Selling theology

Posted May 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Selling theology

As colleges, we take great care designing products (our courses), selling them in the marketplace using professional logos, marketing people (student procurement officers), advertisements, brochures and stands in trade fairs. We have growth objectives, five year future planning, and the head of the organisation is a sort of managing director of the whole operation, responsible to a board, with the treasurer peering over his or her shoulder. And when colleges die, they eventually almost always die for financial reasons.

So are we a business?

It is hard not to say yes to this question, and for good reasons. Institutional theological education is a very expensive way to train a student (sorry, customer). We are constrained by legislation (often for a charitable business) to be accountable to government and those who provide the money. Anyway, market-led courses are indicative of a servant attitude to the church, we give them what they perceive they need. This whole approach stresses good accountability and good stewardship.

So why are we uncomfortable with this?

Firstly for the same reason that many secular universities are uncomfortable with the commodification of higher education and the consumer approach that is growing across the world. It does not lead to good learning, which is fundamentally not a product to sell.

Secondly, the language of business distorts what we are trying to do. Our products are our students not the courses we design to sell. Our aim is to develop people not be successful in the competitive marketplace of theological education. The customer we ultimately need to satisfy is not the church or the student, but God who gave us a mission.

Thirdly, Economic viability, although ultimately essential, is not the best factor of judgment in most of our decisions. It is not economically sensible to reject a marginally unsuitable student, because we need to fill the college. It is not economically sensible to run an important course with too few students. It is not economically sensible to design a course just putting in what the customers want rather than what the students and the church need.

The truth is that theological education today needs to be looked at through more than one lens. One of those valid lenses is the business lens but if the thing we see through that lens is all we see, we have diluted out mission. We need board members, rectors, treasurers who can look at the college through more than business glasses.

Following our sense of mission and calling as a college generally is good business sense. However, as was said long ago, “But if not, we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Dealing with Differences

Posted April 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Dealing with differences

I doubt if it will come as a shock to anyone reading this that those working in our colleges do not always agree with each other and that tension sometimes occurs between staff.

People are complicated and every situation is different, but are there some basic rules that we can all follow to help us in such situations? Here are a few suggestions – OK, more than a few but life is more complicated than four simple rules:-

  1. If you are in leadership, do everything you can to lead within an open and trusting relationship with staff.
  2. If you are staff, recognise the complexity of the task of leading and recognise the authority of those who lead.
  3. Remember that the best decisions, especially in a time of conflict, are those taken together with as many people involved as possible, who then own the decision.
  4. Exhibit gentleness as a fundamental Christian virtue – both a beatitude and a fruit of the spirit – it must govern the way we speak to others and of others at all times.
  5. Acknowledge weakness and sin in all. We are not, any of us, wonderful people with perfect hearts who nonetheless occasionally make mistakes. We are all selfish, sinful, weak human beings and we therefore need to be humble with ourselves and forgiving of others.
  6. Say sorry when necessary. It is a sign of maturity and strength, not weakness. Everyone knows you are not perfect, so why pretend to be?
  7. Strive for consensus, but if that is not possible, look for compromise, except on those things that damage the fundamental mission of the college.   Even God compromised with his people in the Old Testament.
  8. Be there. Spend time in each other’s offices; of those we agree with, but especially of those we disagree with. Leadership especially needs to be constantly talking with all staff on their own territory.
  9. Always thank God that you are working together for him in such an influential job as theological education, training the future leaders of his church.
  10. Model for the students the attitudes and processes of good, loving, co-operative Christian service in a team. If you can’t do that, better stop teaching them scripture.
  11. Respect must always be offered and be seen to be offered to all by all. In some situations, trust breaks down, but basic respect must survive – to those above you, below you and alongside you, at all times.
  12. Attend to the issue of communication, especially from the decision makers to all affected; from one department to the other; to all, about everything possible, in every way.
  13. Consider whether the structure of the college and in particular its leadership and decision making structure, needs to be changed.
  14. If you are in leadership, never simply tell staff off for their attitudes but deal with the issues.
  15. Remember that your unity is based on a common experience of Christ. You are in the same family together whatever arguments may take place within that family.

