Liminal Students

Posted May 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

liminal

Liminal students

One of the fundamental foundations of good theological education is to understand your students and for most students, this means taking account of their liminality.

The adjective “liminal” comes from the Latin limen which means threshold. It was popularised by Turner in anthropological studies and, from there crept into sociology and then general usage. It signifies a state or position a person is in who has transitioned from a previous state and has not yet fully transitioned to a new state, position or status. In Turner’s words, it is “a mid-point of transition”.

Many of our students are in that position. They are leaving behind something and progressing to something new by their studies. They are liminal people while they are with us and will often look back on their time with us as a turning point in their lives.

It used to be a rare thing for colleges to accept students straight from secondary school but this is more and more common today as accredited degrees are offered. Such students are classic liminal people, no longer school children but not yet what they will be when they finish college or university. Increasingly students also come to us after some years in a job or profession, seeking to be equipped for a new situation, position or way of serving God. These are more settled in their life but are also liminal.

What are the usual characteristics of liminal people?

Firstly, liminal people experience excitement but often also emotional insecurity. The excitement is palpable at the beginning of a new year in most colleges. However, for our students it is not just that the past is receding (often with as much sense of loss as excitement), but even more, that the future after college is uncertain in many cases. Thresholds create insecurity which needs plenty of understanding, gentleness, acceptance, advice and mentoring

Secondly, liminal people are in a difficult position socially. As our students transition between patterns of biblical teaching usually found in our churches to a deeper and more thoughtful engagement with scripture, for instance; or as they transition from a church situation which generally lumps together the fundamental and the secondary issues of faith and practice, without distinction between the resurrection and a particular set of beliefs about ministry, for instance; they have to manage a continuing allegiance to what was before alongside the new attitudes, and struggle to continue a sense of belonging.

Thirdly, liminal people are especially open to intellectual newness. Just as refugees or economic migrants to cities are initially more open to the Christian Gospel, so our liminal students are often intellectually open, looking for new holds on reality, new patterns of thinking and living, new heroes, (although some remain closed). Our responsibility to such students is as immense as the opportunity they afford. We need to help them understand what is happening to them, to be careful, bold and pastoral with the truth, to be the example of the end of their transition -especially if that transition is into ministry.

Fundamentally, it is a theological opportunity we are faced with in all this. In their liminal state, we must help students construct a theology that helps them understand their faith, holds their allegiance to the Church, creates an intellectual pattern for their future life and guides them as they re-construct how to live, think, laugh and cry, and serve God in the exciting and new future they anticipate.

The Walking Stick Principle

Posted April 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

walking stick

The walking stick principle.

The tendency in theological education is towards greater and greater specialisation. A typical college has teachers who only operates in Old Testament, or Mission or Theology. That’s a pity because there is mission in the Old Testament, Theology in Mission, and Old Testament in both. But the classes they teach, the conferences they go to and the books and journals they read, are separate.

It was not always so. Many of the greats of the past were comfortable in a wide range of disciplines within the theology umbrella. A Calvin or Augustine would have seen it as a scandal if a theologian was not also a biblical scholar and a philosopher, for instance, – or more likely would not be able to comprehend the difference. Now these men had bigger minds than us and were dealing with a smaller overall body of knowledge but that does not reduce the disappointment that we do not have renaissance scholars any more.

When I first arrived in Nigeria as a missionary lecturer, I had just completed a masters in historical theology and, as the youngest and newest, was given Old Testament history and New Testament Greek to teach. I am not sure how much the students benefitted but I gained a great deal. As they say, if you wish to learn, teach.

Which brings me to the walking stick of the title. A walking stick is a way of turning a hand into a third foot. When there is rough going, or when one foot is weak, it is a sensible choice. The hand is gifted differently from the foot but the circumstances, not the gifting, dictate the best usage.

So, don’t be too precious about your particular gifts or your particular training or your particular knowledge base. It’s a little cold out there away from your natural home but, if you venture out, you get to see new places and return richer. And academic deans need to feel a certain freedom in allocating courses as much for the sake of the teacher as for the sake of the school.

A definition of an educated man I learnt many years ago was someone who knows something about everything and everything about something. So, in complete opposition to our rush to be known in a smaller field, the more we simply specialise the less we are educated.

