Doing the job

Posted April 3, 2018 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Essentials 4 Doing the job. 

Theological education is a glorious calling, teaching and living for the formation of students to go and serve God with their lives. But what of actually “doing the job”?

Doing the job of theological education transports us from glorious calling into the real, practical world, full of messy situations where we cannot just do what we want, where we cannot simply take our theoretical principles and ideas of best practice and use them as a shining programme of action. They remain guides, goals to which we strive, but must not be simplistic judgemental yardsticks of success or failure. That leads to damaging disappointment.

Theological education, like politics, is the art of the possible in a fallen world. It is fulfilling calling in a society that is not specially set up to make life easy for the teaching of theology. And, here is the crux of the issue, it is done by imperfect people for imperfect people. It therefore becomes a case of do what you can for God in the circumstances. Dare I say it? It is compromise with reality in the pursuit of greatest usefulness. In what areas does this need to work?

Firstly, in our teaching of students. You will find students both excitingly encouraging and sometimes disappointing. If you have not done so already, you are not yet in theological education. Motivation, levels of commitment, ability and spirituality all vary. After all, students too are struggling with weaknesses, mistakes and difficult circumstances in trying to do what God has asked of them.

Secondly, in the management of the college or seminary. Generally speaking, to do all you want, you need more money than you have. And, although colleges can feel like heaven now and then, there is a significant “not yet” about it all. Theological institutions have staff members who are sufficiently imperfect to fall out with each other, make mistakes, and sometimes find it hard to reconcile their own sense of calling with the precise mission of the seminary.

Thirdly, in the constrictions imposed on us by society, government agencies, accreditations and secular attitudes to what we try to do. Those institutions which receive government finance for their students, seek to bring students from abroad and ask for secular accreditation have the most frustrations.

Fourthly, in our personal goals. How often do we come to the end of the day concluding that we have not done all we intended to do? The end of the year? The end of the role? The end of the ministry? Outward circumstances and internal weaknesses often conspire together.

In the midst of all of this complication and struggling with imperfection, we should not forget the simplifying power of Hebrews 12v2 – keeping our eyes on Jesus who calls us with real understanding of reality, having walked physically in this imperfect world and done the will of God. His request is to do what we can with Him and for Him.

It would not be so bad to hear at the end of it all something like

“Well done good and faithful servant, you have joyfully done what you can as an imperfect person in a messy, hard, sometimes disappointing, situation and good has come of it for my kingdom. Enter into the joy of your Lord”.

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Essentials 3. Students

Posted March 1, 2018 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

It really is all about students and our role is to be a player in the saga of their transformation. But what does this mean?

Many students are in a liminal situation at college or seminary. They have left behind something and are looking forward to a new future. This is an open, exciting, worrying situation, and above all, a time when change can occur. By the Word explained and applied, by setting down theology as a foundation for life, by the example of their teachers in developing an integrated life of academics, service and spirituality, by and in the community, students grow and change. But not all in the same way.

Each student is a unique individual. They have their own loves, hopes, fears, needs and expectations. And yet seminary sometimes operates like a factory. Students are accepted at one end as “goods inwards”, they are shaped by the machine and go out at the other end as “goods outwards”. The old moulding concept of student change (where students are squeezed into a standard mould of what the college considers to be a good student) is dying but the machine rumbles on. Moulds have become graduate profiles. Mass production is the cost-efficient way. Maybe we need to talk more about transfigurational rather than transformational colleges. At the transfiguration, Jesus was changed but the change was specific to himself, it was a revealing of who he really was. It was individual.

Students are sometimes treated literally as a number. For instance in many anonymous marking systems today, we read and mark essays identified only by a student number and give advice at the bottom of the essay not knowing who we are talking to – a big sacrifice for the sake of technical “fairness”.

Even the designation “student” can be seen as negative. It is a basket term into which we put all those who study with us. It assumes a secular type of learning, entry into a particular type of system, success as measured in a standard way for all. Readers will know of my indebtedness to the work of Nouwen, Palmer, Shaw and Soh who talk about theological education as hospitality, the creation of a free and fearless space in which students are welcome as they are and in which they grow as they need to.