There is nothing more difficult than leading in a time of conflict, or being authentically Christian in a time of conflict.   However, when those in an organisation come back to a position of serving together with joy after a difficult period, this is a wonderful gift of God.


The Nonconformist Teacher

Posted March 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Memo from the Dean

Dear Prinicpal/Director (sorry, I never know what to call you these days);

I wonder if you would speak to one of my lecturers who is causing me some difficulties.

Ok, he has not been teaching for long, but his scores in the feedback exercise from the students are unusually low.   Apparently he uses no technology at all – that interactive white board which cost us so much just sits there idle through his classes. He has posted no notes on our college server – which is not surprising, as he seems not to produce any notes for the students at all.

I have tried to get final marks from him, but he just says he believes in formative assessment only, and he doesn’t want to mark one student higher than another.  As you can imagine, that attitude would bring down the entire system.   We should not forget that next year’s renewal of our accreditation is imminent.

He probably is in need of some formal training in teaching methods.  Some of his classes, so I have been told, are hardly more than a series of stories, one after the other.  Not that he is always in class. One time the students had to go and find him and his excuse was that he was praying. He also does quite unconventional things in class.   One day he brought a child into class as a visual aid and since it was not his child, I had to rebuke him for breaching our child protection policies.

I also have some problems with his activities outside the classroom and this is serious because they could easily erode our support base in the churches.  He has been seen talking to prostitutes and others of a similar sort. He has also, unfortunately, begun to involve his class in his extra-curricular activities.   The other day he took them all to the wedding reception of a friend. Not only did the wine flow freely but, apparently, he seemed to be in charge of the wine himself.

Look, it’s not all bad, all but one of his students love him.   One was even heard the other day to say that he would die for him, but of course that it is just talk.

He doesn’t seem to respect me either.  Do you know the other day he actually offered to wash my feet? – Cheeky fellow (do they really smell?  You can tell me).

What do you think?  Could we change him enough so that he became the sort of lecturer we want at our college?   Maybe the best thing to do is just give him his three years and then get rid of him. It has been done before.

I look forward to hearing from you.

The Cream of Theological Education

Posted January 1, 2014 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


The Cream of Theological Education

There is a strange custom in theological  education which I am unable to understand. Perhaps some readers can enlighten me. I have visited plenty of colleges in Europe and beyond in the last few years and almost all of their lecture rooms have blank walls painted cream (or “magnolia” as they say in the UK).

Is there a reason for this? No doubt some will say that it is done this way in order that the students are not distracted, but the reason does not stack up. If we were serious about this, we would close the blinds or the curtains as well so they could not look out of the window. Or even do what one college did in the inter-war years in the UK – build a partition wall down the length of the classroom with males on one side and females on the other so all could see the lecturer, but men could not see  women and vice versa, and so not be distracted.

I could criticise this custom by saying that students are no longer at school, but students coming in to our classrooms are not reminded of school because, nowadays, the walls of school classrooms are covered with stimulating pictures, charts and colours – it has been shown to help learning.

In any case, we tend to say that the classes which go best are those when students come into our own room for a seminar. We generally decorate our rooms with good colours, nice curtains, pictures on the walls and beautiful or meaningful objects around us.  After all if those things do not distract us and create a happy and rich ambiance for our work, we guess they will do the same for our students.

Maybe there is an historical reason. Many protestant non-conformist churches tend to decorate their worship places in cheap plain and functional ways and it is not surprising to see blank cream walls in such church buildings. The theological reason here, of course, is that we emphasise the Word spoken and have a protestant fear of any ornaments or pictures in church. But in so doing, in church or theological college, as we set out to create emptiness for the Word we often instead create coldness.

Can I dream a little? Class begins and the students come in to a warm, rich, comfortable, stimulating atmosphere, some real colour on the walls, curtains at the window of pleasant fabric, pictures hanging, a few beautiful objects around, no full waste paper bins or dirty white boards. Comfy chairs and decent carpet not made of industrial plastic. In my dream, I would also ask for coffee brewing on the ring and cups ready (with saucers!) for use. The smell is wonderful. The strange habit of the coffee break in nice surroundings has merged with the classroom. The teacher and the students start to talk to each other and the class is under way.

