What have we heard?: Twelve Stones
(David Baer on behalf of the Consultation ‘Listening Group’)
ICETE C-15: Engaged and Effective
As the program for this consultation was taking shape, Riad Kassis tasked me with delivering in this final plenary session a report under the working title ‘What have we heard?’
I confess that, over the past five days, I have had one or two unkind thoughts—mere fleeting spasms of rage, really— about my dear friend Riad. We have heard so very many things. After all, how am I to know what we have heard! I am hard of hearing and torpid of speech. I bring to this consultation more than my share of my own treasured biases. They not only motivate and empower me; they also filter and distort what I hear.
As I was writing these opening lines yesterday afternoon, a large flock of birds converged on a rooftop near the balcony where I was sitting. They came not from one direction but from many, returning all at once to their rooftop home as thogh upon some inaudible signal. Only half in jest, I decided to take this as a sign.
Let me see whether I can tease some of the words we’ve heard from the many directions to which those sounds have taken flight back into a common place, like birds near sunset returning from their day’s many activities to their community roost.
But first, a word about what this report is, what it is not, and how it comes to be.
I was assisted by a Listening Group that I selected on shamelessly selfish grounds. Quite simply, these are people whom I know, whom I consider discerning, and whom I guessed would not say ‘no’. They are: Ashish Chrispal, Mariel Deluca Voth, Lori Drexler, Mardochée Nadoumngar, Ivan Rusin, Wojciech Szczerba, Rana Wazir, John Jusu, Jane Overstreet, Mark Royster, and Jung-Suk Lee. We met each evening to ask each other, ‘What are we hearing?’
However, this report is my own responsibility. Even these Listening Team members are likely to be surprised—though I hope not dismayed—by what I have left out and by perhaps some thoughts of my own that I have witlessly placed upon their lips.
What did Listening Group members attempt to accomplish as we served you by listening to plenary sessions, workshops, conversations at all hours, the delightfully barbed banter of old friends, and musings and comments overheard in passing?
Well, we did not understand our job as simply rehearsing or summarizing for you things that people said. This is not a Summary of the Proceedings of ICETE C-15.
Rather, we have attempted the audacious task of discerning what we have heard from God, that is, what God might be speaking to us through those plenary sessions, workshops, conversations, musings, and overheard conversations.
We have attempted to perform a theological task on the assumption that our Lord has been present in this gathered community, and that he has desired to makes us wiser, to move us forward.
I make no claim that we have heard exhaustively. In fact, I’m sure that we have not.
This is not an assessment exercise.
But here, offered to you as a service lovingly rendered, are some things that I think we have heard.
Twelve stones, if you will, to mark and memorialize the portion of our journey that is just now completed.
* * *
- The tide has turned.
The assessment of what we are accomplishing in theological education is no longer the hobby, the crusade, or the mania of the social scientists and the educationalists.
Please hear carefully what I am saying. I am not saying that assessment can no longer be dismissed as those things because in some political sense the assessment enthusiasts have outnumbered those of us who, as one long-serving missionary teacher told me, never knew the word ‘impact’ back in the day.
I am saying that outcomes assessment is no longer the province of its native enthusiasts. The tide has turned decisively. Assessment has gone mainstream. We may be infants at the execution of it, but global theological educators have developed either a sense of obligation or an appetite (or both) for outcomes assessment. I do not believe this movement-in-the-making will lose its steam or fade away.
There are without doubt rear-guard actions against this new thing, and these may continue for some time.
But they will be ineffectual.
We are all assessors now. Let’s get on with it.
- An assessment culture begins and ends with humility.
On Monday of next week, when my legs are banging into the seat in front of me on hour eight or nine of Turkish Airlines Flight 7’s trajectory towards Washington, DC, my heart will still be rejoicing about several features of this Consultation.
One of these is the decided emphasis upon humility.
This is no small thing, for idolatries lurk like wolves behind the rubbish bins and broken-down vehicles in the Assessment Neighborhood, waiting for their moment to spring forth. Humility will keep them in their place.
This is no small thing, because assessment takes in its unforgiving hand what for many of us has been one of the most cherished privileges and passions of our lives and exposes it to reality’s sometimes harsh critique. We who have loved teaching and learning, we who have thrived as students and teachers and administrative leaders of seminaries … we whose hearts respond to every harsh critique of the seminary with a bit of pain and with the sense that this is not the whole story … we must now exercise the humility of taking this precious privilege and exposing it to the light. We must ask if what we have done … in fact what we have been … is what we believe we have done and been. And we must let others provide us with the answers.
Only humility will sustain us in that place.
