Innovative Curriculum

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by Andrew Zirschky

The careful balance and integration of coaching, church experience, cohort interaction, and the academic study of youth ministry are at the heart of the Center for Youth Ministry Training‘s (CYMT) mission to educate and equip youth ministers as practical theologians. By bringing together expert-guided congregational practice and theological reflection within a cohort model, CYMT and our partner, Memphis Theological Seminary, seek to produce graduates with theological imagination and pastoral ability who are able to guide youth ministry into the future.

Extensive research into what constitutes expertise in any field or discipline is revealing that people who are experts have several things in common: First, thousands of hours of practice in their chosen field. Second, they have a large fund of practical skills and abilities; in other words, they know how to do things. Third, they have a theoretical framework that helps them understand why they approach their work the way they do.  A fourth quality of experts emerging from recent research is that they have a community of practice in which they find belonging both personally and professionally. If any of these four pieces is missing, then development of expertise is compromised. [1]

CYMT has a radical commitment to balancing and integrating these four foundations of expertise by equipping graduate residents through individualized coaching, extensive work in a church, academic study, and participation in a cohort of peers. We recognize that there are things that are better learned in a church, or through coaching, than in a classroom. At the same time, others things are better learned in a classroom environment, and still others are best learned through peer dialogue and discussion. Our pedagogy seeks to provide explicit bridging between these domains so that students are stretched to knit these worlds together.

Connecting Classroom and Congregational Experience

The Center for Youth Ministry Training is committed to developing innovative solutions that connect youth ministry education with youth ministry practice. We have observed a particular disconnect between classroom education and how students actually practice youth ministry. In most seminary contexts, field education is meant to serve as the practical playground wherein students connect theological learning with church practice. But rarely are there sufficient strategies and mechanisms in place to ensure this actually happens.  Despite various models that reportedly govern the relationship between field education and classroom pedagogy, our observation is that too often the only mechanism for this interplay is what we call “magic in the middle”—the idea that something magical happens in the middle of a student’s drive to the field ed site, and suddenly the student sees clearly how Trinitarian perichoresis matters to junior high ministry. [2]

Practical theology at its best occurs in the dynamic interplay and dialogue between Christian practice and Christian belief, each critiquing, informing, and enlightening the other. Our proposal for re-establishing this dynamic interplay in youth ministry education is to create pedagogical strategies and mechanisms grounded in transformative learning theory.

Guiding Theory of Transformative Learning and Insight

Informed by our understanding of Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory, the Center for Youth Ministry Training seeks to create pedagogical strategies that bring classroom, coaching, cohort, and congregational experiences into vital and transformative dialogue, thus bridging the gap between theory and practice, classroom and congregation. [3]

First, Mezirow contends that higher education is woefully dependent upon assimilative techniques that ultimately fail to produce either transformation in perspective or action.  We believe that assimilative learning—where theological knowledge is gained without significant impact of this knowledge upon student practice—is the main complaint of students who decry the irrelevance of theological education for youth ministry practice.

To move out of assimilative learning and toward transformative learning, says Mezirow, we must first experience a “disorienting dilemma” that exposes our “same old ways” as insufficient, false and inadequate. Mezirow emphasizes the need for self-reflection and communal dialogue in the process of transformation. The dilemma provokes students to engage in a period of self-reflection that surfaces beliefs, attitudes and judgments. Through critical dialogue with the perspectives and experiences of others the student is able to take on new perspectives and ultimately new actions.

Mezirow is clear that the development of new norms for action is the fruit of transformative learning and that the final step of transformative learning is gaining skills, knowledge and confidence for implementing new perspectives and courses of action. Unless the student is moved to revised practice, the rest of the process is in vain.

In the context of Memphis Theological’s Master of Arts in Youth Ministry and CYMT’s graduate residency program, the congregational experience and practicum provides our graduate residents with countless disorienting dilemmas in which the student feels “caught short.”  Thus, in terms of transformative education, the church experience is an integral part of the educational process. But in order to capitalize on these dilemmas, strategies and mechanisms need to be put in place that help students explore these disorienting situations in the context of the classroom.  And once students have reflected upon the situations they face, they need to be further drawn into critical dialogue with others around these dilemmas.  Finally, as students are armed with new perspectives and possible actions, mechanisms must be created that help them enact their proposed actions.

If CYMT is to provide an environment in which students are disoriented (namely in congregational experience), then we must equally provide a safe environment in which critical reflection and dialogue can happen outside of the congregational situation. In our view, this is one of the primary purposes of the classroom experience. We must ensure that we have strategies in place to ensure that the classroom environment provides theological resources, dialogue, and a “critical thought playground” that seeds new ways of thinking and acting as students confront the disorienting dilemmas of congregational ministry. Thus, our youth ministry course work must be committed to fostering classroom experiences, projects, and assignments that require students to explore and discover new actions and not merely new perspectives.

Further, if capitalized upon correctly, the cohort model of education ensures that students wrestle with disorienting dilemmas within the safety and diversity of a group of student colleagues who bring differing perspectives but a common love and respect for one another.

Finally, we believe CYMT is uniquely positioned to assist students in implementing new actions. Particularly through our coaching component students are provided with the insight of an experienced youth minister who is able to help them navigate the pitfalls and realities of changing practice and perspective amidst the real-world landscape of a congregation. However, again, mechanisms must be created which require students to ask for a coach’s insight in the implementation of new action.

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[1] See K. Anders Ericsson et al., The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] According to the Carnegie report on clergy education, most theological institutions assume that theological faculty will have virtually no connection to the field education experience but should instead focus their attention “on helping students develop a cognitive practice.”  See Charles R. Foster et al., Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination (Jossey-Bass, 2005), 317.

[3] Jack Mezirow, Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress, 1st ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

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