Contextualisation; a little test

Posted June 27, 2018 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Contextualisation; a little test.

I wonder if it is widely known that the word contextualisation was first popularised not in mission studies but as a marker of good theological education.

Under the third mandate of the Theological Education Fund led by Shoki Coe from 1970 to 1977, contextualisation, a very new concept at the time, became the criteria for the fund’s financial support of colleges and seminaries especially in the developing world. The root of the issue for the TEF was ensuring that the college, seminary or training scheme is relevant to the context it is serving and not foreign in perpetuating external attitudes, is locally sustainable, and is not just answering problems and questions from outside the context.

I doubt if there is a college, or seminary today which does not aspire to being contextual. It has become such a widely used label that it has often come to mean very little. But what was its original use?

The Theological Education Fund proposed that there should be four levels of contextualisation in theological education: 1) theological – asking if theology is done as a task of relating the gospel to the context issues in ministry and culture; 2) structural – asking if the structure of a college or a programme conforms to social and economic patterns of context; 3) pedagogical – asking if the educational process is reflecting local patterns, is liberating or is reinforcing elitism in ministry and whether it bridges the gap between the academic and the practical; 4) missiological – asking if the college or programme focuses on the task of mission, including renewal and reform in the churches, and the issues of human development and justice in society (Lienemann-Perrin, 1980: Training for a Relevant Ministry; a Study of the Contribution of the Theological Education Fund, 175).

This taxonomy of contextual theological education is by no means perfect but it does provide us with a little test; How does our school measure up in these four categories? If we scored our college or seminary from one to ten in each of the categories, which would come out top and which bottom?

I suspect the answer would vary greatly depending on whether we took a geographical or historical viewpoint.

A local church will often advise its foreign missionaries to plant contextual churches that relate to the local culture but omit to notice that they back home were formed and continue to exist in the culture of a previous generation and so are not, as a church, contextual to their own contemporary culture.

In the same way, theological schools can live within the culture of the past in which they were formed and so not relate contextually to their own contemporary world or church. There are plenty of colleges which teach contextualisation enthusiastically to their students who are going “overseas” on mission but are not contextual themselves in the four categories of the TEF. They sometimes answer outdated questions, teach in outdated patterns, structure themselves in outdated unsustainable forms and relate to a previous culture’s and previous church’s needs.

Of course, there is more to good theological education than contextualisation but you cannot have good theological education without it.


Faculty development

Posted June 1, 2018 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

Faculty development

Towards the end of an academic year, teaching staff are arranging with their principal or academic dean a time for their appraisal/encouragement interview. When it comes, the interview and the resultant development plan is usually far too narrow and often not based on good theological education theory.

Generally, faculty development is discussed mostly within the academic area of the job but this goes against what is surely incontrovertible; that the development we want to see in our students should be the development we strive for as a faculty member. Why it is called development when we talk about teachers and formation when we talk about students is a mystery but the greatest power to form students comes from teachers who are formed in the same way and act as living examples. My argument is simply that we should be linking more closely what we want for our students and what we want for our teachers.

Staff development therefore is all about progression in the four main areas we often talk about with our students regarding their formation; academics, spirituality/character formation, ministry, and contribution to the community (being a loving, peaceful, vital member of the team) – along with one life which integrates them all.

In our appraisals, the academic area is often well covered with discussion of student feedback, how they consider the teaching has gone that year, future academic plans, publications, personal, assessment of where they are and where they are going academically, conferences, sabbaticals and so on.

The spiritual/character side is rarely mentioned except encouraging teachers to attend chapel if necessary. It is not easy to talk to staff about their spiritual lives, but a pastorally caring leader will do so and gently encourage growth. Retreats, literature, prayer, spiritual disciplines can all be mentioned. Feeling inadequate, angers, anxieties and other problems can sometimes have spiritual roots and so can be helped by spiritual attitude changes.

Ministry wise, Professional development in the theory and practice of teaching and learning is important; the development of a sense of call to the ministry of teaching in theological education also. The teacher can also develop in how he or she sees their job as fundamentally ministry to the students and the church as a whole. James’ saying that not many of us should be teachers because we will be judged with greater strictness could also be discussed (James 3v1) and how that affects us, teaching in the presence of God.

And loving engagement with others in the community is surely important as an issue for the conversation. How does the teacher’s sense of calling match the sense of calling of the seminary or college? How has the teacher shown love and encouragement to other staff? How has the teacher contributed to the example the staff set the students, of working together in harmony for the kingdom?

It is not an easy task being a teacher in theological education and much of an appraisal interview should be encouraging and positive, full of thanks and appreciation. The necessary task of modelling the sort of formation we want for the students is an especially hard ask; but I do not see how we can ask for less.

Or talk about less in a realistic appraisal interview.


Posted April 27, 2018 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


For many in theological education this is the time of year approaching graduation and planning for the day’s celebrations. But what is it all about and is it created more by tradition than careful thought? The problem is that there is no one intention for graduation, it is more like a cake made up of a number of ingredients. Here are a few;

Global higher education culture.

This is why we use gowns and sometimes academic hats, receive certificates from someone special with handshakes and photos just like in the local university graduation. And it is OK. We have chosen this particular contextualisation, as Christ chose his contextualisation into the current educational system in calling himself a rabbi. But, as with any contextualisation there is the danger of allowing the context to swamp other things which are just as, or even more, important. A theological education graduation is not just a higher education graduation.

Biblical attitudes

Scripture would like us to understand the relationship, even tension, between achievement and humility; to temper congratulating students with thanking God. Graduation is a record of what has happened spiritually as well as academically over the period of the course. We record with thanks the Christian community in which we lived because graduation marks the dissolving of that community. So, it is not just an academic liminal moment, it is a spiritual liminal moment for our students; a moment of worship and thanks to God looking back and a moment of re-dedication to Christ and His cause in the world into which the students step forward.

Student celebration

You will have noticed with students that they “just want to have fun” as the song goes. And why not? Celebration is a biblical theme and young people need to be able to do it in their way, as young people, as young people in a particular culture, as young people in a contemporary societal setting. And why only in the party or barbeque afterwards? Graduation belongs to them. This speaks of an ever changing, evolving graduation, not one which is dominated by tradition and the solemn moment. It speaks of a graduation which is planned by students as well as staff, of open-ness to newness and the creation of contemporary celebration. Let them have fun!

Church expectations

The churches and mission societies are often targeted by graduation planners. Graduation becomes a showcase for the college or seminary. But what is The Church interested in? It is interested more in beginnings than endings, how these students will live and minister back in the churches or away on mission. Church elders will clap for a student who is given the prize in Greek exegesis but will be much more interested in that student’s character and spirituality and whether he or she is a gentle person who gets on well with co-workers and fellow Christians. The importance of this also needs to be an ingredient of graduation.

A theological education graduation is a glorious but also complicated event and needs thinking. Please don’t just get out last year’s order of service; blending the cake mixture needs care if you want a great cake, and enjoy eating it.

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”.

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.


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.


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


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.

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