I. Issue and Context
The Claremont School of Theology is an ecumenical and globally-oriented graduate school of the United Methodist Church. Our mission is to teach and learn within a tradition that stresses the quest for knowledge. In confidence that faith and reason should be inseparable, our goal is educated and faithful leaders equipped to serve God in church, society, and higher education.
The narrative that our team brought to the Lexington Seminar began with this excerpt from the mission statement of Claremont School of Theology. Now, three years later, the statement still describes our context. Clearly our school is ecumenical and globally-oriented. Fifty-two percent of our students are Anglo; the rest come from a wide array of cultural and ethnic groups. About a quarter are non-native speakers of English; many struggle with English. They represent scores of theological, religious, and denominational traditions, from evangelical to self-identified pagan. The faculty also is denominationally and theologically diverse.
And we are on a quest for knowledge. In addition to our M.Div. program, we offer three M.A. degrees, a D.Min., and two Ph.D. programs. Other M.A. and Ph.D. degrees are offered in conjunction with Claremont Graduate University. Our faculty is highly published and has a history of leadership in national and international scholarly guilds. We extend our academic work through a series of faculty centers, including the Process Studies Center, the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center, and the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity. We hope that in religious circles, the word “Claremont” brings to mind academic excellence in theological studies.
In the midst of our diversity, we are in many respects markedly United Methodist. On the one hand our percentage of United Methodist students, about one third, is the lowest of any U.M. seminary. On the other hand our graduates are heavily involved in the United Methodist Church, especially in the California-Pacific and Desert Southwest annual conferences. And, in a school that so values academic excellence and a scholarly approach, the M.Div. program is by far our largest – in 2002 more than half the new entering students enrolled in the M.Div. program.
Notwithstanding our confidence that faith and reason should be inseparable, our religious and social diversity and our academic quests erode a sense of common ground or local orthodoxy. Sometimes we speak with pride about our diversity and complexity, but sometimes these same characteristics give us pause. We watch our students and hear them speak about their experiences at our school, and we wonder how faith and reason really do interact.
Our team arrived at the Asticou Inn with questions about what happens for our students in the Master of Divinity program. We had constructed a narrative reflecting our suspicions – that students learn to deconstruct their beliefs but have trouble putting together a new synthesis. At the end of the narrative, our imagined student says, “The trouble is, I have learned lots about what I cannot believe any more. I’m just not sure what I do believe. Some people say all this questioning is good, it’s how growth happens, but I don’t know. The list of my uncertainties gets longer the more I think about it – the Bible, all those creeds we say in church, the kind of talk I would have called a ‘testimony’ a few years ago – all that is gone and nothing has yet replaced it. What difference does it make for my life that I’m a Christian? . . . How can I lead people in their faith lives if I can’t even figure out my own!” The narrative ends with the student’s pastor calling and asking “What do you people think you are doing over there at that school?”
The week our team spent at the Lexington Seminar had the effect of sharpening these questions for us. We left wondering even more about our students’ experience in the M.Div. program, and we realized that we needed somehow to hear from students more fully than we had done to date. The question at the end of the narrative became our question: what do we think we are doing in the M.Div. program at Claremont School of Theology? We realized that among the faculty there was not clarity about an answer to this question, and that probably there was not consensus either. Through conversation with colleagues at the Seminar we realized that our school truly is an unusual hybrid – more ministry-oriented than most of the university-based divinity schools and more academically oriented than most of the free-standing seminaries. Realizing this with new clarity, it seemed to us all the more important to find a way to hold together the School’s academic orientation and our commitment to preparing people for ministry.
II. Project Design and
We developed a two-part approach to following up on our questions. The first part of our work was a project we called “systematic listening,” an open-ended interview process with a small group of M.Div. students. The second was an extended faculty conversation intended to address questions about the goals, curriculum, and pedagogy of our M.Div. program.
- Lexington Seminar Listening Project – Before the start of the 2000-01 school year, the Lexington Seminar team selected a group of seven incoming M.Div. students to participate in a year-long interview project. The group was constituted with a view to embodying the diversity present in Claremont’s student body – denominational, racial/ethnic, age, and gender diversity. Two of the team members, Scott Cormode and Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, volunteered to carry out the interview project. They met with students four times over the course of the year, in an open-ended discussion format. At the first meeting one question was asked, “Tell us about your experience so far at CST.” Every once in a while Scott or Elizabeth might say something for clarification or ask another question, but for the most part the students spoke and the professors listened. Interview sessions were videotaped and then transcribed. The two interview leaders spent long hours reviewing the material and culling out themes, and at subsequent meetings they would begin by offering a summary of what they had heard from students and then asking if it was accurate.
