Many of us have encountered the work of Henri Nouwen and Parker Palmer on the idea of teachers creating a free and hospitable space in which students can learn – not a literal space but a created pervading atmosphere. The concept deserves an extension into the culture of the faculty in a college or seminary. While teachers are each members of the wider community of the institution, which includes students and administrative staff, they also compose their particular sub-frame within that community which has its own rules and culture, is powerful in influencing its members and also in forming the wider community of the institution, for good or ill. So what sort of faculty space do we need?
Firstly, it will be a space of mutual acceptance and respect, not just as scholars but as believers. Whatever our differences of emphasis, desires, subject, abilities, weaknesses and sins, we have been welcomed by God in Christ and given a task to do together for his kingdom. It involves a joint and common calling.
Secondly, it will be a safe space leading to open-ness. Faculty members need the freedom to make mistakes within the safety of the group, to voice their intellectual views and even struggles on difficult issues which divide Christians, to disagree as to the outworking of the corporate vision, without penalty, but with an acknowledgement of accountability to the team.
Thirdly, it will be a spiritual space, including real diakonia, worship together, prayer for each other and the common task. Staff retreats, staff days, as well as weekly times together all help, but even more important is the intention to grow spiritually together, helping each other closer to Christ. This is often best realised in the wider group which includes the administrative staff.
Fourthly, it will be a space where love rules the relationships. There is bound to be tension at times within a faculty team and we are not required to agree with or even like each other all the time but, as many of us have experienced, the basic rules of Christian love – preferring the other, self-sacrifice, acts of love, make a vast contribution to peace and effectiveness.
Fifthly, it will be a sharp intellectual space where each member challenges and sparks the other into deeper and wider thought. Inter-disciplinary work is more and more necessary in our specialised faculty teams and, although friendly rivalry will always exist between Old and New Testament scholars, theologians and missiologists, a desire to learn from each other and study issues together is enriching,
Sixthly, often this develops into an enabling and prophetic space for the churches and society in which the college or seminary is placed. Churches struggle to cope with the stream of new ideas and attitudes occurring in society, from postmodernity to debate over the latest medical procedures, legal decisions or films. It is the faculty teams of the colleges and seminaries which are best placed to guide the churches’ thinking and speak into society on these issues – and should be encouraged to do so as a prophetic group together fulfilling their mission.
The faculty space of many seminaries and colleges often falls far short of the ideal but, if this is the sort of space you would like to work in as a teacher, it is worth expending energy and resolve to help create it in your college or seminary.