Blog Archives

What I think of group projects

I’ve always reserved a special place in my heart for group projects. It’s the same place that I reserve for pickles, cats, people who talk on their cell phone in quiet places, laptops with no battery life, small talk, and anything that needs to be described as “avant-garde.”

It’s a dark place.

Why is that? According to many educational experts, group projects are excellent teaching tools that help students learn in community and develop the skills they’ll need in the “real” world. According to most students, group projects are special form of hell created by sadistic professors who probably also pluck the wings off butterflies in their spare time.

Obviously there’s a disconnect somewhere.

What’s the problem? Working together and learning in community sounds great. But, in my experience, group projects look better on paper than they work in reality.

So, help me out here. What has your experience been? Have your group project experiences been like mine, or have you been a part of a few that actually worked well and were good learning experiences? If so, What makes for a good group project? (I can’t believe I just used the words “good,” “group,” and “project” in the same sentence. That has to violate some fundamental rule of English grammar.) Why did it work and what made it different from other, less effective, group projects?

I’m always trying to be careful not to allow my personality and preferences to limit my teaching techniques. Everyone should learn just like me. But, sadly, they don’t. So, I should be open to the possibility that some students might benefit from a teaching tool or methodology that has never held much value for me personally. If group projects have been good learning experiences for you, let me know. I may need to reconsider my long-standing resistance to such assignments.

The Dying Art of Reading

Approximately 120,000 books are published in America every year. Sadly, few of us ever read them. At least, that’s what some recent stats suggest.

According to a survey from the Jenkins Group, Americans have some dismal reading habits (HT Mental Floss).

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
  • 57 percent of new books are not read to completion.

As a self-confessed bibliophile, that’s just depressing. I’m not sure which is worse, that even college graduates have such terrible reading habits, or that so many families didn’t even bother to buy a single book last year. (I have to confess that I rarely buy books from concrete-and-mortar bookstores either, though I still go on occasion to enjoy the ambiance. Yes, I’m a hypocrite that way.)

But, more importantly, I worry about this lack of attention to the written word for the church today. Granted, the church has often demonstrated the ability to flourish in non-literate cultures. So, reading itself isn’t the only medium of formation. But, in all the examples that come to mind, those cultures retained a strong emphasis on oral education. And,we’re not doing that.  At the same time that we are neglecting the written word, we’re also at the tail-end of a decades long shift toward shorter sermons and fewer weekly services dedicated to serious lay development. Put those two together, and you have a recipe for spiritual anemia.

Flotsam and jetsam (weekend edition)

We generally like to think of ourselves as individuals and appreciate our unique qualities, but when thrown into a group we can become very different people. Ideas and actions can spread like viruses until your individuality is completely wiped away. This is called deindividuation and here’s how it works.

If you are a planter, let me encourage you to think long-term. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on the 7 for a few months and then dropping them. Most of these issues have no quick fix-solution and will have impact on your influence as long as you are planting.

Lazy? Who has time to be lazy? Of course, there are the verses that speak to laziness. By my count, there are fourteen such verses in Proverbs alone, starting with “Go to the ant, you sluggard!” So, can it actually be right to think that laziness is a way to the Lord?

Recently, I wrote about how leaders must learn to handle criticism and overlook offenses. I think this is the number one way that leaders can get derailed and rendered ineffective.

Hard as it may be to believe, one of the things that gives privately-educated children the edge is their knowledge of Latin….I mean there is actually a substantial body of evidence that children who study Latin outperform their peers when it comes to reading, reading comprehension and vocabulary, as well as higher order thinking such as computation, concepts and problem solving.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/19)

I’ve noticed in the last few years a real bandwagon of anti-leadership sentiment in some circles. I think it started as a push-back to the “CEO” model/mentality in some, and as such, I’m sympathetic. But from there, it has progressed to where we now have many arguing that any concept of leadership in the church should be avoided.

I’ve noticed that people who do not read the original languages of the Bible sometimes think of those languages as somehow magical, as the key that can open any mystery and answer any question about the Bible. While reading the original languages is tremendously important and helpful and useful, such a reading by itself does not always magically result in clear and simple answers to controversial religious questions. There are limitations inherent in an appeal to an original language for determining the meaning of a text.

As the article indicates, countless PhD students spend years dedicated towards research that will perhaps never posit an actual job in their field. Supply is greater than demand as the article suggets. The future seems depressingly bleak then for doctoral students: They are treated as indentured servants by their superiors. They spend meaningful years that could have been put towards savings, retirement, and even more important—nurturing families.

