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DDH House Blog

Contextualizing theological education at VDS: why we do what we do

Shared by Mark Miller-McLemore on August 3, 2011

Disciples Divinity House Opening Retreat 2011

Mark Miller-McLemore, 8/2011

The Disciples House model is rare among North American churches. Its approach has been so successful that we are tempted to forget that it is still experimental and fragile.

In 1950, church and school were not as separated as they are now. It was enough for a Disciples House to provide support, inexpensive housing, and the spontaneous community that naturally emerges in such a setting. Situations have changed. Now Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt more intentionally locates itself in the middle—between the church and the School—because School and Church really do need one another. When separate, each is less than it might be. The School tells the church: you need to be moral, you need to be intellectually honest, you need to be faithful. The Church tells the School: no matter how great your ideas or commitments, without embodiment in communities and practices, they are dead.

Disciples House at VDS values both partners and tries to build on the best of each, toward the end that a faithful and theologically grounded and effective ministry may lead the Body of Christ toward bringing about God’s reign of shalom in this hurting world.

Let me offer some historical background.

Disciples and the evolution of ministry— Given our distrust of “clergy” and our stress on the ministry of the laity, Disciples only gradually evolved the practice of a “settled ministry,” and it was controversial. The practice of preparing people for ministry as a professional vocation, where a young person would get an education for that purpose, then move to a church to lead, with pay, also evolved and spread gradually.

Christian colleges such as Bacon or Bethany saw their role as preparing citizens and Christians (they went together). Seminaries for the graduate training of ministers came later.  In fact, the requirement of an BD/MDiv for ordination only came into being formally for Disciples in the 1940s and 50s. Many ministers till then were ordained with only a college education—and it was classical, educating people in the classical languages and forming them in the western Christian tradition, perhaps with an Enlightenment twist of science.

A change in theological pedagogy—This older “moral” form of education is described by the word paideia­­. It intended to instill and pass on a tradition, as a shaper of character for action toward the good. You still hear echoes of this type of education when people speak of “spiritual formation,” “making Disciples,” “forming faithful people.”

Almost simultaneous with the Disciples’ move to a “settled” model for congregational ministry came the rise of another form of education for ministry centered around the so-called “scientific study of religion,” “wissenschaftliche.” The tools of scientific inquiry were turned onto the previously sacrosanct provinces of faith. Scholars began to study more of the history and archeology and philology of the Bible. Some of their pursuits were simply obvious questions—who authored the first 5 books of the Bible; why are there four differing Gospels? What’s up with the book of Daniel? Some of their findings were quite unsettling to traditional views: could the sun really stand still? What does evolution have to do with creation? These questions fomented the “fundamentalist controversies” of the early 20th century (continuing today) and became an important part of education in religion and for ministry—also controversial. Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate(available online), by David Kelsey, traces this story in relation to education for ministry in detail.

Education for ministry for mainline Protestants today, no matter where or how it is delivered, is overwhelmingly what Kelsey calls the “Berlin” model, after its beginnings at the University of Berlin in the early 1800s. The “quick and dirty”--

  • The acceptance of the “developmental hypothesis” in religion as in science
  • Historical and textual criticism of scripture
  • Critical thinking, later postmodernism & deconstruction
  • Specialization for the sake of mastery, with “knowledge of” being more important than “living of” scriptures and beliefs. (Thus Jewish professor Amy-Jill Levine teaches the NT to Christian ministry students and nobody blinks.)
  • Valuing theory and abstraction
  • Prizing the classical theological disciplines—Bible, history, theology, ethics
  • Of lesser value in this model’s outlook—applications: Preaching, pastoral care, Christian Education, Church Administration

This arrangement is so widespread that if you look at a catalog from one of the major publishers, Fortress, that’s exactly how it is organized.

The Berlin model represents a sincere attempt to find a place in the modern research university, with its search for truth using the questions of science instead of confessional statement, for theological inquiry and education. Strip away the husk of cultural baggage and you will find the kernel of truth. Dig deep enough into the texts and you can find the real historical Jesus. (It is not unlike “cut through the superstition of 1800 years, and you will find the pure NT church.”) It’s exciting, and it’s brought a great deal more honesty and truth to the sometimes obfuscating and hierarchical realms of theology, ministry, and church.

 But there are problems for faith in the Berlin approach.

 In the old “paideia” way, people expected ministers to know the Bible by heart and be able to lead and build up the church. The new “Berlin” way stressed understanding the Q source and other matters that Eli has illumined so well with his “the gospel according to Mr. Potato Head.” It can work well if it is built upon a solid foundation of paideia. But that is no longer the situation for many students, who may be gifted and called but might not know the Bible or the ways of the church. And it can work great if the church is strong enough for students to “learn on” them. But given the crisis situation in many mainline congregations, there isn’t as much of a stable institutional platform anymore to predictable and preventable errors.

