Since it was published last year, Educating Clergy, by Charles R. Foster, Lisa E. Dahill, Lawrence A. Golemon, and Barbara Wang Tolentino, has been receiving considerable attention. Earlier this year, faculty teams from more than 100 schools gathered to discuss the book in Educating Clergy Conferences sponsored by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. In this article, Carnegie Foundation president Lee S. Shulman reflects on the book's findings.
This article originally appeared in Change magazine, volume 38, issue 2, pages 28–31, March-April 2006. Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036-1802. Copyright © 2006
A number of years ago, long before I joined The Carnegie Foundation, I was visiting the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York as a member of one of their educational advisory boards. I had been a yeshiva student for several years during my adolescence, and for a time I had seriously considered studying for the rabbinate at JTS. I knew a number of the faculty members rather well, including Ismar Schorsch, an eminent historian who was provost at the time of my visit and subsequently became the seminary's chancellor.
As I sat at lunch with Rabbi Schorsch, he described a situation that I have since recalled and thought about many times: Rabbinical students at JTS spend most of their five or six years of study pretty much the way many centuries of future rabbis have, immersed in learning Talmud, the legal codes, the Bible and its many commentaries, midrash, Hebrew, Aramaic, history, theology, and the like. Relatively speaking, far less time is devoted to homiletics, liturgy, and pastoral care and much less yet to supervised practical experience. When students complete those studies they are ordained as rabbis.
Most then go out and become congregational leaders all over the country. Within a year or two, however, the JTS faculty begin hearing back from their graduates, who inform their teachers, Dr. Schorsch told me, that they weren't really prepared for their work. What they needed was the equivalent of an M.B.A., plus a master's degree in counseling and perhaps a few electives in reading architectural drawings and negotiating with contractors. Why spend so much time on Talmud? "I try to explain," Schorsch told me, "that, had they not become, through study, the 'holy vessels' of the tradition, their congregants would not have considered them entitled to play those other roles."
I have subsequently told that story many times because it exemplifies one of the essential dilemmas of all preparation for the professions. How does a professional school develop in its students the specific skills needed to perform the functions they must enact while also giving them the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to become the kinds of human beings — morally, experientially, intellectually — to whom others are ready to entrust the performance of those functions?
As Rabbi Schorsch implied, pastors embody their roles in their very being, in the sense that they have been formed — by their education and their calling — into "holy vessels," in the lexicon of the Jewish tradition, whose development and accomplishments entitle them to play their very special spiritual role.Yeshiva and seminary students need to develop the skills of blessing a newborn child in the synagogue or of conducting the Eucharist ceremonies in a church, just as therapists and journalists must learn how to console a mourning family or speak out critically about the moral failings of political leaders. But what kind of person, educated in which ways and formed under what circumstances, is entitled to offer those blessings or perform that ritual in the name of God, or to offer consolation or social criticism?
If the education of clergy is a proper example of professional education — and I argue that it is — then the experience of theological education is one from which we have much to learn. And for this reason, a study of clergy preparation has been a central project of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for the past several years. Conducted as part of the Foundation's larger effort to examine the preparation of professionals — currently including engineering, law, medicine, and nursing, reports on all of which will appear over the next several years — the study has recently released its final report, Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination. It has special lessons and recommendations for those directly involved in the education of the clergy, but I believe the volume also has much to teach about professional education more broadly.
Carnegie's study of the education of clergy
Led by Charles R. Foster, professor emeritus of religion and education from Emory University — and with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc., and Atlantic Philanthropies, in addition to Carnegie's own resources — our study of clerical education took us to a fascinating variety of settings, from Yale Divinity School in New Haven to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Dallas, and from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Some of these schools are embedded within larger secular institutions — for instance, Yale and Howard — and some have large graduate schools in addition to their seminaries (Fuller and JTS), while others are freestanding.
Of course there were many institutions we did not examine; the study involved only those with accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools and/or the U.S. regional college and university accrediting associations. This criterion significantly narrowed the scope of the study, since clergy are educated in diverse ways across the many religious traditions -- many in unaccredited seminaries, monasteries, congregations, or by apprenticeship. Since most Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Orthodox Jewish religious leaders receive their training outside the university system, this criterion also focused the study on the education of Conservative and Reform Jewish and Catholic, Christian Orthodox, and a significant proportion of Protestant Christian clergy.
