Reflecting on Integrating Context and Community

Reflecting on Integrating Context and Community

August 27, 2018

In a talk that seems like it was a long time ago, I said the phrase “Imagine a new system.  One that takes seriously the value of local ministry contexts while integrating technology and retaining the important essence of formational community while maintaining academic rigor.”  At the time, the Kairos Project was something we were building. It wouldn’t launch for several months.

Now, nearly 5 years later, I find myself reflecting on those words to see if we held true to the vision.  The short answer is yes, we definitely have.  But, I have more space here so allow me to expound a bit by focusing on a few particular components, namely: academic rigor, valuing the local ministry context, and formational community.

Academic rigor is something all schools strive to maintain.  The question was whether or not that could be maintained in a system that was decentralized, built around the needs of students, and structured without courses as building blocks.  As it turns out, the key to maintaining rigor is focusing heavily on assessment and learning outcomes rather than content, credit hours, and specific assignments.  While content and all of those things are important, we have learned they do not necessarily ensure rigor.  Rather, it is through the holistic assessment of learning outcomes that rigor is actually achieved.  In such a model, participants in a journey of theological education must demonstrate the capacity to integrate knowledge, character, and ability.  Such demonstrations are not passively assessed by passing courses but rather through the relational fabric of a mentor team. This leads to the next point about local ministry contexts.

Traditionally, students were required to engage in some sort of supervised ministry or internship or field education while enrolled in a seminary.  Those experiences were good, but they were often segmented into specific portions of the degree program.  The challenge in such an approach is that a local ministry context begins to function as place to “receive” students who are going to “practice” a specific set of activities defined by the school.  While that approach does value a ministry context, it does not “seriously” value the context.  In order to fully value a participant’s local ministry context, a seminary must invite that context to shape, assess, inform, and even direct the journey of a student.  In short, the ministry context needs to become an equal partner, with equal voice, from which students are sent, rather than received, and in which students participate in a community of faith rather than only practice skills.  I have no doubt over-generalized my comments on this point, but I strongly believe that the Kairos Project has “taken seriously the value of local ministry contexts” by allowing those contexts to teach and form students in ways that seminaries simply cannot and should not. Speaking for formation, let’s talk a bit about that, as well.

An important aspect of theological education is formation and a key component of formation is community.  I firmly believe that formation only happens in the context of a community.  The question is whether or not we are aware of the community that is forming us.  Seminaries have long played an important role in the formation of students. In the early days, the fact that it happened on the campus of a seminary worked well. Today that simply isn’t the case.  The reasons for that are beyond the scope of this brief article.  Rather than talking about all of it, allow me to touch on one key aspect.  Today, nearly 80% of students in seminaries across North America do not live on the campus of the seminary they attend.  Yet, as institutions, we continue to put significant effort into creating community on our campuses.  The Kairos Project, on the other hand, encourages students to embrace the formational community in which they are already engaged.  To put it a different way, the formational community is one’s local ministry context, and our role is to help students learn how to become of aware of the community, read it, reflect upon it, engage it, and lead it.  To aid in the process, we give students a mentor team within which they can process the hard questions that will arise and through which they can glean resources for their ongoing journey of discipleship. The additional aid comes through the learning community provided through the global Kairos movement.  Participants in the Kairos Project are part of a network of disciples that spans the globe and includes nearly 600 participants who may be students, mentors, or networks.  Indeed, the formational community is a huge aspect of what we have created.

As I end this article, I am reminded of two recent conversations.  One was with a ministry leader who came to the United Stated from Puerto Rico.  He commended us for finding a way to help students see their home church as their community rather than forcing them to engage in ours.  Another was with an individual who helped create some of the earliest iterations of distance education in North American seminaries.  He noted that Kairos is more of a return to the traditional values and philosophical underpinnings of theological education than it is a break from those principles.  He reflected on the fact that theological education has always had to work pretty hard to get those values to fit into the traditional models of higher education.  The Kairos Project, on the other hand, builds them in at the foundation.

In short, I think my statement has, by the grace of God, been put into practice.  It has been wonderful to see God work in and through this seminary as we have worked to discern his leading.  I hope you can join us as we continue to follow God into mission!