Truth is, most of us are caught between the desire for this specific ministry to individual students on the one hand and the system processing a sheer weight of numbers on the other. We do our best to create that individual free space in lecture periods, we work individually with students when we can but we get tired. We breathe a sigh of relief at the end of semester and say with a jokey smile on our faces “now I can get on with my work without interruptions”

The Copernican revolution which asserted that the earth moves round the sun rather than the sun moves round the earth is the classical paradigm shift in history. How do we shift the prevailing theological education paradigm to make our work revolve around students as individuals? And while we are waiting for that, let us see our calling as engaging with each student as unique.

Teaching

Posted February 5, 2018 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Essentials of theological education – teaching

I will not pretend to cover such a massive subject in 500 words but there is value in sketching its correct shape. We teach. What do we mean when we say that?

When I was a student, good teaching mostly resided in delivering excellent content with all the study, careful preparation and academic expertise that entailed. It was up to the student to learn. More recently the pendulum has swung the other way and good teaching is deemed to be mostly about facilitating learning, with all the aids, skills and techniques that involves. As they say, the sage on the stage has become the guide on the side.

No sensible person would criticise either good content or facilitating good learning in teaching but it is increasingly being realised (although good teachers have always known this) that teaching is above all about relationship. Good teaching is relational teaching. It is the relationship that is formed between teacher and students that is the linking bridge between the good content and the good learning. This should be music to the ears of a Christian theological educator.

Elements of trust, respect, enjoyment of each other’s presence, joint emotional engagement with the subject, a free and fearless space created, academic community, common purpose, mutual sense of obligation, ease of interaction – we could almost say conversation, deep concern for the other, willingness to share ourselves not just what we have read. These are some of the characteristics of a learning relationship which works. It is why students remember some teachers more than others, why they enjoy some classes more than others. It is why some teachers change lives and others do not. It is what our ministry is all about. Let us not deceive ourselves, expecting all of these things with every student in every class we teach is utopia. But the key is what we think of ourselves, what we believe we are called to be and do

Let us work hard and well in putting together excellent content which gives real knowledge in a broad and deep form to our students, and models for them what it means to examine a subject with academic eyes and critical judgment. Students need a basis on which to live, think and judge. Let us also work hard at helping our students learn. We need to learn how they learn, check that they are learning, use those aids and techniques which are appropriate to achieve our aim.

But let us be careful that nothing gets in the way of building the relationship which makes it all possible, whether that barrier be a sleep inducing heavy set of facts on the one hand or an over-use of “clever” PowerPoints which directs their attention away from you and so dilutes the relationship on the other. If only we would sometimes leave the lectern, turn off the projector, sit on the edge of the desk and have a real caring, conversation with our students.

We are Christian academics who help people learn by forging ministry relationships with them. That is what we mean when we say we teach.

Calling

Posted January 1, 2018 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

This post begins a small series looking at issues which are fundamentally important for the theological educator and it is appropriate that we begin by looking at

Calling

This idea is not at the forefront of our thinking today. There is plenty of literature examining theological education as a profession like others. Many colleges and seminaries have obtained secular accreditation which assumes the lecturer in theology is basically the same as a lecturer in biology, history or mathematics. Nowadays, our employers are rightly keen to embrace best secular employment practice in hiring us, paying us and supporting us.

For all the usefulness of these things, on their own, they push us towards a view of ourselves which is inadequate for what we do because, fundamentally, the task of theological education is ministry and ministry requires a sense of calling.

But teaching the Bible involves applying it to ourselves. Paul’s concept of God’s gift of teaching which, if someone possesses it, makes him or her a gift of God to the Church becomes relevant, as does James’ teaching on the stricter judgment for “those who teach”. There is a lovely passage in 1 Thessalonians 2 where Paul describes himself as called and explains that this means he has been entrusted. This an echo of the parables Jesus told about stewards and talents, where the master appoints a servant, entrusts him with a job or a talent and eventually askes for a reckoning. This is all about ministry and all about us.

