formal, informal, nonformal
Earlier this month I returned to my ol' stomping ground, Carey Baptist College. It was my first extended time in the community since I completed my time as Principal five years ago.
With the last question in a post-lunch interview with Charles Hewlett (Principal), I was asked about theological education. What is critical? How can it be transformative? I bumbled my way through talk about ensuring that there be the right combination of the formal, the informal and the non-formal aspects of learning. But I've been thinking a lot more about it and I thought I'd have a crack at a fuller response here, with examples from my early years at Carey.
[One of my guidelines in writing this blog is that I never do any prior research. It is kinda an overflow of my own mind and heart - and on this topic I am very conscious that finer minds than mine have engaged with this stuff. But here we go anyway...]
When I see this word, it is the classroom that comes to mind. Lectures. Reading. Essays. Debate. Assessment. To be fair, it is much wider than this more cognitive stuff, but this is the default setting.
In the early years at Carey...
We had a BTheol with a limited curriculum which the University was wanting to control ever more tightly. This was never going to align long term with our purpose in the world. We had some bright minds on the teaching stuff and a whole new degree was developed - a BAppTheol, accredited with the NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA). It sparked a rush of creativity. You learn a lot about the formal curriculum in the fine print where prerequisites are determined and credits are assigned to courses.
Among my specific interests in the formal, two issues stood out. When I started there had been two theologians, but only part-time OT and NT specialists - with one teaching History and the other looking after IT. Nah. Biblical Studies needed to become central to the curriculum. (Somewhere there is a document on ten? different ways in which this transition happened). Afterall, winding up a few readers on this point, theology is merely a derivative discipline. We worked hard to release the OT specialist to be full-time ... and the decision was made to find a NT specialist. Far and wide we went. For me this was going to be the critical appointment of my early years. I poured out my heart to God again and again. I knew what we needed. I took a seven day trip and interviewed people in Lisbon, London and Edinburgh. God was so gracious. To this day I consider the appointment and its outcome to be one of the most strategic processes in which I have ever been involved. The divine resource worked through the human resource processes beautifully.
The other area of specific interest was sourced in an inadequacy in my own MDiv training through TEDS (Chicago) in the early 1980s. It worried me that students graduated with departmentalised minds, with the rather optimistic hope that integration of training would just happen post-graduation. I don't think so. It was my conviction that integration needed to be brought back into the structure of the degree. So important was this issue that for a while I thought the degree should be called a Bachelor of Integrative Theology. And so without any blueprint to follow and noone up ahead of us, we had a crack at developing a Thematic Integrative Seminar for which I took responsibility. The formal curriculum looked kinda like an airplane. If the central fuselage was Biblical Studies/Theology/History, the wings Mission/Ministry (Applied) - then the Integrative Seminar became a bit like the cockpit. A summative course that brought it all together. It was a demanding course. It attracted critique. It needed to evolve. But I still believe in it. One day I'd like to write up it's story.
Here my mind tends to go to the 'beyond-the-classroom' assessments that usually cluster around the skills and attitudes of students. Often a little more creativity and space is required to do this well.
In the early years at Carey...
I entered into an existing stream of good stuff in this area. A lot of the focus was on a new staff position called the Director of Ministry Training. We made a courageous and controversial appointment. Someone with no (church) pastoral experience and no theological background - but a lifetime of training in another discipline. Together we played with a model that would add credibility to the informal. The triangular 'knowing-doing-being' seemed to fit the bill - until I had a passing conversation with my father. 'Those three are not enough'. Really?! 'Peoples' behaviour is often sourced from another place'. Enter the square and the addition of 'feeling' to the familiar troika. Very difficult to assess, but so began an era where students were asked to reflect regularly on their own journey with things like empathy for others and passion for calling and church, gospel and mission. It was an important step towards having a fuller self-awareness, without (hopefully) that more damaging self-absorption.
Another biggie for me in this area was dropping the idea of compulsion from every aspect of the training other than prerequisites in course selection. I remain persuaded, even to this day, that imposing compulsion on adult learners is counter-productive. Treat students as adults and discuss this with them. Effective learning experiences within the informal do not tend to happen under duress. Motivation must be intrinsic, not extrinsic. With the very things you want to make compulsory, give your energy to making them so good that students will feel they've missed out, if they are not present. Chapel attendance being the obvious example.
I am not sure how the experts describe this one, but for me it is about impacting the air people breath and the spirit they imbibe by being in the learning environment. It is about developing a virus that infects people when they come among you. This is the one that fascinates me the most.
In the early years at Carey...
I overheard a returning student, within weeks of starting as Principal, say to a new student that when it came to the evaluation of those more 'informal' areas - 'just tell staff what they want to hear, get your ticket and get outta here'. Basically 'a fake it until you make it' (to the end). WOW. We can't have that happening! But what do you do about it?! The issue was a lack of transparency. So we instigated an annual chapel series, which lasted for some years, in which staff responded to a probing topic that required them to model transparency. One year it was 'My Most Recent Conversion'. I'd like to think that under God's good hand this gradually helped create a culture where being honest could be seen as a good idea.
Another area was the need to flatten the community. It seemed unnecessarily hierarchial to me. This was not going to work well with Kiwi young adults. A principal's table at lunch. Names on staff car parks in order of importance. A designated toilet for male staff. I could go on... First impressions are huge here. Plus there could be more overlap between faculty and staff and we could start by using phrases like 'full staff', 'teaching staff' and 'administrative staff'. And we could treat students more as adults and draw them into the direction of the college more.
On these matters, one area which received a lot of attention was how we handled vision as a community. It was not to be the domain of leaders alone (which can be one of the biggest powerplays going around). I developed annual listening exercises with the full staff team (at the start of the year) and then with the student community (at the end of the year) and what emerged in those settings became the agenda - and people knew it. I'd like to write this story up as well! I struggle to think of a significant vision at Carey that originated with me. And yes, it did expose me to criticism of being an indecisive non-leader - but I was always happy to take that risk. The upsides were too good. I loved having a vision for facilitating listening exercises and then seeing leadership to be about discerning which of their visions to pursue. No commentary was offered on this - but I hope people imbibed things about power, dignity, teamwork, and community by being among us.
Carey has come such a long way in five years. Very impressive. It was terrific to see progress in three areas where I was so often frustrated behind the scenes. Sometimes I wish that God had let me hang around long enough to taste 'sweet success' on these ones...but it was not to be.
(a) Women teaching in core disciplines. This was always a bit of a holy grail for Carey - right from the beginning. Despite all the rhetoric at the time, we were making a standing start on this one - and it just took more time than we all had hoped.
(b) A vibrant Pacific-Maori presence. This was an area in which I felt a bit unsupported by those around me, but especially by those above me beyond the Board. A training partnership in which so much was invested was just dropped - without any consultation at all. That gutted me. I found it hard to bounce back in what I found to be a lonely world - and, in reality, I didn't bounce back.
(c) Colouring the curriculum with a missional hue. This was actually in place when I started but I felt it needed to be trumped for a season. We needed to win the confidence of the churches to which we belonged. Things had drifted dangerously apart, more than was realised. The college was trying to be a prophet within its churches before establishing its credentials as a servant. And so more fundamental issues needed to be addressed. The time for such colouring would come again - and it has.