Mentor Teams, Contextual Learning Are Good Ideas – Kairos Project Series

October 10, 2016

Series on the Kairos Project at Sioux Falls Seminary
Post 5: Surprise!  Mentor Teams and Contextual Learning Are Good Ideas

Yes, there was a little sarcasm in the wording for this week’s title.  As we enter into the third year of the Kairos Project at Sioux Falls Seminary, I am more convinced than ever that mentor teams and contextual learning are great ideas.

This reality should come as a surprise to no one. Mounds of research reveal that education is enhanced when it is coupled with “hands-on” experiences.  Yes, that is true, as well, for degree programs like those offered at most seminaries; that is degree programs that have a significant portion of work that would fall within the broad category of study referred to as the “humanities.”

For many years we, as seminaries in North America, relegated contextual education to “field education” components of various degree programs.  Eventually, we began creating programs that students could do without having to pick up their families and move, but much of the design remained the same.  Students took courses based on the same philosophy, but those courses happened to be done online.  In the past two decades, several schools have tried to develop a model of theological education that took seriously the learning that happens while doing ministry, learning that can be as much about the development of knowledge and character as it is about competence (and vice versa).

When we launched the Kairos Project, we tried to build on some of these ideas while developing a few of our own.  In essence, the goal was to eliminate, as much as possible, the division between ministry, education, and life.  We felt that contextual education should allow a student’s life and ministry to be the primary, not secondary, classroom.  If done correctly, the daily conversations a student has with his or her lead pastor or supervisor become “classroom” interaction in which the student’s actions in ministry are enriched by the learning outcomes of the degree program.

Here is a practical example.  One of the first Kairos Project graduates is the Pastor of Adult Discipleship at a large church in southern California.  As part of her role at the church, she is responsible for developing a holistic process for adult discipleship.  That project became one of the primary foci of her studies.  In each course, she was able to focus her studies in a way that helped her develop this process.  Through biblical studies, theological reflection, and ministry integration, her work at the church was the work toward her degree.  This process was enhanced by the fact that her senior pastor was a member of her mentor team.

Like contextual learning, we knew mentors were valuable.  Again, we sought to build on something we knew to be true.  In the case of mentors, we sought to more fully integrate them into the educational process.  Each student has a mentor team comprised of three people: a faculty mentor, who is a member of the faculty at Sioux Falls Seminary; a ministry mentor, someone who is intimately connected to the student’s ministry context; and a personal mentor, someone the student is willing to let speak into his or her formation and character development.

Each member of the team plays some role in assessing the student’s knowledge, character, and competency throughout the degree program.  Such a model enables the seminary to have a 360-degree view of the student rather than the traditional faculty-student view.  It also empowers the student to be creative when it comes to accomplishing assignments within the degree program.  A student can work with the mentor team to adapt assignments so that they fit his or her individual ministry context.  Obviously, this process is led by the faculty member, but the addition of the other two members improves the contextual nature of the assignments.  Finally, by involving three mentors in the evaluation process, the seminary is giving teeth to the concept that our faculty are not the keepers of pedagogical truth.  Embracing this reality is quite possibly the greatest step that a school can take toward the development of holistic servants of the King.

I can say with confidence that when we launched the Kairos Project, we felt the combination of mentor teams and contextual education would be valuable.  Enough work had been done by other schools to give a glimpse of what could be possible.  However, by doubling down on these ideas and expanding their influence throughout the degree programs, I believe we have learned that mentor teams and contextual education should be non-negotiables when developing servants for the kingdom mission.

In some ways it may be that seminaries are late to the game on the non-negotiable nature of these two items. As we have shared the Kairos Project with ministry leaders, denominational leaders, and ministry movements, there is great resonance with these ideas.  Come back next week to see a few examples of what I mean.

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