Expanding Theological Education

With the pandemic beginning to taper off, I am finally getting to offer in-person courses again (I know the proper protocols to maintain safety, am encouraging people to only sign up if vaccinated, mask up, and maintain distance). Some of my favorite in-person courses are United Methodist Studies courses offered in my district for lay folk and clergy. I offer each of the three courses in a two day format. When we gather, whether for United Methodist History, Doctrine, or Polity, these courses are focused on the importance of the local church within the Methodist world. Participants receive both an overview of the topic as well as practical reasons why it matters for their local churches. Those who participate have always found the course insightful, useful, and life giving.

At some point in these classes I often hear this statement: “I’ve been Methodist my whole life, and I’ve never learned any of this.” This is a common statement from many church members I encounter, whether I’m teaching United Methodism, Bible, theology, or anything else. I often don’t know what to say to folks, because I don’t want to blame their clergy who are often overworked and face a lot of scrutiny already. However, it has made me think about this problem. What I’ve come find is that it is often just a reality of the system of theological education.

In general theological education operates by potential (and often current) clergy and lay professionals attending theological schools for one of several types of theological degree. The most common and the one most often required is the Master of Divinity. Depending upon the school, this degree is usual a blend of academic theological education including Bible, theology, history, and ethics, alongside practice of ministry courses that might include Christian education, pastoral care, church administration, missions and evangelism, and others. Upon completing their degrees, these students are then vetted by their ordaining bodies and then find placement in the church depending upon their vocational goals and denominational polity. These ministry professionals often share some of what they learned, but quickly fall into the other tasks of doing ministry.

A secondary theological education stream exists where denominational leadership and offices are often the theological education experts and, on occasion hold trainings and resourcings for members of the congregations. These events, while often very helpful, are in singular locations that are large churches in an urban area. This is not a bad thing, but simply a reality that they are trying to be near population centers, airports, spaces that can accommodate large numbers. However, this is not friendly to smaller churches in rural areas and even urban areas sometimes due to travel, cost, and general anxiety of being in large and strange places.

Both of these forms of theological education are top down approaches. They begin with an expert in a central location and expect information to flow out. However, as we often experience, the information stream becomes a trickle. Moreover, theological education is far more than simple information transfer, but something that requires contextualization and integration.

Instead, I want to propose something that decentralizes theological education. Similar to my local church offerings (usually done on district/county level), I propose that we create something like an itinerant scholar. These experts in their fields, instead of expecting everyone to come to their office, offer courses on a “circuit” to use a Methodist term. Whether it be denominational studies, Bible, or ethics, many people do want to learn. Moreover, the courses need to offered in non-central locations. That is, in smaller rural churches, churches of color, and urban churches not often visited by the denomination they regularly feel ignored by.

Clearly, not everyone in every church and community wants to learn the nuances of liberation theology or the intricate history of their denomination. However, many do want to learn, to grow, and apply their learning in their communities. In fact, as I have taught these classes, many have answered calls to ministry, whether lay or clergy, and gone on to enroll in more classes, enter the licensing/ordination processes, or become more engaged in the lives of their local churches.

I am not calling for a dissolution of formal theological education, but instead a contextual expansion that allows for new and unique expressions of education that reaches the laity of the church.

I teach online and in person in ways I hope are accessible to people, particularly rural people, and would love for more folk to join me.

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