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Don’t tell your students the truth

Don’t tell your students the truth

Let me say at the beginning that keeping the truth from your students is a good idea. Students don’t deserve the truth just by registering for the course. Some sit there in front of you thinking that they do; that they have spent good money to buy the truth and now you should deliver; that your job is to give them the product they have purchased.

But if they want truth, you should make them work for it. Teaching theology is not just saying things that are true. It is helping students see and experience the truth for themselves. You are not there to convey them up the mountain on the ski  lift of your lecture but to help them climb the mountain for themselves, with you beside them and holding the rope.

Or, to put it another way, you are not a rich kind uncle, but a poor cunning educator. You are helping them with a process not giving them presents. The earlier in a lecture you give them the truth as a present, the less of the educative process you are able to conduct.

And sometimes the best way to the truth is through what is not true, so why not sit on the edge of the desk, look them in the eye and show them the power of the arguments for the wrong position? Lead them up the garden path and, when it is clear that all they have arrived at is the compost heap, guide them back and show them the right way forward.

Now, I know that there is a role of truth telling in theological education. Truth has been entrusted to us and we have to be faithful stewards of that truth. But students also have been entrusted to us and we must attend to their development into thoughtful theologians and Christians as well as filling their back packs with the golden bricks of theology. We do them no favours for the future unless we show them that there will be a difficult theological task to be done throughout their ministries – enabling the Word of God to speak into the complicated and varied situations they encounter, thoughtfully and with power. And it would be good to get into the habit of thinking deeply about it now.

This has relevance, not just for future ministry, but also for the classroom situation in the present. If you want your lectures to be “interesting”, it will not be enough to show lots of funny, pretty pictures on the screen. You will have to lead your students into the dangerous dark wood of ideas. Or to use yet another metaphor in this already ridiculously metaphor-laden article, you are the ship pilot whose job is to take them out into the storm before you lead them into the harbour – since that is the best way for them to understand the harbour. Now that is interesting, and a lot of fun for both sides of the desk.

But there again, maybe much that is in this little article is not true, just an example of what we are talking about.


Kissing and theological education

Kissing and theological education

At first sight, these two pleasurable activities do not seem to have anything in common so let me say first what I am not trying to say. The management mantra KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is of little use when you try to apply it to such a complicated task as theological education, except in a very reductionist way. Nor do I wish to fall into the contemporary trap of using sentimental or even romantic language to describe our relationship with God. So, what do I mean?

The Poet Robert Bridges speaks of a kiss as “passion with peace” – and anyone who has had a loved one in their arms knows exactly what he means when he talks of this strange combination of feelings.

Not that we encounter either of these, that often, in the classroom. However together, just as they best describe a good kiss, so they also describe good teaching. Am I pressing the analogy too far? Maybe a little tongue-in-cheek? I don’t think so. They are the two things students recognise quickly and to which they most enthusiastically respond.

Passion for the subject is well documented as a key component of teaching which produces good learning. It makes possible, even inevitable, the interest of the class. And almost always some of the passion for the subject rubs off on the students.

Peace? Yes, certainly. It is the sense that you, the teacher, are there where you should be, at peace with yourself and the students – that you don’t fear the students or their questions but you are peacefully open them. Even that you are having a good time. This is a key pre-condition for student engagement and enjoyment.

If I was to give two fundamental reasons why teaching doesn’t work, they would be a lack of passion for the subject and a lack of peace in the teacher.

Now, all this is a far cry from the crude measurement of the feedback forms we usually use at the end of a module. These assess the quality of our notes, our timekeeping, how comprehensively we cover the subject, our use of visual aids (whether they are useful or an impediment) and so on. They generally miss all the important things which make teaching outstanding – a bit like a kiss reported on afterwards using a feedback form!

In this new year of 2013, maybe we can all look for more “passion with peace” in our lives as well as our teaching.



Most theological colleges are mostly happy places most of the time. However, experienced theological educators know that they can easily be damaged by anger, which is rarely too far away.

