Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Does Quality Theological Education Produces Character?

In his blog, the homilia of a budding NT scholar, our very own, not just budding, but also blooming NT scholar with a sense of humour (you don’t see many of these around) posted another “sick project”. The discussion is about the quality control of Malaysian building projects and also of the quality control of theological education.

Kar Yong poses two interesting questions; “But I wonder is there a close corelation (sic) between quality theological education and character building? The better the quality of theological education, will this translate to better spiritual formation and character building?”

That set me thinking. I guess the key word is “quality” because we know that not all theology education offered by all theological institutions, seminaries, and departments of theology are the same. I will also take the liberty not to define “theological education” too finely as it can refers to higher Masters (Master of Theology) and PhDs but use it to refer to general theological education. So, does getting a “quality theological education” means “better spiritual formation and better character formation”?

I have been following the theological education curriculum designs in seminaries for some time. I find that theological institutions, seminaries and universities departments are often torn between two objectives: spiritual formation and academic excellence. An emphasis on spiritual formation will develop their students’ character while the emphasis on academic excellence will build up the institution as a world recognised centre of learning. While not mutually exclusive, it is not possible to have both. We must also recognise that they have 2-4 years for each student to do what is needful.

First, a lot depends on the teaching staff and the institution’s philosophy. If the institution aims to be a centre of academic excellence, on par with other centres of academic excellence in producing publications and leading the trend in the latest theological constructs, then it will secure for its teaching staff, men and women with PhDs and a leaning towards research and writing. Normally these brilliant men and women speaks a different language from us ordinary mortals, and often it is difficult for them to come down to our level (I am not being judgmental here. Their training has made them so). Their interests will be more in their narrow fields of study than in the mentoring of students which takes up time and effort.

Second, if the institution thinks of itself as a university rather than as Christian community of faith, then the design of the curriculum will be heavy on theology, hermeneutics, homiletics, New and Old Testament studies rather than on spirituality or spiritual formation. These may be the reason why in most theological institutions, theology and Biblical studies take up more teaching time than relational skills or counselling.

Finally, most theological institutions grade their effectiveness by measurable outcomes like exam scores. It is rather difficult to measure spiritual growth. It is much easier to grade a paper in theology or biblical studies. All theological institutions seek accreditation with some national and international bodies. Unfortunately accreditation depends on measurable data such as how many PhDs on staff and how were the average student scores than on the character of the teaching staff and students.

I must acknowledge than many theological institutions are now aware of their weaknesses and are attempting to incorporate spiritual formation into their academic curriculum. Unfortunately, this is often more like tinkering with the curriculum. What is needed is a radical restructuring of theological education to make spiritual formation and character formation premier in the theological institutions. Back to Kar Yong’s questions. For the reasons given above, I feel that there is a negative correlation between spiritual formation and character building, and quality theological education at this present moment.

Photo credit

Labels: , , ,

18 Comments:

Anonymous sk said...

Indeed, Dr Tang. With the way "quality" is pegged to the standards set by other tertiary institutions, I too think there's a negative correlation between the quality of theological education and the effectiveness of formation.


Like you, I also believe that the real value of theological education (i.e. intellectual theological development) will be seen only when it takes its place as A PART OF a holistic formation, and not the defining point for the conferment of a theological degree.


But of course, all seminaries would claim that they hold spiritual formation in very high priority. The irony is, though, the system punishes students who don't perform according to the stipulated Grade Point Average, not students who don't pray or who have little sacramental consciousness. Such an irony.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi sk,

You know what is the greater irony here? It is that we give our faith and trust to these institutions to train pastors and leaders who will in time, graduate and go forth to lead the church and disciple its members.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Global-South said...

I think Rose Dowsett's missiological comments in Connections, Summer 2005 is relevant here.


On the contrary, growing in grace and Christ-likeness, and being fruitful with the fruit that lasts eternally, demands robust, focused, life-long learning and disciplined discipleship.

We desperately need to recapture in our training institutions a strong emphasis on character formation, and also the recognition that all training is at best preparatory:
there will be far more to be learned after leaving home and embarking on cross-cultural ministry, for which a humble, teachable spirit is essential.

In our missionary communities and agencies we urgently need to create a climate of humble, committed, life-long learning, and the willingness to grapple long and
hard with deep issues in cross-cultural settings. Too many harvests are shallow-rooted, and soon wither and die.

We need to be far more searching in our critique of short-term mission, because it short-circuits any possibility of thoughtful, sensitive, contextualized ministry: that can only come from spending a
long time learning, learning, learning.

