Notes from the president of the American Theological School Association, Dan Aylshire
(notes mean...please don't expect complete sentences or criticize my spelling!)
He works with schools diverse on every end of a dozen continua. What they all have in common is that they talk about excellence! What, then, could this word possibly mean?
Excellence might be one of those terms that everyone uses because nobody knows what it means.
The word "excellence" can be a proxy for the way things used to be done. The word most often hurts minorities, women, and newcomers. It can be a word that is really used to exclude rather than to increase quality.
But what's the alternative? How could we mount a campaign for, say, mediocre theological education?
1. Why are so many people asking about excellence right now? He's speaking next Fall on this same topic to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and The Lutheran's Missouri Synnod.
We don't ask this question when things are going well. We only ask when things are falling apart around us and have to be re-built. He suspects that concern about excellence is a way to get at some unspoken issue. He wonders what our "real" issue is.
2. He comments that we most often calls ourseves a "movement," rather than a denomination. He remarks that we share this sensitivity with the Assemblies of God and wonders what we have in common with them? His suspicion is that we're both anti-institutional.
Excellence has to have a definition that transcends the individual and serves the community.
(This man groks us....)
His perceptions about excellence in ministry
He is professionaly committed to excellence in ministry. He's a church man. He knows the pain that less than excellent ministers can bring to churches, and the pain that toxic churches can cause even the most excellent ministers.
His guide for thinking about excellence in ministry comes from his Association of Theological School guidelines.
the goal of theological studies should be deepening the aptitude for theolgical reflection that results in responsible life and faith. (paraphrase)
Ministerial work requires skills and abilities, but must be undergirded with wisdom.
Ministry is not a group of skills, it is who a person is as a human being.
Seminary grads do not come spiritually and morally mature; that's a lifelong journey. The journey is necessary to ministry.
They need a certain body of knowledge about religious topics, not just as information, but as useful, integrated wisdom.
They need to know how to do some things that are a part of ministerial practice...public speaking, counseling, working with volunteers etc. These things can't be taught in isolation. They are integrated with each other and with the above integrated wisdom and journey.
Ministers with great spiritual sensitivity can lack theological sophistication
Ministers with great intellectual ability can lack person skills
Ministers with great skill and ability can fail for lack of humility.
Excellence is not, therefore a matter of piling up certain kinds of skills and knowledge, it is the integrated whole of it all.
If that's a good definition of excellence, how do we do theological school?
Theological education is deeply dependent on two kinds of learning
1. classroom teaching. (the classroom is a nearly universal learning envrionment...ordered, safe, transformative, attached to a learning plan called a curriculum)
2. contextual learning. (challenging, disordered, chaotic, blurring of categories. This is, after all...life.) (Just the sort of damned learning experienced that civilized, ordered learning experiences try to spare people.)
Both of these are necessary and they require schools to multi-task, to get both kinds of learning integrated which is the goal of theological education.
The place of Theological Schools in Theological Education
(besides the training of religious leaders)
We need teachers and centers of study.
We need a place where the overall story of a movement can be looked over and critiqued
We need a place of research to help us continue to reinvent ourselves.
The education of leaders is a function which any theological school can provide
(He comments that as he moves around the theological school world he notes that any school that wants to brag to him about their open-mindedness makes a point of telling him that they have UU students.)
The second function of a theological school is to provide connection shared culture. It is more difficult for a school to provide this to any one movement. To have connection and shared culture, there has to have a critical mass of students.
He tells of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (the liberal splinter of the Southern Baptist wars of the 1980's) The designate some schools are educational partners, serving by educating some pastors.
Some of their schools were "identity partners" . Some theological schools need to think of their mission as contributing to the denomination as a whole, to worry in the middle in the night about the health of the denomination. (Here's a transformative idea!)
He quoted from a review of a book either by or about Unitarian Ted Sorrenson, speechwriter for John Kennedy. (this will be a paraphrase)
Once, Kenedy asked Sorrenson if any of his Catholicism was rubbing off on Sorenson. "No," said Sorenson, "but I think my Unitarianism is rubbing off on you." Sorrenson believed that he was bringing his own faith into the drafts of speeches he wrote for Kennedy and more and more, Kennedy was being swayed by his thinking.
Somewhere along the way, Ted Sorenson was influenced by some ministers, by Unitarian Universalism.
Maybe excellent ministry, extended by an excellent mind, made our nation more human, at least for a time."
Please comment about the pros and cons of having a majority of ministers coming from multi-faith schools vs. denominational schools?
All faith groups are experiencing this. The phenomena of second career ministers means that most people must attend the closest seminary. We're not alone in our problem.
One need of a religious leader is to be deeply imbeded in their community of faith. (roots). One way to get roots, especially for a person who didn't grow up in the faith or have more than one congregation, is to go to a UU theological school.
Another need is the ability to relate to the whole world. Some people need that experience, especially those too embedded in the UU tradition. (wings)
Question: What would be the effect on the UUA if one or more of our historically related schools closed up shop?
Answer: Theological schools are massively stressed by current economic issues. Some may not make it. This tiny movement has two schools that reflect different parts of the movement, in different parts of the country. He believes we are not over-supplied with theological schools and we would lose more than we would gain by losing one of them. Those two schools don't just educate leaders. They hold identity.
Questions: Can you give us good models of healthy denomination/theological school relationship?
Answer: I've got more bad examples than good ones. One good one is this: Historically Black Theological schools, for instance, just did a big research project on the Religion and the Black prison experience. No predominately White school could have done that research and it was needed. He also spoke of Quaker and Mennonite seminaries as well connected. The model: a story of mutual support and worry. It's all in the family. Appreciation of that connectedness.
A joke to end: (Garrison Keillor just remarked that he identified as an Episcopal, but he's "more piss than capol")