Making Theology Matter, Part Two: Field Education Training Faith Leaders for the Real World

 Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen


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


In some schools a deeper commitment to TFE, along with some other precipitating factor(s), leads to an overhaul of the programmatic and curricular process of ministerial formation to deeply integrate classroom and context. In both cases below, a highly respected senior faculty member in Bible (Luke Timothy Johnson at Candler, Joel Green at Fuller) articulated the intellectual significance of what is learned in TFE. Often, because of their academic formation and because of the promotion and tenure requirements tied to academic productivity, faculty members are resistant to becoming more involved. So, in these cases, it was crucial that respected faculty leaders led the way and made the case for change. After all, with deeper integration of TFE, faculty must make room in the curriculum for new and different courses, share course design and teaching of various sorts with practitioners from contextual sites, and adjust pedagogical assumptions, among other substantial changes. Such a commitment on the part of the institution to deep integration raises the profile of TFE, and often raises its leadership to a more central place of parity and power alongside other faculty. Moving to a more deeply integrative model entails a crucial shift in the accountability of the whole faculty to a different kind of formation for public ministry leadership. Some key themes across these models include:

  • Shift in role of TFE from appendage to spine: The recognition of an integrative kind of knowing—what we call practical wisdom—means that unfolding TFE experiences often become a spine or nerve center connecting the curricular and co-curricular whole;
  • Alignment with student callings in the world: When concern for teaching academic areas shifts to student learning, the orientation of the whole shifts to dynamic engagement with the world and the various callings for which students are preparing;
  • Investment in long-term partnerships: Heightened concern for and centrality of TFE leads to deeper investment in partner contexts/organizations, supervisors/mentors, and patterns of shared work in teaching and learning, strengthening all sides.

One such school, Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, has invested heavily in their contextual education program, making it a signature part of the school’s identity and the centerpiece of the master of divinity curriculum. Luke Timothy Johnson, Candler’s Robert W. Woodruff Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Christian Origins and a key contributor to the development of the program as it exists today, notes that the school’s “long commitment to contextual education certainly exhibits a certain pedagogical conviction: namely, that people learn theology faster, and better, and more deeply while engaged in practice.”

Candler’s master of divinity curriculum requires two units of contextual education—Con Ed for short—which are taken during the first and second years of the program. The program integrates hands-on ministry experience with learning and reflection in the classroom, where students, supervisors, and faculty come together to process and learn from the ministries and contexts in which students are engaged.

Prior to arrival on campus for their first semester, students choose a contextual education site from a pre-approved list. The options include nonprofit organizations, social service ministries, and clinical settings: a refugee resettlement agency, a homeless shelter, a women’s prison, a juvenile detention center, an HUD-supported retirement community, a hospital, and a transitional center for women nearing the end of their prison sentences. A cohort of 8 to 12 students is assigned to each site, and there is no stipend. All first-year students take a three-credit pastoral care class that is organized by site assignment and thus contextual to where students are assigned to work.

Several Con Ed I sites involve students in working with refugees. The city of Clarkston, Georgia, located just outside of Atlanta, is one of the most diverse square miles in the country. More than 20 years ago, the U.S. State Department identified the community as a good place to resettle refugees, and today, almost a third of the residents are foreign-born. Candler students have gotten to know the community in Clarkston through several Con Ed sites that serve refugee communities: Lutheran Services of Georgia’s Refugee and Immigration Services, where students are involved in a cultural orientation program for recently arrived refugees, a family mentoring program, and employment services; Friends of Refugees, a nonprofit organization that provides the city’s only English classes available to refugee women with small children; and two area congregations that support refugee families with cultural mentoring and after-school programs.

One of the most popular options for contextual education is work in a nearby women’s prison. Some students, in fact, come to Candler because they specifically want to work in prison ministry or criminal justice advocacy. Involvement in the prison has directly benefited prison residents as well. After spending time as a student chaplain with women serving time in prison, a Candler M.Div./MPH (master of public health) student with a focus on theology and public health helped to launch a project called “Motherhood Beyond Bars.” This program offers nine weeks of childbirth education and prenatal yoga at the Helms Facility (which houses all pregnant inmates in the Georgia prison system) and a six-month health class for newly delivered inmates at Lee Arrendale State Prison that covers postpartum holistic health and parenting from prison. These programs are now operated primarily by students affiliated with Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, but they would not exist if not for Candler’s contextual education program.

Because Candler has a critical mass of students working in prisons, this work has become part of the institutional culture and the school now offers a concentration in criminal justice ministries. Students who have served in previous years via Con Ed may return to Arrendale to distribute Christmas presents or teach in a theology certificate program for incarcerated women, and Arrendale’s Voices of Hope gospel choir performs annually at Candler.

Each year, 10–12 Candler students serve as chaplain interns at the Campbell-Stone Apartments, an HUD-supported affordable housing retirement community with two locations in the metro Atlanta area. Each student serves a “parish” of 45–55 residents, getting to know them over the course of the year and providing worship, pastoral care, and advocacy for the elderly in these communities. Residents know they get a new crop of chaplains each fall, and they eagerly wait to show them the ropes and tell them their life stories.

Students choose an ecclesial site for their second-year Con Ed placements. This is usually a congregation, although there are a steady number of students who work with a campus ministry, a prison chaplaincy, or other ministry setting in which they can gain experience in core practices of ministry—administration, worship and preaching, pastoral care, mission and outreach, and religious education. No more than three students are assigned per site.

In the second year, students take part in a bi-weekly Con Ed II reflection group facilitated by a teaching supervisor. Students are also required to take one Contextual Education Elective (CEE) course. These are offered across the full range of the curriculum (Bible, church history, theology, etc.) and are designed to be integrative, so that students explicitly bring learning from the class into their site work and vice versa. This class can satisfy requirements in another subject area in addition to the CEE requirement. Faculty design one or more CEEs that intersect with their primary disciplines, and most faculty members teach one every three years.

One of the most striking and unique things about the Candler program is that all faculty—regardless of department and position—are on the three-year cycle to teach in the contextual education program. There has been some resistance on the part of faculty as they stretch into this model, but a great deal of enthusiasm as well. Across more than two decades, the centrality of contextual education to Candler’s curriculum has become an established part of the school’s ethos, and during the hiring process all new faculty hires are made aware of the expectation to participate in Con Ed, helping to ensure the faculty’s continued commitment to the approach.

The outcome is clear: Faculty members bring their academic expertise to their Con Ed integrative seminars and, in turn, they take their experience with field education back into their classrooms. For example, in a CEE course on the history of the clergy, Professor of Church History and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Jonathan Strom assigns readings on models of the ministerial office in different time periods. Students then conduct oral history interviews with clergy and laypeople in their ministry settings with the aim of identifying change and continuity in the role of clergy in a particular local church. A clear benefit of this model is that faculty and students together engage contexts and ministry experiences beyond the traditional classroom, thus helping to build relationships between faculty advisors and student advisees.

About Candler School of Theology

Candler School of Theology is part of Emory University and one of 13 seminaries of the United Methodist Church. It was founded with a vision not only to serve present congregations, but to envision and bring into being the church as it could or, indeed, should be. Seventy percent of the 8,200 living alumni serve as pastors in churches, while others minister in colleges, hospitals, the military, and social service organizations. Over 400 students representing 39 denominations and 12 different countries are currently enrolled.


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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