January 11, 1999
Volume 51, No. 15
Candler School will use $1.5 million grant to train
students to 'practice what they preach'
The School of Theology is using a recently announced $1.5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment to enact its most sweeping curriculum reform in 30 years, taking a new direction in training seminarians by emphasizing the practices of Christianity every bit as much as the preaching of it.
Beginning this fall students in Candler's entering class worked with faculty in small groups enacting Christian practices such as hospitality, searching scripture, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. This emphasis on Christian practice, and on integrating practice with theological studies, is Candler's way of "shaping students as disciples and as builders of faith communities," according to Luke Johnson, Woodruff Professor of New Testament and head of the school's curriculum reform effort.
During first semester, students base their practice on Methodist founder John Wesley's Ordinary Means of Grace. The text is a natural theological guide at Candler, one of the nation's 13 United Methodist seminaries, which enrolls some 550 students from Methodist and other Christian traditions.
"The focus is on integrated learning on the basis of ecclesial practices, including worship and common meals," explained Charlotte McDaniel, director of the new contextual education program. The school's goal is to integrate these activities throughout students' coursework, as faculty in every classroom emphasize the connections between theology and practice.
Students will then engage in ministry with supervision in clinical settings and social agencies, a 30-year-old emphasis at Candler that has long valued sending seminarians into the Atlanta metro area.
"The trouble was the experience used to occur in isolation from everything else," said Candler Dean Kevin LaGree. "We wanted to blend the theory and practice sides of our curriculum in a radical way, one that would make practice central to everything we do."
Eventually, as the entire curriculum is revised over the next five years, students will be able to make stronger connections between theological study and practice on every level, in every course--even systematic theology.
The sea change at Candler is the result of a five-year conversation that involved the entire faculty, which LaGree said was essential because of the diversity of theological approaches within its ranks. The shift also takes into account the dramatic changes in both student and faculty populations at the school over the last three decades, which mirror national demographic trends in professional education.
"Our students 30 years ago tended to be male, white, young, Methodist, single or newly married and fresh from college," said LaGree. Today's group is more diverse in every way: Enrollment is evenly split between men and women; 20 percent are African American, Hispanic or Asian; many more are middle-aged or older; if married, students may have grown children; and often they are long past college, having had a first career in business or some other profession.
"Overall, students come to seminary less formed in the practices and ethos of the Christian faith," said LaGree. "We need to address one of the most obvious needs identified by both students and faculty, namely the spiritual formation of the student--or for that matter, the spiritual formation of the congregations these students will lead."
McDaniel said the new approach puts the school "on the cutting edge in addressing the challenges for students as they move from education to employment. What's different about our past and current efforts is that the entire faculty takes responsibility for teaching not just the theory and theological basis of ministry but the practice of ministry as well."
Candler is among 45 of the nation's 202 theological schools to receive a grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, which recently approved $53.4 million for a variety of programs to increase the seminaries' capacities to prepare students for congregational ministry.