The annual faculty retreat of the Oikonomia Network, held on Jan. 8-10, focused on the need for theological education to change in a changing world. The retreat hosted 63 theological educators from 23 schools. Plenary speakers addressed the need for both organizational and intellectual changes. Breakout workshops stimulated thought about best practices and program design. And extensive networking opportunities made it easy for faculty to find others to compare notes with.
On Thursday night, Kevin Mannoia, chaplain of Azusa-Pacific University and founder of the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium, started off the retreat with an after-dinner talk titled, “New Tricks for Old Dogs.” He described a changing cultural landscape in which boundaries are becoming more porous, the balance between description and prescription is shifting, and educators need to think more intentionally about the link between theory and practice. While these changes bring their dangers, Mannoia encouraged the assembled faculty to embrace the opportunities for fresh thinking and innovation created by such an environment. He described a number of schools in the U.S. and elsewhere adopting innovative approaches to education. Audio of his talk is available here.
The featured speaker of the retreat was Robert Cooley, who served as president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for 16 years. On Friday morning, in “Cultural Context and Change,” Cooley described how a sweeping transformation of the cultural environment is dismantling the “industrial” era of the 19th and 20th centuries. Theological education, like every other type of organization, must leave behind the era of “corporate bureaucracy” – a form of organization well suited to the urbanized, specialized, hierarchical environment of the last two centuries, but poorly suited to the horizontal networks and team systems of a globalized digital world. In afternoon remarks on “Governance Processes and Change,” Cooley described how faculty can learn to navigate the governance of their schools and help build new approaches that will accomplish the mission of theological education with economic sustainability. Audio of his talks are available below and his slides are available here, here, here, and here.
The seminary is already in economic crisis, and it does not have long to respond, he warned. “In 10 years, the faculty as we know it will be a relic.” But wherever schools use their knowledge assets to serve their students, constituencies, and publics, he testified, revenue has always followed. The challenge is that existing processes don’t deliver value in the new context; better processes would do so.
Cooley urged the faculty to become leaders in changing the seminary. “Faculty are responsible for 80 percent of the revenue” in theological education, and this gives them power in their organizations. They have a professional responsibility to use that power to build systems that serve students, constituencies, and publics.
The two Friday talks alternated between small-group workshops in which attendees discussed best practices for their programs. In the morning, academic officers from three ON seminaries helped participants think about administrators’ points of view and how they can offer value to their institutions. In the afternoon, three ON faculty leaders shared best practices in program design and implementation – small group discussion opportunities, faculty reading groups, local church partnerships, and dealing with large institutional constituencies like denominational bodies.
On Saturday morning, P.J. Hill – emeritus professor of economics at Wheaton College – spoke about “Loving Strangers through Work and Exchange.” He led eight volunteers from the audience in an experiment known as the Ultimatum Game, in which one party determines how to divide an amount of money between himself and another party, and the other party can accept the offer (meaning both players get the money) or reject it (in which case neither player gets anything). Hill then described how widespread use of the Ultimatum Game had called into question the traditional view of “homo economicus,” because both parties in the game rarely behave purely self-interestedly. Norms of dignity and fairness matter.
Moreover, while Ultimatum Game experiments produce very similar results throughout the developed world, from America and Europe to Israel and Indonesia, people in primitive economies are less likely to be generous when playing the game than those in developed economies. Hill argued that this is because the entrepreneurial economy is based on norms that require good treatment of strangers, especially the notion that economic exchange is mutually beneficial. He argued that people in the entrepreneurial economy generally value the benefit to others involved in economic exchange as well as the benefit to themselves. The net effect on people’s moral character, he argued, is positive. Audio of his talk and his slides are available below.
This talk was followed by a panel of theological educators discussing “From Life to the Bible.” Chris Armstrong of Wheaton College, Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary, Gerry Breshears of Western Seminary, and Tom Nelson of Christ Community Church challenged theological educators to consider whether their prevailing hermeneutical and pedagogical approaches unintentionally contribute to a secular-sacred divide, a narrow understanding of the gospel, a “Weberian rationalization” of education, and a disconnect between theory and practice. The panel’s title comes from the observation that seminaries train pastors to think about the Bible as if people go “from the Bible to life” when they more often go “from life to the Bible”; pastors are trained to ask the biblical text questions that are essentially questions about the Bible (exegesis, systematic theology, etc.) when most people come to the text asking questions about their lives. Following a provocative discussion and questions from the floor, attendees discussed the ideas in small group breakouts.
The retreat ended on Saturday night with Greg Forster’s talk, “Can We Know the World and Still Love the World?” The title is taken (“hijacked,” as Forster put it) from the recent book “Visions of Vocation” by Steven Garber. Forster suggested that inadequate approaches to economics usually involve either a failure to “know the world” – to discern clearly the evil that is at work in the world – or a failure to “love the world” – to will the good of our civil communities regardless of whether they deserve it. Those who embrace shallow ideologies from the Right or Left are failing to know the world, while a failure to love the world has led many leading Christian intellectuals to reject modern economic systems wholesale. We must love the world, Forster argued, even in order to know it; failure to love the world leads to cynicism and ignorance.
Initial feedback on the retreat has been very positive. Our community continues to grow and develop. Thanks as always to those who invested the time to be there!