Theological education though is a specialist ministry, depending on a particular gifting and calling and involving a particular entrusting. So, what are we entrusted with? Who and what are we called to serve?

We are entrusted with the truth. This is not as simple as some would make out. It requires plenty of skill and hard work academically to fulfil our calling here. It will be biblical truth; truth thought through with the help of the Spirit down through the ages of the church; truth mined with the tool of critical judgment from contemporary scholars; truth that is relevant in that it speaks to society, and to power in the church and the world. To respect our calling we must be academics in the full sense of the word.

We are entrusted with students because ministry is always to people. We are not called to teach rows of cabbages. Theological academics who do not have pastoral and spiritual objectives for those they teach are no better than – and just as inadequate as – loving spiritual teachers who do not do the hard academic work. Our job is discipleship, as it was with Christ and his disciples it is the growth in faith, hope and love of those to whom we minister, to whom we are called.

We are called to serve the Church. Paul is plain that the gift of teaching, creates the gift of teacher to bless and grow the Church. There are few more frustrating institutions for someone who thinks and feels deeply (and theological educators must be such people) than the Church today. Yet we train leaders to equip the church so it will live as it should and do mission as God intended. We have an assisting and prophetic role to church and therefore society as our ministry.

Some of us entered the task of teaching bible and theology as a calling to ministry. Others of us come to a gradual realisation of our calling after being employed in the job. Either way, it is a realisation that God himself has asked us to do this.

An awesome concept to live by; sometimes fearful, frequently joyful.

Being foolish

Posted November 30, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Being foolish

It is good for teachers to be foolish sometimes, especially teachers of theology, after all they need it more than most.

I am not talking here of the foolishness of the gospel, which is a serious foolishness, nor of stupidity which is to always be avoided. I am talking of a certain light-heartedness, a sense of fun that can even be classed as “silly” by some who don’t share your lightness of heart.

Your age, your “position” in society, the church and the seminary, your fear of being too like the students you teach; these are all ropes holding us back from a bit of foolishness now and then. But why should they? G K Chesterton’s great little biography of Francis of Assisi uses various historical models to try to understand him. One is “Le Jongleur de Dieu”, a wandering minstrel, often also a juggler or jester, who made his living sometimes by being foolish.

Must we always dress soberly? There is a very effective lecturer in a college I know who occasionally dresses up – as Moses, or a high priest, and so on, to illustrate his old testament lectures – he has even been known to blow a ram’s horn now and then. I know an ex principal who used to play jokes on other members of staff. Silly stories have occasionally been used (and useful) in important lectures. Strange things have occasionally appeared behind people’s heads in college photos (which, of course, I am completely against). There is a UK tradition of “April Fool’s Day” (when people play tricks on each other on the first day in April) which could well be an un-official part of the calendar of a theological college serious about contextualisation.

Laughter was proscribed in mediaeval universities because it was regarded as human and the task of the monk was to hold down the human in order to give the spiritual room to grow. We can mistreat foolishness in the same way. It is happily human and, when kept in its place, has no negative effect on our spirituality, and probably significant positive effects. After all, becoming like a child is a good thing in the kingdom of God.

Foolishness is also a habit beneficial to the one who practices it. It is a release, a refusal to be confined, not to be boundaried by expectations, a considered decision to not suppress a happy human part of you; a bit of innocent fun that says what you are and what you are not.

Of course, there are times when it is stupid to be foolish. There are solemn occasions, hard and upsetting subjects, occasions when to be foolish trivialises someone’s pain or shows disrespect. But these do not cover all occasions in the life of a theological teacher.

So next time you are tempted to be foolish, if there is no good reason to hold back, why not give in? It is one of the few situations where falling to temptation is a blessing to your soul and others.

Stability

Posted October 30, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Stability

I once claimed for our college that “our faculty are very stable”. Some wag asked whether I meant that as a comment on their length of service to the college or their psychology!

