Pastoral Academics

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Pastoral Academics

There are three fundamental objectives of theological education – ministerial formation, spiritual/personal formation and academic formation, the hands, heart and head. In the first and second objective, we apply Christian standards. In the third, we follow the standards of the world.

In ministerial and spiritual areas, we apply compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and second chances. In the academic area we do not. In ministerial and spiritual areas we are pastors. In the academic area we are policemen. In ministerial and spiritual areas, following the example of Christ, the individual is paramount. In the academic area, we create mechanisms to force us to ignore the individual such as anonymous marking.

We do this under a number of pressures, some legitimate. If we have decided on secular or external accreditation, we have no choice except to adopt what in secular academics is “good academic practice” – competitive grading, rigid rules, penalties, success for 41% and failure for 39%. If not accredited, we are still under pressure to demonstrate that we are as rigorous as the others in this area and so still apply the secular standards.

There are no easy answers to this, it is the age old question of how far we contextualise into the prevailing culture which, in this case is higher education’s “quality assurance” patterns. Yet, maybe we have, in doing this, made ourselves inconsistent and negated the integration for which we strive. How can we alleviate this schizophrenia at the heart of theological education?

  1. Apply the rules pastorally. If a student has a rich daddy and so can spend all his time on study, and he asks for a time extension for his essay submission, regard that as a different case to the young mother with two children who has to work to make ends meet when she asks for an extension. Some higher education systems write up those circumstances where an extension can be granted which deliberately exclude such compassion, on the basis of “fairness”!
  2. Teach pastorally. If a student finds essay writing or exams easy, the tutor will only need a few sessions to help her to a good result. If a student is struggling to make the grade, invest much more time with him to get him to the level. Once again, there are higher education systems which ban this good teaching practice.
  3. Mark pastorally. Now this is dangerous but not impossible. Marking is not an exact science except for multiple choice questions. Different people mark essays differently, we mark the same essay differently if we have just had a cup of coffee (or not). No-one can justify the difference between 49 and 50 for an essay. So there is always an acceptable band containing a number of marks which we could stand over academically.  For a student to need 50% to continue and for us to give 49% may be an act devoid of Christian compassion. Conceptual marking makes this more difficult, of course.

Christian theological educators need to act like Christians in every area of their work. To paraphrase a liberation theology slogan, don’t academics also have to love?

I would be grateful for your views.

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4 Comments on “Pastoral Academics”

  1. perryshaw Says:

    Graham, you have put your finger on a highly significant issue here. Thank you. I wonder if the “fitness of purpose” / “fitness for purpose” process could be brought into play, where we more strongly advocate to accrediting agencies for academic practices which serve our missional-ecclesial purpose. This should particularly be the case where the primary accreditation is through a Christian agency, but I also wonder whether we can be more proactive with secular agencies – especially in light of the growing body of literature which questions traditional instructional and assessment practices.

  2. Drew Gibson Says:

    I’m with you on all of this, Graham, except for conceptual equivalents. I like them a lot and am happy to think of them pastorally as well as academically. Perhaps Practical Theology is an easier place to be than, say, Biblical languages – it’s either a present indicative active or it isn’t. A pastoral heart can communicate itself in an essay, and especially in a journal, and I believe that I can reward this in my grading. Of course, marking, ‘in love’, (in the Pauline rather than the romantic sense!) is perilous and is maybe best done corporately. It is all too easy to warm to the nice kid in difficult circumstances and not warm quite so much to the nasty kid in more difficult circumstances. Good colleagues and a wise External Examiner are worth their weight in gold.


  3. Thanks Dr Graham for your usual insightful posts. It is important to enforce academic standards because a person holding a degree from a theological institution needs to be able to defend it. At the same time, a person does not need to score an ‘A’, say in systematic theology, to be a good minister. On the other hand, bearing in mind our pastoral role is important because sometimes those who fail to excel in academics go on to excel in ministry and you don’t want it to be the 1 mark you fail to add to 39 that makes it impossible for someone to find their place in God’s programme. No easy answers, anyway, but a balancing act we must pray to master.

  4. Phil Thomas Says:

    I agree, but is there a danger that appealing to Christian ‘compassion’ allows us to pass people we shouldn’t, because it makes us feel good? If a student turns in consistently good work and then a piece that feels slapdash and hurried, which doesn’t quite make the grade, then should we fail them even if another student, whose work is more marginal in general would be passed for the same piece?


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