Now that is hospitality and, as Nouwen, Palmer, Shaw and others have pointed out, hospitality is at the core of good theological education.

Guest Post by Dr Allan Harkness, Dean of Asia Graduate School of Theology Alliance

Posted December 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


A namesake, table and significant pedagogy

‘Harkness’ isn’t a common family name, and so I’ve been flattered to discover a namesake pedagogy – the Harkness Pedagogy. Not heard of it? Google ‘Harkness Pedagogy’, ‘Harkness learning’ or Harkness method’ and you’ll discover it’s better known than you might guess.

Back in 1930 Edward Harkness, a US philanthropist (I’m not a relative, so I’ve not seen any of his wealth), donated the equivalent of about US$80 million to a New Hampshire college to encourage the purchase of ­– wait for it – large oval tables, and to fund the salaries of the teachers to sit with students around those tables.

So the Harkness Table (a cool 1,120,000 hits on Google) came to be, as an essential item for the Harkness Pedagogy. These tables were sometimes so large that they had to be installed before the walls of the room were built around them. You can buy Harkness tables via the internet – I rather like the look of the 17 foot ’eco-friendly’ model.

The genius of the Harkness Pedagogy is certainly not a 20th century novelty, although traditional schooling models don’t reflect it widely. One commentator has suggested, ‘the table is the method’. For – in contrast to the unilateral transmissive model that marks much education – having a small group of students sitting around a table with a teacher lends itself to a much more participatory and interactive form of learning. Think of the likely dynamics:

  • Numbers of participants are limited – up to a dozen or so comfortably. No-one can be lost in the crowd, and all have time to contribute.
  • There’s no ‘front and back of the room’, and no backs-of-heads. All participants can have eye-contact with each other. Thus a web of interactions is possible.
  • The teacher is seated among the students, rather than on or behind some sort of ‘pedestal-of-power’. Potential for a mutuality, being learners together.
  • All can hear each other. No need for a microphone, with its assumption of unidirectional communication.

All in all, the Harkness Table provides a much more hospitable space for learning than the traditional classroom. Recognising the power of the interaction between the use of space and relationships for effective learning in theological education, I wonder what might happen if we made greater use of Harkness tables.

I’m reminded of features of the teacher/learner relationship in the early churches:

  • Faith, not knowledge per se, relates us to God, and so all are on common ground before God.
  • The Holy Spirit is ultimately the primary teacher of God’s message, and thus teachers need to be learners from God as they teach.
  • ‘Formal teachers’ needed to be open to learning from God and others, so all were teachers and learners almost simultaneously.
  • The quality of knowledge is more important than quantity, so learning came from all with relevant insights.

These features lie at the heart of effective theological education for ministry formation too. Imagine how the Harkness Table might enhance them. It’s to recognise TE as providing hospitable space for a communitarian endeavour, in which all (and their contributions) are welcomed, and hosted ultimately by the One who ‘will guide us into all the truth’.

Hmmm. It leads me to think also of tables of welcome – especially with food and drink – we see at deeply formative occasions in the Bible, especially the table we Christians are drawn to week-by-week and month-by-month.

So, thanks for the reminder, Edward Harkness!

Decaffeinated theological education

Posted November 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Decaffeinated theological education

The purpose of coffee is to enliven. Real coffee is not just sweet and tasty; it contains caffeine which mimics the action of a neurotransmitter. It has life in it. Decaffeinated coffee is a nice drink but doesn’t make the heart beat faster; the key ingredient has been taken out.

So what is decaffeinated theological education? It is theological education with the key ingredient, the life taken out. And the key ingredient? Love to God. If the theological educator does not deliberately inspire love to God in the students, his teaching has been decaffeinated. I mean that it must inspire love to God with their minds; in their heart of hearts out of which everything else springs; in worship and then flow over to love for those God loves.

Now, just as there are a number of different brands of decaffeinated coffee, so there are varieties of decaffeinated theological education.

