11/29/2012

Theological Education from the user's seat

I'm a fan of theological education.  Do I believe in it? Believe in it?, Hell, I've seen it done.  

Over the years I've taken two whacks at theological education in a big way. The first was at ETS getting what was then a Bachelor of Divinity (BD) which two years later magically, like the English, became a Master's degree, MDiv. I learned a lot that round, most of the basic tools for doing parish and other ministry. In the midst of that education I was an exchange student to the Seminary of the Caribbean in Puerto Rico.  The mid '60s were interesting times to be in seminary. I was in the ETS 100th year class. As I remember only about half our class entered parish ministry. My class at El Seminario produced some wonderful and faithful clergy, but many found themselves eventually outside the parish. I was a missionary in a parish setting in Puerto Rico, then went into Campus Ministry and did not return to a parish for ten years. 

Looking back on it my first round really was about formation. EDS put me through the paces, making me pay attention to my belief systems (or non-systems), made me pay attention to the community and its daily round of prayer, work and study, and provided me with a family when I badly needed it. I kicked a lot, and bolted some, but gradually got the point.

The second round was in the mid-nineties when, thanks to downsizing at the Episcopal Church Center, I found myself without a job and a bit of time to clear my head after twelve years at the Church Center. So through good advice from my wife, the good fortune of knowing Ian Douglas at EDS, and a whopping big piece of research I'd wanted to complete, I did a Doctor of Ministry degree. I did it in nine months from the day of applying by the simple process of working my butt off. It helped that I knew exactly what I wanted to do as a dissertation, the classes I needed lined up just fine, and I wrote like crazy.  The dissertation was later published (with some refinements) as The Challenge of Change, the Anglican Communion in the Post Modern Era.

The second round was not residential as was the first. So community was hard to come by. Still there was a study group that met regularly and friendships in classes. But it wasn't formational. It was very productive, as one would expect from an "advanced" professional degree. By that time it was assumed that I was already "formed" for better or ill, and there it was. It was an enjoyable year, but looking back it was also a blur... to much too fast.

Over the years I have been on most of the Episcopal Church Seminary campuses. Sometimes to give lectures, sometimes to take a class, sometimes to hold a conference, sometimes to be on a board related to the school. The last one I got to go to was Nashota House. I loved it. The views held by some of the students and faculty made me itch, but I suspect it was the same the other way around. Still, I can see why Nashota House folk remember being there with such fondness.  The only place I've missed is Bexley Hall. Perhaps the Crusty Old Dean will invite me. Who knows?

There are all sorts of criticisms that can be made about our Seminaries, but I am convinced that they are doing what is necessary to produce well formed clergy who are also, at least in principle, fit to go into the world and not simply be swallowed up by it. 

So, now I am sitting in a Diocesan Seminary.  The Episcopal Church has a number of these, primarily in the Central and South America and the Caribbean. They are of varying intensity and value, more so I think than the accredited seminaries of The Episcopal Church.  Still they have something to say to us about being in the world and not being swallowed up by the world.

To begin with they are mostly run on almost nothing, have low tuition, if any, and specifically train people for the contexts in which they will exercise ministry - namely the diocese.  Some of the larger schools take in students from dioceses that have minimal facilities and some dioceses send some of their students to ecumenical seminaries, usually in close proximity to their own country or diocese.  Part of the formation is to live simply so that simple living remains a possibility in the candidate's future.  Some of the students come with minimal higher education, and the course of study has to be modified to provide an extra "entry" year to pick up needed skills.

The thing is, with all of this, sometimes it works, and works well.

Le Seminaire de theologie de l'Eglise Episcopale d'Haiti, (STEEH) where I am now a Scholar in Residence, is a Diocesan Seminary. Working in French and Creole they have few students from outside Haiti. There are 24 students in a three year program that is expanding to be a four year program. Each class then has something like 6 to 8 students. For the three months I am here, and when I'm actually in the seminary, I plan to join the students for the daily round of prayer, study and meals. My "work" is different in that I contribute to the community an occasional educational offering and help the dean do some design of new educational offerings. But the object is to be here and take part in the life of this community.

Twenty-four people is a pretty good size community. The students work hard at their studies, and the course offerings do not stint in terms of content. Students here are expected to get a working knowledge of Greek, Hebrew and English, making them (or at least those who can do it) very very multilingual. More importantly they get a good grounding in old and new testament studies, starring all the regular scholars, and they have extensive fieldwork assignments where they learn the practice of ministry in place.

Somewhere in Anglican - Episcopal land there is a sense or is that scent? of what a seminary ought to provide. I believe it is kept in a small container, and seminaries are anointed with that  and as far as I can tell not only do the church wide Seminaries get it, so do some of the diocesan seminaries. I know STEEH does.

I've not heard much from the Seminary Consultation on Mission (SCOM) lately, but I hope it is still in business, and if so I also hope it might make the plea that there be a better way to include Diocesan seminaries that meet particular criteria to join with the larger seminaries in their deliberations about future development of courses, direction, community life, prayer life, etc. so that formation as Anglicans / Episcopalians continues to be contextually based but founded in well proved elements of community life - in prayer, study and work.

Meanwhile, on my third round I'm loving it.

6 comments:

Christina Brennan Lee said...

Well and nicely said!

Jim Pratt said...

Mark,
The AC of Canada has a committee doing some good work on vocational education and formation. I was in a focus group in September, and was impressed by what they have put together (I think it is somewhere on the web site for public comment).

For me, seminary (EDS) was also a time of formation and great personal growth, for which I am quite grateful. I almost went to Harvard, and am sure that I made the right choice, as that formational element would not have been there.

Allen said...

Stay classy, Mark, what with all that frivolous "hell, I've seen it done.." interjection. No wonder we're adrift with such worldish charm exuding from one on the Executive Council. Sorry - but it just shows.

Mark Harris said...

Allen... I am surprised just how much your snotty comment hurts.

Two small items: (i) I am no longer on Executive Council. (ii) I suppose my being on The Joint Standing Committee on Program Budget and Finance is just as bad.

As to my post on liking Seminary, what in particular "shows" about my remarks (aside from small comments of worldish charm) that makes you think that we are adrift?

Wait...now I remember. Anything I say. Too bad.

Try not to write again. Please.

Paul Powers said...

Just so you know, I appreciated your homage to Mark Twain (and Homer Simpson).

By the way, the other day your "Feedjit" showed a visitor from the Holy See. You don't suppose that B 16 is reading your blog now?

episcopal liturgy said...

I have a great intrust in Theological education and articles.I really liked this article Mark.