Oikonomia Network (ON) Director Greg Forster opened Friday’s retreat sessions with a short history lesson. Forster noted that Dallas Willard’s early presentation in year one cast a powerful vision about the need to connect faith at work to the local church. Willard’s vision created a series of presentations
- Year Two: Embracing the Local Church
- Year Three: Working within the Academy
This year the theme addressed helpful models that connect theological education with the local church. Forster noted that theological education is called to serve the local church as well as the broader community. As a matter of fact, congregations also serve local communities, but as churches. So this year’s theme revolves around empowering churches in their effort to assist in human flourishing.
To help retreat participants, Amy Sherman, Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute, and author of Kingdom Calling, offered two presentations around the theme “In and For Community: Helpful Models in Theological Schools”
Amy’s first presentation included a key theme of young people called to ministry but coming from a business backgrounds, such as real estate, and using those skills alongside their ministry training to engage in community redevelopment. She reminded participants to seek the fruit of theological education, fruit that results in whole life discipleship, and that crafts models of partnerships between seminary, church, and local community for same effort.
Sherman offered four kinds of partnerships conducted by Seminaries, those that:
- Advance Community Development
- Advance Local Congregational efforts in innovated ministry in bringing transformation to the community
- Advance Non-Profit efforts
- Connect and Advance Business ventures
Sherman offered several examples from different projects beginning with Asbury Theological Seminary’s Oikonomia Network Internship and the Asbury Project (a social enterprise competition sponsored with Asbury University Business Division). Sherman noted the efforts of Taylor King and Jonathan Collins in Selma AL, who launched home-made popsicle business called “What’s Poppin” for juveniles at an alternative school. The effort includes a local, farm to table, initiative for the sake of community development.
Moving to efforts within the local congregation, Sherman reviewed the TFI: The Fellows Initiative at work in 21 local congregations. TFI remains dedicated to help young adults “start well” as adults, and includes six seminaries offering graduate classes to provide an understanding of the “basic metanarrative” of scripture alongside other educational experiences. Reformed Theological Seminary partnered with the Falls Church region. Among those students, some 40% of the young adults taking classes were not preparing for ordained ministry, but working in marketplace. This partnership expands the educational ministry of the seminary. In reverse, RTS created a 66-hour master of biblical studies for Anglicans that includes 12 hours with Anglican studies.
The third emphasis includes the CCDA: Christian Community of Development Association partnership with seminaries (beginning with Baylor) where students engage in internships through the program. Often this type of partnership includes local leaders who serve as both faculty, and school, and also board members of the organization. In the past students would attend a pre-conference learning session and then follow with the annual national CCDA meeting. Then students would have to implement a post-conference project in their community. At one point eight seminaries participated in this program. Due to life circumstances, however, the leader of the program had to scale back to one “immersion” approach with Perkins Theological Seminar as a modular class. Still, the partnership proves helpful to both the non-profit and the seminary.
As part of the fourth approach, Sherman included seminaries like Gordon-Conwell and Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) School of Theology who partner with local businesses. At IWU students can take a “business internship” as part of their ministry studies. The 126-hour internship experience (that includes some hours of reading and reflection) involved 60 students to date. The sites include local businesses (nursing home, Christian bookstore, funeral home, chicken processing plant, etc.). Student comments included their appreciation for real contact with people in the everyday workplace, from local workers to executives, and the real opportunities for pastoral care in all settings. Students also realized that they were formed primarily to speak to educated, upper class, yet their internship experience taught them how to engage a larger community, yet also include business leaders in their ministry.
Sherman noted all of the models have a powerful pedagogy of “Show and Tell:” the practical training and expanded vision of equipping pastors to leader congregations that will place a high value of serving their community.
Sherman offered three key observations that helped these models engage their constituency that also generated conversation that expanded their importance:
- Sherman observed that the midst of an intense competition for students, seminaries discover that these innovative programs often attract new students who are also interested in a different way of exploring ministry.
- Sherman noted you have to have an entrepreneurial spirit, a willingness to open up to innovation in education. Schools concern with tradition often have to rethink how they continue to provide theological education with a shifting context. Often many of the programs remain dependent on one charismatic person which risk the long term viability, yet seminaries need to both embrace and nurture programs over time.
- Sherman did note that schools need to assuage accrediting concerns including assuring a quality of instruction. Often this requires an ongoing conversation with the accrediting agencies. However, ongoing engagement with the agency also teaches the seminary how to ask questions concerning new ideas. Normally the accreditation response really is to try the novel idea, just do it with quality and assess the results.
Overall the presentations awakened ON participants to new models of engagement that might spark similar approaches in their context.