Newspapers and theological education

Posted January 30, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Newspapers and theological education

Finlay Peter Dunne’s character “Mr Dooley” is reputed to have said the following

 “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

He didn’t quite say it like that but this is the way Gene Kelly quoted it in his film Inherit the Wind and it has been remembered this way ever since.

It seems to me that this is a good description of the task of theological colleges and seminaries.

We have afflicted students who need to be comforted. More and more, students are coming to us out of a broken society with stresses, problems and difficulties. We are not hospitals and cannot accept candidates primarily so we can straighten them out. However, my experience is sometimes (certainly not always) time invested in helping such students mature and change creates servants of God who learn to cope with their own wounds and weaknesses and do a good job for the kingdom.

And theological education does its part in afflicting students. In 2008, Barbara Walvoord wrote up a fascinating analysis of first year students in religion and theology courses (Blackwell). It describes the coping mechanisms Christian students employ when faced with critical thinking patterns in theology and Biblical Studies for the first time. Intense Christian community has been known also to be a burden. Expectations seemingly beyond the capabilities of the student in their lower moods, are destructive. Unless the right comfort is offered at key points, our colleges and seminaries can be bad for the spiritual and mental health of some of our students.

We also have comfortable students who need to be afflicted. Sometimes, students come to us to do their first degree, from comfortable middle class backgrounds. They attend our chapel services where they sing warmly, sometimes with their hands in the air, words and phrases of total love and devotion to God, write essays for us on mission and Christ’s sacrifice, feel the emotion but do not end up doing the deeds. We send them on placements overseas and when they come back, we ask them if they enjoyed their time.

Words of affliction are quite in order in our job, challenging a culture and set of attitudes that need to be reformed in the minds and hearts of our some of students. It is all about implications. Maybe we have forgotten the tough implications of what we teach – the work of Christ, the claims of God, the command of mission. Maybe we are more comfortable expounding the exegetical problems of a text than letting it hit us between the eyes in its implications for our lives.

As you know, student bodies are often a mixed bag. There is no blanket task of comfort or affliction. The discernment of when to comfort and when to afflict is a needed gift. It speaks of the dual duty we have as theological educators of lecturing a class and also building relationships with students where these things can be discerned one to one.

In this respect, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, colleges and seminaries are like the best newspapers.


A significant year

Posted January 1, 2017 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


The significance of 2016

Significance is a slippery concept with varied definitions. For me, in the context of my calling as a theological educator, it refers to the judgment that last year, my life has not been entirely in vain.

For the theological educator, significance includes (although is not exhausted by) usefulness to God and others and so can be looked for and rejoiced in, with a careful eye to its occupational hazard, pride. It must, however, always be distinguished from importance which has a reference to the opinions of others. J.B. Philips’ translation of Galatians 6v4 puts it well.

“Let every man learn to assess properly the value of his own work and he can then be glad when he has done something worth doing without depending on the approval of others”.

It is right therefore to look back on students helped – and sometimes inspired – to understand things well, to live well for God, and the ripples of hopefully good influence which progress outward as those students  will influence others when they pass into forms of ministry in the future. This is a comfort and a cause of celebration for us at the end of the year.

It is also a joy to look back on staff relations, how not only have we been helped by the fellowship and inspiration of colleagues but we have hopefully been a bit of a help to them. Getting through their day has been easier because of us, maybe; seeing something new of theology, or the love of God in us has been a warming of their minds and hearts.

There has probably been some progress in our personal writing and studying – never as much as we hoped for or wanted, that is par for the course – but progress none the less. Hopefully there have been times when there has been joy in life and pleasure in the presence of God related to our work.

It has not been a good year for all who read this post and there have been disappointments for us all. I hope very few theological educators reading this post would use the title of Osborne’s notorious play to describe 2016 – “look back in anger”. Yet many may well have a tendency to look back in disappointment, driven by the constant words in our ear “must do better” planted there by decades of negative ministry received.

That is for another time, but on this first day of 2017, raise a glass to 2016, a significant year in our lives as theological educators, and let us be thankful.

Making Wine

Posted December 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Making Wine

So many passages of scripture have been used to illustrate key issues in theological education but Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana is hard to beat. How so?

Firstly, we should not forget the simplest interpretation of the act of Jesus. He saw a young couple caught in a bit of a social mess, the wine had run out, so he stepped in to make sure that the wedding went smoothly for them. That little act of compassion is described by John as Jesus showing his glory.

For us as theological educators, showing our glory is usually more about demonstrating our cleverness, the books we have read, the degrees and awards we have gained. But we best show our glory in the little ways we help students who are in a bit of a mess and need a hand with this essay or understanding that issue. Students understand this.

