Becoming a professor in theological higher education does not ordinarily require a post-doctorate fellowship in teaching. Whether that is important is a matter of debate. I happen to believe that it is.
Even a brief time of supervised reflecting on the technical means (the art of teaching) to the vocational end (preparing seminarians for ordination and a life of pastoral service) would be helpful. Indeed, it would be ludicrous to many to learn that a theology professor might invest three decades or more in a daily practice for which he has not received even a day’s worth of preparation. Yet, this is precisely the place we have made for ourselves in American seminary culture.
Well, if true, why is this so? Perhaps, we sense that a theology professor is, in reality, a preacher. Most are. I am. So, if one thinks of theology professors as preachers, then, one could say that the classroom is the nave, and the lectern is his pulpit. The students are parishioners. If my supposition is an ill-conceived straw man then all is well. However, if the scenario I present is anywhere near the truth of the situation we have a problem. A new way of training professors of theology must be considered. The older vocational pathway could be traced with some degree of certainty: college to seminary, seminary to a brief period of pastoral service in parish ministry, followed by postdoctoral matriculation and completion, several years of adjunct teaching (with stints at Walmart or UPS), and, then, hopefully, a junior faculty appointment. This well-worn trail of faculty production and development may have served the Church (and future Christian shepherds) well in days past. But can such a model of faculty training equip theology professors today? One wonders. For while classrooms are sacred in a real sense, such teaching and learning spaces are not public places of worship. Indeed, the classroom of today is increasingly an online covenanted community of learning connected by revolutionary means allowing for worldwide geographic presence in one electronic, but very real, space. The dynamics of teaching and learning in such a classroom are very different than conducting class in a dedicated room in a building. The variables are too many to enumerate in the limitations of this essay. However, the most obvious differences are immediately apparent: the content to be taught is approximately the same as one hundred years ago, but delivery systems for the essential, transformative content are radically different—“for better or worse” is a subject of no small debate. To suppose a fifty-minute monologue followed by the bell can support deep learning in an online class is alarmingly naïve. And, of course, comfortable. And familiar. Safe. Exceptions will abound in theological higher education, for our discipline is uniquely blessed with extraordinary orators, prodigious thinkers, and remarkable spiritual giants. In such cases, these immortals emanate such a compelling presence that even the most slovenly seminarian is driven to read, research, and “follow the footnote trail,” super-heating that mysterious, invisible, cognate plasma to produce the costliest of all pedagogical pearls: “self-discovery.” Again, such a scenario is the exception.
We do not order the norm by the exception. Even if the exceptional-rate-of-occurrence for such sage professors is greater in theology than, say, organic chemistry; we must face the truth, however, self-deflating, that most of us aspire to be solid citizens, good single-base-hit players, but not a Babe Ruth. And this group forms “our norm.” The norm is good. The norm is to be treated with as much respect as those once-in-a-century exceptions. My proposal is focused completely on the norm. Those theological professors who fall in that essential zone—the sacred space where pastors, chaplains, missionaries, school teachers, and future faculty are formed—are worthy of our love, prayers, and attention to their vocational training.
So, what are we talking about? A quarter? Two months? What if this were delivered online? Of course, it is already being done. Some others are ahead of us. But that’s alright. Our discipline is word-centered. Our vocation is not only to teach but to form souls, to shepherd the shepherds who will shepherd the flock. Our Master is not in the office down the hall. He is at the right hand of the Father, and He is in us, with us, and before us. For all of those reasons, though, our faculty deserve a post-doctoral teaching and learning training period—a Fellowship, if you prefer—that prepares our “Doctors of the Church” to reach this generation and generations yet unborn. Our work is unchanged and unchangeable: “to make disciples . . . and teach them whatsoever [Christ Jesus] has commanded.” The urgency and cosmic necessity of that Message, and the mandate to prepare laborers for those who will receive that Message, remains the first and final reason that our seminary faculty must be better prepared to teach.
My proposal is modest. I humbly urge that theological seminaries along with certain servant-minded graduate schools of universities provide a place of post-doctoral teacher-training. Such training would surely involve, at least, a ten-week study of the methods of teaching and learning. Understanding and practicing backward planning in constructing a syllabus, adult learning models, types of learners (and how to accommodate their God-bestowed gifts), with theories in retention, assessment, and case studies would serve the church historian or New Testament professor for a lifetime. Such training would be the foundation on which should be added best practices in distance education, course design for online teaching and learning, and an introduction to the current offerings in learning management systems (the platform on which you express your teaching and students engage with the instructor, each other, and subject matter experts who may be “beamed in” to support a given module. This training? Four weeks would be great. One week would be better than we have ever had.
I have always maintained that the best picture of what we do in theological higher education is this: an older pastor-scholar sitting beneath a tree mentoring a candidate for ministry. Over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and an open Bible between them, the two disciples study the gospel of Jesus Christ so that the young man may leave to proclaim the Gospel and shepherd the flock of Christ. I still believe it. The only difference is now the pastor-scholar-mentor may be sitting under an oak tree in Due West, South Carolina and the candidate for ministry may be sitting beneath an olive tree in Berat, Albania.
Such is the growth of the kingdom of God.
The D. James Kennedy Institute at Erskine Theological Seminary desires to prepare just such a course. Stay tuned. We want to serve our colleagues in theological higher education by preparing a post-doctoral fellowship, online, that will provide a Certificate of Higher Education Teaching and Learning for the Contemporary Classroom.
We are indebted to the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University for these resources. Faith for Living, Inc. does not endorse the views of each author. Rather, we offer these as resources for Christian educators, starting points to conduct the study, assessment, synthesis, and application to the ministry of preparing men and women to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.
Harvard University. Online resources. The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Available: https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/online-resources
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DePaul University. Teaching Portfolios. Available: https://resources.depaul.edu/teaching-commons/teaching-guides/reflective-practice/Pages/teaching-portfolios.aspx[2019, May 9].
Examples of Teaching Portfolios: