Why Re-Invent Theological Field Education?

interview with Steven Chambers

What is Theological Field Education?
Theological Field Education (TFE) is a component in Vancouver School of Theology’s leadership degrees — the Master of Divinity and the Master of Art in Public and Pastoral Leadership. It’s the place in the curriculum where the in-class more academically oriented course work is put together with a student’s experience in the field of ministry or community leadership. Students engage in the practice of ministry with a supervisor, in a community of faith, or in a community organization. TFE is a conversation in two modes: engaging in the work of ministry and leadership, and reflecting on it – thinking about it, often writing about it, and engaging it theologically, personally, spiritually, in prayer.

At VST we add another piece to field education, The Studio. Students who are engaged in a field site during the same semester come together in The Studio class for further reflection and learning. They’re experiencing it out in the field, with a mentor, and now in the classroom with their peers. We call it The Studio because it’s a place where we can explore the “art of ministry.” It is a messy place. It is a confusing place. At times, it is a place where students can be creative. A place where they can talk about what’s difficult and challenging and complicated, engaging one another and faculty and really go deep into some of the issues that they’ve experienced out in the field.

One of our field education programs for MDiv students is focused on what the denominations are looking for in leaders. We call it, The Practice. Learning goals that students develop in The Practice are derived out of what the expectations, hopes, and guidelines are from the student’s particular tradition or denomination.

We have a very robust program of field education. We require about 400 hours in the field, which is significantly more than many theological schools require.

Why is Field Education so Important?
That’s a good question. Why couldn’t one become a minister by just being in a classroom, learning about the Bible, about theological ideas and the history of religion?

Well, I think the reality is that ministry is with people. It’s about relationships, about engaging with others, in their lives and their concerns and their desire to make meaning. And so, for me, a ministry leader needs to engage in the practice of ministry. But that’s only part of it. A very significant other part is to reflect on the practice of ministry. To think about it, to engage in conversation with another person about it. Reflecting is an important dynamic within field education. That’s why we have The Studio component in the curriculum – there is more reflective time, more thinking time, more wondering time. Many students come with a lot of experience. Maybe they’ve been a social worker, maybe a teacher or in one of the health care fields, most likely working with people.

Ministry is a bit different than all of these professions, maybe even a lot different in some respects. They’re working with people in a way that calls for this kind of reflection that can lead to meaning-making, wholeness, and new ways of being in the world.

Why Re-invent Theological Field Education?
Theological Field Education is important. We continually reflect on how it’s going, how students are learning, and how we can improve. That’s one part of it.

But why now?

One of the things that has caused us to think about it right now is the enormous sense of change that’s taking place in organizations and institutions, broadly. If we thought there was an emerging change before the pandemic, COVID-19 brought an even greater and more significant change in so many ways. It has caused us to really think about how organizations work, how leaders work with them, how ministry will happen in very real and specific ways, and how the church will be the church going forward, post pandemic. I think one of the things that’s driving our need to reflect deeply on VST’s field education program is this current context of acute change.

VST has strong historic partners, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada. VST has other partners as well that are growing in significant and exciting ways. What we really want to keep in our mind, is that VST is preparing leaders for all those partners. We’ve developed something called an Ecology of Partnerships with consultant, Tony Robinson. It’s a circle of relationships that we want to make sure is a part of the rethinking and re-engineering that we’re doing with the theological field education curriculum and program. It’s an ecology of five relationships: the student, the school, the partners, the pastoral leaders within those partners, and the field sites (congregations and agencies). We want to make sure that all five of those participants are engaging and learning from one another in as many ways possible.

We’re doing a lot of consultation with these partners. We really want to know, for example, from the historic denominations, what are they seeing right now, what are their needs for leadership, and what’s the most important thing they’re looking for? At times there’s been tension between the churches and theological schools. The schools develop and deliver a particular curriculum, and the churches receive that curriculum through graduating students. Everyone stays in their lane. Well, that’s an older, outdated model for these times.

We want to make sure that there’s more of a relationship, where each part of this Ecology of Partnerships understands the needs of one another. We’re trying to really keep that at the front of our mind as we redevelop the program. We want to build it into something that will be new and robust, and very engaging for the students.

VST graduating students express significant appreciation for their theological field education experience. For many of them it’s memorable. TFE makes an impression, and they carry it with them in a very significant way. We want to ensure that focus and emphasis. In fact, we want to enhance the experience. To make sure the students are bringing all of the wisdom, experience and reflection from their other courses

into the crucible that is TFE. And they’re going to walk out of here saying, “That was really put together for me in such a way that I feel prepared, I feel confident to go into the leadership position to which I’m called.”

How does TFE Impact Students as They Go into Ministry?
I think of my own experience in field education. It was a long time ago, over 40 years now. I participated in an 11-month internship between my second and third year during my Master of Divinity degree. I went to a southern Manitoba parish that had five churches in different small towns. We had one team of ministers: two students (one of them being myself), two ordained ministers, and one diaconal minister. I have continued to experience the impact of those 11 months throughout 40 years of ministry. We learned how to work with different colleagues, with different categories of ministry, and in different contexts. We served five congregations; each one different, and our team had to learn how to work with each one and with each other.

What I hope for students who leave VST is that they will have a meaningful and memorable experience in their field site; that they’ve reflected on their experience with a supervisor and with peers; and that they will carry that forward in their leadership experience for many years to come. That’s what I hope. That’s why we want to get the Ecology of Partnerships working in a really active and engaging way, so that we’re helping the students to experience what the churches are identifying as what’s real and important for them. That’s what we’re hoping to do.

The Rev. Dr. Steven Chambers, a minister of The United Church of Canada for over thirty years, is currently partly retired, partly doing a bit of work in ministry that calls to him, and partly co-parenting two teenage daughters. His current research interest is in the area of ecclesiology, specifically the history and development of ministry in the United Church.