  • Roger Olson and Michael Horton have had an interesting exchange on the nature of Arminianism (read the comments). In the process, Olson made a very good comment about fairly representing other perspectives:

I urge you, and all non-Arminians who describe our theology, to describe it as we describe it and then go on to explain why you disagree….Fairness is the issue here.

Do seminary grads burn out quickly?

You often hear people lament the high dropout rate of those entering vocational ministry, particularly in their first few years.In a post earlier this week, John Ortberg repeated the statistic that “90 percent of people who enter vocational ministry will end up in another field.” I’ve heard similar comments to the effect that 50% of more of seminary grads will drop out of ministry within the first five years.

Those are pretty startling claims. If people are burning out of ministry that quickly, then we are doing something desperately wrong.

The problem is that it’s not true.

Actually, I can’t say for sure whether Ortberg’s statistic is true, since his comment refers to anyone who enters vocational ministry, not just seminary graduates. But, seminary graduates as a whole have a good track record for staying in ministry over the long haul. As Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, says:

Persons educated for ministry tend to end up in ministry, stay in ministry, and believe that their education provided good preparation for what they are doing.

Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools (Eerdmans, 2008), p. 131.

Indeed, according to an Auburn Center study conducted in 2008, “nearly 90% of M.Div. graduates go immediately into some form of professional religious service,” only 5% of those will leave vocational ministry within the first 5 years, and only 10% within 10 years. So, the actual rate at which M.Div. graduates leave vocational ministry is only 1% per year on average.

The rates for women in ministry are somewhat different with fewer entering vocational ministry upon graduation and more dropping out in the first five years (the study suggested a number of possible reasons for this, but did not resolve the question). But even here the vast majority stay in vocational ministry for the long haul.

So, according to the numbers, at least, seminary grads fare very well in both the short term (5 years) and medium term (10 years). I haven’t seen any studies yet that go beyond 10 years, but I also haven’t seen anything to suggest a change in this pattern. So, it seems reasonable to conclude that seminary graduates as a whole tend to enter vocational ministry and remain in vocational ministry at very high rates.

So, although we still need to  pay close attention to how we’re preparing people to face the demands of ministry over the long haul, we can at least do so with more confidence than pessimism.

Why it’s important to know what kind of supervision you’ll get in your doctoral program

Fortunately, I had a great supervisor in my doctoral program and really enjoyed every aspect of the experience. Talking with some other doctoral students, though, this comic isn’t too far off the mark. If you’re interested in doctoral programs, make sure you know what kind of track record your prospective supervisor has when it comes to actually supervising students.

Do I need a Master of Theology (Th.M.)?

One of the more common questions I run into as a Th.M. program director is, “Do I need a Th.M.?” That’s an understandable question. Before you spend that much time and money on a degree, you should be convinced that you really need one. And, I probably answered that question a dozen times this past summer. So, I thought I’d do my best to answer it here. Here’s my answer….No.

I realize that’s probably a surprising answer from someone who runs a Th.M. program, but the simple fact is that whether you are headed toward a doctoral program, local church ministry, or something else, I’m not aware of any Christian vocation that absolutely requires a Th.M. In virtually every sphere of life, the Th.M. is optional. So, do you need a Th.M.? Probably not. It used to be the case that many Ph.D. program required that M.Div. students get a Th.M. as an academic upgrade to their largely ministerial degree before beginning their doctoral work. That is generally not the case anymore.

But, if you don’t actually need a Th.M., why would you bother getting one? Ah, now that’s a different question. Whether you should proceed with a Th.M. is not so much a question of whether you need a Th.M., but whether you need a Th.M. The job that you’re headed toward may not require a Th.M., but there are a variety of situations in which a Th.M. can be of tremendous value anyway. Here are several reasons that you may want to pursue a Th.M. even though it’s not absolutely required.