Secondly, the central act of Jesus turning water into wine is used by John to illustrate the new order of the messiah. The water pots were for the old ritual cleansing, the way of rules and regulations. Jesus turned their contents into wine, the symbol throughout scripture of Joy. We are to ask for our daily bread but Christ gives more, “wine that makes glad the heart of man”.

How we need to escape from the attitude that we are mainly there to enforce the regulations of learning and assessing and see our role as a Christian teacher instead as the bringer of joy to our students, by what and how we teach and who we are. We turn boring water into joyful wine. It’s what we do.

Thirdly, there is an instructive use of this story in Bernard of Clairvaux. He is writing on community in monastic foundations and says that we may do everything we can to create Christian community but it will never be enough. We still need the touch of Christ to turn the water of our efforts into the wine of true Christian community.

That is true of the communities of our colleges and seminaries. Indeed, it is true of all our efforts in theological education. Working hard to fill the water pots is important; praying for Christ to turn our carefully gathered water into the joyful wine of the Spirit in the hearts of all those in the college community is vital.

So, to paraphrase the apostle, let us take a little “wine” for our student’s sake.

Values shapers

Posted October 27, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Values shapers

Education – and so theological education – has undergone a pendulum swing, from a view of the teacher as provider of material to students in a lecture, to a companion on the student’s own journey into knowing and understanding. The famous shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.

This movement from an emphasis on teaching to an emphasis on learning has generally been healthy. However, it has left a large middle ground between the two pictures of the teacher which has been largely un-explored. And this is a great pity since it is this middle ground – more confident of our central role than the guide on the side, and more relational than the sage on the stage – where we do our most good.

What occupies this key central ground? There are plenty of issues to explore here but one important matter is the shaping of the student’s values. I use the word “values” in the way anthropologists such as Paul Hiebert use it, the basic positions (including deep emotions) we possess, the fundamental attitudes to life, the way we ascribe relative worth to things. It is in being a tool of the Holy Spirit for the shaping of these values that we truly educate and so fulfil our ministry calling as theological educators.

What values? Nouwen has a clear answer to this question. Theological education for him is to help the students to have as central values, the love of the Lord their God with all their heart, soul mind and strength and the love of their neighbour as themselves. But as we come to this question, so we arrive at the influence of our own unique person on the students so, let me list from my own perspective, a few basic values (I have more and you may have others) to be shaped and honed in our students by our teaching and life:

  1. The vital importance of clear, careful and right thinking; that oratory and commitment are no proof of correct views but we must be committed to real study, fair exegesis and reasonable thought processes. This is as important for ministry and spirituality as for academics.
  2. The fundamental nature of a true, nurtured, relationship with God in prayer and worship for academic study of theology and scripture and for serving God in this world.
  3. The Christian commits to finding their calling before God and bases their life on fulfilling it for His sake.
  4. The unity and rich fellowship of all believers under the fundamentals of gospel faith (which Tozer says are “blessedly few”) is a goal for which to strive.
  5. Redemption does not make us less human but human as humans should be, so fun, joy, feasting, friendship and romance, indeed all of creation, are gifts from God to be enjoyed.

Old fashioned lectures can be wonderful experiences; walking with students through their journey into more understanding can be greatly enjoyable and profitable. But in both these activities and in many other ways (which include our own lives), helping to shape the deep life values of our students will probably prove the most influential thing we do.

The sage on the stage and the guide on the side has also to be the builder in the heart.

Praying in two ways

Posted October 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Praying in two ways

Theological educators have a tendency to relate their prayer life to their job, and this is understandable.

We often spend our individual prayer time in our study with the tools of our trade around us and planning the tasks of the day. And anyway, our job is our calling and a large part of our discipleship. It tends to suck in much of the rest of our life including our prayer. It may however be better to think of our prayer life as teachers as having two centres, like an ellipse which revolves around twin foci to create one whole figure;

  1. For the work

Petitionary prayer for the task and the day is invited by our Father. Often planning the day quietly in His presence takes place as a great request that we will be useful to Him and our students that day. It is a sign of dependence when we pray in this way, an acknowledgement that it is ministry, spiritual work and we cannot achieve student transformation on our own. It is also part of every ministry that the minister prays for those he ministers to and so holding up our students before God is all part of the job.

