Story Magazine - First Quarter, 2002

Ministry in context

by Sheri Booms, director of publications

When a master of divinity (M.Div.) or master of arts (M.A.) graduate leaves Luther Seminary, the avenues of ministry are many and varied. It may be in an urban, suburban or rural setting, in another country, in a large or small congregation, or not in a congregation at all.

How to adequately prepare current and future church leaders for such diversity is the aim of a five-year project on contextual leadership at Luther Seminary.

Funded by the Lilly Endowment, the project is the brainchild of Craig Van Gelder, professor of congregational leadership.

Randy Nelson, director of contextual education, now heads the team that leads the project into implementation through a three-prong Contextual Leadership pilot program that includes:

Contextual learning for first- and second-year master of divinity students, and possibly master of arts students, spearheaded by Troy Stack-Nelson.

A distance site strategy, led by Rod Maeker, cross-cultural director, who is setting up regional areas for people to study through Luther Seminary without being on campus. This will utilize online and other communication technology.

Specialized internships, which will work closely with Contextual Leadership, headed by Kari Fedje Rasmus.

"Twin Cities Strategy" leads off contextual leadership pilot

A pilot project for contextual learning in the Twin Cities area is already underway.

Eighteen parishes, 18 first-year M.Div. students and three faculty members have volunteered to take part in what is known as the Twin Cities Strategy. Three pilot "clusters" of six congregations each represent the inner city, first tier suburbs and outer suburbs.

There's a reason the clusters are in different areas of the Twin Cities. "[The participants] are all learning within a context," said Stack-Nelson, director of the Twin Cities Strategy. "This is where theology gets done. Each cluster is different. We want students, pastors and faculty to wrestle with how ministry differs within various contexts. There is more input and a wider variety of experience than in the old contextual education model."

Students are assigned one of the congregations as their contextual education site. They are expected to attend worship and involve themselves in church activities. While this contextual education component is a current requirement for all M.Div. and M.A. students at Luther Seminary, the clusters are unique because they bring the pastors, students and faculty member together the first Wednesday of every month for intentional conversation.

Each cluster meeting has a lead pastor, plus a faculty member in attendance. The faculty member also serves as the advisor of all of the six students in that cluster.

The purposes of the cluster meetings are four-fold, said Stack-Nelson. They:

  • provide a forum for exploring what concrete contexts of ministry teach;

  • engage the theological insights that emerge from, and are provoked by, our experiences of congregational life;

  • expand the capacity of students, pastors and faculty members to form learning communities; and

  • foster creative ways of interpreting the seminary to the congregation and the congregation to the
    seminary.

The monthly cluster meeting usually lasts two hours and uses a curriculum put together by a group of pastors and faculty in the spring and summer of 2001.

This clustering is not completely new to the seminary and area parishes. There was a similar program in the mid-80s. But pastors found themselves too busy to actively attend to the model, and it faded away, Stack-Nelson said.

"Now it is a far more intentional conversation," he continued. "It's more tied into our curricular strategy; the whole grant process came out of Luther Seminary's strategic plan 'Serving the Promise of Our Mission' with the aim of answering the question 'How do we do what we say we do?'"

Students, pastors, faculty glad to be a part of pilot

"I volunteered because I liked the idea of being in a cluster with five other students and congregations. It's not just me and my congregation, Calvary Lutheran," said student Jo Quanbeck, who is in the urban Minneapolis cluster. "What's been most helpful is that even though we're in the same urban area, these are six very different churches, with six very different pastors. We see how pastors approach their work differently."

As an example, Quanbeck has learned how each church has been affected by urban flight. "They're old churches. The original population [that established the churches] has left, now they are seeking to find ways to shape ministry in a new community. All have done it differently, with different perspectives. We discuss these perspectives weekly."

Hans Lee is pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and the lead pastor of the urban cluster. He sees the pilot project as a healthy coming together of theological resources.

"I think that the primary reason [the pastors] are a part of this is that we care about theological education," he said. "There's also the hope that we would learn from each other. We have a better understanding of each other, and this has built collegiality. In this cluster we are all in close proximity with each other. In the city it's crucial that we are aware and working with each other.

"I've had a positive experience. Luther Seminary has been very creative, with good leadership from Troy Stack-Nelson and the Contextual Leadership Project. It's been fun to be a part of a team," Lee concluded.

David Fredrickson, professor of Old Testament and a member of the urban cluster, also likes the team approach to contextual education.

"It has been an interesting process learning how classroom- and parish-based learning can intersect. It's really challenging me how I teach, what I teach," he said.

Being the advisor of the students in the cluster has enriched their conversation outside of the cluster meetings, he said.

Quanbeck agrees. "I appreciate having [the pilot project] connected with our advisor. It allows us to make that bridge stronger between school, church and contextual education," she said. "So often they're separate, it gives a time and place to discuss and put into theological terms what and why we do what we do in a church."

Clusters will expand in 2002-03 school year

In the fall of 2002, the Twin Cities Strategy will expand to 12-15 clusters, and involve all M.Div. students in the cluster model, said Stack-Nelson.

As of Jan. 2004, Contextual Leadership will become a permanent part of seminary education.

Stack-Nelson hopes area congregations will catch the vision for the clusters, with the help of those parishes already involved in the pilot.

"We want to help pastors and professors, congregations and the seminary, see each other as partners. We need to work together to provide the church with strong missional leaders," he said.