  • Filling gaps in your training. Let’s face it, unless you are a truly unique individual, you probably did not have time to pursue everything that you needed to in your Master’s degree. There’s a good chance that you prepared really well in some areas and less well in others. Even if you intend to specialize in one area of biblical/theological studies, a Th.M. provides you the opportunity to develop some of your secondary interests and fill some gaps in your preparation. Some of our Th.M. students come in with only the basics in Greek, Hebrew, systematic theology, or church history. These students use the Th.M. to fill these holes in their training.
  • Broadening your training. Other students were able to lay a good foundation in all the biblical disciplines during their undergrad and graduate programs, but still feel the need for greater breadth in their preparation. I entered my Th.M. at least partially because I wasn’t ready yet for the kind of specialization that would be required in a doctoral program. Specifically, although I intended to focus my Ph.D. in systematic and historical theology, my Th.M. allowed me to spend considerable time on Hebrew and OT studies. These were areas that I did not develop adequately in my Master’s training, and I wanted a broad foundation that included significant time in all of these disciplines. Others are interested in using the Th.M. to prepare for local church ministry, seeing the Th.M. as an opportunity to broaden their biblical/theological training further than they were able in their Master’s programs.
  • Determining your specialization. One of the more common reasons for pursuing a Th.M. is that you want to continue on to a doctoral program, but you don’t yet know the specific specialization that you want to pursue. You may be interested in both systematic theology and church history, both NT and OT, or both the Gospels and the Pauline literature. Without a little more focus, it can become difficult (if not impossible) to select to right doctoral program for you. The Th.M. gives you a little more time to pursue various interests so that you can  make the right decision about what you want to focus on in your doctoral program. As a matter of fact, it was during my Th.M. that I was finally able to settle on systematic theology as the focus of my doctoral program rather than historical theology or NT studies. So, the Th.M. proved very helpful for me in this area.
  • Developing your specialization. Other students know what they want to specialize in during their Ph.D. program, but aren’t yet qualified to pursue that specialization at the doctoral level. If you fell in love with Greek during your Master’s program, but didn’t have enough electives to develop sufficiently in this discipline, the Th.M. allows you the time to lay a solid foundation for succeeding in your doctoral program.
  • Developing more teaching areas. Many schools are looking for people who can teach in more than one discipline. If you only have a specialization in Old Testament Law and its ancient near-eastern parallels, you may find it somewhat more challenging to find a teaching position than the person who is qualified to teach introductory classes in a couple of different disciplines. A Th.M. lets you develop some of those secondary teaching areas that can be very attractive to administrators.
  • Deepening your biblical/theological foundations for effective ministry. This is actually somewhat akin to “broadening your training,” but I wanted to make it more explicit that the Th.M. can be a great degree for ministry preparation. It’s not just a pre-Ph.D. degree. As Mark Stevens helpfully pointed out, the Th.M. can help add depth to your preaching/teaching ministry and give you a chance to develop (further) your understanding of pastoral theology. Around half of our Th.M. students use the degree to prepare for a doctoral program. The rest are in the program to deepen their preparation for effective ministry.
  • Setting you up for future success. All of these really add up to the same thing. Although the Th.M. is not absolutely required for anything, there are a variety of situations in which a Th.M. can be very helpful in setting you up for future success in your doctoral program or ministry setting.

So, as I often tell students, the Th.M. is the one degree program that no one actually needs. (That’s why they don’t let me work on marketing material.) But, the Th.M. can be very valuable for a lot of people in quite a few different circumstances. Whether you fit in any of those categories is something that you need to work out.

Stephen Colbert “University” and the rise of for-profit higher education

Stephen Colbert has a great (as usual) piece on for-profit higher education. According to Colbert,

[T]he average college graduate earns twice as much as a person with only a high school degree, which in this current job market works out to…zero dollars.

And, of course, non-profit colleges don’t know anything about making money. So, we need to turn to for-profit institutions. Sure, they may use deceptive advertising and manipulative recruiting practices, but they’re profitable. And, students at online schools can stay in bed and attend classes looking like level 55 death knights. Bonus.

So, Colbert is going to open his own for-profit university, which is “open to anybody with an interent connection and a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin or two letters from Ulysses S. Grant.” He proudly states that Stephen Colbert University is where “we put the U in ‘we make money off you.'”

He goes on to interview Andrew Hacker about his book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It, who apparently thinks that college is good for teaching kids how to become good “middle class” citizens and to reason with the lower class people when they rise up and attack them with pitchforks.

(By the way, does anyone know if you can embed videos from Comedy Central in a WordPress.com blog?)

