Mentoring and Contextual Learning – Classic Track Series

January 23, 2017

Mentoring is recognized as a very valuable aspect of theological education.  But perhaps to everyone’s surprise, it isn’t always an integral component of degree programs at every seminary.  To be fair, some seminaries integrate mentoring in a very intentional fashion.  Others view it is an informal part of the process. Still others do not give it much attention at all.  To be completely transparent, Sioux Falls Seminary, at some point in time, could have been in each of those categories.  Today, we are very intentional about integrating mentoring into our degree programs.  When combined with contextual learning, mentoring can be one of the best student development mechanisms that exists.

When we launched the Kairos Project a few years ago, we created a system wherein students have three mentors and are pursuing theological education while engaging in ministry practice.  Thus far, students have said that the mentor teams and contextual learning are both very helpful.  That is not to that say there have not been problems or that everything is perfect, but it is to say that mentoring and contextual learning are good aspects of the Kairos Project.

In our classic tracks, mentoring happens mostly through the supervised ministry process.  As I mentioned at the end of last week’s post, that process will be enhanced in the near future.  Why are we enhancing it?  The answer is simple: to make mentoring and contextual learning an even more intentional aspect of the classic supervised ministry process.

I think it would be fair to say that students in seminaries across North America, including students at this seminary, have a wide range of experiences in their supervised ministry courses.  Some students rave about the experience, and others feel it was mundane, busywork, or even useless.  Yes, the range is that wide.  Our goal is to bring consistency to the experience and specifically to create an experience that is consistently great.  To get there, we believe the process needs to expand beyond the traditional understanding of supervised ministry.  Historically, students take one, two, or three courses titled “supervised ministry” or “internship” in which they attempt to be engaged in ministry while reflecting on that experience in class.  But why is this kind of experience only relegated to only a few courses?  If theological education is nothing more than an in-depth form of discipleship, shouldn’t students always be thinking about the interaction of theology, ministry practice, and daily living?

For Sioux Falls Seminary, our first step was to reorganize our classic educational curriculum around three categories: knowledge, character, and competency.  In doing so, we were able to note that each course in the curriculum should touch on each of those categories and that a full one-third of the curriculum should have one of those categories as its staring point, creating a curriculum that is one-third knowledge, one-third character, and one-third competency.  This concept has an immense impact on the traditional understanding of supervised ministry.  Perhaps supervised ministry is no longer a set of courses, but rather a guiding philosophy behind the entire educational process?

Now, it is important to note that not all students who engage in theological education will participate in supervised ministry.  Supervised ministry experiences are designed for students who plan to have some formal role in a ministry setting.  By formal, I mean in a specified role, and by ministry setting, I mean a setting in which the purpose is to serve people with the Great Commission being one of the guiding principles.  You can see that these definitions greatly expand the typical understanding of formal and ministry.  A formal role does not mean that someone has to be paid or even that they have a title, and ministry does not have to happen in a church or even a nonprofit organization.  Nonetheless, there must be intentionality behind both the role and the setting.  It is this kind of intentionality that gives way to mentoring and contextual learning.

If, for such students, supervised ministry becomes a guiding principle rather than a set of courses, then mentoring and contextual learning will be front and center.  As a result, students will require trained and competent mentors who care about their development in the areas of knowledge, character, and competency.  In addition, such learning and development will have the greatest impact when it happens in a ministry context.  Much of this already takes place within the Kairos Project.  The exciting part about this reality is that it can also take place in the classic tracks as well!  Perhaps this is why so many new people are coming to the seminary?  What do I mean when I ask that question?  Well, that is the topic for next week.  See you then!

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