Henri Nouwen talks about the quiet internal anger of many ministers –their congregations are not responding to teaching and leading, not changing, even becoming a weight on the minister’s life and feelings. In the same way, lecturers can nurse anger towards students who do not care, are not trying, have little commitment to the subject they love, perhaps do not give enough respect, and above all do not allow the teacher to feel fulfilled. Often the job is not as we would like, it and which lecturer does not know the occasional quiet anger at so much administration these days?

But students have problems with anger as well. Recently, I conducted a poll to try and discover not just what students in class were thinking but what they were feeling as well. Anger came out as an issue. Mostly the anger was directed at other students disrupting classes by coming in late, doing emails in class, and so on. Occasionally anger is directed at the college; students invest a lot of precious money in a course these days and sometimes they are cross that they are not getting all they should, especially if a college is struggling.

Leaders – Principals and Rectors – are often tired and have plenty of tensions which can easily spill over into anger. Looking over the fence at more successful colleges can take the route from envy to anger – even towards God and his calling for them. Petty disputes in the staff or too much selfishness can cause sleepless nights and angry days.

Inter-staff anger is possibly the most common. Crossness with our colleagues, whether in leadership over us or not, is the hazard of every organisation and there are those who would say especially of Christian ones. Some of it is because of badly defines job descriptions, some of it is personality, some of it is problems in the lives of those involved, some, an inability to tolerate weaknesses in others.

How do we deal with anger in a Christian way? Ephesians 4.26 is not just useful for married couples;

“In your anger, do not sin, do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”

Three things are said here. Firstly, anger is not in itself a sin. It is a human condition. It can also be righteous anger, for the sake of the kingdom as with Jesus when he cleansed the temple. You have to say, though, that there are few anger situations in which there is nothing of self.

Secondly, in an occasion of anger, for instance in a college, there is great potential to sin – gossip, unkindness, party spirit, lack of humility, are all there in the wings waiting to come on stage. It must be the Christian task of everyone to ensure that anger does not spill over into sin, so far as it lies with them. Not an easy thing to do when you remember that sin occurs in our thought life as well.

Thirdly, we are asked to work for a quick resolution to the situation of anger – in ourselves and with the other person if relevant. Momentary anger is human. Nursed, continuing anger is horrible, for us and for those with whom we are angry and it harms the work of God in a college.

Let us hope that not too many people get cross with me for raising the subject.

A Friend not an Example

A Friend not an Example

Teachers in theological education are often told to be examples for their students. Of course, there is truth in this but in its historical manifestation in theological education, it is a teaching concept from above, all part of the old pattern of the “delivery of my riches” teaching style. It often has little space for fallibility, sinfulness and failure on the part of the example, or how such things should be dealt with in a life. Do you know how to say “be like me” in a humble way?

This is not the best way of passing on such deeper issues which require a more intimate acquaintance with the person. How do we live in joy? What is the role of beauty in one’s life? How is internal disappointment dealt with? When is it good to be foolish rather than wise? We would tend to confine our example to spiritual and academic things, but should not the students understand better how to be a fallible yet happy human being from being with us?

There is another reason why ideas of relationship are better than ideas of example. An example sees the influence only travelling in one direction – from the teacher to the student. Yet, in order to teach well, we have to know our students well. And not only the knowledge but the benefit – even example – can then travel in both directions.

The concept of friendship, which is a sharing of yourself as a gift to the other, is beginning to be used in some circles of theological education today. The word “friend” is a dangerous one to use in this context but it is biblical in that Jesus expressly used it to describe his relationship with his disciples in John 15.

One of the best ways to see this concept is through the other friendships the teacher already has. He has a close and deep feeling relationship with his subject. He has a friendship with a number of individuals who have blessed him in the past and present, either in person or through their books (Erasmus’s “friends”). He has a friendship with God, a lively, hopeful, growing relationship. In the atmosphere of friendship, he introduces the students to his other “friends” and hopes they will also develop a friendship with them and maybe his friendships will inspire theirs.

