Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Robert A. Hunt: The Future of Theological Education – Fly or Die: Some Responses

Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the second of a two-part series. The first part can be found here.

The future of theological education will depend on it becoming truly accessible, culturally and situationally contextual, financially sustainable, and engaged in continuous partnership and dialogue with local churches and the global church. Of these, the last is first in importance because all the others can be realized only in the context of partnership and dialogue. But as the COVID 19 crisis has clarified, our structures for engaging in partnership and dialogue with the global church are deeply dependent on the convening power that US-based institutions have because of their overwhelming financial resources. Absent the ability to gather significant numbers of persons in a single place, we quickly see how fragile the infrastructure of partnership really becomes. And this is particularly true of the UMC, where almost all the power to convene was vested in General Boards and Agencies or Episcopal offices that are rapidly being defunded.

I would suggest that the conditions described above require the following:

First theological schools, and indeed all schools, will need to shift away from a campus paradigm to a systems paradigm of self-understanding. In particular, both administrators and faculty must understand that a school is essentially a learning management system, LMS, in which facilities, faculty, courses, library resources, and so on are coordinated for the benefit of the student.

COVID 19 has effectively demonstrated the truth of this statement as every function of most schools has moved into an “online” environment. The potential to exist entirely in a virtual space is one of the key characteristics of an LMS as opposed to a campus-based school. Whether it is an LMS focused on course management, such as Canvas or Blackboard, or one based on administration such a People-Soft, a focus on the LMS allows schools to re-think what [was] is essential to education rather than maintaining legacy assets. This doesn’t mean that the classic campus isn’t a valuable resource for learning, but rather that it can and must be treated as a valuable as opposed to essential resource. 

Given a change in paradigm away from the campus to the LMS, theological schools must rapidly develop their competence and resourcefulness in existing and emerging forms of education through digitally mediated relationships, or DMR. “Online education” isn’t sufficiently comprehensive and is too focused on technological rather than relational competence. Seminaries can hire technicians to get them online. What they really need is to engage experts in emerging pedagogies for DMR to become competent and effective. We will need to learn the emerging psychology and sociology of the DMR environment and develop new aspects of emotional and cultural intelligence.

The capacity to engage fruitfully and to cultivate competence in DMR will serve three critical needs.

First, it will become the basis for more sustained partnerships with geographically distant theological schools and churches. Beyond the current crisis, capacity in DMR will allow us to more fully and consistently engage our partners and both learn from them and appropriately share resources with them.

Secondly, it will be the foundation of a theological education that is fully accessible not only in terms of those with disabilities but also those whose disability comes from lack of proximity. This requires more, however, than merely thinking about online teaching. 1. Students in theological schools now need personal computers and internet access as much as they telephones and library access. For this reason, theological schools have a moral obligation to ensure that as part of the aid they offer students they include personal computers and home internet access. 2. Theological schools must rapidly move beyond video-conferencing technology to the cutting edges of DMR such as VR classrooms, 360 engagement with places of pedagogical interest, and Enhanced Reality tools for learning. This technology is available now, and the failure to use it to make theological education more compelling and effective is negligence.

Third, and most importantly, competence in DMR is essential for preparing future pastors to minister in the context of DMR so that they can competently form and lead digitally mediated ministries (DMM). The theological school should and must become a laboratory for emerging ministries in which students can experiment. Courses in DMM incorporating DMR are as critical to the future of theological education as those teaching worship, preaching, evangelism, and pastoral care.

For theological education to endure through both the current crisis and the broader shifts taking place in our culture, in short, to be sustainable, it must fundamentally change its understanding of its goals and its financing.

First, it must recognize that the goal of all professional education is NOT a degree or certification, but involvement in lifelong learning in a community committed to scholarship and professional skill. Theological schools need to move students who graduate into immediate, year-round opportunities for continued engagement in learning. This will only be possible if theological schools work in partnership with the larger church to provide the types of continuing education, and certifications, critical to pastoral leadership of many types.

Closely related to this, theological schools must become intimately involved in pre-professional programs of discernment, working with college student ministries, local churches, and boards of ordained ministry to give potential pastors an opportunity to fully understand the commitments of ministry across many types of calling. Ultimately the MDiv and DMin will simply be intensifications of a process that begins in young adulthood and continues to retirement.

With this groundwork, theological schools will be able to develop more sustainable financial models. In our emerging economy, the days of paying fixed-fees for non-concrete products in need of constant upgrades are rapidly passing. We don’t buy software. We don’t even buy textbooks, we rent them. The reason for this is simple: subscriptions for services provide more reliable cash flow to those who provide such services. Theological schools must move toward a subscription model for their product, something that has already happened with most courses offered through online learning platforms.

What was formerly tuition will become a subscription for a high-level and deeply personalized teaching service. Other subscription levels might provide access to the classroom but not the teacher’s time or course credit. Another level might provide for certification in a specific skill or field of knowledge rather than a degree. Most importantly subscribers to theological education would be encouraged to maintain their subscription at an appropriate level for CEU credits after graduation. Instead of hounding alumnae for donations, theological schools should be encouraging their churches to pay for their continuing education.

Finally, theological schools will need to recognize that forming pastor-teachers, pastor-administrators, and pastor-entrepreneurs is as important as forming pastor-theologians. Teachers must know how to think, but every theological school faculty offers proof that there are thinkers who do not know how to teach. Only the embrace of the universe of pedagogies associated with engaged learning will keep theological education relevant in the emerging church and its social context. A blog post, podcast, PowerPoint deck, sermon, screenplay, video, or even board game can as easily demonstrate the capacity for critical thinking and knowledge as the standard academic essay or exam. But unlike the essay or exam, it also creates the capacity to do the work of pastoral ministry. And that is what the church needs.

The changes I’m proposing are sweeping and will be difficult to implement. They will take time. But the meteor has already struck, and we will either learn to fly or die.

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