What's Tony Thinking

Report From A Swiftly Moving River


I am deep into a new venture. Vancouver School of Theology (Vancouver, B. C.) hired me to look at its Field Education program and make recommendations for its future shape. As I began that project I recalled and wrote about my own, very important in my life, field education experience as a student at Union Theological Seminary in N.Y.C.

I’m talking with a lot of people. One of them, Barbara Blodgett, is the President of the Association of Theological Field Education (ATFE). Barbara supplied an image that has me thinking.

There was a time, not so long ago, that a seminary thought of itself as the hub of a wheel. Out from the hub were an array of spokes leading to other circles — denominations, local churches, the academy, related academic fields and research, all sorts of welfare, service agencies and justice programs, as well as chaplaincy training programs, sites and so on.

A student went “to” seminary, for three years, locating themselves at this hub and plunging into its life and culture and making the connections it afforded.

These days, said Barbara, it is the student who is the hub. The seminary is one of the circles at the end of one of the spokes. The student is wired into all sorts of resources and programs with the seminary being part of the project, not the center. One aspect of this is the explosion in “distance learning.” A student of Vancouver School of Theology may be in the Okanagan or Okinawa or Ontario, doing seminary education on-line, while juggling part or full-time work where they live.

Distance learning is not new to the pandemic, but the pandemic has accelerated this massively. For a time during the pandemic, everyone was doing all their classes and interactions on-line. In my conversations with seminary educators, it seems clear that there will not be a wholesale return to the residential model.

Some students at some times will be “in-residence.” But most of the schools with whom I have spoken expect their classrooms to be “hybrid,” i.e. some students in the room, others — perhaps most — attending on-line. They will not do their field work somewhere pretty much in the vicinity of the school, but wherever they are. And a lot more students are stretching the three years of traditional seminary education into 4, 5 or 6 years as they go part time or intermittently.

You can see the shift of which Blodgett spoke from the seminary as the hub, the center, to the student increasingly structuring and managing his or her own education/ experience as the hub of it all with seminary administrators and faculty supporting them.

Note the role of the pandemic. It didn’t create the basic changes. It accelerated their adoption, their pace. The basic driver is technology — the internet, the personal computer, the smart phone and all the rest.

All this calls to mind a book I’ve mentioned in the past, Martin Gurri’s Revolt of the Public. Gurri writes about the “tsunami of information” that began at roughly the beginning of the 21st century. This tsunami has de-stabilized the elites in every arena from politics to education. (Note: Gurri says “elite” is not necessarily pejorative; it mean excellence in some endeavor. He does add, however, today’s elites, lacking an ethic of service, tend to be more corrupt.)

In the older model of preparation of clergy, the seminary and its faculty, was a kind of elite who presided over it all. The student fit into their system. Increasingly that is not the case. The seminary adjusts to the student, the new hub of the wheel.

Notice, I am avoiding moral judgments about this, that is, calling it good or bad. In the face of such change we tend to want to judge it morally. “That’s awful!” Or “that’s great!” While considered attempts to assess value and worth are essential, they can also get in the way. Gurri would have said, about the “tsunami of information” that it is what is. You’ve got to face it, to deal with it. So the de-centering of the seminary (and other structures and elites) is what is. You have to face it, to deal with it.

So far, in my project, I am seeing huge challenges for schools like VST, but also real opportunities. I realize, dear reader, this may be another incidence of me writing an “inside baseball” blog, I do know that many of you readers are clergy and church people. But beyond that I suspect that such shifts and changes aren’t unique to seminary education.

The implications and effects of digital technology are everywhere — health care, journalism and media, education and church. Gurri’s tsunami of information and destabilization of elites is everywhere. And as noted, the pandemic has accelerated all of this over the past year and a half.

So if you’re feeling dizzy or overwhelmed that doesn’t seem to me a sign that you are losing it. It is a sensible response. At some point, perhaps not in my lifetime, things will settle some into a new normal. But right now it’s as if we are looking into, or riding, a river at flood stage. Everything is stirred up, swirling and unclear. And while we can do some waiting for things to settle, we can’t quite just be observers. We are in the river, in the swirl, feeling it, contributing to it and engaging it.

I close with a portion of a piece titled, “The Wisdom of the Hopi Elder.” It seems apt.

“There is a river flowing now, very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold onto the shore.
They will feel they are being torn apart and they will suffer greatly.

“Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore and push off and into the river.
Keep our eyes open and our head above water;
see who is there with you and celebrate.

“The time of the lone wolf is over…gather yourselves!

“We are the ones we have been waiting for!”


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