But humility will not have done its work only when it has given us the courage to engage a culture of assessment. Humility will be required when our expanding expertise in assessment tempts us with the Pelagian delusion that, if we only perfect our systems, we will accomplish God’s will for Him. I find Chris Wright’s observation that some of us come to this theme with suspicion and others with enthusiasm particularly helpful here. I myself come with a degree of suspicion, for life and conviction have both alerted me to how quickly we arrogate to ourselves divine prerogatives when we have acquired just a little knowledge … just a little competence.
I rejoice that the note of humility has been sounded so clearly during this Consultation.
And while I am rejoicing … here’s a third stone for our little pile of remembering.
- We can begin with Scripture!
I am exhilarated by the way we have begun with Scripture and how we have seen our deliberations infused with the voice of Scripture. Messieurs Wright, Ott, and Parro come particularly to mind as I reflect on this, but they have hardly been alone!
In fact, I feel quite blown away by this.
When I think of the things we have heard, I thrill to register the fact in this report that more than anything we have heard God’s own Word: read, honored, scrutinized, and explained.
My own modestly suspicious reservations drain away as I observe this gathered community gathering around our Father’s Word to us.
- Expect unexpected outcomes!
A Canadian brother of a certain age fell into stride with me as we made our way to the group photograph … which by the way was conducted in an amazingly orderly fashion for a bunch of theologians and educators. He said something like this: ‘Why do we think we know what’s going to happen as we minister in Christ’s name?’ Then, with reference to his own long ministry, he mused, ‘All the best things that we ever saw happen were completely unintended consequences. We were never trying to do that.’ He gave me some stirring examples.
I have heard during this Consultation—and we must continue to remind ourselves—that the Lord will use us as his instruments to accomplish small glories and perhaps some large ones that we never saw coming. And that he will do this regularly just when we feel our intended outcomes have wrought nothing but frustration.
On that sad day when surprise has been drained out of our list of outcomes, we can be sure that we have created our own monster. It will devour us.
When we can no longer be surprised by the joy of unexpected outcomes because we have become too earnest about our intended ones, we will know that we have wandered off the gospel path. Only repentance will help us find our way back.
- A question: In our zeal to serve the Church, does the tradition still speak? Or in this day of constant adjustments, has the tradition died?
In addition to the pull of ‘what our churches and communities want from our graduates’, does biblical wisdom … does the gospel …does the accrued wisdom of the theological tradition push subjects that ought to be mastered? Just as we read books written far away and long ago in order to attenuate our cultural myopia, is it possible that we do not know all that we ought to learn and know, and that the tradition itself can be our teacher here?
I confess that I have not heard this question posed as often as I could have wished.
And here is a corollary:
- Does the seminary have anything to teach the Church that the Church may not have an appetite to learn?
In a moment of frustration, a long-time colleague in Latin America once observed: ‘You know, churches and groups of pastors can be self-preserving mafias too. It’s not only the seminary …’
I think he was right.
Similarly, an African brother this week recounted that pastors routinely fault his seminary’s students for wanting ‘to think things out for themselves’. He smiled and continued, ‘This is when I know that we have served them well!’ … though perhaps the pastor and his church would have preferred to have been served with a more docile crop of emerging leaders.
If the seminary is ‘where the Church goes to think’—as we have heard in these days—then does the seminary know some things that the church ought to learn?
Again, hearkening back to the dialect of a certain moment in Latin America, does the seminary have an uncomfortable prophetic voice that the church needs to hear, even if it would rather not?
If so, then perhaps the seminary’s entire loving vocation vis-à-vis the Church is not captured merely by 92% satisfaction results on survey and assessment instruments.
I would like to see this topic explored further.
- We need each other!
In the venerable tradition of bell curves everywhere, impact assessment in theological education has its beady-eyed fanatics and its burro-like intransigents. We need each other.
In the body of Christ, we cannot afford to demonize or ridiculize the brothers and sisters at either edge of the bell curve. What is at stake is too important and people are right now feeling the earth move under their feet. This is unsettling. I am unsettled!
Let us show grace to each other in this season.
I was deeply moved when veterans of change management towards an assessment culture within their respective seminaries, narrating their experience within our Listening Group, spoke of their affection for doubting and reluctant faculty members. They spoke pastorally of the need to preserve and honor the sacrificial service of such people. One of our case study presenters used the strong word ‘devastated’ to describe how faculty can experience the critique that an assessment culture necessarily brings.
As a community of theological educators in deeply uncertain times who fervently bear our own passions, we must exercise the judgment charity with those who see things differently.