No school is purely Berlin, of course. Schools have field education and CPE. Some do spiritual formation or direction. But the major emphasis is academic and critical, as befits a professional school in a university.

When students arrive here to begin an MDiv at VDS (and other schools), most have been “in school” for almost two decades. They have been thoroughly socialized into the habits and dispositions of Berlin. It’s a tough transition back into church and world as a minister at the end of the curriculum. Some studies show that almost 50% of new ministers drop out of congregational ministry in the first 5 years.  What a loss of resources. What a lot of pain. Ask me later about Jeff and his robe and stoles.

So: how do you combine the best of Berlin with the best for the church? That’s the question we’re working with as we turn to Disciples House at Vanderbilt.

Early history of DDH—Disciples House started in 1927 as an attempt to answer two problems.

1st: How can we bring modern theological education to Disciples? The “fundamentalist controversy” was raging. The Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ had officially separated by 1906. The Disciples’ College of the Bible in Lexington had held a “heresy trial” of two professors in 1918 for teaching “higher criticism.” The “Scopes Monkey Trial” had taken place just two years earlier in Dayton, Tennessee, over teaching evolution. Those who were less ecumenical had walked out of the International Convention in Memphis in 1926/7 over too much cooperation with the “pious unimmersed” on the mission field.

Starting the Disciples Foundation at Vanderbilt’s (formerly Methodist) School of Religion, in the heart of Church of Christ territory, was not a neutral act. It was ecumenical and modernist and scientific, not separatist, restrictive, and closed-minded. It indicated a controversial commitment to the newer historical and critical thinking about faith and scripture.

2nd: How can we educate our students closer to home, so they will serve churches here? Disciple students from the South were already getting educated in the so-called “higher criticism,” but they were doing it at Yale and Chicago and, after graduation, entering ministry north and east. The Foundation at Vanderbilt intended to help bring students to churches in the Southeast.

George Mayhew was called with a PhD from the University of Chicago and its Disciples Divinity House to give leadership and serve on the Vanderbilt faculty. At first the Disciples Foundation provided a kind of “Disciples Student Association.” Eventually it provided housing (around 1945), and scholarship support —though the first residents were not necessarily all Divinity students or Disciples. (Ask Gene Regen, a medical student who lived here with his wife Elizabeth, about Disciple and  future Jesus Seminar scholar Robert Funk who was a fellow resident, or some of the other characters.)

Organizationally, DDH began as a cooperative effort between Vanderbilt and Vine Street, became a project supported by all the Disciple churches in Tennessee (the State Secretary/regional minister also led the House), then emerged as an independent institution in 1951, with its own board and dean (Herman Norton, till 1984, who also served on the Divinity faculty). Starting in the 1950s, DDH was recognized and funded by the Disciples of Christ like other Disciple seminaries. The current House facility was built in 1958; the third floor was added several years later. By the 1970s, the rising cost of a Vanderbilt education ($600 a year!!!) became a concern. The inexpensive and convenient residence quickly became an important part of the package. And more PhD students entered the mix as the Graduate Department of Religion became prominent, alongside the Divinity School. Numbers of Disciple PhD students have declined in the last 20 years, but are higher this year than in most recent years.

 Our founders committed Disciples to a reasoned understanding of faith, informed by all the modern sciences (psychology, history, textual studies, sociology, management, etc.), with ecumenical openness as well, in opposition to unreasoning or sectarian traditions.

 II. “Modern Times”—What’s the problem now for which the Disciples House (and its programs) is the answer?

 When I was called in 1995, the search committee expressed to me a related but different concern. Noting the increasing separation of school and church, they worried that preparation for ministry had gone too far toward the Berlin side and less toward leading communities into practicing the faith of Jesus. They worried that too many grads went into counseling or chaplaincy or social justice or teaching. They hoped that bringing an experienced pastor as dean would influence students toward congregational ministry. I came with a lot of academic experience, and I am married to a professional academic—but I left a PhD program in theology to be a solo pastor at a church in an inner city setting on the south side of Chicago for 15 years. Ironically and engagingly, that ministry demanded the best of my theological education. That’s what I bring to the table as a teacher and dean. I think I was able to be what Jackson Carroll calls a “reflective practitioner.”

 Now, others are working on the troubling gap between the School and the Church, particularly the Lilly Endowment. Lilly has funded the “Transition into Ministry” programs, including our Congregational Immersion Project, as experiments in helping students cross that gap from student to minister, with a great start in a healthy congregation with a healthy pastor as mentor. Vanderbilt’s GDR has crafted a Lilly-funded “Theology and Practice” program (first called “Teaching for Ministry”), aimed at helping PhD students understand the difference between teaching for a discipline and teaching for pastoral practice. They are not separate, but they are distinctive approaches. Recent books such as Educating Clergy and For Life Abundant explore the aims of theological education.

