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Story Magazine

Spring/Summer 2017

Contextual learning: Giving theology hands

by By Kelly O'Hara Dyer, Correspondent

Tim Coltvet

At Luther Seminary, students receive a rigorous and practical theological education based on classroom study and reflection about what it means to be a leader in today’s church.

As a critical adjunct to that, students also receive experience through work done in “context,” where they put their classroom insights into practice in real-world settings.

Over the past few years, the seminary has both strengthened its existing contextual learning opportunities and created new ones in order to reach and support students earlier in their education as they develop the skills they need to lead effectively.

The Contextual Learning department at Luther Seminary, led by Director Rev. Tim Coltvet, oversees three separate contextual learning programs—the Christian Public Leader (CPL) program, the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program and internships.

“One of our favorite phrases here comes from theologian Fernando Arzola,” says Coltvet. “He says ‘Contextualization gives theology hands.’ That sums up what we seek to do, to provide a dynamic partnership between the classroom experience and on-the-ground ministry encounters where the activity of God is alive and well in faith communities. Essentially we are shifting contextual learning from a ‘theory-application’ approach to a ‘reflective practitioner’ approach, and we value our ministry partner sites as powerful extensions of the theological education classroom experience.”


The Christian Public Leader (CPL) program

Luther Seminary’s CPL courses were introduced as part of a curriculum revision that began in 2013. The goal was to reach students very early in their theological education in order to support them as they work to become effective leaders.

“There is a strong desire to be able to explore with students their own sense of call and discernment while they’re beginning their seminary journey,” says Coltvet. “We want to help set their trajectory for their experience here and we also want to help them discover more about themselves as a leader in context.”

Through CPL, students engage with communities of faith for a minimum of five hours a week from the moment they enter the seminary. This volunteering may take the form of visitations, hospital visits, reading as liturgist in worship or working with youth in ministry.

Both M.Div. and M.A. students take CPL classes their first two semesters. M.A. students then take another two semesters of the CPL course, and M.Div. students may take them as electives.

“In each of the CPL units, we invite students to share their call stories early on and to get to know each other in a small group in concert with a leader,” says Coltvet. “We help them to know their own strengths more fully and learn how their strengths might be engaged with others. We engage them in learning more about emotional intelligence, and how that will help them know themselves more fully and how they show up in relational ministry. In the second semester, students move on to asking bigger questions that are relevant today, in particular, ‘What does it mean to be a public leader in the public church?’”

As part of the coursework, students also meet together in small precept groups twice a month, either in person or virtually, to discuss key questions regarding scenarios they may encounter during ministry.

“The primary engine or template for those precept groups comes from Richard Osmer’s hermeneutical spiral—or action/reflection loop,” says Coltvet. “That consists of essentially four questions: ‘What happened, why did it happen, what should be happening and what do I do next?’ Our students find just having those questions in front of them while they’re a leader in context is invaluable, because it allows them to reflect both practically and theologically on everyday scenarios.”

[Osmer’s book, “Hermeneutics and Empirical Research in Practical Theology,” offers more details about the questions and how they relate to practical theology.]


Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)

Another contextual learning requirement at Luther Seminary is Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

Under the revised 2013 curriculum, all M.Div. students must have 400 hours of pastoral care experience at a certified site—usually a health-care or faith-based setting—under a trained CPE supervisor in order to graduate.

“Of the 400 hours that our students will spend in hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, and other creative, parish-based entities, it’s 300 hours of face-to-face work with a patient in a care setting, and 100 hours spent in didactics or teaching and learning with a peer group,” says Coltvet. “They will be informed on a variety of topics, from family systems to grief and loss and pastoral care techniques.”

As with CPL students, CPE students meet together in small groups as they engage with their communities. And as part of that group reflection, students share “verbatims” of their various encounters with individuals so they can learn from each other and reflect together.

“It’s been a vital aspect of strengthening our students in their own self-awareness and how to be a strong and rooted leader as they engage vulnerable populations,” Coltvet says.



At Luther Seminary, all M.Div. students spend the equivalent of a year working as an intern within a congregational setting before graduating.

“We have two primary goals for that, in that pastoral identity will be formed and that multiple leadership competencies will be developed along the way,” Coltvet says.

During a student’s internship, they serve in a congregation and participate in every activity that any pastor would when ministering to his or her congregants.

“We have a long history of vital partnerships across the church in terms of pastors and congregations who are committed to providing training for future leaders of the church, and we continue to be indebted to them,” Coltvet says. “It accounts for roughly 25 percent of their seminary experience which is a significant portion of the curriculum.”

Coltvet says that for students, the opportunity to interact directly with a church and parishioners remains a very rich and rewarding one.

“Congregations provide a place of ‘sheltered trying’ for students as they find their voice in public leadership … but they also have the freedom to fail, even though there’s really no such thing as failure when it comes to contextual learning, only the failure to learn,” he says.

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