At 52 years of age, I am still in school. I am writing a dissertation right now for a PhD in congregational mission and leadership from Luther Seminary. There has seldom been a time in my adult life when I haven’t been taking classes. I finished an MA right out of my undergrad experience, but then slowly accumulated hours and degrees over the years. This has, in many ways, turned out to be a really rich way to get an education. The principle reason, I think, is that I was taking classes while I was in a ministry context.
When I read Luke Timothy Johnson’s, Decision Making in the Church (now Scripture and Discernment), I was able to apply it immediately to situations I was encountering in my ministry role. When I encountered the raft of important essays in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, my first foot into “missional” readings, their importance was immediately apparent because of the challenges I faced doing ministry in the missional context of the Pacific Northwest.
I think what I was experiencing was a learning environment that in many ways overcame the theory-praxis split built in to much ministry training. Let me explain. By this I simply mean that in recent ministry education (the last 200 years) information came before application. In fact, if you thought first about what to do (praxis) it would corrupt your pursuit for the right information which existed above and prior to practice. So, when I went to grad school, my first few years were loaded with “advanced intro” classes. I took Advanced Intro NT, Advanced Intro OT, Systematic 1, Church History 1, Biblical Greek and Hebrew, etc. Ministry classes (praxis) came only after these “theory” classes were completed. At the seminary where I taught for eight years, Intro to Ministry was not taken in the regular sequence of classes until the final year of the MDiv. Theory came first and dominated the curriculum. Praxis last.
Now, I loved my “theory” classes. I am so thankful for the chance to sit at the feet of great biblical scholars and watch them get after texts. I want to be clear: my imagination for ministry came in many ways from these classes. But there are significant problems with this approach to ministry preparation. I will limit myself to three here.
First, though none of my professors or colleagues would own this or desire this and fought in many ways to overcome it, it encourages a view of ministry that is primarily about getting information right, not getting lives right.
Second, and related to this, it fosters a view of the minister as the “answer man.” I was guilty of the sins of young ministers equipped with a seminary education who think that what the church is dying for is all the information I had gathered in all the research papers I had written. The big problem here is that the congregation is seen primarily as the place where I apply all of my theology, instead of as a primary location where theology is practiced by a community of God’s people.
Third, and perhaps biggest, is that we received all of this valuable information in the clean room of a seminary classroom. Many seminary grads are shocked to encounter real life congregations and are for the first time to be using live ammo in a bewildering set of circumstances. It’s no wonder that ministers and members alike are victims of friendly fire.
So, in our little experiment in ministry training at Rochester College, you can’t be admitted unless you have signed consent to do projects within a ministry setting. Every course, whether a NT or OT course, or a history and theology course, or a ministry course is concerned that the course content immediately engage an actual ministry setting.
We’re still delivering big content. Our students will read Brueggemann, Volf, Luke Timothy Johnson, Moltmann, Bosch, and other significant works. But they are reading these works within the immediacy of their ministry contexts. They are not simply accumulating “theory” that they will one day “apply” (praxis), but their theory and praxis are immediately mutually informing.
This is of course only possible if students don’t have to pull up stakes and spend a three year residency on a seminary campus. Again, I worried about the loss of this concentrated time with other ministers in training, surely one of the biggest plusses of a traditional MDiv. But for the sake of a more productive learning environment we were willing to give it our best try. And that meant online learning.
Most of the work our students do is on-line. They are required to be face-to-face with each other and program faculty one week per semester. The rest is online. As a result, we have youth ministers and campus ministers and preaching ministers and elders and new monastics and church volunteers and social workers, from Michigan and Ohio and California and Texas and Tennessee and Oklahoma and Brazil, putting Volf and Brueggemann and Johnson to immediate use. And I think the learning is thick and meaningful as a result of the rich environments that our students bring with them to the learning. I know our students think so.