The New School of Christ
Searching for silver linings during COVID-19
Innovation in theological education has always been an essential part of equipping leaders for Christ’s church in the world. Many of our theological colleges across North America have stories of hard-scrabble beginnings, quick pivots, and adaptive responses to the context through various twists and turns along the way, before becoming the more established institutions we take for granted today. I serve as the Dean of St. Andrew’s Hall, the Presbyterian Church in Canada college in Vancouver, British Columbia. The first Presbyterian college on the west coast was called Westminster Hall, established in 1907. In addition to its regular faculty, Westminster Hall welcomed visiting faculty from around the world by holding its classes in the summertime. That way, the students were then sent to mission fields in the wintertime. In fact, the year after Westminster Hall opened, the Presbyterian Church established 15 new mission fields in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. I love knowing that from the beginning we’ve had a priority for mission and theological education. Knowing the history of our scrappy and innovative ancestors in theological education gives me great encouragement in these crazy COVID-19 days when so much of our lives have been disrupted, and church and academy have been pressed fully into adaptive leadership mode.
As a missiologist, I spend a lot of my time hanging out with local pastors of all denominational stripes, sipping lattes or sampling hipster craft beer and listening to where God is at work in their communities. COVID-19 has both transformed and revealed new ways of being the church. Is that also true for our seminaries? To find out I interviewed two of my colleagues in theological education. Close to home, I asked Richard Topping, Principal of the Vancouver School of Theology, to walk me through his experience of the impact of COVID-19 on theological education. And for a different perspective, I spoke with Cynthia Rigby at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas. I asked them both, what was the most significant challenge their school faced due to the impact of COVID-19?
Topping noted the need to respond with limited information when people wondered what would happen and anxiety was high. “Academics like complete information,” he said. “I think honesty and clear communication was really important.” In addition to maintaining a sense of humour, Topping noted, “Inviting the community to prayer and welcoming their thoughts through online gatherings created a sense of mutual support and trust for the administration.” Rigby reflected on the challenge of disembodiment, saying, “The most significant challenge we have faced is not being able to meet face-to-face. Even though the faculty, administration, students and staff quickly adapted to using Zoom, making webinars, and working from home, our community is not the same without being physically together. We are bodies, after all, and our theology and liturgical practices insist on the inextricability of bodies and souls, the physical and the spiritual.”
Left: Richard Topping, Principal of the Vancouver School of Theology .
Right: Cynthia Rigby, Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
I also wondered how this pandemic experience was shaping their vocation as theological educators. Topping shared that he had moved from “principal to pastor” with heightened instincts to pay attention to people who have difficulty coping with stress in the best of times. “My vocation has been ‘pastorized’ again,” he said. “The pandemic shows you what great people you have. It doesn’t change people; it does however intensify and reveal who you have. All the trust accumulated through the years makes your leadership matter at a time like this. Expressions of compassion in regular communications for people who are working from home with children is important.” Rigby also noted the emphasis upon her vocation as pastor, reflecting that her sense of calling to pastors has been formed during the pandemic. She had always considered pastors her colleagues and tried to support and learn from them, but they have “kind of blown me away,” in the last few months, she said, “with their determination to figure out huge things like how to have worship online, how to be with a person who is dying when you can’t touch them physically, how to help people who are unemployed keep food on the table, and how to work for social justice (e.g., Black Lives Matter) even when everyone is feeling depleted. And in the middle of all this they are trying to think theologically and lead their people in asking questions such as, what does God have to do with the coronavirus? As a theological educator, the impact on Rigby has been trying to create resources to help pastors out, and she believes this emphasis will be a permanent change in her work from here on out.
Both Topping and Rigby’s enthusiasm for how they were responding to this moment led me to ask them what surprising advantages God may have revealed to them regarding theological education and the church amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Rigby noted that being on Zoom all the time for teaching has helped them realize both the limits and the possibilities of teaching online. She stresses that education is not only, or even primarily, about the dissemination of information, and spiritual formation must include bodies. That said, Rigby acknowledged that some professors finally broke through “the tech barrier and are now headed to a lot of effective hybrid classes in which we will be able to do wonderful pedagogical things we are only beginning to imagine.” Topping agrees about the importance of connection, noting that “we need each other in the flesh,” but he sees all kinds of advantages in this time, describing it as “a thin place” for people who might follow up on a call to ministry. Enrollment is up both for summer school and the fall term at the Vancouver School of Theology, the highest it has been in 20 years. He has witnessed the advantage of having board members who do crisis management for a living and have shared their gifts. In a digital age, direct, consistent, calm and kind communication is an advantage for any organization to those who feel uncertain and anxious.
Turning towards the return to class in the fall, I asked my colleagues what best practices they were implementing for this “new normal” of online education. Topping noted ongoing and enhanced training for professors in best practices of online education. He noted that VST has had hybrid education for years, “Our professors are already great at it. However, online delivery of courses and the requisite pedagogy is different than peering into a classroom using Zoom.” Rigby agreed, noting that a “best tech” practice is not necessarily a best teaching practice. She offered the example of the best practice on Zoom to “mute all” when the presenter is speaking. But she wondered about exercising this level of control over noise and bodies in an environment in which we are already severely disembodied. “Maybe we need to leave the mics on,” she stressed, “and hear each other grunt and sneeze and say uh-huh or no way. I’m not sure.” Topping also added best practices of shorter meetings on Zoom with more telephone meetings, regular communication to the whole constituency of the school about chapel, lectures and other opportunities, as well as featuring students and faculty on social media.
In closing I asked them to prophetically imagine what theological education might look like beyond COVID-19. Rigby suggested we may not take our gatherings for granted as much as we have in the past. “Maybe we will savour the partaking of the bread and the cup, laugh more joyously at the splashing of the font,” she noted. “Maybe we will appreciate bodies more – our own and others, even those different than our own.” Rigby wondered about a more emotional and passionate engagement in the classroom. “How else but with passion can we learn to be more compassionate? Only with compassion will we be able to participate in the salvation of this world that God so loves. I think we have a fighting chance at compassion if we don’t let it get away in our eagerness to ‘get back to normal.’” For Topping, he imagines a mixed-economy (online and in-person) theological education becoming standard for most schools going forward and thus, like Rigby, he knows that means we must think seriously about how “an incarnate faith matters/intersects/challenges/influences an ‘excarnate’ experience of education.” Reflecting on this time moving forward, Topping says, “we should be looking for the people who did well in this pivot and recruit them to lead the church; they have range and can lead in a ‘wicked’ time – when the old rules of engagement are suspended and overturned.” To that end, Topping is pleased that this moment provides a huge opportunity for the church and theological colleges to learn from a younger demographic; “the very people we’ve tried to involve with mixed or limited success in the past.”
When I think back to those who have gone before us in theological education, like the mission-minded folks of a century ago who laid the foundations for the Reformed seminary where I now minister, I know that we are in good company when it comes to adaptive leadership for the sake of equipping the saints for ministry. This new school year ahead provides an exciting opportunity to partner with the Triune God in equipping missionary disciples through our seminaries and churches for Christ’s church of tomorrow, today.