Stability (in the first sense) is a rare thing today with our very mobile society. Few stay in the same place in the same job for many years. Indeed, theological education institutions are presently finding problems with their very specific courses introduced in the last ten years (youth ministry, mission studies, worship, counselling, sport ministry etc.) because, in the lifetime of a servant of God, they can begin as a worship leader, become a youth leader, go abroad as a cross cultural missionary, come home to become a church pastor and even eventually end up in a college teaching. We need a very solid base in biblical and theological studies within any such “specific” courses in order to facilitate the current practice.

Stability is actually an ancient Christian practice, especially in the monastic tradition and was often taken as a vow in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience, or seen as a sub-heading under the category of obedience. For the monk it meant that, except by a dispensation of his superiors, he must remain in the monastery of his profession. This is in massive contrast to our present society and, famously, Thomas Merton struggled with this element in his commitment.

And yet, stability is a Christian practice. It says that we are not those who assume that the grass is greener elsewhere, that, just with a change of external circumstances, we can solve our internal restlessness and weaknesses, that covenant means covenant and commitment means commitment. It is a denial of the search for perfection elsewhere and the getting on with making what we have more perfect. We tend to agree with this concerning marriage. Marriage is for life, for better for worse. Not every commitment is so covenantal but it would be a good idea if we, as Christians in a consumer culture, regarded our membership of a local congregation more in that light. As Spurgeon once said to someone who was moving around churches looking for the perfect church “If you do find the perfect church, please don’t join it for then it would no longer be perfect”.

But what of those of us in theological education? The commitment to serve in a college or seminary is not covenantal like marriage. We must not be seduced into a rigidity of life by a thoughtless commitment to stability. Sometimes in our job as a theological educator a move is right and good – if only for the sake of the rest of the faculty! A career move can sometimes be right for better fulfilment of a calling which also may be changing and growing, or even for growing influence for the kingdom. There are other good resons for moving on. But should we not deliberately inject the concept of stability into all our thinking about such change? Stability helps us face our weaknesses, grow in usefulness where we are and blesses the college with continuity of ministry.

It is often the best choice among other options.

Does God drink coffee?

Posted September 29, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Does God drink coffee?

Drinking coffee is a bit like the Christian Church. I had better substantiate that.

Firstly, it has a similar geographical history. It began as a significasnt practice in the Middle East, arrived some centuries later in Europe, eventually made its way across the Atlantic, became a partially capitalistic and expansionistic western phenomenon and came full circle, spreading back into the areas of the world from whence it came. So now we have Anglican churches and Starbucks in Jerusalem.

Secondly, many adherents practice an elaborate ritual. Every serious coffee drinker knows that you need to follow a step by step ritual to make excellent coffee. You must choose the beans carefully, then grind them to the right fineness, set the machine up properly, heat the special cup, check the temperature and pressure in the machine and ensure that the hot water goes through at just the right speed (about 40 seconds for a single espresso) and sugar it carefully. And this ritual like many others, is strangely peace-bringing as it gently leads you to the moment of taking the coffee itself. Like the Christian Church, you can either do this yourself or pay clergy (or baristas) to do it for you.

Thirdly, and at last I have got to the main point of this post after some wild speculations, you can choose to take it with others or on your own. It can be a social phenomenon or a personal religion. For the serious coffee drinker, it is often the creating of “me time”. You make the coffee (not necessarily as elaborately as set out above), sit quietly, heave a sigh of relief for a moment away from the chaos of the world, and imbibe on your own. However, the “me time” for the Christian so often turns into the “me and God” time.

Many readers of this post will know just what I am talking about. You make the coffee, go and sit down and say aloud or inside “Well, Lord……here I am again” or some such. You become reflective in His presence and enjoy the company for a few minutes until the busy world drags you back in to its whirlpool.

It was a strange title. Does God drink coffee? Probably not; but he is very happy to sit with you while you drink yours.


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