There are, of course, varieties of friendship and we need to think carefully about what sort of friendship we are looking for with students. Most sorts of friendship have elements of time spent together, not always working; a level of trust which goes both ways; a sense of obligation to the other; and some openness between the parties (this seems to have been the way Jesus used the idea). All of this is good.

It is this openness which defines the depth and nature of the friendship. Most people only have a few very close friends with whom they can be entirely open. It would not be appropriate for this to exist between a teacher and student. Furthermore, sharing can be used to evoke intimacy which is inappropriate. Or such sharing can be used to dissolve the difference between teacher and student – we portray ourselves as “just one of them” and so look silly. This motif of friendship must be carefully controlled and practiced for the right motives.

But it is more powerful than the motif of example. It rightly asks for more open-ness between teacher and student, more humility on the part of the teacher, than older models. Don’t ask your students to retrace your steps or even walk in the same manner, count it a privilege to walk with them as a guide, help and yes, friend.

Successful or Useful ?

Successful or Useful?

Success is attractive. It is a “suitcase” word which is packed with different content by those who use it but its general use is with a reference to us – how others and society perceive us.

As the job of theological educator has become professionalised, so has the temptation to think about personal success. With the training colleges drawing closer to academia in society and often gaining accreditation, our colleges are increasingly looking like two storey houses, with the bottom floor the old Christian training college and the top floor, built on more recently, of secular higher education architecture. And it is the top floor which is increasingly setting the attitudes for those living and working in the house. Professionalism is fine as a commitment to skilful work, but when it holds out to us a “career” in which we can succeed or the status of a social class to which we can belong – success in the world – then it is a far cry from the apostles who were happy to be counted as the “scum of the earth” so long as they were useful.

Usefulness has a different focus, outside of ourselves, on others – not what they think of us but how they benefit from us.

I know the argument that the desire for usefulness is also selfish because it imparts significance to our lives. This is often present when we try to be useful but all our actions arise from a bundle of motives and our job is to keep the right ones on top. The fact remains that the desire for success has a focus primarily for ourselves and usefulness primarily for others.

For the theological teacher, usefulness is an ellipse, formed around two foci – usefulness to God and usefulness to our students. If this sounds too individual, we can add usefulness to the college but it is the duty of leadership to ensure that usefulness to God and the students coincides with usefulness to the college. If it manifestly does not, it is hard to keep a happy staff. To be useful to God is to ensure that our calling is exercised in such a way that it is of maximum impact for the kingdom. This involves a number of careful decisions as to how and where we exercise our ministry of teaching, which we may not yet have consciously taken.

To be useful to our students is also not a straightforward matter. It is certainly more than giving them good information about theologians and their views so they can pass exams. At its best, it is teaching them how to live as Christian human beings and as ministers of the gospel in a complicated world – by word, example and humble companionship.

I hope you found this useful.

Bad Students

Bad Students

Church history is full of bad theological students who went on to do good things for the kingdom. David Brainard, missionary to the North American Indians, was dismissed from Yale College in 1739. David Livingstone, the missionary explorer, was the subject of an unfavourable report from the informal academy of Rev. Richard Cecil of Ongar, where he was sent for residential training and the London Missionary Society sent him back for more work in 1839. Gratton Guiness, the great revivalist preacher and founder of the UK Bible College movement did not complete his course at New College, St. John’s Wood, London in the 1850s. And there are many more.

Why are bad students bad? Some are bad for bad reasons, some for good reasons and most for a combination of the two. Sometimes the fault is as much in the system as the student. Maybe a student is pushed into an academic level or mode he or she is not suited for, or which they consider will not prepare them for their future. They could then become fearful and lose heart – and even occasionally resort to forms of plagiarism to keep up. Or the rules structure of the college may be so all pervasive that the naturally rebellious find it hard to live within all its un-necessary elements. Where there are faults on both sides, as guardians of the college side, it is hard for us not to rest all the blame on the student.

