Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Trends in Theological Education: Gaps in Expectations

In a recent report by the Association of Theological Schools, graduating students “perceive theological education to be effective in helping them think theologically, but somewhat ineffective in preparing them to administer a parish.”  Generally, students rated their programs high in “the ability to think theologically, the ability to use and interpret scripture, and the ability to relate social issues to faith.” They gave very low ratings to skills such as “ability to give spiritual direction,”ability to integrate ecological concerns. . . [and] insights from science into theology and ministry,” and the “ability to administer a parish.”

These are all important concerns, but let me address just two of these—opposite sides of coin, perhaps, or complementary practices—spiritual formation and administration.

 First, one of the biggest challenges of congregational clergy today is helping parishioners grow in their faith.  We use terms like “discipleship,” “spiritual formation,” and “practicing spiritual disciplines” to describe this process, but it comes down to helping believers learn “how to feed themselves.”

One reason is that seminary graduates are not able to do this is that they often come to their theological studies lacking spiritual practices in their own lives that enrich and empower their ministries.  Most seminaries have become more aware of this and don’t assume that students already make such practices a part of their lives.  As ministers benefit from these disciplines in their own lives, they will be more motivated and better prepared to share them with those in their congregations.

Second, denominations and congregations are increasingly calling for ministers who are effective administrators and leaders.  What is the role of theological education in preparing future ministers for these roles?  One of the advantages of having so many mid-career people responding to the call to ministry is that they already have acquired some of these skills in previous careers.  They have been administrators, managers, and supervisors.  This is not usually true for a younger generation of new ministers.  They need to learn these skills to better serve their churches.

Both of these competencies are being addressed as seminaries assess and redesign curricula. Central BaptistTheological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, has address this in new Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry programs, taking into account the need for real world applications of theological learning and reflection.

At one time, the parish or congregational minister was the most educated person in the community.  This may no longer be true, but the pastor can develop the skills to link theological insight with everyday life to make a difference in the lives of church members.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Arrival: A Film Review

When it comes to dealing with moral and philosophical issues that impact our humanity and our belief systems, science fiction literature offers a wonderful platform for creative engagement. Unfortunately, thoughtful science fiction films are few and far between.  Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, is one of the few and is worth seeing.

Writing about this film is difficult, because it is would be easy to share spoilers that would, well, spoil the film for you.  There is a significant twist that is interwoven throughout the film and, I have to admit, someone had to explain it to me.

The protagonist of the story is Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who is enlisted by the military to interpret the language of a crew of an alien craft that has landed (actually, it never touches the ground) in Montana.  There are twelve of these craft all over the world.  Various governments are working to discover how to communicate with the aliens. Initially cooperative among themselves, this cooperation between nations is endangered by distrust and fear.

There are some interesting themes in the film but two that are especially important right now are learning how to communicate with the “other” and cooperating across international borders for the good of humanity.  Perhaps those themes are two sides of the same coin.  The aliens are extremely “other,” but the greatest conflicts occur with those of our own kind.  Louise models a desire to first understand and then to be understood.

Little more can be said without spoiling your enjoyment of the film.  Director Denis Villeneuve creates a claustrophobic and almost dream-like atmosphere which increases the tension of this close encounter.  Adams and Renner are two of my favorite current actors, but Adams steals the show as the smart, intense, but vulnerable central character.  If you miss Arrival in a theater, catch in on DVD or streaming video.

How Can a Coach Help You in 2017?

In many ways, the annual calendar is an artificial construct but it has been with us long enough that we adopt certain attitudes and emotions around it.  We think in terms of endings and beginnings.  We think about what is past and what is in the future.  This is ingrained in us.  I worked on a college campus long enough that I still think of the year in academic terms.  Of course, continuing to teach at a seminary and having grandchildren in school reinforces that practice.

As we follow the calendar, we practice certain rhythms in life.  When we come to the “end” of a year, we reflect on the past twelve months.  At the “beginning” of a new year, we plan and think about the future.  For many, this is the time of making New Year’s resolutions (many of which don’t last past January 15).

What if you really wanted change in your life in the coming year.  What would you do?  Whatever your challenges or opportunities are in 2017, a coach can help you to embrace them and make the progress you desire.

Here are some ways that a coach can work with you.

First, a coach can help you as you make decisions about the future.  Please note the word “help.”  The decisions and choices are yours, but your coach can provide you with a sounding board, helping you to articulate and clarify your growing edge and to live into it.

Second, a coach can walk with you as you address growth areas in your life—personal, physical, vocational, relational, and spiritual.  You are the expert when it comes to knowing about yourself and your life.  Your coach may have limited knowledge in any of these areas, but you are the best person to identify not only what you need to do but how you can do it.  The coach will help you to develop the structures and practices that will assure success.

Third, a coach can help you to develop self-leadership skills that will continue beyond the coaching relationship.  Some colleagues may disagree, but I think one of my tasks as a coach is to work myself out of a job.  As I work with my clients, I help them to acquire and practice ways of thinking that they can use long after the coaching relationship is concluded. 