One discovery through this process was that the students who participated had a tremendous amount of passion for the topics they discussed. They appreciated and valued their professors and their education at Claremont – and they had ideas about how to make things better. Their comments centered in three areas: diversity (ethnic and theological), pedagogy and curriculum (lectures, evaluation, dealing with new knowledge, reflection and integration with experience and vocational concerns), and curriculum (ministerial vocations, spirituality, theological writing, and multiculturalism).
- Reflections on spirituality at CST – As time went on, we were able to bring other projects and emphases into relationship with the Lexington Seminar work. An example was the year-long listening project carried out by our new Director of Spiritual Formation the same year as the Lexington Seminar interview project took place. During his first year on the faculty (2000-01), Andy decided to work with the school in the way that a spiritual director would work with an individual – that is, primarily by listening. He met individually with each member of the faculty to learn about approaches to spirituality and spiritual practice. He sat in on the classes the first-year M.Div. students attended. He listened to the first-year students as they expressed themselves in the context of the required spiritual growth groups. He maintained an open listening presence with other students as other opportunities arose.
Through this work he discovered that CST faculty members overwhelmingly express the belief that spiritual formation is an important component of educating M.Div. students for ministry. He also found that most students in all degree programs come to theological studies at CST desiring that spiritual formation opportunities will be integrated into the course work and extracurricular life of the school. They hope that discernment of life meaning and vocational direction will be an explicit part of the course work. They hope to receive ongoing, course-connected training or guidance in how to help others deepen/expand their spiritual lives.
- Faculty Re-visioning Project – Dean Jack Fitzmier took the lead in developing a way for the faculty to reflect on the goals and purposes of the M.Div. program and then to move on to possible curriculum revision. The “what do we think we are doing?” questions raised through the Lexington Seminar process met the faculty in the midst of a season of change. In the two years between his arrival as Dean and the launching of this project, a new president and six new faculty members including a library director had come to CST. Searches for four more faculty colleagues were about to begin. If ever there was an appropriate time for consensus-building conversation about purposes and pathways towards them, this was it. A steering committee of five people, with Jack as chairperson, began to work in the summer of 2001.
The follow-up grant from the Lexington Seminar made it possible to modify our traditional fall faculty retreat in some of the ways we had learned through this program. We chose a comfortable setting, so that the whole faculty would experience the kind of hospitality that had opened up people’s creativity at the Lexington Seminar. We came to the retreat with some reflection and writing already done: we had all been asked to write our own responses to three questions:
What are the purposes of a Master of Divinity degree?
What do you consider unique about Claremont’s M.Div. program?
What contributions do you make, and/or what unique perspectives do you bring to the CST M.Div. program?
A 50-page document containing all the faculty responses became our primary source for the retreat.
We learned very soon that even though many common themes emerged, coming to consensus would not be a simple or quick process. After the retreat and through the fall semester, the revisioning steering committee met many times, tinkering with the process for our discussion as we went along. We found an important resource in an article that Scott Cormode brought to us, from the Harvard Business Review. In “Building Your Company’s Vision,” James Collins and Jerry Porras describe the task of articulating a vision. The first step is to articulate a core ideology, consisting of a short list of core values and a statement of core purposes. The next step is to paint a picture of an envisioned future, together with large and audacious goals.
Our faculty conversation moved on to an extended conversation about core values and purposes. As Collins and Porras put it, how could we frame the purpose of this organization so that if we woke up tomorrow morning with enough money in the bank to retire, we would nevertheless keep working here? This question captured our imagination. Another method we used was to ask ourselves the “five whys:” begin with a descriptive statement and then ask, why is that important? Asking the question five times probably gets down to the fundamental purpose of the organization.
A conversation of this sort requires the risk of sharing what is dear to us. In order to do this, the steering committee proposed and the faculty accepted an ethic for our conversation: each person will speak his or her truth honestly, and each person will listen to the others with openness. Not incidentally, this is the kind of ethic needed for conversation among students in our context of diversity.
At the end of the semester a group of faculty worked on their own initiative to construct a preliminary statement for the faculty. This became part of the ongoing conversation, but no official action was take on it. The statement begins this way:
Our highest calling as a theological faculty is (to be and) to form Christian leaders who embody our core values – academic excellence, spiritual depth, critical awareness of the Christian tradition, and respect for the other – and manifest a commitment to peace, justice, and reconciliation in an era of unprecedented religious and cultural diversity.
The word passion is appropriate for the intra-faculty conversation. Faculty passion for and commitment to their work came clear in this process as people shared their sense of vocation in scholarship and teaching. In the context of our diversity and also the post-9/11 world, the themes of peacemeaking, justice and reconciliation emerged early and strong.