Some of you enthusiasts will need to repent of attitudinal sins against the suspicious in these unsettling times. And some of us who are suspicious will need to repent of our sins against the enthusiasts.
I certainly need to.
- It is difficult, but not impossible, to measure a graduate’s faithfulness and effectiveness
Our Listening Group was struck by how widespread was the struggle to come down to particulars in measuring faithfulness and effectiveness.
Yet what I’ll call a healthy anti-gnostic impulse among us wouldn’t let us give up.
In my view, we would benefit from looking at the best research and the best practices in this area rather than reinventing the wheel. Having said this, a persistent undercurrent of conversation insists that these things will vary widely with context and therefore hew to the particular rather than the universal end of the spectrum.
I myself wonder how impact is to be measured in oppressive contexts where survival of the Christian community itself occurs against all odds and is itself an achievement to be celebrated.
I detect something of a heart’s cry at this stage of our journey: ‘Yes, Lord, we want to assess … Help our non-assessment … !’
I perhaps should not have come this far without mentioning the pressing matter of clarity, a topic that raised its hoary head at every turn of every day.
Clarity about vision. Clarity about mission. Clarity about intended outcomes. Clarity about actual outcomes. Clarity that trues our aim. Clarity that devastates. Clarity that empowers.
There were times when I though this consultation might have best been subtitled In Quest of Clarity.
Yesterday morning, I found myself tapping into my notes my own quasi-Logic Chain:
Humility … honesty … clarity … (repeat)
Humility … honesty … clarity … (repeat)
For some years, I have steadied my own soul in leadership with a small sticky note that appears on my laptop screen. I see it every day. It contains just three words: Don’t look away.
‘I keep hearing the word clarity … ‘
… one Listening Group colleague said.
Indeed. We’ll be the better for that.
But clear does not mean clinical.
One brother working in Mexico, contemplating the Book of Acts’ assessment of outcomes under Maestro Parro’s baton, mused: ‘I’m amazed by how messy it all was … and is’.
Whether our logic chain is scottcunninghamesque and linear … or johnjusuesque and spiral … the business of assessing the outcomes of our life’s labors and then responding to that assessment is messy and imperfect.
In my country, we have a statement that is hilarious in its context: There’s no crying in baseball!
To which we might add the dictum: There’s no whining about the messiness of outcomes assessment in theological education. It just is.
- The thing is, just begin!
In outcomes assessment as in most things that matter in life, the hardest thing is simply to start.
We heard this over and over again this week.
The one thing that makes me proudest of my own Overseas Council team’s role in this assessment project is the speed with which our partner seminaries in the project have progressed from ‘we need this so badly’ to voices of humble and confident authority in the practice.
For me, Ivan Rusin—leading the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary—is the poster child for this phenomenon, though many more could stand in for him. 24 to 18 months ago, such schools had only the deep conviction that they were standing on a burning platform and needed to do things differently if they were to survive, let alone thrive in the accomplishment of their ministry.
Over the last four days, school leader after school leader became our instructor in how to move humbly from confusion to clarity about what they were attempting to do to clarity about what they are doing and what they are accomplishing and on to the work remains ahead of them now that they know these things.
The corollary here: This is not as hard as it looks. You should try this at home.
The thing is, just begin!
- Tell me the old, old story!
Testimony and anecdote are God-authorized and contain metrics.
From Chris’ beginning to Elizabeth’s beautiful Colombian-accented exhortation, we have reveled in and perhaps even remembered how to remember the power of story, indeed the power even of the small stories that our stories as part of the Great Story of YHWH’s redeeming love.
I myself find it easier to love you who are enthusiasts of assessment when I realize that you will allow me to tell you my story.
Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.
Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.
Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.
Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.
Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story: ‘Christ Jesus makes thee whole.’
Tell us the ever-new story of emerging Christian leaders who caught a holy, humble fire by rubbing shoulders with frail and fallen theological educators like us. Tell us how they went on from our classrooms and private conversations to—through faith—conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, obtain promises, stop the mouths of lions, quench the power of fire, escape the edge of the sword, become strong out of weakness, become mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Tell us how some received back their dead by resurrection, how some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Tell us how others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment, how they were stoned, and even sawn in two. Remind us how the world was not worthy of them … and how they surround us now as a great cloud of witnesses.
Count, measure, and assess, so that we can serve them still better and take our places alongside of them with humility, honesty, and clarity.
For this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.
This is our story. This is our song, praising our Savior all the day long.
I hope these reflections—these twelve stones, if you will—have in some small way helped that far-flown flock of ideas return home after an almost frenetically busy ICETE Triennial Consultation to their common roost, prepared to take wing again when flight is needed.