Is there value in online education?

I loved my three years of theological education at Duke – I would say the best three years of my life. I loved the interaction with friends (who are are among my closest ever) and professors. Being there was as important as what I actually was taught, and I certainly thought that it was much preferable to online learning

Jason Byassee, who believes in physical presence education as well, has some interesting thoughts about the recent United Methodist conference decision to allow for 2/3 of the credits toward theological education to be done online. It has certainly made me rethink the value of it. In a post on Duke’s Faith and Leadership blog, he recognises that Christianity, centred on resurrection, is an embodied faith, but he compares the situation of online theological learning to the situation St. Paul found himself in:

But what about the longstanding objections noted earlier, of disembodied, Gnostic visions of knowledge? I will still maintain that the best setting in which to grow in wisdom and love with God and neighbor is interpersonal, face-to-face meeting punctuated by worship, meals together and service. And yet such meetings are not always possible. We are embodied beings and bodies can only be in one place. This is why St. Paul so often longs to be with the congregations from whom he is absent in the body. But notice what he doesn’t do: he doesn’t wait to offer them his words until he can be with them. He sends them letters. Letters meant to be read corporately, perhaps even to lead to worship or be part of it. Such letters allow him to engage personally without being present personally. They are a poor substitute in some ways. In others they are superior. We have preserved St. Paul’s letters. Unfortunately we do not have his face-to-face conversations.

A regular commenter on my blog (Lance) made some good points yesterday about churches using social media and how that may compromise our embodiedness as a faith. While I agreed with him, my point to him was similar to Jason’s here – social media are meant to supplement and support, not replace face-to-face contact. I think the situation is analogous with online learning.


Excercising the Self-Control Muscle

Duke Divinity’s Faith & Leadership blog gives a link today about self-control. It focuses on a problem that I have known about, but have not known what to do about it. Douglas McKenna (in Exercising Your Self-Control Muscle) compares the ability to remain self-controlled to exercising any muscle.

Here’s a secret about self-control: It works like a muscle. With each use, that muscle temporarily loses some strength, leaving you with reduced capacity to handle yourself if the next self-control challenge pops up too soon.

Going from situation to situation without reflection leaves little time to reset. Then, the chance of losing self-control increases with the frequency of stressful situations. This effect explains why it’s not good to have a whole bag of chocolate in the house after church councils. McKenna then offers 4 things to help:

  1. Plan your time with depletion in mind. Don’t go from one pastoral visit straight to another, in particular if one is particularly difficult.
  2. Standardize recurring tasks. Spend little time on the problems you can easily solve (McKenna gives the illustration of Einstein always wearing a grey jumpsuit – much the same reason why I generally wear a clerical collar!).
  3. Rest and refuel. Not only days off, but breaks between tough activities.
  4. Work out your self-control muscle. This was interesting. McKenna says that if we practice breathing, then that is the same ‘muscle’ for other self-control situations. The comparisons to prayer shouldn’t be overlooked.

So self-discipline is something I am terrible at, or at least getting back into the habit once I have broken it. I think this could be taken further than personal work life. How might we integrate some of these into church council agendas? Are there other areas of the church that it could affect?

Marriage Preparation

I had not read this yesterday to include with my list of links, but it is worth giving out now rather than waiting a week. Tired of the typical fair of what goes for marriage prep with the focus on the male as head style, Dave Warnock at 42 gives 17 ideas for marriage preparation from a perspective that sees marriage as between equals (often referred to as an ‘egalitarian’ marriage, rather than the ‘complementarian’ model that sees the male as the head and the woman as the the submissive).

These 17 ideas are definitely worth a read, and great for any minister looking to help couples prepare for their marriage. Dave hasn’t indicated that this post is in part of Moving Methodism, but I don’t doubt that he would think offering an alternative for marriages than what often is heard in Christianity is part of this movement.

Here are his 17:

  1. Learn to listen. Either take a course in listening skills together or buy a how to book at work through it together.
  2. Learn to share openly. Write each other love letters or emails that share your dreams, your hopes, your fears and your life story. Then meet and talk about them.
  3. Learn to be honest. Discover how to share things that you do not share with anyone else, to be honest when you know you will disagree.
  4. Learn to open your closets and show the skeletons that are hidden there. Do not let this be a surprise after exchanging vows.
  5. Take up at least one new hobby/activity/pastime that your partner loves and that you have never tried. Let them choose what it is. Together try something entirely new to you both.
  6. Consider issues relating to loss. What will each of you lose through this permanent commitment? What might you lose in the future? How do you deal with loss?
  7. Watch each others favourite film and tv show. Read each others favourite book. Discuss what they mean for each other and the influence they have.
  8. Share your traditions. How do you celebrate birthdays, Christmas etc in your families/traditions. How are you going to face the differences (for example if one is lavish with presents and the other modest).
  9. Explore your faith together. Maybe you share a common faith, maybe not. Do you understand the others beliefs? Do you respect them? What are they going to mean for the way they want to live? How do you feel about the commitment they require, the attention they need? What about the relationships with others that will be part of your faith journeys – are you both ok with them. Is there an agenda or assumption that one of you will change? Is either feeling resentful or isolated or threatened and if so what is going to be done about it? Does either/both faith tradition have a recognised scheme of preparation for marriage/civil partnership? If so then do it together.
  10. Share the top 10 things you like about the other. Talk about them together. How does the other feel about you liking those things?
  11. Share the best 5 ways in which the other has made you feel loved and valued (and thank them), discuss them together.
  12. Share the most irritating things about the other, the habits that wind you up, the behaviour that makes you mad. Not just as a list but as a discussion on what you are both going to do about this. Is change expected, possible or realistic or is it about attitudes and expectations?
  13. Make a budget. Agree your spending priorities and how you are going to organise your finances. Are you going to have a completely shared finance or what? Do you have compatible spending habits and lifestyle expectations? Can you trust the other with all your money? Have you really faced the challenges and expectations?
  14. Explore aspects of your personalities. This does not have to be through formal techniques (but you might enjoy finding out a bit more about yourselves and the interactions between you through something like the Myers Briggs personality types). Look at how you each respond to stress and how you unwind. Can you recognise the symptoms of stress in each other and know how to respond helpfully. What about anger? Do you know when the other is angry and what causes it and how to respond?
  15. Look beyond yourselves. How are your friendships with others, your relationships with your families? Is there some kind of balance between you or are all your friends from just one of you?
  16. Compile a list of the best ways your partner would like to celebrate good news and a list of nice surprises. Share the lists and get marked out of 10. Discuss where you were close, where you were far off and your own reactions to the lists.
  17. Seek a couple to act as mentors. Ideally they should not know either of you much better than the other, you both need to respect them and see them as role models. Obviously they should be in a stable and secure relationship. Spend time with them and share your journey of preparation with them.

When Realism Meets Defeatism

I have been struggling lately to see the good in church lately. With the discussions I have had recently about the future of The Methodist Church, I have been stressing the reality the church is in. In part, I don’t know if those in my churches have thought about it much. Many are aware that the church is declining, and probably know that at the national level this is happening everywhere. But, I have wondered how this will effect them. And I have tried (perhaps too hard) to make the case to them.

I haven’t made the case by saying what seems to have been the normal way, i.e., ‘do this or close’. I still have doubts that all ageing congregations can ‘grow fast enough’ to maintain the all ageing buildings in the connexion. Discipleship can be a slow process, and as Pam has mentioned in her comments (on a previous post), the folk that things like Fresh Expressions attract often find our structures (building and organisational) hard work and cumbersome. Placing the hope of The Methodist Church as it is today on Fresh Expressions seems to be the opposite of what actually happens.

Then last night at a stewards meeting, I had to hear the challenge that I was talking defeatism. It came up when we talked about over the last 18 months or so a number of new people had come into the church. Well, it was 6, and 4 of those have stopped coming. I had to wonder why I couldn’t get excited about 2 people. There is an opportunity right there!

I had become unable to see possibilities. Part of this comes not only from what I have been saying lately about the state of the church. Some of it (maybe a lot of it) stems from the past hurts of ideas that found little support or were changed from what I thought it should be. I don’t mean to make it seem like sour grapes on my part. Part is that traditional churches are just that – traditional. Part of it is that I have yet to find that ‘motivational key’ that gets ideas out of my head and into a format that can be grasped by others.

So I find myself navigating the way between trying to be realistic and feeling defeated. On one side there is the tendency to only celebrate the 2 people without asking ourselves why the other 4 chose to leave(this was the concern of some – they feel like the message gets out that we’re ok – it’s the one who don’t come that have the problem). Then there is the problem of creeping judgmentalism that I have found myself battling more and more, which makes me focus on the problems that made the 4 leave.

I offer this as a kind of reflection that Dave Warnock (42) has called for in his post on ‘Knowing Ourselves‘. He calls for knowing ourselves at an individual level and a the corporate level. I think my church and myself are doing that right now. I do know I am feeling tired of seeing the negative so much that I can’t see the positive, but need to find a better way to navigate this divide between realism and defeatism.