When we began the Revisioning process, we planned to hear input from students (through the Lexington Seminar interview report and Andy Dreitcers’ report on spiritual formation), CST staff, the church, and theological educators beyond Claremont. Then we would move on to curriculum revision. As it turned out we did receive the student information but most of the faculty’s energy and time went to the intra-faculty conversation. The other parts of the plan are yet to be completed.
D. Accreditation Self-Study – Accreditation visits from Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the Association of Theological Schools are scheduled for the 2003-04 academic year, so this is our self-study year. Dr. Scott Cormode, one of the Lexington Seminar team members and the school’s Assistant Dean for Institutional Research, is leading the self-study process. He has constructed the process so that we can continue the work that was begun through the Lexington Seminar and Revisioning work. Four of the seven research teams, those on Values and Purposes, Degree Programs, Coursework, and Student Experience and Diversity, are working with many of the same issues, questions, and starting points for solutions. Teams have available to them as primary sources the materials gathered through the Revisioning process, the Lexington Seminar interview project, and the report on spiritual formation. All teams include at least one student as well as faculty and some administrators.
IV. Project Results
At this point we have a progress report rather than a statement of results. We have learned that the questions we raised are not ones that disappear on their own; they persist, calling for attention and action. We have learned that a conversation that moves in to the core of an organization’s values and purpose takes a long time. It acquires a life of its own and proceeds on its own timeline. The authors of “Building Your Company’s Vision” probably could have told us that; we discovered it for ourselves.
Our Lexington Seminar team left the Asticou Inn wanting to know more about our students’ experiences. We have been intention about listening to our students, and there is still more to learn. Our interviews and other information-gathering projects have focused on first-year M.Div. students. There are other questions about student experience. For example, we have yet to ask as systematically about the experiences and perceptions of our M.Div. students as they finish the program, about our M.A. students, about the students who are non-native speakers of English.
Through the months of our Revisioning conversation, Dean Fitzmier commented repeatedly about how significant it was that we were talking in this way – sharing what was deeply important vocationally and personally. In the process trust was strengthened. We learned by conversational practice how to listen openly to positions that are different from our own.
An emerging discovery is that the most important tensions we experience are probably not going to go away. We will need to learn not only to live with them, but even to affirm and embrace them. Dual commitments to the academy and the church, to intellectual and spiritual formation, to critical reflection and action, affirmation of and suspicion of the tradition – these polarities constitute the personality of our school.
Another provisional discovery is that there seems to be much similarity between faculty values and commitments and those of students. The Values and Purposes accreditation team reported this based on their surveys of student perceptions as well as information from the faculty. We could ask whether the school attracts students with these values, or whether the environment shapes them in these directions. We are asking how satisfied both faculty and students are with the way we are living out these polarities. It is likely that this is an example of what Peter Senge calls creative tension:
The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call “creative tension”: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.
The Lexington Seminar, Spiritual Formation report, Revisioning, and now the accreditation self-study have combined into a powerful force generating and sustaining creative tension. Our challenge now is to keep living with the tension while at the same time working to make our reality more like our vision of what we want.
V. Sharing the Wisdom
Along about November 2001, when the end of the fall semester was in view and many revisioning conversations had already taken place, the steering committee met for breakfast one morning. We came into the meeting ready to have closure on this longer-than-expected and unwieldy discussion about values and purposes. We had in mind to find a slogan – something brief and memorable that would capture the essence of what we had heard from our colleagues. We tried out a number of possibilities and came up with one we thought was just the thing. We presented it to the rest of the faculty. There was silence. . . and then there was mutiny. As the mutiny progressed it dawned on us that the committee had offered something that didn’t fit the faculty sense of what was going on – and besides, we had moved ahead too fast, taking over ownership of content and process. Perhaps some of this response might have been a collective reluctance to come to closure. But for the committee this story came to embody the faculty’s personal investment in the conversation that was going on.
One of the student comments made in the context of an accreditation team meeting was: “We want to be able to bring ourselves to the material we are learning!” The subtext was that there is not always a clear way to do this – the connections between self and subject seem opaque. And students are asking about those connections: “what does this class an/or this degree program have to do with why I am at CST? What does it have to do with my life’s meaning and direction?” In the larger process that included our Lexington Seminar project, faculty have articulated ways that they bring themselves to their subject matter and to their work. It is our hope that the insights from these projects can give us clues about teaching in ways that can satisfy the intellectual, spiritual, and vocational longings of our students.
 Collins, James C. and Jerry I. Porras, “Building Your Company’s Vision” in Harvard Business Review, September-October 1996, p. 65-77.
 Senge, Peter, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990), p. 142.
 “Spiritual Formation at CST,” a report presented at the Faculty Meeting of May 4, 2001, by Andrew Dreitcer