Story Magazine

Spring/Summer, 2014

The New Curriculum from Multiple Angles

by John Klawiter

The process of creating the new curriculum involved many voices and took shape over a long discernment period. Here, Three of those voices chime in on what they think of the results.

Jon Anderson, '85
Bishop; Luther Seminary alum; Region 3
Bishop's Representative to Luther Seminary's Board of Directors

Robyn Sand Anderson is an artist. She also is the wife of Bishop Jon Anderson of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod. "She talks about 'blessed accidents' when she is painting," said Anderson, '85. "The shape of the new curriculum was impacted by blessed accidents that we learned from the distributed learning (DL) cohort."

The DL program involves students spread across the country who take online courses together while still living and working in their contexts. Twice a year, those cohorts come together at Luther Seminary for intensive, on-campus courses. The community that these students have found in each other is truly remarkable. This cohort model will be a key piece of the new curriculum structure, so all students can experience this unique type of community and learning. 

"I think we will have surprises that will be very pleasant in the new curriculum, like we had with the DL program.  There will be challenges, but we will discover blessed accidents where things work better and differently than we imagine. When our students are in formation and in this new form of community, the distributed learning cohorts have been able to move with greater comfort and engagement," Anderson said.

"With the experimentation that happened with the DL model, we thought there would be problems," Anderson continued. "We thought [the students] would be less connected and have less community, but in our assessment, they showed great strength.

"What has made me personally excited [about the curriculum revision] is that I would have loved to have this curriculum [when I was in seminary] because it has the signature courses but then there's room to sub-specialize." Anderson believes he would already have met many of the requirements through his undergrad studies and this new curriculum would have allowed more opportunities to try new things without redundancy in coursework.

Anderson recalled his part-time job working at a geriatric psych unit during seminary. He used that experience to test out what he was learning in his classes. What Anderson likes about the curriculum is the deliberate overlapping of being rooted in a context while applying coursework to that environment.

One of those contexts was internship. "Personally, when I got done with internship, I felt I had a lot to learn," Anderson said. "Being in an internship while continuing their studies, I think, will make pastors think of themselves as lifelong learners."

Another major benefit to the new curriculum is that there is more flexibility in the internship experience—so that it may be much less disruptive to a seminarian's family. "Our current model has seminary students moving so much it is disruptive to their spouse's vocation and to their kids," Anderson said. "The congregations that receive the interns will receive quite a bit better investment in these interns. Now, it takes six months for the intern to get up to speed. But in a two-year internship, the context will be blessed by having a student learning and growing longer. I think they'll have an even more positive impact."

Anderson acknowledges that Luther Seminary is trying to find a sustainable footprint for leaders—and another benefit of the new curriculum is that it will minimize the educational debt. "My hunch is that this will allow people to journey through their theological education in a pathway that is more financially helpful for these candidates as well," Anderson said.

More flexibility, stronger bonds within cohort groups and smaller debt upon graduation? Blessed accidents indeed.


Terri Elton, '07 and '98
Associate Professor of Children, Youth and
Family Ministry; faculty representative for curriculum revision

The new curriculum is essentially training students how to be leaders. Within the faculty, one of the leaders of this change is Terri Elton.

The question that she wants these new leaders to quit asking is, "Church, what am I supposed to do?" Instead, she says, the leaders should be asking, "Where can we come together?"
The Children, Youth and Family (CYF) program led the way in developing curriculum that focuses on coming together. Elton has been working with CYF students in creating portfolios and working in cohorts—two of the new components of the revised curriculum.

Because of her experience, Elton has been tasked with teaching one of the six signature courses of the new curriculum called the Learning Leader course. "Every student will develop a portfolio over the course of [his or her degree] and show growth formation and competency in each program as they figure out how to lead a Christian community in Word and Sacrament," Elton said.

As Elton explained it, the path of a seminarian at Luther will shift away from "checking off boxes" and move toward more student discernment in class selection and an emphasis on community learning experiences.

"It comes down to, if I've got a lot more flexibility, there's a lot more on me," Elton said. "My hope for the class and curriculum is that the roles of the students and faculty are changing. Not only is this giving room for choices, but it's also going to empower the ability to educate leaders in Christian communities. We're trying to set a tone: you're a leader."

One obvious shift from the old paradigm into this new curriculum is that at the end, you need to name your questions, not the answers. "How do you give the students ownership? How does each course help me expand and imagine what I know and what I'm doing?" asked Elton. "That gets me really excited. Because this new world, to be a leader in this time, you gotta be willing to get off the map, have some drive and initiative of doing things and putting things together."

Elton believes that ministry is all about leading and that students need to have the proper tools to be leaders in faith communities. "As we prepare to give them a compass, I think it will help them lead in ministry better," Elton said. "It is a leadership move. It's about not spoon-feeding student adult learners."

The leadership in the faculty have come to recognize that students must be able to count on each other in their development as future leaders in the church. "We'll help you come together so you know where you need to go," Elton said. "It's not that there isn't a path, but it has been a struggle of how much freedom to give students. We're going toward more freedom."

More freedom means more uncertainty. How will students respond and will they be properly equipped?

"The church is scared too. We're going into new territory," Elton said. "But we're ready—we need to be different now."

Isn't that the attitude of a leader?


Martha Schwehn Bardwell
Transferred to Luther Seminary; served on theological taskforce for curriculum revision; current M.Div. Intern

In theory, students will become stronger leaders. But in reality, how do students perceive the new expectations?

Martha Schwehn Bardwell was a divinity student at Yale when she did her clinical pastoral education at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in the summer of 2012. There, she met current Luther Seminary student Britta Meiers. Bardwell discerned that a change was needed in her education and listened to the call to come to Luther Seminary.

Upon arrival, Bardwell requested to have the same adviser as Meiers: Rolf Jacobson. Jacobson was serving as a faculty point person on the curriculum revision, and he realized the value in appointing a student who could bring the gifts of learning through other curriculum structures, but who had also just chosen Luther Seminary because of the gifts she saw already in place.

"He appointed me to the theological taskforce," Bardwell said. "We had really strong faculty voices asking, 'How should we articulate this theologically and what kind of formation do we desire for our students?'"

It was challenging as a student to enter these conversations and feel listened to at first. "I felt my contributions were often overlooked and I felt the burden of representing 'the student voice,'" Bardwell recalled. "But other student representatives came together to ask, 'How do we find time to listen to students and to represent them well?' We did our best to listen, to share information, and to support one another as student representatives."

What Bardwell noticed was that the faculty started taking the student voice more seriously. More students were invited to join in the process. In turn, she really appreciates the flexibility she sees in the new curriculum.

"I was a big proponent of the signature courses because I like how interdisciplinary they are. They encourage community instead of silos," she said.

Bardwell also likes the freedom to take electives. "It allows professors to teach things they are more passionate about and it keeps students engaged when they can choose more," she said. "I think we deceive ourselves when we think that any particular curriculum system will produce fully ready pastors [or ministry leaders]. The students will come out with great skills, but continuing education is also key."

So why did Bardwell switch from Yale to Luther Seminary?

"I've received so many gifts from being embedded in a context," Bardwell said. "I chose Luther over Yale in part because I was lacking the experience of working in a congregation that I was grounded in and could learn from."

If you're noticing a pattern, a formation of lifelong leaders is a skill that Luther Seminary plans to cultivate from the beginning of each student's education. "Being embedded in a context is important to authentically be a leader and to learn," Bardwell said.

In theory, all students who come to Luther Seminary put their discernment of call in God's hands. In reality, discernment is in God's hands as the institution does the same thing.