Story Magazine

Third Quarter, 2002

Ministry in Context: Distance Learning

by Sheri Booms, director of publications

For most master of divinity students at Luther Seminary, concentrated contextual learning comes to play during internship, usually the third year of their seminary education.  For one whole year students serve parishes side by side with the pastors and church staff.

The Contextual Leadership Program recognizes this as a prime learning opportunity and seeks to incorporate it in its study.  It is the third component of the grant program, along with distance learning sites and ministerial learning clusters.

Internship is required of those seeking ordination through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Intern sites stretch from coast to coast and beyond, with several international sites.  At each parish the intern is supervised by a pastor and also by an internship committee made up of congregational members.  In addition, a staff member of Luther Seminary's contextual education department makes sure to visit the intern during the year.  Most interns and supervisors come together two times during the year in a retreat setting. At the end of the year, the intern, the supervisor and the internship committee must all fill out detailed evaluations.

But what about those internship sites in the remote areas of, say, Alaska, Arizona or Wyoming, where towns--and churches--are few and far between?  What about international sites?  How do these interns and supervisors receive consistent support?  What would happen if a system were created whereby the interns and supervisors were able to discuss and reflect together the issues that affect their ministry?  Fortunately, with the world virtually at one's fingertips through the World Wide Web, both technology and the Contextual Leadership Program are primed to create such a network.

Enter the E-Cluster

The Contextual Leadership Program has created two pilot groups to begin this fall, known as Electronic Clusters or E-Clusters, for five remote sites in the western half of the United States, and for the ELCA's seven international internship sites.  The purpose of the Great Western and International E-Clusters is to provide a means for those interns and supervisors to meet in regular cluster "retreats" via the Internet, to discuss issues that affect them and to learn from each other.  "They will have the opportunity to reflect on learning, share experiences and help each other with problem-solving," said Kari Fedje-Rasmus, '87, the facilitator and Webmaster of the E-Clusters.   She will facilitate the online conversations, raising focus questions and making sure discussion is on the right track and that all participants have a chance to share.

The Great Western E-Cluster is a grouping of five sites in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. 

The International E-Cluster will group seven international internship sites together.  Sites range from Denmark, Bratislava, Argentina, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Japan and the Virgin Islands.  Students represent not just Luther Seminary but also the ELCA seminaries of Philadelphia (LTSP), Chicago (LSTC) and Pacific Lutheran (PLTS).

The E-Clusters will hold formal virtual gatherings four times a year.  Because of the time difference between sites, the "meetings" will not be in real time.  Discussion boards will be open for a week, allowing participants time to respond to posted readings and questions, and to each other's comments

Each retreat will have a specific theme.  Topics will include introductions and an examination of entry issues such as what it means to be a pastor in their particular context, pastoral identity: balance of time, family and commitment, and what it means to be a public leader in a congregation.

"This will be intentional conversation," Fedje-Rasmus said.  "The purpose is to mesh parish ministry with theological reflection.  Often when you're actively doing ministry, you don't take the time to think about how it is formed by theology."

In addition to the formal discussions, Fedje-Rasmus expects the E-Clusters to include ongoing small group discussions, one for the interns and one for supervisors.   She envisions it as "a gathering spot for peer collaboration" where they will exchange ideas and support each other on particular issues.

Topics of discussion could include "huge world-changing events, such as Sept. 11, or a student seeking input from other students about his or her experiences in preaching," she said.

Self-awareness and self-assessment are two areas Fedje-Rasmus hopes the interns will grow during their internship year.  "I hope they learn to take delight in what they do well, but see what they need to work on, as well as how to strengthen their gifts.  I hope they develop confidence as leaders and return to the seminary in their final year ready to share in the learning process with the professors," she said. 

She hopes the supervisors are well supported throughout the pilot, as well.  "They are doing phenomenal work.  Luther Seminary can learn from them," she said.

Going global, but staying grounded

Master of Divinity student Christopher Baesler is one of the international interns.  His church site is the International Church of Copenhagen (ICC), Denmark.  The congregation offers English services and serves ex-patriots and other international as well as Danish persons. He will work primarily with international students in the Copenhagen area as well as with ecumenical organizations across the Baltic regions.  

"I am excited about the opportunity," he said of the E-Clusters.  "I think the virtual peer group is a positive thing.  God's church is global--yet I think the issues and challenges of those serving abroad are different in many cases from those that are faced by the domestic church.  This group would present an opportunity for support personally, as well as to share ideas and what is happening in God's church in other places.  There would be definite benefits in being able to share experiences with others.

"I would hope that the added support from those in similar situations would help me deal with and minister in my own situation.  I know I will enjoy seeing what God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is doing in other places from a first hand account.  Also, it simply will allow us as ministers to maintain friendships over distances," Baesler said.

It's a learning process, for everyone

The E-Cluster model is not a finished project, said Fedje-Rasmus.  "As a pilot, the learning will occur throughout the process.  For example, we don't want [the participants]   spending inordinate amounts of time at the computer.  The task is to make sure that this is one of many ministry tools to enhance, not take away from, learning occurring in a particular setting." 

Fedje-Rasmus is thankful for the collaboration with Luther Seminary's Contextual Education's staff, director Randy Nelson and associate directors Dennis Everson and Sharon Kelly.   Together, they will study the potential benefits of E-Clusters to the entire Luther Seminary contextual learning program.

"We're looking at a model that is not bound by geographical or physical space," she said.    "The E-Cluster is a launching pad for how we can develop different ways and models of leadership in context.  It's the tip of the iceberg."