Sometimes it is just a matter of timing in a person’s life. Maybe a student is not yet ready to make the sort of commitments needed, but these will come later. Some years ago, it was very moving for me to receive a past student into my principal’s office, who came back simply to apologise for the sort of student he had been while at college. He was right to apologise, he caused me grief, but now he is in a very useful work for God.

There are many other reasons why students are problems to us. So how should we behave towards them? Firstly, we cannot condone wrong doing, it must always be pointed out clearly – and often it must have consequences. Secondly, we need to create, as far as possible, a safe atmosphere in the college, where students can make their mistakes and mess up, even sin, in a forgiving environment. A place where humble people are on hand to pick them up when they fall and set them on the way again. Let them have their falls now at college. After all, there are plenty of situations in Christian service which are not as forgiving or caring. Thirdly, we need to believe in redemption as well as teaching it in the doctrine classes. This means we practice mercy and patience whenever possible. Of course, occasionally a bad apple has to be removed from the barrel, but students change, they are at the most changeable time in their lives, and they change when someone believes in them and gives them a second chance.

Mercy and patience are the marks of God’s dealings with us all. Patience is a fruit of the spirit and, as our Lord said, blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

Beautiful Lectures

Beautiful Lectures

Our fathers (and theirs before them) generally had two criteria to judge theological lecturing -“is it true?” and “Is it useful?” But that this is not enough. Your lecturing may well be true and useful, but is it beautiful? (Happily, I ask the question about our lecturing not ourselves.)

Beauty, in fact, is a hard concept to get hold of. David Hume said that beauty is a power in things to afford us pleasure. So you sink into a hot bath and say “Ahhhh that’s beautiful!” Unfortunately our present evil world has taught us that people can, and often do, derive pleasure from some very unbeautiful ideas and acts. In any case, pleasure is often confined to our moods. For a student in love even the worst lecture is beautiful. For a student who has a bad cold, the best lecture is pretty ugly. Yet lectures should be so delivered that they are a pleasure to take.

Emmanuel Kant tried to take beauty out of the subjective sphere. He said that beauty is a recognition of form and design which is in some way universal, and dis-interested – not linked to your special interest in, or possession of, a beautiful thing. If that is true, there is something wrong with you as a student if you do not find my lecture beautiful. It all sounds a little presumptuous for the lecturer to take such an attitude but the form and structure of our lectures should be right and good.

But beauty is not just subjective and objective, it is also local or cultural. Fattening houses used to be popular in Nigeria, where I worked for some years. Before they married, young women would go there to eat and lie around so that they would become beautifully fat for their wedding. Slimming clinics perform the opposite function for women preparing for marriage in England. So what would be a beautiful lecture in Africa may be an ugly one in New York and visa versa. And a lecture that fits our generation’s culture may well be un-necessarily ugly to today’s youth culture which our students inhabit.

Can lectures be beautiful? I think they must be but mostly in the deepest meaning of beauty. There is a strong Franciscan tradition of seeing beauty and encountering God at the same time. God is the source of all beauty because beauty is a part of his image stamped on what he has made. Beauty that God has made in nature or beauty that man has made because God has made man that way – such as in art or music – is an encounter with God and His beauty.

So what is a beautiful lecture? At its lowest level there could be a pleasing of the student, a beauty in its architecture can also be attractive. It can be culturally appropriate. A deeper beauty can be seen in the coherence of ideas. A lecture can be beautifully Christian when it expresses the concerns of God and brings pleasure to his heart and any Christian heart. The deepest beauty, however, like all beauty, is when it brings us into the presence of God. We lecture about God, not just with him listening in (a difficult enough thought in itself) but also with attention to God and with focussing the attention of the students on God’s presence. That will always be a beautiful lecture.

David Livingstone made three missionary journeys in Africa. On his first and happiest he wrote in his diary, “missionaries ought to cultivate a taste for the beautiful”. So should lecturers.

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