  1. Not for the work

And yet we are not just theological educators, we are God’s children first and this relationship can and should stand on its own regardless of our work. We are also often husbands, wives, parents and have a multi-various life before God. Yet even for our work, to create, sustain and grow something between us and God, a relationship into which we can invite our students is fundamental to our task. There has to be an internal fire tended (to use Nouwen’s phrase) if we are to spiritually warm our students. We cannot speak simply academically about spiritual formation. Surely this is the more fundamental focus of the two.

So, leaving the study for a walk in new surroundings while you pray, reading yourself into an incident with Jesus in the gospels, using an old prayer from a godly person of church history, enjoying a thought or memory in the presence of God, picking up a book by a trusted devotional writer, thinking on an attribute of God; we can learn our own ways of re-focussing on God himself.

Now, at this point I am very conscious of writing like a lecturer, making distinctions and sub-headings as if we understand issues by cutting them up into pieces. Prayer is complicated and mysterious and how often these two elements blend into one.

But maybe pulling them apart for a short while has been useful to a few readers.



Posted September 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized



Should we be anxious for the future of theological education?

For me, the anxiety comes from a growing feeling that, in certain areas and in certain ways, we are losing the ability to define or even circumscribe our calling. We are being blown about, and sometimes off track, by strong winds. Here are five of them;

The contextualisation of theological education into the academic enterprise of society continues apace. Of course we must contextualise into the educational patterns of the day but contextualisation is a two-edged sword and must include judgement on the academic culture and saying no where it is necessary to preserve the essence of our calling. There is not much “saying no” going on these days and an atmosphere of attitudes is often created which does not reflect our intent.

Globalisation also sometimes exceeds its validity. Western patterns of delivery now tend to dominate and determine what is regarded as excellent in theological education for the rest of the world. Globalisation is upon us and cannot be held back as King Canute tried to hold back the tide, but the structure of a teaching organisation, the teaching methodology, the assessment and quality control processes, in a specific place can be worse for being western. Must quality assurance be the same in Asbury, Amman and Abuja, enforced by the same kind of dean?

Educational skills are taking a more prominent position on the theological education stage. and enthusiasm for the tools, conferences and courses is increasing. This is right; we are educators, and the more educational skills we can learn, the better for our students. The more we can excel in our subject areas, the better for the college. But lecturers are increasingly thinking of themselves less as Christian ministers and more as educationalists. Ultimately we are God’s gift to the Church to exercise our ministry of teaching.

Money decides so many things these days. In some ways it always has. Many colleges and seminaries today are working on the edge of solvency. New models of delivery are beginning to emerge. Courses which appeal to a wider group of potential students are being used. It is good that we have skilled businessmen on our boards. And yet, in the current financial storms, decisions are sometimes made that are not so much controlled by our mission as by the balance sheet.

Loving corporate vision. It seems that teaching (and support) staff are finding it increasingly hard to unite in a common purpose and create a loving community of learning, maybe blown about by an unwarranted individualism in society and our Christianity. Not everywhere by any means, but in some places, we can see disputes and grudging fellowship, vigorous advocacy for individual agendas, even sometimes parties forming within staff. It is no way to model co-operative Christian service to students.

But let Paul have the last word. “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

I have a dream

Posted August 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


I have a dream

It was another staff meeting. We had dealt with a few new issues of our accreditation, worked on the brief for the modifications to the virtual learning environment and were discussing credit hours for non-formal and informal education activities. My eyes closed and my head slipped downwards…..

I was sitting at a blazing fire on the beach in the evening with my students. We ate together (of course), sang a bit, talked about this and that and then one asked me “What did you mean when you said in the lecture that the only task of the Christian is to learn to love?” They gathered round.

We talked of the theology of love and what it means to let our love be directed by our theology and our theology by our love. One asked what it means to love the world and yet not love the world.

We got on to relationships and friendships and just how complicated and rich it is to love one person all your life in marriage. The students were mostly young people on the cusp of maturity, responsibility, and a life well spent and they wanted to know what all this meant.

Then we talked about how messy love can be in a local church and, indeed what it means to love The Church, to have a love as wide as God’s for all his Church. We discussed how hard it is to love oneself as well as one’s neighbour – but how important it is.

The fire was reducing down to a quiet glow by now but they wanted more. They wanted to discuss what it means to have a love for God as the controller of all the other little loves; how to love God in prayer, in worship and in service and they wanted to know how that worked out in my life with all my strengths and weaknesses, times of usefulness and silly mistakes…….

Someone touched me on my arm and I woke up with a start. The academic dean was now talking about modifications to the marking scheme for third year dissertations. “Sorry, did I startle you?” my colleague whispered.

I stifled a long sigh and picked up my pen.

(With many thanks for the important work academic deans and directors of studies do for us all, making possible our teaching.)

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