So, step outside your theological ghetto now and then, read a book written by someone from a different theological tribe, have the courage to go to a conference of theological strangers, be willing to teach beyond your borders.

Get an education.

The Covenant

Posted March 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

rainbow

The Covenant

Learning contracts are becoming more important in higher education today.

This is partly driven by the current emphasis on the student learning rather than just the teacher teaching. Constructivism and reflective practice are concepts which require clearer definitions of the roles of the teacher and the learner. Such contracts can be individual, especially at postgraduate level, or for a class or cohort together. They are usually very practical and spell out what the student can expect from the teacher and what the teacher can expect from the student. They help to define the relationship between the two.

Are these useful in theological education? Of course. Clarity of the relationship and expectations between teacher and student is a good thing, whether written down in a course document, agreed in the first class together or put into a contract.

But is it a contract we want? A contract is fundamentally a business arrangement and surely we want more than that. And there are other problems. On the one hand they elevate the idea of the student as consumer, and the attendant growth of a sense of entitlement by the student. On the other hand, they emphasise the idea of the college/seminary as a business. Driven by forces within our contemporary societies, both of these are getting out of hand.

There is a more specifically Christian concept for this, the idea of covenant. Christians know about covenants; they are binding expressions of love. God had one with his Old Testament people and then a new one with us in Christ, renewed as we take bread and wine. Christian marriage is another expression of the same concept.

Covenant for the Christian then is the ultimate expression not of business, but love. Love, whether hesed or agape, is not primarily about emotions (although who has not become emotional at times about our teaching and those we teach?). It is about attitudes and deeds promised. We can see it as possessing three elements;

  1. A selfless preferring of the other, their happiness and development.
  2. The giving of yourself to the other in reality and open-ness.
  3. That these attitudes and actions do not depend on the attitudes and actions of the other, but are from grace.

It is the experience of teachers who see the relationship in this way that many students reciprocate with commitments of their own towards you. I don’t think we can put all this on paper into a learning contract, but we can see it as our fundamentally Christian way of relating to our students.

At the end of the day, theological education is not a business, it is an act of love.

Peppermint lipstick

Posted February 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

lipstick

Peppermint lipstick

In my youth, I knew a girl who wore peppermint flavoured lipstick. Now, once I had said this to my theology class, there were two types of knowing in the room; their knowing which was purely theoretical and my knowing which was both theoretical and experiential!

I think you already know where I am going on this. We live in an academic environment which promotes non-experiential theology, a sort of knowing that can be at arm’s length, that can pass exams and get high grades without the experience of the God who is known about. As theological educators we must promote by our teaching both types of knowing. Very few of us disagree with that.

Let us take this a stage further. What of those (admittedly foolish) male students who begin with the theoretical knowledge of the peppermint lipstick and then go on to ask their wives and girlfriends to wear it so they can experience what they know in theory? They have started with the theory and now want the experience (whether their wives and girlfriends will play along with this is, of course doubtful).

Surely it is our job to enable this transition in theology, to see that our lectures which introduce all sorts of theoretical ideas about God, also lead the student beyond the ideas and into a real experience of those ideas. So, for instance, the doctrine of the trinity as we teach it, is background theory to experience true prayer, saying “our Father” in the name of the Son and with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Or, what of my own case, having experienced the peppermint lipstick, I am now analysing it and thinking the experience through, even for the benefit of others! So, our task in theology is also to provide the link in the other direction, from experience to theory.

Perhaps this is the biggest task of all for theological educators. Our students come into college or seminary with an experience of God in Christ already, but it is not a considered experience, it needs to be thought through. What is the purpose of theology and biblical studies except to provide the explanatory framework for their experience? Faith seeking understanding?

So, if you want a good definition of what we do, it is to develop the relationship between theoretical knowledge and experiential knowledge of God in our students. All for the purpose of enabling them to do the same for others.

Of course, I could have used a much less interesting analogy than peppermint lipstick, but maybe then you would not have read this blog.

Two Talent Teachers

Posted January 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

talents

Two talent teachers

In the parable of the talents, three servants were given money “each according to their ability”.[1] There was a servant who was given one talent but did not make it work for the master. We rarely see such in theological education. There was another who was given five talents and there are such in theological education today; those who have un-usually high ability minds, or exceptional teaching gifts or very special personalities that make possible magnificent ease and usefulness with students. These also are rare.

