Participants in a Baptist International Conference on Theological Education – most of them theological educators – engaged in some self-reflection during their Sunday afternoon session at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague.

Brian Harris, principal of the Vose Seminary in Perth, Australia, offered a paper on “Revisiting the Core Components in a Theological Curriculum.” Harris noted the near-impossibility of the task: “our training is expected to produce Hebrew, Greek and Patristic scholars who are capable of ensuring that all in leadership positions have police and working-with-chilren checks while they plant rapidly growing churches filled with new converts, eager to be discipled while they worship in contemporary and contextually relevant ways.”

Harris opted out of suggesting specific courses of study, choosing instead to talk about four “key stages” in the lives of people who seek theological training. Students begin with a call to ministry (the first stage), often spending some time in transition (stage two) between sensing a call and seeking theological education. That can be a very constructive period, he said, a good time for in-house training in the local church.

Formal training is the third stage, according to Harris, in which educators work at “quickly getting students to the stage where they can converse and reflect intelligently on the Bible, the history of the church, theology, ethics, ministry and mission.” Those who do it best, he said, “do this in such a way that these distinct disciplines increasingly overlap, with theological integration part of the order of the day.”

“Hopefully,” Harris added, “this will be done with a Christological lens and a missiological heartbeat.”

The fourth stage, Harris said, is fostering lifelong learning, an area “often neglected and where a paradigm shift is called for.” Too often schools “graduate and abandon,” he said, instead of encouraging graduates through methods such as “hosting relevant professional development opportunities, providing mentoring services, organizing vibrant web-based chat rooms, networking constantly and committing to keeping in touch.” Schools should engage “insightful practitioners” in the field to assist in this process, he said.

Harris suggested six markers for determining if a school’s curriculum for ministerial training is effective:

Marker One: Knowing our God Seminaries should be aware that theological study involves a certain amount of deconstruction that can be threatening and frightening to students. “At times the seminary can become the cemetery for simple trusting faith,” he said. That does not mean seminaries should avoid asking the hard questions, he said: “it is doubt denied rather than doubt itself that is the opposite of trust.” Theological educators should work to “reassure that a firm foundation of faith remains after simplistic and trite answers have been exposed as vacuous.”

Marker Two: Knowing our Book Here Harris highlighted the importance of emphasizing the redemptive intent of the scriptures. Following Stanley Grenz, he suggested a shift from promoting the scriptures as the single foundation for theology and moving to a trio of sources: scripture, tradition, and culture, with scripture as the “norming norm” in conversation with its two partners.

Marker Three: Knowing our Story A study of church history is sometimes not as heroic as we wish it had been, Harris said, but students should be “able to trawl the multiple eras of church history, noting both seasons of triumph and those of shame.” Thus, we can draw from the past as we write our own narrative for a journey toward what Christ is calling us to be.

Marker Four: Knowing our Context Seminaries commonly fail to provide “an adequate exploration of the interface between the gospel and its context,” Harris said, citing the challenge of postmodernism as a case in point. “Graduates should be able to read their local context through the lens of the Gospel,” he said, fostering sensitivity “to our status as residents of a global village.”

Marker Five: Knowing our Message “Theology is most safely constructed while listening to the conversation between our book, our story and our context,” he said. “Perhaps a key marker of graduates from our training institutions is that they will have a growing awareness of the wonder, richness and depth of the Christian gospel.”

Marker Six: Living and Communicating our Story The seminary is not an end in itself, Harris said. “Knowledge needs to blossom into wisdom, while theory needs to overflow into Christ honoring practices and skills.” Wherever we or our students serve, he said, “What really matters is that we live and communicate the good news of Jesus in a manner consistent with our ultimate destination.”

In conclusion, Harris said, a theological curriculum should be shaped with the end in view. “By working backwards from what we hope to attain, the appropriate steps for the journey become clearer.”

Trevor Edwards of Jamaica and Thomas Mackey of Argentina responded to the paper.

On Harris’ marker of “knowing God,” Edwards said the theological deconstruction of which Harris spoke should be widened “to understand that God cannot be limited to one religious tradition.” Recognizing that the statement could sound controversial, he added “I mean by that a willingness to dialogue with people of other religious traditions” and to do so in a respectful and cooperative way.

On “knowing the book,” Edwards said students should be skilled in a variety of interpretive methods, to understand that no one method is absolute, and to be aware that subjectivity and bias are always in the picture.

On “knowing the message,” Edwards stressed the importance of emphasizing the unity of the church, and building positive relationships with other Christians. “We need to teach good ecumenical manners,” he said, because “that will give credibility to the message and those who bear it.”

Mackey, o
f Argentina, said he resonated with Harris’ concept of stages in ministry preparation. Latin countries have tended to ignore the fourth stage, on lifelong learning and encouragement of graduates, he said.

Mackey suggested adding a “Stage Zero” that would recognize the importance of personal maturity and good relational skills if ministers are to become effective ministers who can foster churches with open minds who can appreciate both past traditions and things they need to hear about the present and future.

The addition of other verbs to Harris’ model would be helpful, Mackey said, such as adding “practicing” to “knowing.” Students should be encouraged to think for themselves, he said. “We don’t want to ‘clonate’ people,” he said, but lead students to a clear understanding of their gifts, their limits, and the many polar tensions in which they live.

I found Harris’ discussion to be helpful, though I thought his final two markers (“Knowing the Message” and “Knowing the Story”) needed fleshing out. It wasn’t clear to me in what way those were distinct from some of the earlier ideas.

Following the paper and responses, participants broke into regional groups to discuss the topic, and then report back to the larger group (the photo is from the North American group, courtesy of Curtis Freeman using my camera).

Dinorah Mendez said Latin Americans see students and teachers as partners in the educational process, with much emphasis on community and relationships with local churches.

Donald Morgan of Australia, speaking for the Asian group, said many Asian students lack basic traditioning in the Christian faith. “We need to reinvest Christian symbols with biblical meaning,” he said, rather than cultural meanings. Morgan also called for a distinction between theological education and pastoral training, and bemoaned that some pastors were getting minimal education or purchasing credentials from the Internet.

Parush Parushev spoke for the European group, calling for an integrated rather than disciplinary approach to theological education. He also called for more emphasis on how pastors can pass on important traditions through the church.

Louise Kretzschmar said African educators faced many difficulties, but had learned to recognize cultural practices such as music and dancing as strengths. “It is not enough just to train ministers,” she said, but also necessary to train other leaders through short-term programs, extension centers, or the like. She also said Africans must learn to value who they are rather than always looking outside the continent for expertise. Kretzschmar also emphasized the importance of teaching character.

Tommy Brisco said North American educators felt a need to focus more on community, and to ask questions about whether they were preparing ministers for the kind of churches in which they would most likely serve. He noted two recent conclusions from a “Pulpit and Pew” survey that Curtis Freeman had raised during the discussion: the top two frustrations pastors had expressed were (1) difficulty in connecting people with the gospel in a meaningful way, and (2) a sense of loneliness in ministry.

Eron Henry, speaking for the Caribbean, said his group recognized the importance of preparing leaders for international ministries and helping them to understand the importance of their unique cultural contexts.

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