The Way of Wisdom in Practice

Wachner _Web

The Rev. Emily Wachner

Director of Integrative Programs

In addition to the history, theology, scripture, and liturgy which students learn while at The General Theological Seminary, what other knowledge do they need in order to become excellent priests, serving Christ’s church in a changing world? This is the question I have attempted to answer over the past year, and particularly throughout the summer, in order to shape the Integrative Seminars, a fundamental component of The Way of Wisdom.

The six learning outcomes, listed here, represent the distillation of a year of listening to alumni, bishops, and current research on the state of the church and the clergy. Two particularly influential sources of information have been “Learning Pastoral Imagination: A Five-Year Program on How New Ministers Learn in Practice,” a qualitative study carried out through Auburn Seminary by Dr. Christian Scharen and Dr. Eileen Campbell-Reed, which is available at pastoralimagination.com; and “Clergy Leadership for the 21st Century: Are We Up to the Task?” a white paper presented to the VTS Board of Trustees by David Gortner in 2014.

By the end of six semesters of The Way of Wisdom—six semesters of integrative seminars and four concurrent semesters of field placement—students will:

1. Actively integrate knowledge from multiple contexts, including theological study, contextual education, and their personal lives.

In a recent long-range study of 50 diverse clergy-people, Chris Scharen and Eileen Campbell-Reed of Auburn Seminary sought to answer the question, “How is pastoral imagination formed through the practice of ministry over time?” One of their primary findings, drawing on Craig Dykstra’s previous work, is that “learning pastoral imagination happens best in formation for ministry that is integrative, embodied, and relational.” While the integrative seminars are not the only place where students will be challenged to develop this capacity, they are the primary location.

2. Possess the capacity for theologically-based decision-making and communication. 

In reviewing some of the senior work of our recent graduates, it is clear that most students struggled to articulate the theological underpinnings of daily ministerial experiences. To help develop this ability, students must learn the difference between “thinking fast” and “thinking slow,” in order to recognize and nurture theologically-grounded decision-making processes.

3. Understand priesthood as a continuous process of growth and skill development.

Decades of research by Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, demonstrate that success in any given field is largely due, not to natural ability or innate genius, but rather, to mindset—particularly a “growth” mindset versus a “fixed” mindset. It is the seminary’s responsibility to prepare seminarians for a lifetime of learning by fostering an understanding of priestly formation as a lifelong process of development, rather than a moment or brief period of ontological change which culminates in ordination.

4. Recognize organizational systems, assess personal and individual motivations within these systems, and prioritize actions to make change within a given system.

When discussing with alumni, and recent graduates of other theological institutions, the things they most wished they had learned in seminary—but did not—a recurring theme is the desire to make change within calcified systems. Given the rapidly changing state of The Episcopal Church, it is vitally important to equip seminarians with a deep awareness of self, systems, and context, for the sake of change-making.

5. Value and facilitate collaboration.

David Gortner’s long-range clergy study, “Clergy Into Action,” surveyed more than 1,000 recently-ordained mainline clergy-people to assess their preparedness for ministry, particularly in relationship to “what they learned in seminary.” A finding of this research is that clergy-people are tremendously under-prepared when asked to function collaboratively. This is deeply unfortunate, as the basis of Christian ministry is the ekklesia; and, therefore, nearly all ministry is—or should be—collaborative. While other groups, such as the Episcopal Church Foundation, via their Vital Teams initiative, are attempting to remedy this lack post-ordination, seminaries have a great opportunity to develop and model collaborative leadership within our classrooms.

6. Demonstrate sophistication in multiple forms of communication, including 21st-century digital ministry skills. 

Recent graduates of this and other seminaries have indicated that, while they may use digital and social media in their personal lives, they feel unprepared to integrate this form of communication into their ministry. Faculty and staff of this seminary have noticed that students struggle to adapt communication styles to various platforms. Communication is the primary tool of evangelism, and we must prepare our students for evangelism in the modern context.

Thirteen students began their Wisdom Year placements this term. These placements are spread throughout five dioceses, and include three placements in bilingual settings via church and diocesan partnerships, in addition to Manhattan “avenue” placements and smaller, suburban “curacy” placements. It is our hope that, through experiencing intensive ministerial field education, paired with challenging classroom-based reflection, students will graduate as better-prepared candidates to lead the church in a changing world.