The team began its work with a comprehensive review of the literature on Jewish and Christian clerical education. The survey research included a collaboration with Barbara Wheeler and her colleagues at Auburn Seminary, who invited us to include a subset of our own questions in the regular surveys they conduct with a number of institutions. We also surveyed faculty, students, and alumni/ae from a cross-section of 18 Jewish and Christian seminaries. In addition we made site visits at 10 of the 18 seminaries and conducted interviews with faculty, students, and administrators; observed classes; and engaged in focus-group conversations with faculty members who had been identified by their deans as reflective about their pedagogical practice and respected by colleagues as teachers.
In particular, our interest was in how seminaries cultivate a distinctive way of seeing and interpreting the world — what Craig Dykstra has called the "pastoral imagination" — in which students integrate the various elements of their educational experience in preparation for the daily practices of clergy work. Many of our questions focused on the various teaching practices and contexts — from classes to field education to community worship to programs of spiritual and vocational direction — through which seminaries help students develop this integration of the holy and the mundane. As Rabbi Schorsch had noted many years before, this isn't easy. An enormous amount of time in a seminary is spent in the study of sacred texts, often in languages (e.g., Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic) that must be learned as a prerequisite to wrestling with the interpretation of the texts themselves, even though the purpose of that education is clearly preparation for practice.
How do seminary educators create bridges between the highly academic enterprise of textual study and the daunting array of practices — from the liturgical and homiletic to consoling and celebrating — expected of their graduates? Given the diverse facets of expertise required of a faculty that can educate and pursue scholarship in all those domains, how do institutions achieve curricular and formational coherence?
Four signature pedagogies
They do so in large part, we found, through the four powerful "signature pedagogies" that run through seminary education: pedagogies of interpretation, pedagogies of formation, pedagogies of contextualization, and pedagogies of performance. That is, the teachers of clergy must instruct their students in the disciplined analysis of sacred texts; in the formation of their pastoral identities, dispositions, and values; in the understanding of the complex social, political, personal, and congregational conditions in which they are embedded; and in the skills of preacher, counselor, liturgist, and leader through which they exercise their pastoral, priestly, and rabbinical responsibilities. Through the coordination of these four pedagogies, a seminary — when all is working well — prepares clergy who can exemplify the pastoral imagination in their practice.
And the more we reflected on these four pedagogies, the more we realized that they are not limited to the education of clergy. They are powerful instances of the kinds of teaching needed in every profession — and perhaps in the liberal arts as well. Every profession rests on a body of text, whether philosophical, scientific, mathematical, or literary. Every profession expects that those who master those texts also are "formed" into women and men of integrity who can be trusted to use their knowledge and skills in the responsible service of others. Every profession expects its members to serve society by understanding critically the nature of the social and political contexts in which they are called upon to serve, and to be more than slavish responders to the demands of their clients. And every profession rests on a body of skilled practice without which neither theory nor character is sufficient. Thus the pedagogies of interpretation, formation, contextualization, and performance appear in our studies of other professions as well, if under different names. To be a professional requires understanding, character, and practical skills that can be employed with sensitivity, given the conditions and contexts within which one works.This kind of deep integration is no small challenge.
And of course it is a challenge that must be met in ways that are shaped by the particular context and setting. As a participant in many of the site visits undertaken by the study team, I found myself replaying Rabbi Schorsch's story in my head as I talked with faculty and students about the ways in which the varied purposes and pedagogies of seminary education must be woven together.
In the visit to Howard University, I met with a small group of graduating seniors. They ranged in age from a young woman of 23, who had come to the seminary directly from her undergraduate studies in one of the life sciences, to a 56-year-old veteran elementary school teacher. I asked them why they had opted for the rigorous path of full-time graduate study for three years when it was relatively commonplace in their denominations for ministers to begin serving churches without formal academic preparation before ordination.
One of the participants responded in a manner that emphasized the close connection between the careful academic study of sacred texts and the practical work of a minister. He described a meeting with a minister who had not received formal preparation. His colleague passionately described the sermon he had delivered describing the domestic animals that populated heaven. Challenged to support that view, he cited the book of Ezekial and the prophet's vision of a chariot that descended from the heavens. "If there is a chariot in heaven, it must be drawn by horses. And if there are horses, there must be other domestic animals up there as well."
