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Theme Two: Practice That Is Actually Practical

The second theme had to do with the challenge of cultivating practice that is actually practical. Amidst the good things, in being honest about our program, however, among the good things we noticed a weak area that demanded another round of adjustments in the area of ministry practice. This problem area was not unique or specific to the program at WP, but is an area of weakness in many models of theological education based on a content-heavy approach (Bielman & Strong, in press). In our work to develop our network of partnerships and take further steps into our neighbor-inquiry, we began to see the weakness more clearly: (a) the courses built into the curriculum to address “practical ministry skills” were almost never actually practical in orientation. Many programs do a good job of talking about those skills conceptually. Very few, in our experiences, had taught those skills primarily through embodied contextual practice itself; and (b) relatcdly, internships needed to be revised. Over the past generation, internships had become appropriately required for many programs. What we had noticed, however, was that in many programs, ours included, students were invited to choose their own internships. This practice often led to students choosing communities they were already familiar with and logging hours for work they were already doing. However, it did not always increase competency in other skills. In other instances, faith communities or organizations would bring on interns to fill real gaps with unpaid or low-paid workers, but without clear mentoring or educational outcomes. Neither of those scenarios led to intentional embodied and facilitated practice toward consistent outcomes or competencies, nor did they lead students to dig more deeply into specific neighborhoods or with partners crucial to the university’s geographic focus. Although there may have been some benefit, it often was not toward a larger vision of formation. And what our critical inquiry and collaborators in the work were affirming for us was that institutional neighboring meant that our students needed to begin their real work of neighboring integrated into their coursework from the beginning.

We also realized that we were in a moment of both opportunity and challenge as our student body demographics were changing, and also had been changing generationally. As the research on later Millennials/Gen Y and Gen Z shows (Seemiller & Grace, 2016) and our experience confirmed, we found ourselves in an exciting time when many of our students already came to us wired toward social action and with the desire to make the world a better place. In an era when we were asking what it means to be an engaged institutional neighbor, we were gifted a group of students wired with similar desires.

Recognizing this opportunity, we committed to recreate our curriculum, building from the strong pieces already in place, with the conviction that we would no longer offer courses that teach conceptually about ministry skills that were not deeply integrated in real ministry contexts within our city. In other words, we would no longer teach classes about ministry, but we would invite our students to participate in the work of ministry with ministers and in fruitful ministry contexts in a carefully and communally facilitated way, therefore strengthening the practice of rooting in place, the possibilities for participating in place making in that place, and doing so alongside neighbor-mentors. We committed to recreate the way we did field education in ministry to work toward our intentional outcomes reflective of the mission of the university, our Wesleyan-Holiness and social justice roots, and that spoke directly to the needs and opportunities of our city and our students as communicated to us by our critical friends and partners.

Our curriculum revision coincided with a generous award of a three-year grant to support Christian ministry efforts through the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. This grant made it possible to recruit additional community partners with whom we most wanted to work and from whom we wanted to learn. Investing financial resources at this point in our revisions was crucial for bringing our ideas and learnings to life in the next stage.

Our shifted curriculum had several outcomes, some immediate, some that grew over time. Our graduates most definitely grew in their practical skills as well as in their critical thinking and assessment abilities because all of their learning filtered through the lenses and experiences of real concrete communities, places, and people to which and for whom they now felt a sense of responsibility. Nothing was purely theoretical. They also grew in their imaginations and ability to think about creative, innovative, and even entrepreneurial models and possibilities of what ministry does and can look like in our 21st century urban Pacific NW context, ministries that feed back into the health of our neighborhoods. And the focus on excavating the question of what it means to be a neighbor was appearing in the reflections of'WP graduates. When asked to reflect on what the value has been of having community engagement as a guiding principle within their ministry education, recent alumnus Forrest Nameniuk responded, “it’s helped me to love better.” He continued:

Each city, each neighborhood is its own unique ecosystem, with its own unique needs and identity. That focus on community engagement taught me the importance of 1) Listening to a People and 2) Listening to a Place. It taught me the dangers of doing ministry by marching into a new setting, planting my flag, and unilaterally determining how—but rather to walk more humbly and to first determine the who, the why, and what the people who’ve been there longest recognize as their needs and assets. It taught me to be on the lookout for the people or groups already doing good work there and to partner with them.

Our attention to place was shaping our graduates. It also continued to shape us as a department.

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