Bridging Classroom and Church
—Dean Deirdre Good, Prof. Althea Spencer-Miller, and Rev. Clarissa South Holland
Today, theological education is undergoing major changes across the world. We hardly know the shape of theological education even in the next decade.
But one direction taken by a course on Matthew’s Gospel at Drew University Theological School, echoing new directions in several other theological schools across the country, drew on a nearby UMC church as a community of accountability with their pastor, The Rev. Clarissa South Holland (C ’78, T’88). The Whiting UMC is located in the most densely populated 55 and older area in the USA and like the Matthean community they have unique spiritual needs. Using a hybrid model, the weekly class brought together parishioners from UMC Whiting and Drew seminarians from all degree programs. Classes blended online discussions between the two communities as a way of deepening and expanding learning and formation. Questions from Whiting congregants often drove discussions: “Who is Jesus in Matthew?” asked Shelly in a class on Matthew’s birth narrative.
Classroom and church were a two-way street. The class instructors would often drive to Whiting for class on alternate weeks. But in a class on Matthean parables, Lester, Carol, Nancy, and others came from Whiting with Rev. South Holland to Drew where we discussed and then performed in two groups the parable of the wheat and the weeds. We explored embodiment as part of the fabric of biblical interpretative methods and as productive of meaning. The parable came alive in new ways as embodiment produced congeniality and connection among the younger students and the elder Whiting group. Amidst laughter, comedy, and the two professors, Dean Good and Prof. Spencer Miller dancing a merry jig of the parable, we understood the interconnectedness of opposites, the commonalities and differentials in seemingly distinctive destinies – and we shamelessly enjoyed each other. A student asked of Dean Good, “Who was the wheat and who was the tare (weeds)? Dean Good replied, “That’s the point! We enacted the line: let them grow together until the harvest.” By abandoning the value judgments implicit in the parable, we can joyfully say that in many ways the joint class itself was such an enactment.
For class assignments later in the semester, Theo students visited Whiting and taught Matthew through interpretative dialogue to parishioners as engaged participants. On Sunday Nov 27th Theo students participated in worship at Whiting using an Advent passage from Matthew. Three days later both groups reprised that experience in the Chapel at Drew which involved a “mannequin challenge” to embody the message of the selected passage. In these ways the class also explored and developed understandings of oral pedagogies, oral interpretative methods, and the diversity of expressiveness that oral communication allows. Altogether, these were experiences that knit a community of learners and secured an environment of shared production of knowledge and meaning.
We studied Matthew as literature, theology, and the addressing of a marginalized, emergent community, straddling an old story even as it began its own version of that story, and all in an imperial context. Our interpretative maneuvers pranced between Matthew’s ancient historical and literary contexts and its analytical relevance to issues today. Conjoining the biblical studies classroom with a congregation added unaccustomed dimensions for both groups. A community of accountability offered an adventurous academy reality checks in translatability and relevance. Whiting study participants now find themselves stretched and their understandings enhanced by classroom conversations. In describing the impact of the course on her congregants, Rev. Holland stated, “They learned that scripture was originally told orally and was shaped by the physical and spiritual needs of the Matthean community.” Studying Matthew in this way enables us to enact its past as though present and unfolding. We straddle an old story and perceive its new versions and create pathways for ongoing exploration. According to Seongsoo Kim, an MDiv student in the class, “It’s good to know the perspective of the lay person to whom I’m ministering and how people in the church think.” Altogether these are compelling outcomes and the signature of this experience.