Think about it.  What will you do with this new year ahead?  How can a coach help you in the coming year?  If you want to talk about this, contact me at

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Trends in Theological Education: Alternate Delivery Systems

Each year, the Association of Theological Schools gathers information about graduating students in member institutions.  According to a recent report, “In 2016, 183 institutions (67% of member schools) used the graduating student questionnaires, reaching 6,293 graduates (43%) at ATS member schools. They constituted a fairly representative cross section of member school demographics in terms of age, race/ethnicity, gender, and degrees earned.”

There were a number of interesting findings, but a significant one is that an increasing number of graduates are completing a majority of their coursework online or in other non-traditional ways. The report indicated, “The percentage of graduates who have completed a majority of their coursework in hybrid (10%) or fully online (5%) courses remains relatively small, but the numbers are rapidly increasing, while graduates completing a majority of their coursework as traditional daytime students on a main campus continues to decrease.”

The majority of respondents still did most of their coursework in traditional daytime classes but that total number has continued to decline since 2014’s report.  Figures showed that the number of students taking intensive courses on the main campus, extension courses, hybrid courses (a combination of on-site and technologically enhanced classwork), and online/distance courses has continued to grow.  In fact, the number taking classes in the online/distance format has more than doubled since 2014.

There are a number of reasons for this.  To begin, many theological schools are trying to respond to the needs of students and offer alternatives to traditional daytime classes.  These institutions realize that the expense and inconvenience of relocating to pursue a seminary degree has discouraged a number of potential students from enrolling.

If the students are mid-career people, they already have deep roots in their communities and may be involved in their churches as volunteer, bi-vocational, or full-time ministers. They don’t want to give up those responsibilities and relocate.

Even a number of young adults who have more flexibility in their lifestyles are employed during the day and prefer evening classes, weekend intensives, or online classes.

A second reason is that it is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain a bricks and mortar campus.  If the seminary has a main campus, leadership wants to get the most use of the space, so classes are offered in the evenings and on weekends.  On the other hand, offering more classes online expands the reach of the school beyond its geographic location, broadening its “footprint” without investment in additional physical facilities.

Such changes are a challenge not only for students but for administrators and faculty as well.  Building community when students are rarely or never together in a physical setting requires rethinking not only how seminaries teach but how they develop relationships.  The challenges are great but so are the rewards.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

When Someone Fails

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”—Alexander Pope

If you have ever been in a leadership role, this has happened to you.  Someone has accepted an assignment, and you not only expect them to complete it, but you are depending on them to do it.  Then they pull out, fail to show up, or don’t follow through.  What’s a leader do in this situation?

First, don’t get angry.  You are not only wasting your energy but your time as well.  What is done is done, so focus all that energy on assessing the situation, picking up the pieces, and moving on.  If the task is important, give your attention to completing it.

Second, recognize your responsibility.  Did you fail to provide something that the person needed?  Were you disconnected and not aware of their progress or lack thereof?  Where did communication break down?  Accept responsibility if necessary.  Now that’s out of the way.  Let’s move on.

Third, as my Granddaddy used to say, “Pull up your britches and get to work.” In other words, what are you going to do next?  This is still your responsibility.  What can you do to salvage the situation, make up for what did not get done, or come up with a new approach? Who needs an apology and a promise that you will work to avoid this happening again?  Get it done.

Fourth, look for help.  Who and what resources are available to you to carry through on the responsibility?  Are there others will come alongside on short notice and help accomplish the task? Perhaps it will not be done on time or as well as you wish, but you can get it done.

Fifth, restore relationship.  Even if someone let you down, don’t write them off.  Seek a way to continue in fellowship.  In the Book of Acts (15:36-41), Barnabas provides us a good example of giving young John Mark a second chance after he failed to follow through the first time.   Later accounts in Paul’s epistles testify to the correctness of Barnabas’s approach. 

Have you ever failed to do what you had agreed to do?  Most of us have, myself included, and I always appreciated a second chance.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Leading Innovation

We cannot motivate others.  We can provide an environment in which people can become motivated, but real motivation comes from within. 

In the same way, a leader cannot make people into innovators.  If this is true, then what is the role of the leader in innovation?  How much can a leader do to foster innovation among others? 

Alec Horniman is the Killgallon Ohio Art Professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, teaching in the areas of ethics, strategy and leadership.  He suggests three actions that a leader can do to foster innovation.

First, invite people to join the process of innovation.  The innovative leader invites others along on the journey. He or she is not only a role model but a resource, sharing experiences and opportunities.  An innovative leader invites others to be part of the process and to learn together.  An innovative leader does not just attend conferences and explore opportunities.  He or she invites others to be part of these experiences as well.

Second, the innovative leader includes a diverse group of people in the innovation process. Horniman points out that by including people of different backgrounds, experiences, and skills, we can leverage their strengths to create something unique and unexpected.  Innovative leaders are proactive in developing a team that is both diverse and inclusive.

Third, inspiration is an important part of innovation.  The innovative leader is optimistic, enthusiastic, and hopeful that something will emerge from the process that will make life better for all involved.  The innovative leader not only has a vision but he or she seeks to pass that vision on to others in such a way that they can own it themselves.

Are you an innovative leader?  If you are, can you be a better one?  If not, do you want to learn how to become an innovative leader?  Try some of Horniman's ideas.

(A version of this previously appeared on the Central Baptist Theological Seminary website.)