are done in the church, I have heard the response, “That’s not how it’s done in our church.”  This has taught me a great deal, including some humility.

I have learned much about sensitivity from the women in my classes.  While some are young adults, most women that I have taught are mid-career people who grew up in a church culture where their gifts and insights were not greatly valued.  With the hope for a new way of doing things comes a great deal of frustration if not anger.

Another challenge is dealing with the various vocational expectations of students. In addition to the varied types of ministry goals represented in a classroom (pastor, youth minister, Christian formation minister, etc.), there are those who are not seeking ministry preparation but plan to pursue an academic career.  Others are committed to starting new ministries that will be faith-based but not necessarily church-sponsored.  Some are lay people who have no plans to be ordained but simply want to deepen their spiritual lives.

The authors of Educating Clergy ask, “[T]o what extent do seminaries accommodate—in the institutional culture, public mission, and teaching practices—the presence of differences among students?” (p. 58) There are no easy answers to this question but it is a wonderful opportunity for mutual learning.

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