What I’ve Learned

Last weekend I was in Chicago for a seminar hosted by the Association of Theological Schools. The purpose of the meeting was to help new seminary and divinity school faculty members explore their vocations as “theological educators” within the common vocation of a theological faculty. As the invitation stated, “most of us were not trained for the variety of duties that come with teaching in a theological school and there are a number of adjustments to be made in the early years of our careers.”

That’s a pretty huge understatement, actually, as the adjustment from full-time research to full-time teaching can be seriously jarring. That certainly was my experience. My Ph.D. was in biblical studies and while I had taught in ministry contexts, I simply had no idea how to navigate the administrative apparatus of an educational institution, much less plan semester courses, syllabuses, reading lists, assignments, rubrics, etc.

I learned quite a bit in my first ten years of full-time teaching, mostly through the wisdom of colleagues and some from my own trials and errors. But I was happy to be invited to share what I’ve learned thus far with new faculty members last weekend and also to hear about the experiences of others.

I thought I’d roll some of these out in this space and I’ll be happy if we can get some conversation started about them and if anyone in educational contexts finds them at all helpful.

Presenters were asked to shape their comments along the following lines:

The focus is on how you have negotiated your way through the varied demands of teaching in a theological school: developing new courses, coming to understand the unique culture of your institution, serving the church, moving toward promotion and tenure, keeping scholarship alive in the midst of many demands on your time, the formation of students for ministries, community service, and life outside the seminary.

I organized my remarks under teaching, scholarship, navigating your institution, formation of students, and service to the church. Because of time constraints (and my own verbosity), I only hit the first two points. I’ll reproduce the whole talk over a handful of posts.

I’ll post tomorrow my first set of comments on teaching. For today, I’ll conclude with my opening comment.

Last year when I came to this conference, several people presented dire statistics about the crisis in theological education and for graduate theological institutions. When we saw the numbers from the last five years, there were gasps that confirmed what we suspected from anecdotal evidence. We then turned to one another and expressed in whispers and with wide eyes how thankful we were to have jobs.

So I’d like to begin on this note of thanksgiving. We are blessed to get to do what we love, and we’re fortunate to have full-time jobs at the schools we represent. Let us always be thankful and never take for granted our place of privilege, even as we do whatever we can to help colleagues and grad school friends find work.

10 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned

    1. timgombis

      Thanks, Nyasha, for your presentation! I was interested especially in how much our experience(s) in our institutions differs based on gender, ethnicity, etc. Different situations bring about different pressures and these all need to be navigated uniquely.

  1. Tim Neufeld

    Tim, this is the kind of post that interests me. I’ll try to follow along. Keep updates coming to FB. A couple of opening thoughts from me: (1) It is indeed good to have a job (and hopefully a secure one!), (2) I’m always amazed that my current institution lacks any kind of orientation or community forum in which faculty can share the tips/tricks/best practices that each has learned along the way (I bet that is the case for many schools), (3) While the anecdotes and reports are indeed dire, this really could be an exciting time to reimagine (in the Brueggemannian sense) the future of theological education. I just hope there will be enough dreamers gathered together in communities who are willing to experiment under the fresh guidance of the Spirit without running thoughtlessly (and theologylessly) into the pursuit of the newest distance-learning fad. Chaos seems to be where Ruach works best.

    1. timgombis

      It’s good to be part of a nimble institution where we’re giving thought to these very things, Tim. One challenge is that in seminaries the collegiality among the faculty is strained just because we’re all doing our own thing without unaware of what others are doing or what they need. We’re doing a few things to counter those dynamics and to help and support one another.

      What you mention is huge–how to best serve the church and be nimble without jumping from fad to fad.

  2. Greg Johnston

    In his book, THE REVOLUTION, Barna predicted a trend away from an institutional church. I wonder how much impact movements such as the “missional church” has had on theological institutes of higher learning.

    We will always need scholarship, something these “anti-institutional” “disciple-making” movements don’t seem to realize. I just finished reading THE FORGOTTEN WAYS by Alan Hirsch, a book advocating radical missional methods. I agree with one thing: The jig is up for Christendom and we are too encumbered by counterproductive institutions. But the book is essentially a radical version of church growth methodology based on half-baked sociological studies. There is not one bit of serious exegesis in the entire study. And yet he calls the methods he advocates “Apostolic Genius,” primarily because they worked in his two cases studies (the early church of Rodney Stark and the church in China). Overall, I would rate it right along with THE PURPOSE DRIVEN CHURCH. They start from false premises and proceed reason poorly from those premises.

    I empathize when folks lose their jobs. I’ve got that ugly T-Shirt. I just wonder what is causing the dwindling demand for advanced biblical studies. I’m afraid our Christian institutions are in for some hard times ahead. What we need from them is better biblical studies that the ministry of the word on the front lines can use. But I fear the gap is too great and is growing bigger. I can’t even get folks to read THE DRAMA OF EPHESIANS or SIMPLY JESUS.

  3. imaginewithscripture

    Hi Tim, when I read the title of your post (and the first paragraph), my immediate thought was exactly that many of us didn’t have a job. Life is hard and won’t be easy. The issue is not only concerning finances, but all sorts of questions, doubts, frustrations, and more. But anyway, I look forward to reading your next posts. I am sure that there will be a lot of relevant insights for us all.

    1. timgombis

      It is indeed a very difficult scene out there, especially the dearth of jobs available for those who have spent years acquiring degrees. I was fascinated, too, at this gathering to find many who do have jobs, but their institutions are so stressed and under-resourced that they’re being asked to sit on far too many committees, teach far too many classes, and do far more administratively than they’re equipped and able to do. It’s a rough day for theological education, even for those who have landed a job after their Ph.D. It is not lost on me how fortunate I am to have a job and at an institution with great administration and wonderful colleagues (*giving thanks even now!!*).

  4. Gary T Meadors

    I think team teaching an on-campus course is one of the best ways to build faculty collegiality. You learn from each other, especially in a cross-discipline setting, you gain respect for one another, you think new thoughts for improving your own teaching. If you are both in the class every session, find ways to converse with each other in front of the students, disagree with a good does of sarcasm and humor … students love it and are drawn into the conversation.

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