For the Lord Jesus’ sake, let’s seek to be wise and not just informed, and to encourage each other to be life-long learners.


If we think we have problems with theological education and character formation, wait for us to do cross-cultural ministry. It is of an even greater challenge!

We (Malaysian/Sporeans) are definitely lacking in missiological, cross-cultural training. May be this explains why our churches are not missional?

9:21 PM  
Blogger Kar Yong said...

thanks, alex, for this. This raises another question: how can hold the 2 - character formation and excellence in scholarship - in balanced tension? Or can we?

11:39 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi global-south,

Character formation is definitely the key here. This is important whether in a church, a theological institution, or a mission organisation. The catchword nowadays is character formation and lifelong learning.

This is also important in cross culturally training and situations.

1:35 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi kar yong,

That is the million dollar question. Or if you allow me to rephrase, can we have a curriculum that integrates spiritual formation with academic excellence without sacrificing one or the other thus creating a win-win situation?

I believe it is being attempted in some of the theological institutions. Brian Hill, Australian educator, monograph Spirituality in Theological Education is worth reading.

Again it depends on how committed the leaders of the theological institutions. Recently I was invited to do a silent retreat for students of the graduating class of a Singapore theological association and also offers spiritual direction.

Again it will call for a radical restructuring of theological education.

1:45 AM  
Anonymous sk said...

I think there are some factors at play here:

1. Denominational leaders who sit on the councils of the seminaries are often more interested in churning out pastors to assume institutional responsibility. There just aren't enough pastors to go around, so they need more pastors to graduate in as short a time as possible. As a result, their primary concern might not be as much for ministers who're holistically formed as it is for ministers who're ready to start taking on institutional duties.

2. Faculties of the seminaries (especially at the management level) are often more concerned about the academic reputation and performance of the seminary (which is strictly gauged by accrediting bodies) than the holistic formation of students (which doesn't give weightage to accreditation).

3. Faculties of seminaries cannot move beyond thinking of formation in terms of a series of programmes, activities, and rites that have to be performed routinely - week in week out, month in month out, year in year out. Perhaps their workload doesn't permit for them to think of formation as a relational agenda rather than a programmatic agenda. By and large, beyond the classroom and the weekly pastoral groups, they're absent from the daily lives of the students. So how do they then form the students? Using programmes.

2:54 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi sk,

It comes back to desired outcomes of theological institutions and the teaching faculty.

Many faculties members are think of spiritual formation as a series of program-small group meeting, a talk one to one, or just to check up on the student.

Few tries very hard to mentor but unfortunately do not know how.

Others are forced to look after certain students because they have been assigned them.

It all boils down to their understanding of spiritual formation and their role in it.

3:19 AM  
Anonymous alwyn said...

hi all,

whilst i can agree that spiritual formation is a priority in theological education, i wonder if this is entirely possible, given the inevitable need for division of labour. let me explain:

the treasury department of a church must be well-trained *financially* and whilst being sanctified is a good by-product, it wouldn't help (though it sounds very nice) to say that the 'point' about looking after money is being sanctified (can we?)

likewise, if the 'point' of theological education is to create learning dispositions in Christians to build their intellectual understanding of the faith, then SOME level of academic criteria as a measurement of quality will have to apply *at least as importantly* as spiritual formation, no?

i guess what i'm saying is that, e.g., a Christian learner must be judged by his learning abilities, with the issue of his personal growth in Christ being a separate issue? what do u think?

forgive me if i'm mentioning stuff already talked about...great conversation...:)

3:56 PM  
Blogger Lee Chee Keat said...

O wow!! what an insight!! Next year I will be doing MDiv in STM...Hmmm...looks like I need to work on the shortfall of theological education by taking initiative to learn up more relational skills and pastoral skills from the lecturers. Maybe I need to be an annoying apprentice who push the "sifu"(teacher)to do what they preach or "bribe" for life skills impartation. Hee Hee!!

12:14 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi alwyn,

I get what you are saying. Basically it boils down to what is the purpose of a theological education.

If is it is impart knowledge like a university or dispositions in Christians to build their intellectual understanding of the faith then it should function like a school.

If it is to nurture servant leaders for the Kingdom, then the approach must be different.

3:07 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi chee keat,

maybe you should be annoying apprentice who push the "sifu"(teacher)to do what they preach or "bribe" for life skills impartation or more, much more :)

Enjoy your MDiv program.

