re-re-thinking online theological education (part 3: community)

In our previous two posts we reflected on what for and who for theological education exists, before discussing (albeit far far too briefly), what education is. In this post I turn to consider the question of ‘communities’ – which communities are in view when we talk about education as a formative experience.

If education is merely the transfer and acquisition of knowledge, then community is actually irrelevant. Who cares who sits next to me in the lecture hall or the dining table or the library, as long as I acquire data to store in my head? Yet, we are not such machines. Knowledge is a richer tapestry than mere pieces of fact. Human learning is always contextualised, and we are embodied beings who learn in relationship. We learn from people, alongside people, and in conversation with people.

Now, of course, we don’t have to do so, but the act of a sole person sitting along reading a book is also formative. It’s formative in two other senses: (1) reading books is a means of human relationship mediated by technology across space and time, in which one person speaks but never hears, and the reader hears but never speaks back (or, they may reply, but the writer [generally] will never hear them). It’s a one-way, slightly parasocial, relation. (2) The person is alone. They may exist in community in other contexts, but given enough time spent reading alone, they are making a deliberate choice towards the solitary life, and that deserves its own reflection. So too the person who acquires knowledge sitting at the screen, consuming videos and web pages.

Most of us, though, are wired for some forms of communities, and those communities are inevitably formative on us. We both shape other people by our relating to them, and are shaped by them, as we act and be together. The conversations in class, or at lunch, or walking across campus. But also activities – if we work together, play together, sing together, pray together, all these inculcate patterns of living into us and create us into the future person we will be.

In my imagined prior context, it is inevitable that the residential full-time campus is a primary locus of community for seminarians. They come to live together, and for those 3-4 years, are shaped by (i) their cohort, (ii) their instructors, (iii) the normative rule of life in that community. That’s part and parcel of what a seminary offered in terms of spiritual and personal formation – you come to us, live with us, and are shaped by who we are and what we do, and after a few years of that, you’ll come out changed in certain ways. Not a guaranteed cookie-cutter process, but the products of such education bear enough similar traits that people can say, “Oh, so-and-so went to X college, you can expect Y of them”. Certainly true (generally) of the theological college I trained in.

This is not the only pattern of community formation we can think about though. The other community that most theological students inhabit is likely to be that of their local congregation. Whether they be full-time students who participate in an outside congregational setting weekly, or whether they be students already in ecclesial communities who study part or full time but are resident instead in their congregational location. This kind of community can be as rich and a formative one, but two problems immediately arise. Firstly, it’s out of the control of the theological college. Let’s imagine a congregation, First Eastern Orthodox Mennonite of Nowheresville (no, there are no E.O mennonites). Whatever the quality and shape of community life at FEOMN, the seminary has no control – they can’t guarantee patterns of life (prayer, worship, service, etc) that will shape their student who lives and ministers there. So their control over the formative community patterns for our student X is limited, very limited, to actual engagement in classes, whether online or just part-time in person. Which also means that they have fair less guarantee that student X comes out bearing something like the “college brand” in terms of spiritual and character development.

Now, it may be that FEOMN is an amazing ecclesial community, with very deep practices, spiritual mentoring, rhythms of daily prayer and worship, etc., that do form student X well and deeply, and into the kind of person that both College Y and FEOMN want. But this is happening under the aegis of the local church community, and most colleges feel this is something that ought to be theirs. More pressing, I would say, is that theological colleges are semi-unique places, comparable in some ways to monasteries. They are somewhat secluded from ‘real life’. They are intentional communities. You don’t find a high volume of people in your local congregation who are devoted to a high level of ‘religious’ commitment in terms of studying theology, and living a spiritually oriented life. Sometimes you do, but not generally, because choosing to spend your life that way is often what lands seminarians at seminary in the first place.

This brings me explicitly to the second problem – theological colleges feel it’s their job to do that level of spiritual and character formation, in order to put a big ol’ “seal of college X” on a graduate. If students, both future vocational minister, but also the broader demographic of “anybody seeking higher theological education”, choose to remain in their ‘home’ communities, then the onus for that development goes back onto home communities, which means in turn we need to ask how do we equip churches to do robust spiritual formation of their own people. This requires a greater dialogue between colleges and churches.

I will say that there is one great advantage of someone remaining in the community of faith that they grew up in (whether from childhood, or in the faith) – people “going off to seminary” more often then go on to other things than return to serve those people. This is especially true when social and cultural dislocation occurs, I would hypothesise (I only have anecdata). That is, pull someone out of a minoritised culture and put them into a majority culture theological education, and majority culture communities, to learn “proper theology”, and they are going to find it harder to “go back”, for various reasons. Keep them in their home community and help them do contextualised theology, and they are more likely to flourish and to serve that community long term.

I have other thoughts to say about online especially in this question of community, but we’ll save that for our next post, on what happens when we go online.
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