If the end of a divinity school education is ministry—then it is not simply about knowledge for its own sake. It is knowledge for the telos, the end, of faithful leadership, or shaping faithful life together, or helping to bring the reign of God. It is not simply about mastering a specific field or discipline.

In matters of faith, church, and ministry, “studying” and “practicing” need to be balanced, and in preparation for ministry we need to balance school and church. The Disciples House, situated in between the two, seeks to do just that.

Our current approach—We inherited the first piece (below), and we had an intuitive grasp of the second, but the last few years have brought us some helpful ways of articulating our task further—understandings that you my find interesting as we try to deal with the complexities of education for ministry. 

It is hard to describe a complex, multi-layered, synergistic, interconnected ecology of formation and the reasons behind it, but I will give it a shot. Fundamentally, if VDS brings “Berlin,” DDH tries to supplement Berlin with “Athens.”

1. Here’s the basic idea: A Disciples House is a residential Disciple community, in partnership with an ecumenical school.

The Disciples House model (the basics of which we share with DDH-Chicago) was once called a combination of the “ancient monastery and the modern fraternity.” That’s funny! But it is also apt. 

In the residential recipe, you take a small dorm space and add 20 ministry students, all attending an ecumenical divinity school. They share bathrooms, a common kitchen, the Commons Room and the laundry room. They have to work out dirty dishes left in the sink and noises down the hall or across the street.

In many ways, this is a “laboratory for Christian living.” Like marriage, it’s a great way to prepare for pastoral ministry, where your life is an open book and you might live across the parking lot from the church. It’s also a practical theological issue for the church:  How do you live well in community with other flawed human Christians?

But there’s another aspect to the residential model—the monastic, churchly part. Our primary but not exclusive goal is to shape excellent Disciple pastors and theological leaders. At this place, we seek to be focused but work to be (in good progressive Disciple tradition) inclusive, hospitable, and open-hearted toward one another, with deep appreciation and realization that we learn from one another and from our differences. There are many forms of ministry and many ways of seeking and serving God. Most of us will be pastors, some teachers, some advocates or organizers. Most will be Disciple, but some will be UCC or Presbyterian or Baptist. We presume that all aim toward one broad purpose.

House residents share worship, eat together, walk to and from the classes together and talk over the lecture. They share study groups and edit each other’s papers. In the Divinity School, everyone knows who the Disciples House students are. It’s a formative way to live IN your tradition in the midst of an interfaith world.

We stress community as a sacred gift, and its quality is usually very good. Many graduates say they wouldn’t have made it without this community. Some choose to come here for the community, despite better money elsewhere. Graduates will tell you that the House was as important as the School, if not more so. It has an obvious likeness to church camp—but it lasts for more than a week, and you don’t go home, because it IS home. 

It is interesting that Disciples House is building outstanding ministers based on face-to-face community, at the same time that some theological education is moving online.

2. Here’s a way we have innovated: a “community of practice” approach

Google “community of practice” theory to read more about what I want to describe next. Sociologist Etienne Wenger has noted that people, especially practicing professionals like ministers, learn best in groups, with trusted colleagues who are engaged in the same work—ministry or prayer or study. We grow best when we are in loving, mutually supportive learning toward a shared common end. Example: we know that colleague groups are great for pastors. We know that mentor relationships are critical to successful transition into a profession—and the CIP builds on that insight. Disciples House is a “community of practice” as well—which returns us to that older model of education for ministry, paideia.

To build a “community” into a “community of practice” requires that there be commonality about shared practices and intentionality about reflecting on them together. We start with a ministry student commonality, and we intentionally inject a practice of ministry outcome into the structures of community already present.

At times, but not always, this dimension has a more denomination-specific aspect. I do not mean to be exclusive in this, but I think what Disciples House does has an inevitable and appropriate Disciple focus. Therefore, especially in contrast to the Divinity School, it’s “all Disciples, all the time,” as well as “all ministry, all the time.” House Meals will feature Disciple leaders as guests, and Ministry Lunches will focus on ministry issues. How do you read Scripture in worship? How is compensation structured for ministers? How do you get through the ordination process with the Commission on Ministry?

We also do an event called “Wise Practice” each May where we bring outside leaders to resource what graduates told us 6 years ago were three key areas in which they had not received enough grounding: stewardship and finance; conflict; and the “sacramental ministries”—how Disciples do weddings, baptisms, and funerals. The third clearly has a more Disciple focus, but the others are pretty universal. First years: you may be tempted to not take this seriously, but this is a required event. It’s central to what we do. It functions to balance:

  • Ecumenical classroom            with                        Disciple-specific approach
  • The academic                           with                        the practical
  • The School                                with                        the Church

And it is really fine quality! 