3:10 AM  
Anonymous alwyn said...

hi Alex - it's kinda like what the purpose of a law education is. to produce good lawyers. but this doesn't preclude a strong academic grounding, etc.

e.g. would we think it's acceptable if people kept failing their assignments, as long as they are still good servants?

i guess what i'm saying is there's a difference between a seminary and a monastery. the (not uncontroversial) point I'm making is that, from the comments gleamed, it LOOKS LIKE we are trying to turn the former into the latter?

9:31 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi alwyn,

I like what you say about the purpose of a law education. However would we think it's acceptable if people kept failing their assignments, as long as they are still good servants? is to polarise the argument. It is not what we are saying. The question we are asking is whether there is a correlation between quality theological education and spiritual and character formation.

I do not think the arguments put forth calls for to turn a seminary into a monastery. Anyway, this example is not apt as seminary turns out religious for the world while monastery is for contemplatives to stay away from the world.

If I am to use such an analogy, I would compare the Dominicans (more scholastic) and the Franciscans (more servanthood) and suggest that the Jesuits is a better combination of both (scholastic and servanhood). Again this is an analogy and I am generalising here.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous alwyn said...

Alex,

thanks for highlighting the polarisation aspect. i guess i was trying to get at the 'next steps' issue i.e. what new proposals are we going to take? or how can we ensure that we're not throwing the baby of vigorous academics out with the bathwater of spiritual neglect, etc.? should we change the curriculum, the classroom, pedagogy, etc.? (but oops i just noticed that you replied to Kar Yong's comments...)

question: doesn't the chapel meetings, prayer meetings, etc. 'take care' of the spiritual formation part?

i'm not sure, though, about yr comments about the monastery - aren't they supposed to prepare u for the world, too? or, to put it another way, wouldn't a monastery experience prepare you for the world?

12:32 PM  
Anonymous blogpastor said...

Uhr...I'm a late into the interesting conversation here but my experience of spiritual formation in theological education came mainly through being mentored by Dr Gam Shae, a NT lecturer whom I approached to ask for one-on-one sessions.

My opinion is that there is a role here for the pastor and the sending church or/and denomination to play. Who can better mentor a candidate for the ministry than the pastor or and of his appointees.

The conbined realities of denominational expectations and demands on candidate's choice of institution to study in; the limitations of theological education itself with its eye on accreditation makes it inevitable that the church, the candidate's spiritual family that knows him or her so well,should be the spiritual father and mother.

No candidate should be "orphaned".

The institutions really doing formation don't have widely accepted accreditation. And those with good accreditation, including Regent's College, don't have good spiritual formation. They can all move towards a balance but they will be restricted and the ideal of academic excellence with good spirtual formation will never be realized in such institutions.

Do I sound too pessimistic? Or am I realistic?

9:42 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi alwyn,
question: doesn't the chapel meetings, prayer meetings, etc. 'take care' of the spiritual formation part?

yes and no. Taking part in these activities are helpful but it is not the whole scope of spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is character formation into the character of Christ. As you will aware, chapel or prayer meetings (if any) in theological institution is conducted once a week. How much formation can take place in these 1 -2 hours while the rest of the time is devoted to academic training.

i'm not sure, though, about yr comments about the monastery - aren't they supposed to prepare u for the world, too? or, to put it another way, wouldn't a monastery

I am sorry I misunderstood your reference to a monastery. When you mentioned seminary and monastery, I assumed you are referring to the monastic period in Church history. Monastery is the residence of those religious who renounce the world and to live in community of prayer and worship.

I guess you are referring to a short period spiritual retreat. Not all monasteries offer that. A short period spiritual retreat is good for rengaging with God and should be on the schedule of all Christians. Again, it is a only small aspect of spiritual formation practices.

3:12 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi blogpastor,

welcome to the discussion. You are never to late to jump in.

My opinion is that there is a role here for the pastor and the sending church or/and denomination to play. Who can better mentor a candidate for the ministry than the pastor or and of his appointees.

I agree with you that the sending pastor and congregation has an important role in the continual spiritual formation of the students. often we send them off and do not see them for another 3 years and leave all the training to the seminaries.

Hence, this is positive point for church based seminaries because the students never leave the church but continued to be part of the community throughout their years of studies.

The institutions really doing formation don't have widely accepted accreditation. And those with good accreditation, including Regent's College, don't have good spiritual formation. They can all move towards a balance but they will be restricted and the ideal of academic excellence with good spirtual formation will never be realized in such institutions.

I believe you have hit the nail on the head in your comments. You are very realstic in your assessment.

3:19 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home