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Character and the classroom: some reflections

I once served as a junior member of staff for a church where the senior pastor, so it seemed to me, worked very hard to be both a decisive leader and a person of gentleness and humility. The decisiveness was not hard to see. If after wide discussion and prayer he was convinced that a major step was right, he was prepared to lead, bringing others with him and not be diverted from his course by whatever flak might come his way. The gentleness and humility in him was more easily discerned closer up. He would listen to someone, for hours if necessary, withholding judgment or hasty biblical advice, asking questions, probing, discerning, till the other person could talk no more. He wanted to be sure that he’d understood their problems on their own terms, in their all messy and convoluted uniqueness, before venturing to offer something. I know this because I experienced it in his pastoring of me, and it left an impression.

We know from Scripture, of course, that both these qualities are required in church leaders. They are to ‘hold firmly to the trustworthy message’, strong enough not to be swayed by others and decisive enough to step in to refute those who oppose the truth (Titus 1:9). They are also to be people who are ‘not overbearing, not quick-tempered’, but ‘self-controlled’ (Titus 1:7-8), not ‘lording it’ over those entrusted to their shepherding care by the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:3-4). Churches and denominations just now are rightly facing up to the painful consequences of some past failings in taking these two sets of qualities with equal seriousness in the selection, training and oversight (whether episcopal or informal) of church leaders.

What does academic study as a preparation for ministry have to do with this? My hunch is that we’d more likely imagine that the kind of in-depth rigorous academic training that three years of full-time education provides aims to bolster one of these characteristics while largely leaving the other untouched, or actually - unintentionally - undermining it. Here’s what I mean. Perhaps it’s easy to imagine someone emerging from three bruising years spent being toughened up in the ring, sparring with theological heavyweights, now with all the necessary muscles built up to enable them to smack down error and to refuse to hit the deck when opponents come at them. Perhaps it’s a bit harder to imagine someone emerging from a spell of full-time academic study with the humility not to imagine that they already own all the truth on everything that they’ve got an opinion on, and with the gentleness to sit and listen
well to others.

In the last couple of years the teaching staff at Oak Hill have thought long and hard about this. We know that many of our graduates over the years are some of the most humble and gentle people you could ever meet (we’ve met them - they are!) But we also know that our constituency has a reputation for arrogance and brusqueness, and that this is not entirely a myth fabricated out of thin air by those who dislike our theology. And here’s where this is heading… we have come to see even more clearly that the way in which we teach and learn is always training us, whether for good or for ill. This means that we need to shape every element of how we teach and learn so as to train students especially in those virtues for which theologically trained people have not always been famous, such as humility and gentleness. That is, it’s not just the ‘what’ of academic study that trains us - the biblical knowledge, the theological insights. The ‘how’ also trains us. It’s always training us, and may be doing so most insidiously when we pretend that it isn’t.

For example, imagine a lecture on the importance of gentleness and humility in ministry. Imagine the lecturer breezily dismissing every viewpoint but his own. Imagine him only setting readings for the students from books that he entirely agrees with. Imagine him setting up a class discussion on the subject in which students are only encouraged to air their views and not listen hard to the views of others. Every word spoken in the class, every work read before the class, promotes humility and gentleness. But it’s not hard to imagine the whole experience actually hardening many students’ hearts that little bit further to spiritual growth in humility and gentleness. Why so? The ‘how’ of teaching and learning always trains us, whether for good or for ill.

We faculty have been especially helped in working this through by reading a book together: On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom, by the Christian educator David Smith. He started off as a teacher of modern languages in a secondary school, and as a modern languages graduate myself I warmed to his examples. One particularly resonated with my experience. He asks why so much language teaching involves treating the pupil as a tourist and consumer. Wie komme ich am besten zum Bahnhof? is one of the sentences I remember learning early on in German (‘what’s the best way to the railway station?’). Ich moechte einen Apfelsaft, bitte (‘I’d like an apple juice, please). If modern language teaching has moved on in the forty years since then, please forgive my examples, but you see the point. The way in which the language is taught can train students, quite accidentally but very effectively, to view a foreign country as a place to go and consume. Why not, suggests, Smith, have students listen to German people talking about their history, their experiences, their suffering? They’re still learning the ‘what’ of the language. But the ‘how’ of their learning is training them in an entirely different approach to the subject.

What does this mean in practice? We could start broad-scale. It means that we will continue to require students to engage directly with viewpoints that they are likely to want to oppose. Oak Hill forced me to do that twenty-five years ago when I was a student here. I was grateful for it, and now that I’ve returned as a lecturer I can see that it’s still very much in the college’s blood-stream. It is one of the virtues of full-time education that students have time to engage in this. But when explaining to students the work of a thinker they will likely disagree with, we often put on screen the nicest picture of them we can find. The point? This is a real human being we’re engaging with here, even though we may conclude they’re a false teacher. Early in their college experience we give students a short written exercise. They must summarise and evaluate a theological article that many of them will disagree with. Before they evaluate they must summarise it fairly - no judgments allowed yet. The test is: would the writer say, “That’s just what I was trying to argue. That’s my argument in its best form”? In other words, can we actually listen well to someone else? It may be an academic exercise, but it’s one designed to cultivate virtues that will be crucial in pastoral ministry. Only when you’ve truly listened do you then have the right to evaluate.

It’s there in how we help students engage in the controversial issues of the day. As I write, church leaders are debating whether they have the right to hold church services even though lockdown laws forbid them. Inevitably students hold different views on this. I hosted a discussion for a few students on it. The parameters were: no one is here to argue that their view is right. We’re here to try to understand the biblical and theological convictions that drive each of the views, both my own and those with whom I disagree.

It’s also there in the classroom. Think of that moment when a lecturer pauses and asks, “Any questions?” Typically it’s the same hands that go up. It’s often the people who process faster - or who think they do. It’s sometimes the people who already know something about the topic, and (subconsciously perhaps) want the rest of the class to know that too. So we’re working on little strategies in the classroom that encourage students to ask themselves about their effect on others and their level of self-control, before they throw up their hand. We’re working on little strategies to get students in discussion times to have, as their first instinct, to ask another student - someone different from them - what they think about this.

It’s not news that academic study trains people deeply in content. Perhaps it’s less obvious that it trains people in virtues that are crucial for daily ministry - for engaging with people of different views in a mixed denomination, for leading a church through a tricky decision, for listening graciously to a church member who’s angry with you, for listening deeply to someone with a problem so painful that they’re not sure if they really want to tell you. But the ‘how’ of teaching and learning is always training. And so we can steer it to train in these vital virtues. We mustn’t undermine the importance of holding firm to the trustworthy message. But we want to hold on to it in a way that is shaped by the earthly life of our humble, gentle Chief Shepherd.


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