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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Director's Word

I've been praying for and thinking about the many new students headed out into various ministry contexts. Of course, I'm thinking of interns, supervisors, lay committees, and congregations getting started together just now. Also, I think of Teaching Congregation students, new to Luther and to theological education, trying to find a learning context to accompany them during years of classwork. 

Many of you, dear readers, are NOT connected to a new internship. You might be tempted to skip this article. Bear with me: what I'm after here connects us all, and the new internships especially. The challenge I want to put before us for brief reflection is: facilitating newcomer participation. It is not easy, and without discipline, most of us aren't much good at it. But boy does it matter!

While I've been thinking of all these new relationships beginning, I've read Jessicah Duckworth's new book Wide Welcome (Augsburg Fortress 2013). I know, she's left Luther Seminary for a wonderful new job at Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis. We're sorry and glad at the same time. Don't worry, though, she's coming back as a keynote speaker for Mid-Winter Convocation January 29-31.


Wide Welcome outlines a provocative perspective on facilitating newcomer participation in chapter three. Drawing on the groundbreaking research of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, she unfolds a process more about embodied communal practice than transfer of information. The key word is apprenticeship, and to unpack how apprenticeship, Lave and Wenger use the phrase "legitimate peripheral participation." Her aim, to be sure, is understanding how congregations can do better work welcoming those the Spirit moves to intersect with our congregations.  I think these ideas are totally applicable for what supervisors and lay committees do for new seminarians entering their midst.

Let me give a teaser by unpacking the phrase "legitimate peripheral participation" and then encourage you to get the book and read it with a study group at your church.  "Legitimate" means both giving recognition for the newcomer's status, and to giving access to resources and people from whom the newcomer needs to learn how things go here. "Peripheral" is recognition that as a newcomer, you've got to observe actively before you are ready to lead anything. But "participation" shows the peripherality is not distant, but present, involved, engaged. One participates alongside the legitimate leader. Talking about baptismal sponsors, Jessicah writes: "Sponsors not only 'show a way' but also provide a buffer for newcomers to ask questions and make mistakes. 'Granting newcomers legitimacy is important because they are likely to come short of what the community regards as competent engagement. Only with enough legitimacy can all their inevitable stumblings and violations become opportunities for learning rather than cause for dismissal, neglect, or exclusion'."

So, newcomers and sponsors, let's get on some 'legitimate peripheral participation'! Easier said than done, I know. I hope through our fall cluster meetings we can learn some of the wisdom of how you all do this work together. 

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