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Implications, Challenges, and Opportunities for Christian Higher Education

Perhaps the most important lesson that we have learned and re-learned again is: Relationships are key. This lesson, perhaps, could go without saying and yet it is the bedrock, the soil, of all other work. We do not live or work in isolation. Our commitments to be communally engaged demonstrate our recognition of this lesson and yet, sometimes the tendency is to still work in isolation. What we have learned is to work at the pace of relationships and trust in order that the work is in fact both sustainable for the longer term and mutually beneficial.

We have also learned that the story of this work is not always easy to tell. It is hard to get people out of assumption loops when thinking about what a ministry program is or could be. Many of the current generation of college students have a desire and a need for a degree that carries a sense of practicality and financial stability. Traditional models of ministry (and, therefore, what many think of when they think of ministry) have not always been widely practical or financially stable. Our department has worked to address these components in listening to our neighbors and developing a program that is contextually rooted and that provides practical skills that go beyond those in a more traditional ministry program. However, it has been a concern of ours to also make sure that our graduates are equipped in ways that will give financial opportunities and respond to the particular opportunities and needs in their communities. We want to and need to continue to respond to that. Living out this commitment is not always simple.

In addition, in this moment of transition in the world and practices of ministry, not all faith communities are ready to receive graduates who have been trained in community engagement. Our graduates identify this tension, reporting that in their contexts they sometimes find people longing for the “glory days” when they felt “comfortable,” when ministry and church life looked a certain way. The work of change in communities is hard. Sometimes our graduates’ very presence triggers grief because of the change it symbolizes. Therefore, see learning number one: Move at the pace of relationships.

We have learned that university life is still only “real life” in part. Although we work hard to create experiences of learning with real communities in real contexts in real time, a semester-based education is still a somewhat fabricated and controlled reality. Our graduates, partners, and own assessments confirm that our approach does a good job in preparing students for ministry in the real world to a degree, but it is still limited, and there is still not enough reality at times to reflect what exists outside of fifteen or seven-week semester blocks.

In addition, many of our students arc still growing up while experiencing these contexts, some of which arc really difficult. The more doses of difficult reality that arc embedded into our learning processes, the more imperative it is to integrate thoughtful, careful student support within the learning strategies. As such, strategies for thoughtful self and communitycare and wellbeing become embedded into the learning of what community engaged ministry is. This model includes academic, mental and physical health, group accompaniment, and sometimes financial supports. Yet, these supports arc resource dependent and not always available to the levels needed.

And when embedded within communities, there are higher stakes for that learning within those communities. The weight of the margin of error in learning is sometimes absorbed by the communities. The stakes are more real. Therefore, see learning number one: Move at the pace of relationships.

Sometimes, as indicated by the surprise noted by community partners above, higher education institutions see ourselves as experts rather than learners. Yet, we are both experts and learners. Engaging this kind of education requires that we approach the work of partnership with the posture of those with something to offer and much to learn (Dostilio et al., 2012). These dynamics arc also related to the challenge around defining what counts as scholarship and research at our institutions. How much is experiential knowledge valued? How much arc the participation in and contribution to community development and engagement strategics recognized as scholarship? Is it valued as much as research about those things? How do we recognize “experts” and what expertise is valued? Who is allowed in the classroom as instructors and why? How do we weigh academic degrees (or lack thereof), experiential expertise, and pedagogical effectiveness in hiring instructors? The process of answering these questions has sometimes been a struggle for us. Some of our best potential teachers do not have the degrees they need to facilitate their smooth hiring. Some of our most powerful practitioners do not have experience crafting the scope and sequence of an entire course. Our instructor categories and hiring qualifications do not always reflect what we see as possibilities. We have experimented with different models and some have been successful, but not all.

Budget pressures and high teaching/workloads common at smaller, private, Christ-centered colleges make it challenging to protect the space needed for faculty to be embedded in community work and partnerships in the ways that are needed for community engagement to benefit all parties. This constraint also can shackle our values. We can declare the value of investing in our communities all day long, but real investment requires the release of people into spaces. This challenge needs creative

What Does It Mean to Be a Neighbor? 177 problem-solving within institutions with limited human and financial resources.

In doing this work, I have also noticed two dynamics that may be unique or more prevalent in Christian higher education in particular. One is a culture of amped-up humility, or perhaps more accurately, an avoidance of pride or maybe even low institutional self-esteem. When acting out of this framework, our ability to communicate about our accomplishments, skills, and networks is compromised. It squeezes the ability to collaborate widely and act in strategically networked ways that consider more pieces of the whole. The other dynamic I have noticed is a culture that is sometimes afraid of “being wrong.” The work of community engagement requires taking risks and experimenting, even as we also take care. The fear of being wrong sometimes inhibits us from taking those risks. It also can inhibit us from owning mistakes that we make (knowing that everyone and every system makes some level of mistakes in their learning). When we cannot own mistakes, we cannot identify them quickly, root out the cause, and make helpful adjustments in a timely manner. When doing our work with real stakes in our city, this process is crucial.

 
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