September 29, 2008

Is this what we should do?

Is this the path we should take?

I suppose we all experience times when self-doubt creeps or leaps or crashes into what we are doing. A lot of changes have taken place at Sioux Falls Seminary over the last seven years, with more coming. One area that warrants continued attention focuses on what I call "contextual learning." And like any normal person, I too question whether we are moving in the correct direction in our ministry preparation. Is "contextual learning" a viable direction of educational change for the task of preparing people for ministry? Can't we continue doing what we have done in the past? And here come the doubts, doubts, doubts ? real or imagined?

When I struggle with something, I remind myself to go back to basic questions. Like a baseball team in a slump, you go back to basic hitting, running, fielding, then move on.

So the first basic question needs to ask if we have defined "contextual learning" in terms that provide common ground for everyone to wrestle with. I define contextual learning as an approach to ministerial preparation that privileges a context of ministry as the priority learning environment. As an educational philosophy it emphasizes learning over teaching. The learning outcome may be realized by many different routes, but the stress is laid on the student's acquisition of knowledge or character or skills necessary for effective ministry. Contextual learning raises "best-practices" questions when defining it. Will a student learn best in a residential course in the seminary classroom? What is the "best" way to learn Old Testament, New Testament, church history, systematic theology, pastoral care, or counseling? Is there a more effective way to learn what to know as a minister, how to be a person of God, and how to do ministry in terms of care, communications, and leading?

A second basic question surfaces from the needs of churches. Churches will always need people leading in ministry, we believe. But will they always be prepared as they have been over the last two hundred years? Is there a way to better meet the needs of the church?

Mainline church seminaries have declined drastically and evangelical schools have plateaued. There must be a reason. The only reason that seems reasonable is that the sending agency, the church, must not feel their needs are being met.

Why might churches feel that their needs are not being met? Studies have shown that lots of reasons may exist. In light of a dearth of people doing ministry in churches, churches are trying to raise up volunteers who will continue ministering in their midst. They don't want to lose them from their local setting. They want to prepare them themselves.

In addition, it is expensive to move to another area, even one that is low in cost of living. The economics of our day forces us to think differently.

More over, some church leaders do not see seminary graduates as relevant to their culture and locale. They know the facts, but do not know how to apply them. Or as least, that is the perception. Even pastors who were trained in the old model struggle with the relevance of how they did it. Since the church in its local manifestation is changing so radically, the question arises whether seminaries are preparing people for a ministry that will not exist in the same way in the future.

A third basic question comes back to the student. How does today's student learn best? Related to this first question, does the school match up with how its students best learn?

Studies have shown that students learn most effectively today through experiential learning. The learning increases more if the experience makes a difference to people and communities. Reflection, evaluation, and new learning then come out of the experiences.

We as a theological education ministry want to be relevant, but we struggle with change, especially adaptive change. I think we will have to change in our learning approach to meet a different day for the church and a different kind of student.

Basic questions bubble up endlessly if we walk this path. But my doubts are allayed for now in just reflecting on these three. Perhaps further questions need to receive reflection, but I will save them for another blog.

So, yes, the definition needs to be clear and open ended.

And, yes, the church senses it requires a new way of preparing people for ministry. How? Well, that is up to us as educators.

And, yes, students wanting ministry preparation today are different than we were.

Let's explore together a new way, hopefully a better way, to fulfill our mission. We can do a better job of ministry preparation.