The Covenant

Posted March 1, 2016 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


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


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


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


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


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.

Teaching your students to dance

Posted October 1, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized


Teaching your students to dance

Many theological teachers would admit to having two left feet when it comes to dancing but bear with me a little. It is not easy to find an analogy for the practice of teaching that combines a delivery of the understanding necessary in a subject with the relational and creative elements we want for our students. What about dancing?

Creativity within structure

Every dance whether it be a waltz, a jive or something more often seen in clubs, has a basic structure which has to be taught. This is provided by the particular music which underlies that particular dance, the standard moves, the understanding of the nature and the history of the dance (especially important in dances like the tango). This is similar to theological subjects such as Old Testament, Missiology, Doctrine, Pastoral Studies and so on. There is a basic agreed structure and history that the student has to know and within which (usually) discussion takes place. There is the “music” of the discipline and we have to teach it.

Yet, as with dancing, it does not stop there. A good dancer, working with the music and the structure becomes creative and exciting in his or her interpretation. A good dance tutor, or a good theology teacher, needs to encourage that creativity within structure, a fresh critical negotiation with the history and the interpretation.

Individuality within relationship

Not all, but most dances take place between two people, especially classical dances, but in certain ways in freer dances also. There is therefore in most dance situations, a relational element as there is in teaching. In some dances this is a leading and a following and in others, the relationship is more equal. But one person must not stifle the individuality of the other. There are times in hold and times out of hold when each dances free from the other.

This blog has often talked about the type of relationship which needs to be present in a classroom for good theological education to take place. Like dance, it has to have elements of leading and following, but not to stifle individuality or impose yourself or your views rigidly on students. They must be encouraged to dance free, to study and think individually, enjoy the subject as a separate scholar.

So, whether you can dance or not, maybe you should see your classroom a bit like a dance studio. Teach the structure, create the music, provide the relationship but encourage your students to go “out of hold” and be creative in the dance of theology.

And if you are still not sure about all this, go out and do some dancing yourself, like theology, it is fun.

Walking Through the Library to the Chapel

Posted August 22, 2015 by Graham Cheesman
Categories: Uncategorized

library to chapel

Walking Through the Library to the Chapel

There is a spirituality not consciously based on academic work and it deserves our respect. How can we look down on Francis of Assisi, Thomas A Kempis or even some of our own students who will have read less than us but are closer to the Lord?

However, one important job of the theological educator is to provide a solid theological and biblical basis for the spirituality of ourselves and our students. Why?

  1. It lays a reliable basis for the Christian life. The myths, evangelical mantras and simple untruths by which so many of us have tried to live as Christians need exposure by careful study. The publishing trade seems to work on the basis that only good scholars can write commentaries on scripture but anyone can write a book on the Christian life.
  2. The study of theology, especially historical theology and church history, locates the Christian in the great sweep of historical thinking and variety of the Church. It provides a sense of belonging to all of God’s people. It gives us a richness as we learn godliness from those different from ourselves but equally committed to God in Christ.
  3. Broad and deep knowledge of scripture and theology creates balance. For instance, to those bought up on a surfeit of guilt as the most important Christian emotion, it comes as a blessed relief to see that the Bible and the history of its interpretation has as much to say to the Christian about love, comfort and joy.
  4. It is the basis for rich worship. Initially, a loving marriage is high on emotion and low on knowledge. As the years go by, the knowledge of the other person increases and can make the love richer and deeper. Knowledge of God enriches and deepens love to God. Of course, there are some who know a great deal but love little. They have just missed a wonderful opportunity.
  5. Study gives perspective. Christians are so often encouraged to concentrate on “the sins of the times” and “the issues of the day”. Unfortunately this is sometimes to the neglect of the great eternal issues of Christ, the Gospel, the mission of God, faith and love. Indeed sometimes we get so carried away with responding to the current issues that we do so in a way that damages the eternal ones. Study restores a biblical and historical perspective.
  6. Learning opens up scripture. “What does this passage say to me?” is the second question. The first question is “What does this passage say?” And with some passages, that is not at all easy to determine without knowledge of the culture of the time, the whole pattern of scripture and sometimes a reasonable knowledge of the original languages. How can you dig up treasure without a spade? How can you expound all scripture without the tools?

To engage in deep and effective academic study of bible, theology and related disciplines is not an alternative to spirituality, it is the best basis for spirituality. Our students will need to lay this foundation for others in their ministry. We need to lay this foundation for them.

Take them for a walk through the library on the way to the chapel.

PS. This post is coming early to allow me to take a much looked for holiday before the new academic year begins.

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