What's Tony Thinking

Update on My “Work” Work


I have several irons in the fire, but the one that qualifies as “work” — because they pay me for it — is with Vancouver School of Theology in Vancouver, B.C. I thought some of you might be interested in an update on this project focused on “Theological Field Education.” (TFE)

For the layperson an easy way to understand this is to say that TFE is like the “student teaching” part of the education of a teacher. Getting out in the “field” and doing the work within a specified time frame, while under supervision. All professional degrees, by definition, have a field work component.

So last year, the pump primed by a Lilly Grant, was phase 1. That was about assessing the current program of TFE at VST. I did interviews, surveys, data collection on the VST program and had a bunch of conversations with people doing this work at other schools in Canada and the U.S. It was interesting.

One of the trends that was especially striking was a bit paradoxical. On one hand, seminary students are more in charge of their own education. They may be full-time or part-time, in residence or distance-learners, preparing for traditional congregational ministry or something quite different. But at the same time, faculty and administrators report that today’s student is more “needy.” They may come with physical or mental-health challenges. Many have little in the way of church background. It’s all pretty new for them and may be bewildering. I suspect such a tension is not limited to students in seminary.

Phase 1 resulted in a report from yours truly. That report and its recommendations are now the basis for Phase 2, again funded by a grant from the Eli Lilly Religion Endowment, a substantial one — $1 million. Over the next couple years we will be redesigning the VST TFE program and then getting it up and running. Richard Topping, the wonderful President of VST, asked me at the start of this year to sign-on for 4 more years. I said, “How about 1?” We compromised on 2.

I’m in Vancouver at the moment, meeting with VST faculty to get their buy-in and input to the overall direction we’re headed. And what is that direction?

We want to see VST TFE as an ecological system of five partners: the student, VST (faculty, administration), VST’s historic partner denominations (United Church of Canada, Presbyterian and Anglican) but also enlarging beyond those three, the TFE site supervisors — a very key link in the enterprise — and lastly the congregational or agency settings where TFE takes place, e.g. learning with and from church laity and elders. It takes a lot of attention and relationship building to keep the enterprise firing on all five cylinders.

Beyond building that system stronger, another change will be to shift from students identifying their own TFE sites and supervisors to an effort to identify flourishing (by several measures) congregations from which a student may choose their TFE site(s). We want them to be immersed in congregations and with leaders where there is vitality and joy. While this is not rocket science, but takes work identifying such sites, recruiting them, and recruiting and equipping excellent supervisors. Of course, some existing sites and supervisors already exhibit some or all of these attributes.

One of general things that emerged, for the Lilly Endowment, from Phase 1 is that there is a lot of concern and focus on strengthening TFE in schools all over Canada and the U.S. Why? Because, as in virtually every sector of society, religious congregations too are struggling with rapid change, cultural shifts and need for adaptation. All that can overwhelm a new minister, not to mention a congregation.  Many new clergy do not continue in the work of pastoral ministry beyond the 5 year mark from seminary graduation. A big concern and loss.

So the idea is to make the TFE part of their preparation as rich as possible, help them develop important relationships with mentors/ supervisors that continue beyond the initial assignment, and expose them to congregations that are doing that adaptation to a changing world well.

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