In the parable, there was also the two talent servant and theological education has always succeeded because it is staffed mostly by these; teachers who are not exceptionally talented but do the job well, are sometimes more useful in more lives than the greatly gifted, and look to receive the “well done” from the master at the end. We are, most of us, in this category. So how do two-talent theological educators get the job done?

  1. By working hard.

A two talent teacher who works harder than a five talent teacher usually does more for God. There are limits to one’s strength but it is possible to work right up to those limits and do all you can.

  1. By learning our trade.

Take time to learn to do things well; know how to study carefully and deeply, learn how to teach for real transformation of students, understand the theory and practice of theological education, learn how to work with people.

  1. By concentrating our force.

I did a lot of maths at school and remember an excellent teacher showing us how (mathematically) Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar against a French fleet larger than his by dividing the French fleet and then concentrating all his force against each half successively. Two talent educators must concentrate their skills and energies, not spread themselves among many commitments, but do well the things they can do well.

  1. By working in relationship.

Others may have more to give, but the students receive little unless a good bridge is formed for it to travel across. Form the bridges of good relationships so all you have gets to all you teach and all you lead.

  1. By cultivating a sense of dependence on God.

And here you have the advantage over the five talent teacher. He or she has an endemic problem, a tendency to rely on their great gifts. You know you cannot do that and so need to pray and trust.

Ok, so in the end the five talent servant not the two talent servant gets the extra one talent, but both received the most important gifts, the “well done” and the “joy of their lord”. That should be enough.

[1] Matthew 25.14-30.

Leading Theological Education

Posted December 2, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

leading1

Leading Theological Education

In difficult times of external and internal pressures on seminaries and colleges, it is fundamentally important that they have good leaders.

The theory of leadership in theological education is not that difficult to set out; it is the practice that is so hard and complicated. But let us at least set out the theory. This is a personal view coming out of leadership in theological education in two continents and some primary and secondary research in the European situation.

There are five foundational relationships that the college or seminary leader, or better, leadership team, has to create, maintain and develop;

  1. with the vision

The clarity, appropriateness and endurance of a vision are fundamental for prosperity in any organisation, and so it is with us. The vision of a college can develop; it must match good theory and practice in theological education; it must be expressed relevantly in the contemporary situation. Developing, examining and expressing it anew however requires us to return to it and let it govern our practice.

  1. with the churches

A theological education institution is an extension of the churches and serves the churches in their ministry and mission. To serve requires us to be in a good relationship of trust with those we serve. Such trust is built on a common understanding of what teaching and training is all about and may need to be built partially by us listening genuinely to them and them knowing we are listening; partly by the college or seminary educating the churches and mission societies as to what they should ask of us; but always in humility and never losing close contact and mutual appreciation.

  1. with our students

Students generally come from a different generation and cultural frame from us as teachers and leaders, so again the task of listening and understanding is key if a gap is not to open up between them and the college leadership. Also important is setting before them often and well, the vision and ethos of the college, why it matters and how they should respond. In days where students are becoming consumers of education this is vital.

  1. with society

The “yes” of the churches and missions and the “yes” of the students is very important, but we are not islands un-touched by society, its ideas and requirements. Our colleges are little boats floating in the same sea as everyone else. The “yes” of society to us is also vital if we are to function. In particular, we cannot go back to the obscurantism of a rejection of the academic area but must develop a good relationship here also.

  1. with the staff

After all, who are the leaders leading but the staff? This relationship is based on a shared vision, on a knowledge of love and care as an attitude towards them and a blending of each one’s individual calling into the calling and vision of the college. Being human people, that is hard, being Christians, that is possible. But it is a large part of the work of a leader, patiently showing grace and good will, building trust, fighting fires and praying together. Leading people through relationship.

Global and local circumstances and movements outside the power of leaders to change, bear hard on any leadership situation today, it is a difficult job to steer the ship in choppy waters. Building and strengthening these five relationships is the goal. Working out how, with our own weaknesses and strengths, in our particular situation, is the messy leadership job we must do.

Pastoral Academics

Posted November 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

empowerment-small

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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