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Contextual Education and Formation

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
(Matthew 18:20)

It’s a safe bet that, from time to time, every rostered leader has uttered their version of “Well, they didn’t teach me THIS in seminary!” There’s even a Facebook group by that name: Things They Didn’t Teach Us in Seminary, started, interestingly enough, by a TLS alum. To state the obvious, it’s simply impossible for seminary coursework to cover every possible ministry circumstance.

That’s where Contextual Education comes in. This component of formation creates opportunities to engage contextually in a variety of sites, in a variety of ways, and to learn from and reflect on the experiences. Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s 2+2 M.Div. curriculum allows the contextual pieces of formation to really shine as they form leaders for Christ’s Church at work in the world.

Contextual Education offers students the opportunity to be formed outside of the classroom. Ideally, that formation comes from a diversity of experiences and opportunities. To borrow an idea from Paul: Some rostered ministers will be called to rural ministry and some to urban work. Some will be sent to the suburbs and some to the small towns. Some will serve in congregations and sites with an abundance of resources and some will be sent to places who are learning to walk faithfully with less. Because of this variety of settings and circumstances, faithful contextual education will mirror that variety in its offering of settings and circumstances. Students will often learn in contexts with which they’ve had little experience or exposure. They will engage from a variety of levels and in a multiplicity of ways.

Students and supervisors do not do this work alone. Congregations and ministry sites become co-teachers with them. The successful student will learn from both. The successful student will learn in whatever setting they find themselves serving. The successful student will fail. Yes, fail. One of the great gifts of contextual education is that it is a safe place to fail…to have projects fall flat and to sing in the wrong key while serving as cantor and to forget the name of the Council President’s spouse. But grace abounds. And that is an important lesson for us all to give and receive.

Key to a fruitful contextual education experience is that the students are not formed in the supervisor’s image, but are given the opportunities to become fully who God and the Church is calling them to be. Students find their pastoral/diaconal identities in these places: In the pulpit, at the variety of tables, at a bedside, over coffee, at the protest, with the elders, with the children. Done well, contextual education creates the space for that identity to form, grow, be challenged, and be affirmed.

Students at TLS and all of our seminaries learn deeply and faithfully in the classroom. The coursework teaches them and gives them the tools they will need to begin to build their ministries in Christ’s Church. Contextual Education offers them the spaces and places to engage what they are learning with what they are experiencing in the field. When we do our jobs right on the seminary level, when we recruit and engage with faithful partners, when we offer a breadth of experiences, when we support our students and our sites, maybe, just maybe, our called leaders in the church have more opportunity to reflect on what they learned and experienced in seminary, rather than what they missed! May it be so!

Pastor Julie Hutson
Director of Experiential and Contextual Formation