Things They Do Teach
When I first began as Director of Theological Field Education at VST I came across a social media site called: Things They Didn’t Teach Us In Seminary. I decided to follow the group, believing it would become a valuable source of insight for me, and other faculty, as we attempted a responsive and relevant curriculum. What I soon discovered were prolific posts suggesting that newly minted ministers felt inadequately prepared for all kinds of ministry and leadership situations. Given their self-identified deficiencies, I quickly concluded that there was no possible way to cover everything they were missing. It would be impossible to cover all ground and check off a laundry list of skills in one degree—especially with pressure to decrease credit hours and shorten degrees.
The temptation in the church and theological formation is to come up with lists of skills and characteristics to answer the question: how do we prepare leadership for the exercise of ministry?
My experience of students over the years is that some look forward to field education as part of their theological school formation. Others dread it. If we were keeping the dichotomy perpetuated and separating systematic or academic learning from practice, it would make sense for a student to feel more comfortable on one side of the divide.
What Makes It Practical?
In its simplest form Field Education or Ministry Practice can be defined as: providing skill development, ministerial reflection, discernment of vocation (testing or affirming one’s call), forming mentor relationships, and allowing one to live into the transformation of self and leader. Field Education is the constant art of dialogue between theory and practice.
In an examination of graduate level professional education and related pedagogy, it was found that “professionals train people in what William Sullivan calls the three apprentices: the cognitive apprenticeship which focuses on developing knowledge and cultivating habits of mind; the practical apprenticeship which focuses on habits of practice, and the moral apprenticeship, which focuses on learning the values, ethical commitments and personal responsibilities of the profession.”¹
In theological field education these same foci are often termed as knowing, doing, and being. In my work with students, I use the three components of formation: Knowledge, Skill, and Identity.
A minister becomes a minister in and through the practice of ministry. They receive a tradition of practice, they study the meaning of the practice, but it is neither in repeating what others have done nor memorizing theories of practice that they become a minister. It is in the practice combined with knowledge of the received tradition and contemporary insights and critiques, repeated over time in which the practices become integrated in the life and vocation.²
Early field workers cued faculty to the importance of field- based learning when they returned to seminary or theological schools after the summer with good questions or mindful of what they didn’t know and wanted to develop more.
Affirmation and dissonance recreate one’s map or legend for their leadership perspective. It calls forth an openness and generosity in learning.
The reflective practice of field education is further deepened in that it is not simply analysis, but rather theological reflection. Barbara Blodgett and Matthew Flooding trace the roots of this methodology back to an example from scripture. In the story of Pentecost, when those gathered bear witness to God’s deeds of power in their respective languages, they ask the question, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12 NRSV).³ Theological Reflection is meaning-making and informs our faith, leadership, spiritual lives, and ministry. Like the Pentecost reflectors, it is intentional in drawing out meaning. Some field educators suggest that theological reflection in ministry can be boiled down to the questions: What? So What? Now What?⁴
Grace of Learning
Another core value of field education involves what I call the grace of learning.
I was fortunate to do my ministry practice and formation at a time in the United Church of Canada when there was opportunity to do overseas internships. One of my learning goals was to understand the nature of Christianity in dominant culture. So I asked to learn in a country where other religions formed a tighter relationship with “the state.” I landed the opportunity to spend five months in various places in Northern India working with the Church of North India. Seven weeks of that time was spent in Calcutta at a seminary. Daily I travelled with students who were on field placements in various churches and agencies in the city. This led to a great diversity of experiences from orphanages, brothels, schools, and slums. One day I followed a female student who worked in a local church. She essentially was not permitted to do anything except observe male supervisors and teachers undertake ministries of education, preaching, and pastoral care. She explained that in the tradition of the denomination she was part of, she was not permitted to lead as a woman.
When we returned to the college, I spoke with the Director of Field Placement on faculty. He had already taken me under his wing and provided this foreigner with hospitality and care. He explained that he had sent this young woman to that particular placement so that she could learn that women were subordinate in her tradition and she would not be welcomed easily into leadership. I wondered about this wisdom with him. I suggested that perhaps she did not need to learn her oppression—she already had that competency. What she needed was an environment that could fan the flames of her call and increase her sense of competency and hope to exercise leadership in response to the call of discipleship. To my surprise, the Director returned to me a few days later and presented me with a gift of a tapestry of women working in the field to show me that he had learned from my challenge. It still hangs in my home as a sign of our mutual transformation. We often don’t learn best from failure and discrimination, but rather from encouragement, hope, imagination, and support.
Studio The Art of Leadership⁵
The definitive course relating to field education at VST is known as the Leadership Studio. The name of the course is always a puzzling one—what is a studio class at theological school? The studio is precisely positioned to respond to the adaptive challenges of today. Ron Hefeitz, Founding Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, says that “if the global commons where those who offer leadership must contend with a myriad of significant challenges is complex, diverse and fraught with ambiguity, then the space devoted to learning effective leadership for such a world might be usefully similar…”⁶
In other words, the classroom can’t set up a false container of easy answers for leadership. Reconstruction of the learner into leader involves a sturdy holding environment so that upon leaving seminary or school, we don’t have all the answers, but an attentive response and presence to the art of ongoing leadership. The studio is set up as a combination of theory and familiar classroom parameters as well as experience and reflection to hone one’s adaptive abilities. The raw material students work with is a combination of knowledge and theory plus both positive and confounding experiences from real time leadership situations. These materials draw the learner out at the edge of their identity, and require continual analysis and interpretation of their context as well as acute theological reflection. The studio or lab is messy and yet a crucible for transformation. It is a place for practice, trial, reshaping, imagination, and continual feedback.
I remain convinced that no degree, list of competencies, or intention could satisfy the deficiencies named in the Things They Didn’t Teach Us In Seminary group. In her book on Shaping Spiritual Leaders, Abigail Johnson describes ministerial and pastoral leadership as comparable to white-water canoeing. We don’t just develop skills to implement, but need to learn to navigate in the rapid waters of social, technological, and demographic change.⁷ The list of skills and tools required would change as quickly as the time it would take to identify them. Instead we need a healthy balance of skill (paddling), knowledge of the river (context), and the ability to discern correct leadership in certain situations. Do you go with the current or challenge it?
At the Vancouver School of Theology, our currency is not one of checklists. It is, rather, equipping students to feel competent in whatever waters they will paddle.
It is what is learned in seminary.
Rev. Brenda Fawkes is the United Church of Canada Officer of Vocation Ministry for B.C., Yukon and Southern Alberta. Brenda was the Director of Theological Field Education at VST from 2011 – 2019.
This article is part of the upcoming book by VST faulty, Theological 10%.
1. Kathleen A. Cahalan, Introducing The Practice of Ministry (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010), 118.
2. Cahalan, Introducing The Practice of Ministry, chp 5, Kindle.
3. Barbara J. Blodgett and Mathew Flooding,
“The Role of Theological Reflection Within Field Education,” Journal of Reflective Practice Vol 34(Mill Valley 2014): 269
4. Barbara J. Blodgett and Mathew Flooding, eds. Brimming With God: Reflecting Theologically on Cases in Ministry (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 13.
5. The original vision and imagination for the course, The Studio For Strategic Leadership, belongs to Rev Dr. Keith Howard. The leadership matrix involving the intersection of four stories and a curriculum using adaptive leadership methodology was inherited from his teaching in the first years of the course.
6. Sharon Daloz-Parks, Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach For A Complex World (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005), 48.
7. Abigail Johnson, Shaping Spiritual Leaders: Supervision and Formation in Congregations (Herndon: The Alban Institute, 2007), 15.