This upset the Howard senior. The responsibility of a minister is to preach to his or her congregation. If he does not really understand the text in its historical and literary contexts — if he does not know enough to make distinctions between the literal and the metaphorical, the symbolic and the historical — how can he be entrusted with the responsibility to preach from these texts?
Indeed,we regularly observed across all seminaries the same refrain punctuating the study of sacred texts, whether Deuteronomy or Isaiah."How will I preach on this? "Even as they wrestled with the complexities of a text, students were asking themselves how they would teach from it, how they would connect the timeless truths of the holy and the timely challenges of the daily and the profane. And they wanted to do so without trivializing the texts by reading them only through the lens of "relevance" and without oversimplifying the social, personal, and political contexts to which they sought to make connections. This persistent disposition to relate text to context stands as a powerful example of Dykstra's "pastoral imagination" at work. It is not only a cognitive capacity but a habit of both mind and heart, a cognitive disposition, that is developed.
Another case in point: I remember observing Professor Allan Cooper's class on commentaries in the Hebrew Bible (the mikraot gedolot) at the Jewish Theological Seminary. These commentaries are complex both linguistically — they are written in medieval Hebrew — and orthographically — the traditional style of Hebrew print in which the commentaries are displayed is quite different from typical Hebrew fonts. Thus it would be no shock if the full attention of the class were directed toward the challenge of reading, translating, and interpreting the commentaries in their own terms.
Nevertheless, Cooper's continuing refrain was that as rabbis, the students would need to think of themselves as the latest link in a chain of commentators, each generation of which is responsible for continuing to make sense of the Torah. Thus even as they study these complex texts, the students are thinking about how they will preach and teach them, how they will connect them to the circumstances of their congregants and their communities. Once again, we see the development of pastoral imagination at work.
Much clerical education is preparation to perform specific procedures, some of which appear at first blush to be trivially straightforward and uncomplicated. For example, clergy must learn to read aloud for their congregations from the text of the Scriptures. They must also learn to perform the physical rituals of the liturgy, from Holy Communion to the lifting and display of the Torah scroll. What we learn from the educating clergy project is that even the most fundamental physical actions in professional contexts can be permeated with deep and significant meaning.
Lisa Dahill,a coauthor of the Carnegie study, has described how the ostensibly simple act of learning to read aloud — when to pause and when to accelerate, when to make eye contact and when to look away — has immense impact on congregants and on the quality of the message. Similarly, the physical examination in medicine or nursing, the physical act of writing on the board in teaching, and many of the other behavioral skills of professional learning are not merely motor. Behavior communicates meanings and emotions, elicits trust or suspicion, enlists collaboration or triggers withdrawal. Our study of the clergy has generated striking and instructive examples of these aspects of learning and formation.
At the Carnegie Foundation we study higher education in many of its manifestations. We study how people are educated in the professions and how future scholars study for their Ph.D.s. We study how undergraduate liberal learning integrates student understanding and development across the variety of disciplines and engenders the growth of civic and political engagement. All of this work engages us deeply.
And yet, I confess, no program of research has held quite the fascination for our staff and our extended family of collaborators as our study of the education of clergy. I believe this is because the challenges of preparing those to whom we entrust the care of our spiritual development underlie all the other kinds of higher learning as well. Learning for both deep cognitive understanding and the development of character, identity, and moral sensibilities is a goal common to the professions and the liberal arts. We find the education of clergy fascinating and valuable not only because these individuals play such an important role in our lives, but because within its rich complexities we see in microcosm many of the processes that characterize all of higher education.
Summary and study guide available for Carnegie publication on clergy education
Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination, a joint publication by Jossey-Bass and Carnegie, was written by Charles R. Foster, emeritus professor of religion at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, who directed the three-year study of clergy education by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Lisa E. Dahill, who is now assistant professor of worship and Christian spirituality at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio; Lawrence A. Golemon, who directs the Sacred Visions and the Social Good program at Dominican University and the Graduate Theological Union; and Barbara Wang Tolentino, who earned her M.A. in Religious Studies and a Ph.D. in educational psychology at Stanford University.
Educating Clergy may be ordered through the Jossey-Bass Web site or by calling 877-762-2974.
Carnegie has also published a study guide for pedagogical use that may be downloaded from the Foundation's Web site.
Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!