Making Theology Matter, Part One: The Key Role of Theological Field Education

 Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen

This piece is an excerpt from Auburn’s New Report:
Field Education as the Practical-Prophetic Heart of Effective Ministry Preparation
Read the full report here.

Today it is as difficult as it has ever been to prepare people to be effective faith leaders. Dramatic challenges are roiling the social seas of the United States, changes that are truly global in scale. We are confronted by mass migration due to war and climate change; sharp wealth inequality; tense, sometimes violent, struggles over gender, sexuality, and racial equity and justice. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments from the highest levels of power foment hate and drive deep wedges in an increasingly polarized society.

Alongside those challenges, the ways that individuals and communities practice spirituality or religious life are also undergoing massive changes. Patterns of preparation for ministry developed even a generation ago are simply inadequate to the changing realities we will face over the next decades. As institutions pivot to address these situations, some more and some less successfully, a key feature in their experiments lies at the intersection of the classroom and contexts for leadership practice—that is, experiential learning, where, in the tussle of responding to practical challenges, the formation of leadership occurs. In most theological schools, this work takes the form of theological field education (TFE), sometimes called contextual education, along with similar forms of experiential learning.

Those responsible for training and equipping the next generation of faith leaders want them to not only be smart, but also change the world. Why is it that theological field education (TFE), one of the most effective means to assure this outcome, has been consistently undervalued, treated as a “second-class citizen” in theological education? While David Kelsey’s 1992 book proposed practical reforms in theological education a generation ago, its title exemplified a preoccupation with theology over the practical: To Understand God Truly: What’s Theological about a Theological School. Yet, as field education supervisors like Trey Wince know all too well, the typical structural divide between theological and practical training has positioned many schools to produce graduates with “theological prowess” but without similarly robust practical wisdom with which to lead effectively in the real world. Instead, as Wince says, they get “steamrolled.”

If theology is to matter, it, like Jesus, must “become flesh and dwell among us” (John 1:14). Theological field education, this report will show, is a powerfully generative mode for theology to become flesh and dwell among us, thereby making theology matter—and matter to the same end to which the incarnation itself was directed: “the world” (John 3:16). To put a sharper point on it, as English priest and theologian Sarah Coakley puts it, without the crucial contribution of field education, theological learning in the hands of ministry leaders “can’t actually perform the prophetic function it needs to perform.” At a time of great social and environmental peril—a time of brutal wars, crushing poverty, persistent racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, along with long-term environmental damage—it is more imperative than ever to add fuel to the fire of change in theological education in order to prepare practical-prophetic leaders for effective ministry today.

Building on a national survey of theological schools, nearly a dozen case studies, interviews with TFE directors, and an extensive literature review, we see that while some challenges that TFE faces endure, a variety of experiments are overcoming these challenges that, in distinctive ways, are letting TFE’s full impact come to bear. This series of articles (and the full research report from which it draws) is at the same time an argument, rooted in research, about the kind of impact TFE is designed to have and an explanation of how such learning is a primary way theology takes hold of one of its fundamental raisons d’etre.

Our five key findings include evidence of the persistent structural bias within theological education against robust practical-prophetic formation for ministry rooted in field education programs, even as students report both appreciation for what they do receive and a desire for more robust models and practices of TFE. There is also real evidence of the shifting and deepening of the models and practices of TFE. These are likely to continue to expand in variety, but for the sake of clarity we summarize them in three broad models, letting the variety of case studies later in the report indicate the range of diversity within each type.

  • In most schools, practical training for leadership (administration, budget, staffing, social change, use of conflict, organizing, and other such matters) is addressed in elective courses that are often taught by instructors, adjunct faculty, or field education supervisors.
  • Furthermore, most schools suffer from a curricular divide between traditional courses in the Bible, history, and theology and the experiential learning found in field education placements (in congregations, faith-based nonprofits, or chaplaincies).
  • Despite its structural marginalization in many schools, students value field education as among the most helpful, formative kinds of experience of their seminary education.
  • Although most school faculty are not at all, or only somewhat, involved in TFE, to the extent that students do experience classes that feature some integration of coursework and practical training for leadership, they value it highly and wish for more.

The three main models for TFE’s place in effective ministry preparation all include more robust partnership with congregations, ministries, or other nonprofit organizations.

  • The center of gravity is in the classroom, but much attention is given to quality, in-depth field education experiences.
  • Work in classroom and field education sites are deeply integrated, so the best each has to offer informs the other, especially through well-designed contextual courses that focus on practical leadership and involve clergy and professors working together.
  • The center of gravity is in the community context, with supportive, specifically tailored, in-depth academic experiences that build on experiential learning delivered online or in classroom settings.

It is not the case that every school should endeavor to embody a “best” model. Yet our research offers clear indications about the kinds of changes theological schools can try—regardless of their model—as they work to more effectively prepare future ministry leaders for the challenges they and the organizations they lead face in the world today. Ultimately, what is at stake is nothing less than the practical-prophetic power of faith—active in, and for the sake of, God’s beloved world.

The Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen is Vice President of Applied Research and leads of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn and the co-author of Making Theology Matter, a report published in August 2018. Read the full report now.

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