Teaching Theology in Context

By Johnson, Luke T.; McDaniel, Charlotte | The Christian Century, February 2, 2000 | Go to article overview

Teaching Theology in Context


Johnson, Luke T., McDaniel, Charlotte, The Christian Century


IN THE FALL of 1998 Candler School of Theology made a serious wager concerning its future: it launched a comprehensive new program in contextual education. The faculty hopes this program can provide the means of integrating theological learning and practice--something every seminary teacher knows is largely lacking.

Candler's experiment is only just begun, and the outcome is uncertain. We offer merely an interim report on our process and program with the hope of making a small contribution to a conversation that is taking place in many schools.

Candler has long been committed to contextual education. Its program in supervised ministry had been in existence for 30 years. This program was noteworthy at its inception for three elements: it involved M.Div. students in social and church placements in their first semester onward; it involved the entire faculty as well as field supervisors in a process of collaborative learning; and it was based on the clinical pastoral education model.

Despite the value of the program to many students, it became clear by 1995 that it was flawed. For one thing, there was not enough faculty ownership of it. Several generations of faculty had joined the program without necessarily sharing the vision or enthusiasm of those who started it. One irritant was that supervised ministry assignments demanded a great deal of work from faculty, yet were considered an extra activity, over and above the regular teaching load.

Furthermore, the program was based on a model of ministry that was more psychological than theological, and it addressed individuals more than communities. It also, unwittingly, tended to foster an entrepreneurial understanding of ministry rather than one that perceives ministry as an articulation of discipleship within the community of the church. When functioning well, supervised ministry served as a dose of interpersonal learning. When not working well, the program revealed how disjointed a Candler education could be.

Finally, the faculty came to see that the frequently expressed desire for "more spirituality" among students was not a faddish craving for esoteric lore, but a deep hunger for a process of personal formation at the heart of professional education.

Before initiating any major curricular reform, Candler's faculty decided to engage a lengthy process of discernment through a three-year faculty conversation. Each year the faculty retreat set a theme that was developed in discussions held before regular faculty meetings. These focused on changes that had occurred over the past three decades in culture, church and educational practices. The conversations prepared the way for two years of work by a faculty committee that ended with a proposal--and a faculty consensus--that theological education at Candler should be contextual in all aspects. Making education contextual means recognizing that 1) theology involves responding to the living God in diverse human situations; 2) theology involves specific practices as much as it does religious concepts and experiences; and 3) theological education requires attention to personal formation and not simply the learning of specialized lore and skills.

We wanted to retain some elements of the previous model: the work in small groups, the participation by the entire faculty, and the collaboration between faculty and people active in parish and other forms of ministry. We wanted to strengthen the program in three ways: first, by putting more focus on the community or congregation than on the individual; second, by giving more attention to formation in discipleship; third, by showing greater commitment to thinking theologically within specific social contexts. Since none of us had actually done these things ourselves, any program we designed would have to educate faculty as well as students.

A final goal was to find ways to enhance the Wesleyan character of theological education at our traditionally Methodist school, which has an increasingly ecumenical student body and a decreasingly Methodist faculty. …

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