Less Pubs to Stabalize Others

Tonight I was listening to the president of the local CAMRA group (a group encouraging the sale of ‘real ale’ and to saving the British pub).  While many have been bemoaning the 36 or so pubs that close every week (I think), he said that honestly he thought that a few more might actually need to close.  He gave the example of his town where there are 16 pubs, 5 are closed, and likely 4 more need to close.  That way the village could actually sustain the 7 or 8 that would be left.

Standing beside a minister friend of mine (who is from the URC), she and I looked at one another and obviously had the same thought. So, I said it – maybe this guy should come and speak to our churches.  This does seem to be a parable of sorts for our churches.

I have found that here in Great Britain (and from what I encountered in the US), closing churches is not wanted on the agenda.  We refuse to stop and look around and ask the questions about whether or not a church is needed in a given area; questions about resources spread too thin, other churches in the area (even if not of our denomination), and why we feel that church is needed (and question why we yeild to those who simply want it to be there because it always has).

This has been on my mind recently as the connexion wants to look at what is sometimes called ‘Super Circuits’. It takes existing circuits and then combines them. I have heard others say (and indeed said this myself) that this sounds like another desperate attempt to save the institution, but more or less keeps things the same and adding another layer of management (the old circuits then become sections – each with a leader while creating a ‘super circuit’ superintendent).  I would not mind the idea of ‘larger circuit boundaries’, but I don’t favour simply combing circuits as is.  With increasing retirement and decreasing numbers of people offering for the ministry, adding that to the issues of resources spread thin in a local area, I see this continuing the trend of putting more work on ministers and then adding them to a larger geographical area.

I think it’s time, no matter how difficult the issue is, that we truly investigate how many buildings we need and how we might consolidate our resources to work for the kingdom of God.

Global Leadership Summit – Charging the Darkness

Though I hate to admit it to my friends from Duke Divinity (where the name of Willow Creek can be almost anathema), I have enjoyed my experience of the last two years.  Oh, there was plenty of things that made me cringe (Bill Hybels insistence that the substitutionary atonement theory is the ONLY message of the cross, his detailing of Willow’s problems about jets and huge staffs, etc.), but overall it has been a good experience. This year hasn’t held up so far, and Hybels first message (usually the better of his two) wasn’t on target.  Still, there has been bright spots.

One of the best parts of the three years has been the session on social justice. I realise that some have said that Willow still blurs the line between ‘charity’ and ‘justice’, and I will admit that it’s true at times.  But, evangelicals have come late to understanding the need of social justice, and like the mainline years ago, are growing up.  I can’t criticise what they are trying to do here.  Two years ago, Hybels interviewed U2’s Bono and last year it was Richard Curtis (the creator of The Vicar of Dibley and the film Four Weddings and a Funeral) – neither what we might call paid up, fully confessional Christians.  Both brought to the summit issues that many evangelicals have likely shunned in the past in favour of ‘saving souls’ and defaulting to a ‘charity’ model that just wants to say, ‘God told us to help, so that’s what we are doing’ (an exaggeration, I know).

This year, Willow has chosen a different tack. The speaker is someone who confesses to be a Christian and works with a Christian ministry dedicated to social justice. This was worth the price of admission.  Gary Haugen is a lawyer working with the International Justice Mission.  He has been a part of a team that works to stand up to those who abuse their power in the worst forms.  He told of three examples:  a man imprisoned wrongly other than the police wanted to extort money; a rice plantation in India with slaves; and a young woman freed from kidnapping and prostitution.  This is just a small portion of what goes on.

Haugen took the time to teach what is truly injustice, especially in culture (the US) where he has been taught to see himself as a victim everyday.  I had to hang my head with shame as I remembered my previous post on being cut in line – he used a similar example to show how Americans can feel slighted at the smallest thing.  He then says, this isn’t what he is talking about.  He names injustice as a particular kind of sin – the abuse of power that takes away from the weak.

This form of injustice is what is close to God’s heart, what Jesus is interested in.  Then he asks are our churches interested in what Jesus is? This certainly hit close. He didn’t allow us to say, ‘justice just isn’t our thing’.  He said, this is what matters to Christ.  We can lead and have people follow us, but it can all be done without actually doing what God wants us to be doing.

Haugen didn’t pretend any of this is easy.  He gave us four choices we have to make: 1) the choice not be safe – Jesus didn’t come to make us ‘safe’; 2) the choice for a deep spiritual health – all of what we need to do requires connection to God; 3) the choice to pursue excellence – not mediocrity; and 4) the choice to seize the joy – especially in the face of overwhelming odds.

Check out the ministry if you get the chance.