After Central students have completed biblical, theological, ethical and Christian heritage courses that lay a foundation in seminary studies, they begin to take contextual learning courses. These courses are designed to help them integrate what has been learned with actual experiences in a setting beyond the classroom. Ministry competencies are gained by acting on what has been learned in theory, reflecting on those experiences with a mentor and class of peers, and then engaging again in ministry practices with new insight.
In many ways, this is similar to traditional seminary requirements for field education placements or internships in congregations. However, Central recognizes that students seeking theological education are no longer automatically preparing for congregational ministry. Society and the church are going through significant changes, and many seminary students are seeking new and creative forms of service and ministry. Therefore, the context in which a student does this learning component is decided by their unique sense of vocational calling and the experiences needed to gain knowledge and skills for competency in that form of ministry. In addition, to prepare students for our multicultural society, they are to seek out a cross-cultural setting for at least one of their courses. With their permission, let me tell you about just a few of the students involved in contextual learning this past term.
Wanting to explore ministry to the poor, Robbie Watts sought out an internship with Love INC (In the Name of Christ) near his home in Florida. Love INC is a faith-based nonprofit that focuses on offering hope and help to those in need. There he gained understanding and learned valuable skills to assist most helpfully those who find themselves in financial straits. He writes, “I learned a lot about the complexities and varieties of poverty and need in my community…Love INC serves clients with respect and values every person for who they are. Instead of simply meeting needs for clients, Love INC meets clients where they are and partners with them to improve their lives; they offer a hand up, not a hand out. This semester I got to observe how important this distinction can be for clients.”
Michael Vollbrecht started seminary with the assumption that he was heading for pastoral ministry and, in fact, is a part-time pastor for a small church in rural Kansas. His contextual learning course strengthened his congregational skills as he developed a grief group with a mentor’s support and learned about rural culture. He writes, “I was able to hear in depth stories about rural culture’s relationship to the “darker” emotions, and how geographic locality along with family systems dynamics helps define a person and the way in which they react to these issues.” But he has also delved into the new area of justice ministry, with involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign and opportunities to gain experience in teaching justice.
While taking CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) for her contextual learning courses in a Nashville hospital, Gayle Lawson confronted many difficult life situations. She writes, “What has been in front of me over the past two months has been human suffering, especially the suffering of the homeless community. What am I to think or do with so much suffering?” Believing that God participates in our suffering, Gayle has grown in her capacity to be with and care for those she encounters. She expresses her love for chaplaincy as “holy work” and writes, “Chaplaincy is an affair of the heart, a concept that is never more evident than in cross-cultural chaplaincy where love may very well be all there is to rely upon.”
Jessie Lent chose the cross-cultural context of a new church planted for Haitian immigrants in the Kansas City area. He gained significant knowledge about new church planting from his mentor. He also experienced Haitian culture and had opportunities to lead worship and preach in worship that was far longer and more energetic than what he was used to, with much singing and even dancing. He writes, “The most important thing that I learned about ministering to people cross-culturally through this internship experience is that you must have an open mind, entering the experience without any preconceived notions… this experience has changed my ministerial practice by helping me to be mindful of other cultures whose contextual setting is different form my own, and it has also helped me to listen without prejudging…listening to the other person’s experience before determining what I think is best for them.”
For those seminary students who have a sense of calling to congregational ministry, contextual learning provides opportunities for strengthening their pastoral skills and competency. For others who are sensing a calling to chaplaincy, focusing on clinical pastoral education (CPE) within a hospital context will provide them the experiences they need for professional chaplaincy. But contextual learning also provides opportunities for growth and learning for others who are heading toward justice ministry, nonprofit leadership, overseas missions, or other types of ministry.