One brand is EUT – enlightenment university theology, dis-interested, uncommitted theology – an investigation or study of the phenomenon called Christianity and a set of classical texts called scripture, all of which can be done without faith commitment.

Another brand with a similar taste is DFAD – pandering to the desires of some young people to get a degree – and if they are Christian young people, it may as well be a theology degree, often in a safer place than a secular university. But here the theological café can do a good job. They may come in for decaffeinated coffee but when they taste the real thing, caffeine and all, they are often changed and go out with deep love for God in their hearts to serve Him with their lives.

One more brand of decaffeinated theological education is SFPP – study for practical purposes. There is a form of vocationalism that misses the point. It says “You will never be a good missionary or minister unless you grow spiritually, so we need to help students grow in their faith.” That is not love for God. Love for God is not one of ingredients of a good cake, it is the reason we bake the cake in the first place.

The real job, of course, is done not by the café designer but by the barista, the one who makes and serves up the coffee. He or she determines whether the caffeine is present or not. The café provides a pleasant place to drink it. So the most important contribution is not made by the college or seminary, but by the theological barista, the teacher. It is his or her job to see that the caffeine is in the cup, the aim of the love of God in the teaching.

Why serve up a nice, sweet, tasty theology with the key ingredient missing? For goodness sake, give them the real thing.

Decaffeinated theological education never did make the heart beat faster.

Old teachers are better

Posted October 1, 2013 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Old teachers are better

My thesis is simple; older teachers make the best theological educators more often than not.

Oh, I know the arguments in the other direction – I have even used them myself when I was a young teacher. “Teachers” we are told “need to be close to the youth culture of their students.” “The old fellows cannot keep up with the new technological developments” (although why good teaching suddenly after two thousand years can only take place through IT is a mystery to me). “The challenges of this generation are so different from being a Christian in the previous generation.” As the saying goes, old teachers never die, they just lose their class.

So, perhaps it is time to say to all the youngsters teaching today in theological education that the above may well be true but, generally speaking, the older teacher is a classier act than the younger teacher. Why? Here are a few good reasons;

  1. We know ourselves better than we did when we were young. After all, we have been in close proximity to ourselves for many years and, however much we may have tried to fool ourselves, the truth has come out by now. So we are good at helping with the vital task of self-discovery, self-understanding, that is going on in the hearts of our students (and some younger lecturers).
  2. We have discovered the difference between wisdom and knowledge. We know that the average theological education experience for students is heavy on knowledge but only experience can bring wisdom. We have seen much and heard much. Every student is unique but, because of our experience with many students and colleagues, we may well understand you better and perhaps help you beyond knowledge to biblical wisdom.
  3. We tend to take more account of deeds than words in our spirituality. We have heard plenty of student pledges of dedication, thousands of hymns and choruses of total surrender sung. But we have not seen so many going out and getting on with the job of bringing in the kingdom, at real personal cost to themselves. We have heard plenty of talk about community by staff members but not always enough love shown to all.
  4. We are often gentle and kind. We have nothing much left to prove now. We have done most of what the Lord has asked of us, we are not hungry young academics with a research profile to create, people to impress and ladders to climb. There is more space to be gentle.
  5. We have usually become more tolerant and open. Life was very black and white when we were young, we knew how God worked and where he was not. But slowly, out of wider travel, encounters and surprising discovery, we have realised that it is more complicated than that. There is no need to abandon our theology to come to the place where we can say with Faber that “the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind” and with Philips that the God of our younger days was “too small”.

Now I had better stop before I go too far. All of this, and much more, can only be true if the older teacher maintains a lively mind and a loving heart – which does not always happen. Students can help here if we are open to them. As it is said, they make you old and keep you young, both at the same time. And I know that we need young lecturers to relate quickly to the situation of the students. I am really pleading for a mixed age faculty where we all share our own special riches.

But I stand by my thesis. Older teachers make the best theological educators more often than not.

And if you are reading this as a fresh young teacher, don’t despair, you too will be old one day and, if you keep your head and your heart in good condition, you will be an ever greater blessing to your students.


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