You can do community without the practice of ministry, and practice without the community. Do both and it creates a community of practice. We learn better, for the sake of better ministry later.

You need to understand how to help the church better live out its call to bring about the beloved community. You’ll need to assess what the beloved community looks like in Greenwood or in Green Hills. It all flows together in ministry.

3. Addressing the “lack of urgency” factor

Even when we included great practical teaching, we encountered a frustrating response: students didn’t always attend. Once I got a phone call from a graduate starting in ministry. “I never learned anything about doing Disciple weddings.” This surprised me, since we had just completed that previous spring’s “Wise Practice” on baptisms, weddings, and funerals for Disciples. “Didn’t you come to Wise Practice?” “No, I had something else to do.” “Didn’t you talk it over in your field ed placement?” “No, I worked with youth and social ministry.” 

This is a problem. I call it the “you don’t know what you need to know until you need to know it” factor. In the school, it seems more urgent to study theology than budgets—in which theology leaps into action. Some are not sure they are going into congregational ministry—until their final year. Some get caught up in issues. We constantly work against the current. Then people get into the work of ministry and really have to scramble to keep their heads above water.

To address this, we use what I call a “laddered pedagogy”—that is, we bring current students into frequent contact with former students and ministers who are just a few steps further up the ladder. For example, we always use recent graduates or young ministers as teachers at Wise Practice and at our Opening Retreat. These are voices you might listen to a little more closely, since where they are you will soon be going. 

It’s not a cure-all, but then nothing is, because of #4. 

4. Sharing an understanding that the trajectory toward excellence in ministry is a long one, and explicitly teaching that the school experience is just one part

Here’s another question for which we have devised a response: How do you value school, but keep its value in perspective? 

William Sullivan has studied how professionals develop, and he proposes that there are three “apprenticeships” in their growth toward wisdom and expertise: of knowledge, of skills, and of a distinct identity or way of seeing and being in the world. The Divinity School mostly offers education in the needed knowledge base. The House adds skill-based preparation for doing ministry. Field ed brings a taste of professional identity. But it takes actually doing ministry everyday to develop the distinct ways of seeing the world, dispositions and outlook, and habits of excellent ministers. I think it takes 5 years for basic proficiency across a wide range of tasks. 

Patricia Benner (building on research by the Dreyfus brothers) has studied growth toward expertise in nursing. Her research is now being used to understand ministry. These studies also make clear that learning ministry requires experience over time. Benner notes that professional practices are complex, situated, and engaged. The classroom learning approach is simplified, abstracted, and disengaged—in order to generalize. That’s helpful to a point—but not when you encounter the messiness of specific cases. It is obvious that only some aspects of learning ministry can happen in the classroom. A whole lot more must be learned on the job, over time. Wisdom requires a long trajectory of learning. Again, our CIP builds on this insight. 

These understandings offer a loving critique of the “Berlin”-heavy approach to education for ministry, whether at Vanderbilt or elsewhere. The academic components are necessary, but not enough. To lead faithfully for change and justice requires learning beyond school. It is hard for long-term students to remember this larger aim of wise and competent practice, but learning to be a minister is more like learning how to be a musician than it is learning how to be a scholar in a discipline. 

Programmatically, therefore, Disciples House seeks to supplement the Masters of Divinity degree with intentional community, the “Beginning of the Year Retreat,” House Meals, Ministry Lunches, “Wise Practice” at the end of the year, and as often as possible by using wise current leaders as teachers (especially great younger ones). 

The outcome for which we look in ministry—excellence, effectiveness, bold creativity, building shalom—doesn’t happen in the school alone. It only happens over time, in practice. 

A word about spirituality and formation for ministry

You will hear a lot about spiritual formation, which is good when you have a developed spiritual tradition—say, Quakers. 

Disciple spirituality is all over the map, from person to person and from congregation to congregation. A gift of our tradition is our freedom. But this means we cannot simply teach or promote a single way of being spiritual for ministry. 

Instead, we:

  • Assume students with a call from God have a spiritual life, encourage and discuss it
  • Assume that most of us seek out communities of like-minded fellow travelers, and thus encourage students to be part of a local church of their choosing, so they can nurture their spiritual lives in communal contexts
  • Encourage varied expressions of worship and spirituality here at the House and at the Divinity School, including service to others as well as to the House
  • Encourage students to understand the practices of ministry and of study as spiritual disciplines 

I hope this essay gives you a sense that you are entering a long tradition of excellence here at DDH-VDS, with ongoing attempts to respond thoughtfully to the challenges of living faithfully and justly in this amazing creation and in this wonderful school. I look forward to discussing it further.




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