Tuesday, March 02, 2010

masters of ministry and the revolution that is practical, not applied, theology

Yesterday included the beginning of the 2010 teaching program here in Adelaide with regard to the Master of Ministry (of which I am the Co-ordinator). It’s a quite unique post-graduate program that I am beginning to really admire.

Most post-grad qualifications are shaped around a variety of taught papers plus a larger body of work in the form of a thesis. The Master of Ministry here offers a number of innovations.

First, it is totally ministry focused, given that it can only be taken part-time, and after 4 years in ministry, making it only available to people who are actually in ministry. This brings a wonderful groundedness into discussion and interaction and into research.

Second, is the Program Seminar. Every student has to complete 21 Program Seminars over the duration of their study. Each seminar involves a student sharing some of their work and in response each participant must write a 1,000 word reflection piece. Thus it builds a collegiality, is constantly developing ability to reflect theologically on current ministry practice and potentially provides a rich source of written material on ministry today.

Third, is a paper titled Theology of Ministry Practice. This must be done early in the student’s study and simply expects them to write a 6,000 word thought piece describing their theology of ministry. This is such a valuable exercise, emerging not in theory, but out of their life experience that they bring to the table.

In recent years what was applied theology has sought to rename itself as practical theology. The change of name is about a revolution. Rather than a two-stage process, that of getting one’s intellectual ducks in a row (Biblical studies and theology) and then making application to ministry (applied), practical theology argues for a three stage process. First, to listen to lived experience that is the practice of ministry. Second, to reflect on that in light of Biblical studies and theology. Third, to bring that learning back to the practice of ministry (applied).

This is a revolution because it tips traditional study on it’s head. Rather than move from theory to practice, it suggests a move from practice to theory and back to practice again. That requires a new set of skills, practises and disciplines. It seems to me that the innovations implemented in the Masters of Ministry programme are a significant step in this direction and one I’m excited to be part of.

Posted by steve at 08:51 AM


  1. good stuff. makes sense in a masters degree where people are already experienced and involved in ministry. but would you want to do it in a undergraduate setting? in many ways this is already what we do in terms of “field education” except that it tends to be a minor aspect of the curriculum and not sufficiently recognised for its important inegrative function.

    Comment by jonathan robinson — March 2, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  2. thanks Jonathan. I think it is possible at under-grad level. Indeed, all the adult education theory says that it’s essential we help learners bring their previous life experience into the class. At the moment I’m really enjoying Weimer’s Learner Centred Teaching in terms of how to shape course assessment and learning techniques.


    Comment by steve — March 2, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

  3. Surely the disaster is that it’s the ‘laity’ that need to be doing it, not the ‘clergy’!

    Comment by Eleanor Burne-Jones — March 2, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

  4. is it either laity/or clergy eleanor? surely the whole body of Christ should be doing theology. So I wonder what both/and would look like?


    Comment by steve taylor — March 2, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  5. I’m not sure it’s an either or proposition though, from my experiences of teaching practical/contextual theology over the past couple of years.

    Stage 2 as you describe it brings theological (and other) voices into dialogue with the personal stories and wider context in which they’re situated. However, if the practitioner does not have some measure skill (in broad sense) in handling biblical material (for example), then that engagement might not be either helpful or productive.

    I’d like to think that somewhere there’s a happy median that recognises the role of ‘traditional’ biblical studies, systematic theology and church history, in combination with practical theology approaches.

    I’m more than happy to see the ‘applied’ model of eternal distilled ‘truths’ to be applied as a blunt instrument to whatever situation arises to be reconsidered though.

    Just my 2c as I wrestle with this in class.

    Comment by Stephen — March 5, 2010 @ 7:48 am

  6. Stephen,

    My “2 bit” 🙂 response is that an honest practical theologian will tell you that are deeply concerned about how poorly the Bible is being used in practical theology. We hate a few proof texts cobbled together as much as some bland allusion to love or justice.

    But we wonder about the Biblical studies establishment and the modernising impact of education, who together seem to have colluded in a way that produce students who really struggle to take context to text in a coherent and authentic and life-giving encounter, in which multiple modes of analysis – genre and socio-critical reading and historico-critical – seem to be theories left in a class.


    Comment by steve — March 5, 2010 @ 8:10 am

  7. I should add that “stage 2” is a total turn toward those disciples you name – history, theology, Bible – It is the wrestling with the wisdom of the tradition (even if they are mostly dead white guys!). So practical theology does not want to dumb down these disciplines in anyway. The opposite – we want them to speak.


    Comment by steve — March 5, 2010 @ 8:12 am

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