Wish They All Could Be TFEs

One of the most important pieces of advice I have often given to other field educators—because it was the most important piece of advice I received from another field educator when I first started out—is not to duplicate the administrative functions already handled by other campus personnel. In other words, don’t be the one registering students in internships if your school already has a registrar. Don’t spend all your time securing funds for internships if your school has a development officer. Don’t process compensation for interns; that’s what financial aid officers are good at. You get my point. Field educators have enough to do just being educators.

Or at least we should. Nearly everything I read these days in the literature on theological education stresses the importance of cultivating the very capacities we excel at teaching. Contextual learning, vocational discernment, spiritual formation, leadership development, integrative thinking, self-awareness and ethical training, theological reflection, and so on. More and more theological schools are reforming their curricula in order to move the cultivation of these capacities closer toward the center.

We know how to do these things. Every biennial consultation of the Association of Theological Field Education that I can remember has included workshops by and for field educators aimed at helping students become better at these skills and ways of learning. Like our colleagues in other disciplines, not all of us excel at everything. Many of us found our way into field education from another job that focused on one or two of these practices. For example, some of us have been pastoral mentors, some spiritual directors, some clinical pedagogues, and some formal theologians. But we continually strive to round out our skill sets. I have never encountered another group of professionals more eager to help students learn and grow than theological field educators.

Yet we are not always recognized for our contribution as educators to student learning. As Auburn Seminary’s recent report, Making Theology Matter, states:

Most schools classify directors of TFE as staff, not faculty, and when they are faculty, they are not commonly tenure-track faculty. Behind this is a long history of TFE being dismissed as having no academic substance, and directors merely requiring the gifts of administration, namely recruitment and facilitation of students’ placements in ministry contexts. Yet these very staff make possible the central claim of our study—put in succinct form in the title of the report—that TFE is a pathway for “making theology matter.” In moving learning-in-practice to the heart of the theological education enterprise, schools show how theology matters because it becomes incarnate in works of mercy, love and justice among faithful people and their leaders. https://auburnseminary.org/report/making-theology-matter/

Therefore, the ongoing large task ahead of us is mounting the case for the “academic substance” of the things we have always done and have always been good at, so that our role, and our time and energy, are not swallowed up by purely administrative duties.

At the same time, however, I do not wish in any way to disrespect administration. The goal is not to separate ourselves from our colleagues in financial aid, registration, etc., as we strive to be recognized as bona fide educators. All roles are valuable and necessary in order for theological schools effectively to carry out their mission of educating and forming students. We need to work together, not apart. In fact we all may need to cross over our jobs’ territorial lines more often in order to focus on student success. It may be that field educators need to better establish ourselves as educators, but after all, we still run programs. We still need good administrative chops and close relationships with other administrative offices.

So here’s a thought: What if today’s field educator were to become tomorrow’s model of the ideal theological educator? Here’s what I mean: Someone who has the ability to do it all: administer and teach (and even produce scholarship on administration and teaching). Someone who steadfastly holds student learning and formation at the center of all they do. Someone who humbly puts the mission of the institution first. Someone who is good at partnering with practitioners and institutions outside the academy. And, of course, someone who “makes theology matter”!

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