Saturday, January 26, 2013

Challenges of Theological Field Education Today

Williamsburg, Virginia
I have addressed theologians, biblical scholars, practical theologians, and even supervisors of clinical pastoral education. But I have never spoken to a gathering of directors of theological field education, until last Thursday.

The 32nd biennial consultation of the Association of Theological Field Education (ATFE) was held at Williamsburg, Virginia. I was invited to deliver the keynote address on “From Pasts to Possibilities: Religious Leadership in 2040.” It was my first time to this historic city, the capital of the Colony of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Together with Jamestown and Yorktown, Williamsburg formed the Historic Triangle of colonial Virginia.

About 130 people attended the consultation: the majority was from the United States and about five each from Canada and Australia. Almost half of the participants have served as directors of theological field education for less then ten years. About ten people attended the consultation for the first time.

Our hotel is located across from the College of William and Mary, the second oldest institution of higher education in the U.S., established in 1693. The College was named after the monarchs of England, Scotland, and Ireland at the time. The portraits of William and Mary are hung at a parlor in the hotel. This was the first time that I saw the portraits of English monarchs in an American building. The Colony of Virginia was the first English colony in the so-called New World.

About fifty yard from the hotel is the historic First Baptist Church, which dated back to the 1700s, when the slaves and free blacks wanted to have their worship separated from their slave owners. After the Civil War, the Church provided support for the newly freed blacks.

Given the rich history of the city, I talked about the colonial past, the abolition movement, and the Civil Rights movement and pointed to nation building as imperial formation in the United States.

I challenged the field educators to be bold in the formation of religious leaders for 2040, when there will be no racial and ethnic majority in the U.S. We will need flexible, agile, and forward-looking leaders of faith communities in preparation for a racially, culturally, and religiously diverse United States.

Instead of sending seminarians to learn from experienced supervisor-mentors in church settings, which they are already familiar with, directors of field education should ask, “What kind of new field sites and new experiences our students would need in order to prepare for a much more diverse church and society leading to 2040?”

What if we see theological field education not as apprenticeship, but more like a laboratory—a place to try out and test new things?

At the gathering, I learned that some schools have already tried out new models of field or contextual education. For example, at Vancouver School of Theology, second year students work in studios—non-traditional field sites—to learn about creative leadership and ministry. In their senior year, students do their field work in church contexts.

I also learned that in some Roman Catholic schools, conversations about field education are often conducted in global and cross-cultural perspectives, because of the diversity brought by international students, who are priests and nuns from the Global South.

After my keynote address, many people came up to me to discuss and share their work. My heart was warmed when a younger director who attended the consultation for the first time told me that my address had broadened his understanding of his vocation as a director of field education.

Another person came to tell me about summer field education in the national parks, which I have not heard about. The students meet all kinds of people at the parks and offer pastoral care and counseling for people who need them.

I am very grateful for the privilege of addressing the directors of theological field education. Special thanks go to my colleague William Kondrath, director of field education and professor of pastoral theology at my school. Kondrath is a senior member of ATFE, having served as a director of field education for nearly two decades. Conversations with him helped me understand the changing contexts of theological field education today.