It has become a standard requirement of theology courses that they be concerned with the three great objectives for their students – academic formation, spiritual formation and ministerial formation. Additionally, we all seem to agree that “balance” between these is never enough but we must strive towards “integration”. The problem is that this concept of integration is now in danger of becoming one more phrase, one more aspiration meaning little.
If we were to ask whether our college is thinking about and practicing integration well, could we describe the markers against which we can compare ourselves, or the goals we can set ourselves? Below, I suggest five key areas of thinking and practice that I hope will be useful. These points came out of a recent masters seminar on theological education I conducted with three thoughtful students in Belfast and I am grateful for their stimulation.
- We need an integrating concept.
Different writers have tried to integrate the three objectives by taking one of them and making it the integrating factor, such as ministerial formation in some presentations of missional theological education. Others have complained that for too long, it has been academic formation and instead taken spiritual formation as the single key. It never seems to work to elevate one about the others. More usefully, it has been suggested that worship or the glory of God be the integrating concept. It can be argued that Bonhoeffer in his little book Life Together uses Christ himself.
- We need an understanding of how they fit together
Some have used a Venn diagram to illustrate how each relates to the other two separately and together. Some have talked about different lenses through which we view the material or tasks. Also usefully, some have taken the Trinitarian concept of perichoresis as a specific Christian ontology of unity in diversity. As in the persons of the Trinity, each of the three is bought to life by the others and when you encounter one you encounter the other two. That would have grand implications for lecturing, ministry placement and chapel.
- We need a Biblical and Theological basis
There are plenty of biblical resources to help us conceive of the way to integrate these aims. There is Paul’s pattern of moving from doctrine to practice based on the doctrine, Christ’s insistence that we will only know if we obey, the relationship of the Holy Spirit to understanding, and so we can go on. There are also plenty of theological resources – especially from pre-enlightenment days when it was un-natural (except in certain scholastic circles) to have dis-interested or godless theology. I still stand in awe of Calvin placing within his institutes a chapter on self-denial. If we teach the need for integration to ourselves and our students, we are just teaching the bible and good theology.
- We need to remember we are dealing with people
Integration is personal in that we are preparing/teaching, persons, singular individuals who do not exist in three parts. It is rightly now common to speak of holistic theological education because we know that the students have to be un-divided. We teach John Smith or Mary Jones who have heads, hearts and hands which need to work together. Just as importantly, if we want to have any chance of getting through to John or Mary, we need to exemplify the three united in our person, to be as their teacher, a devout-scholar-minister.
- We need practical ways of helping the integration
You probably do some of these already. Tools available are reflective practice journals, integrative seminars, integration essays at the end of a semester, mentoring, certificates or diploma supplements which do not just talk about academic achievement and so on. Perhaps above all, we can set out the goal of integration to our students at the beginning of their time with us and frequently throughout their course.
Every college or seminary is somewhere on the spectrum between fragmentation and integration. Maybe the five areas above – conceptual, structural, biblical, personal and practical – will help us place our institution on that spectrum and encourage us towards the task.