Rethinking the purpose of tests in theological education

Yesterday, James McGrath asked about the impact of technology on the way that we are teaching our classes. And, he specifically wants to know what impact this does (or should) have on our testing methodology. As he puts it:

I have found myself considering phasing out exams of the traditional sort, in which I essentially test what they have been able to remember. Information is available with a few clicks of their thumbs, and so it seems better to instead test students’ ability to find reliable information online, rather than test their ability to remember it.

I’ve been wrestling with a similar question in my theology classes for a while now. What exactly is the purpose of an exam in a theology class? The theology exams I took as an undergrad focused primarily on simple recall. As long as I could memorize and retain the information from the notes, I was good to go. Seminary upped the ante by making better use of short-answer essay questions. Even here, though, the focus was on remembering the notes and discussions so I could answer the essay questions properly. But, as McGrath points out, in our technological age, recall simply isn’t as important as it used to be.

So, if recall isn’t the point of a theological test, what is?” What exactly should I be trying to assess? The conclusion that I’ve reached is that a theological exam (I think the purpose of an exam varies from one discipline to the next) should be about what students can do with the knowledge that they have, rather than just what they can recall. And here my emphasis has gone in a slightly different direction than what McGrath proposes. In his post, he focused on the skill of being able to find information. That’s an important skill that should be taught and assessed. But it seems more rightly assessed in papers and other assignments. Since I’m largely training people for ministry, I’ve chosen to focus my examinations more on the students’ ability to use their theological knowledge by applying it to new issues and situations. In other words, I’ve focused my exams on assessing whether students can “think theologically” when they encounter real-life situations in ministry.

But, how do you do that? This, of course, is the challenging question. And, I’m open to suggestions. The way that I decided to do it last year was to redesign my exams entirely around case studies. I would first determine the theological issue that I wanted to examine my students on. Then, I would reflect on how that theological issue has contemporary significance for life and ministry. And finally, I’d create a question that (hopefully) forced students to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation, many of which were drawn from my own ministry experiences.

For example, in an exam dealing with theological anthropology, I wanted a question on creation/evolution issues. I could simply have asked the students to write an essay explaining/defending their position. Instead, I went with the following:

You’re having a meeting with a youth leader who has been teaching students that God created humans through evolutionary processes (i.e. theistic evolution) and a parent who is upset because he believes that this contradicts the Bible. How will you handle this discussion? Will you side with one person or the other? Why? What would you like to see happen as the result of the conversation?
The advantages of a case study question like this are (at least):
  • The question itself continues to show students that theology is not an abstract discipline. It has direct bearing on life and ministry. I think a good exam should continue to teach by reinforcing what you think is important.
  • It pushes beyond a mere statement of the students’ position, though it should still elicit that. It asks the student to apply their perspective to a real ministry situation.
  • The final part of the question is there to see if students have made the connection between theological conversations like this and spiritual formation. I want to see if they’re just going to focusing on “winning” the argument, or if they’ll see this as a way of growing people through theological dialog. (We discuss this in class; so it’s not unexpected.)

I did learn some valuable lessons from this last year. First, exams like this take the students a lot longer to complete. I had to make mid-semester adjustments to keep the exams within reason. Second, writing questions like this is harder than I expected. I routinely received good answers from students that weren’t quite what I was looking for. The evolution question above, for example, often elicited responses that said almost nothing about the students own perspective. (They focused more on how to “handle” the situation.)  Since I want that to be a part of the response, I’ll need to adjust the question next time. Third, the students liked the new approach (or they lied to me, one of the two). The exams became opportunities for lively discussion afterward and several students commented that they even shared the exam questions with people at their churches.

What do you think? What should a theology class in a seminary be trying to accomplish, and how do we best assess whether that has happened?

Seminarians are getting younger

USA Today reported last week on a growing trend in US seminaries – younger students.

For years, churches across the USA have prayed that more young people would explore careers in ministry as a wave of Baby Boomer pastors prepares to retire. Now it seems their prayers are being answered.

For the past 10 years, the estimated median age of candidates for master of divinity degrees has fallen steadily, from 34.14 in 1999 to 32.19 in 2009, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Theological Education (CSTE) at Auburn Seminary. That marks a reversal: From 1989 to 1999, the estimated median age had climbed steadily from 31.4 to 34.14.

The article offers three possible explanations: (1) there are more twentysomethings in America today, (2) younger people are more inclined to pursue “altruistic” jobs than before, and (3) more financial resources are being targeted at younger students. Regardless, it seems that after several decades of rising ages at US seminaries, seminarians are now getting younger again.