Forming the Theological Imagination: Strategies of Integration in Theological Education PDF-NOTE: Internet Explorer Users, right click the PDF Icon and choose [save target as] if you are experiencing problems with clicking. Print

Lawrence Golemon, The Alban Institute, and Editor of Spotlight on Theological Education

Lawrence Golemon is a research associate at the Alban Institute. He was a member of the research team for the Carnegie Foundation’s study of clergy education, and is coauthor of Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination. He has taught and directed research initiatives at Dominican University of California, the Graduate Theological Union, and Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines.

In the 2005 Auburn study of faculty at ATS schools, the two primary concerns that theological educators had about their teaching were critical thinking and integration. In this, the first issue of Spotlight on Theological Education, we take up the second of these concerns as an issue with which each school and faculty must grapple. This Spotlight is an initiative of the new Theological Education Steering Committee at the AAR, which is dedicated to the academic resourcing and professional development of educators in theological schools.

The articles here address the issue of integrative teaching and learning from several educational contexts: some come from denominational seminaries, some from university divinity schools, and others from interdenominational consortia or seminaries. They discuss the multiple strategies needed to tackle this complex subject. Several educators lift up organizing rubrics such as practical theology (Couture), religious tradition (Benson), or a new global reality (Hopkins) that reshape classroom, communal, and curricular goals and strategies. Some teacher-scholars focus on classroom pedagogies (Butler, Conde-Frazier, Jones), others on communal pedagogies (Battle, Rhodes), and others on cross-curricular strategies (Liebert, Hymans, Russell). Each of these reflective practitioners demonstrates a fluid and adaptive teaching practice that responds to the changing student bodies, vocational trajectories, and goals of integrative teaching and learning in theological education.

I was fortunate to be part of the recent Carnegie study of clergy education among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, now published as Educating Clergy. There, we developed several frameworks for discussing integrative teaching practices in the theological and rabbinical schools we visited. The first we called the “four signature pedagogies” in theological education. Pedagogies of interpretation challenge students to engage sacred and historical texts with critical and linguistic skill and with their own questions, in order to find their significance for a specific “horizon” of meaning: be it historical or contemporary, local or global. Pedagogies of formation guide students into the spiritual practices of a tradition in order to nurture an awareness of the divine, form the practice of holiness, and shape their pastoral leadership. Pedagogies of contextualization develop students’ analysis and understanding of social, cultural, and congregational contexts and bring students into creative and transformative encounters with them. Pedagogies of performance develop complex pastoral skills and judgment through the reenactment of clergy roles and tasks, the development of their own style of clergy practice, and the demonstration and internalization of standards of excellence within a practice. Effective teaching and learning, we observed, draw students into one or more of these practices through a disciplinary field or subject matter.

In these articles, you will see similar expertise at work, as these educators move back and forth between these and other pedagogies. One educator reframes the entire theological interpretive task in light of a radically different global context (Hopkins); another relates the ethics and stance of interpretation to students’ religious cultures and contexts (Butler). One teacher-scholar relates vocational and spiritual formation to contextual analysis (Liebert); another develops theological imagination through rhetorical gestures and performance (Jones). One educator introduces us to the orchestration of interpretation, context, and performance throughout one school’s curriculum (Hymans); and another tells the story of how one seminary reshaped its entire curriculum and pedagogies around interdisciplinarity and contextuality (Russell). I could go on, but already you see how integrative teaching embodies more than one of these pedagogies.

Another paradigm from the Carnegie study that helps one think about integration is that of the three apprenticeships — the intellectual, skills, and identity apprenticeships — that shape all professional education, from law and medicine to clergy and engineering (Sullivan, 2005). These apprenticeships distinguish the professional school from the graduate department in the university, because educating the professions requires concomitant teaching practices that integrate the cognitive, practice, and ethics/identity standards of a given professional domain. For example, discrete professional skills — like medical or pastoral diagnosis, and the ethics and norms of a profession — like the confidentiality of a good therapist or cleric, are vital to the education and formation of the professional mind, imagination, and dispositions. Because many professional schools feel inadequate to engage professional ethics and identity, they are looking to seminaries and divinity schools to learn about pedagogies that integrate complex knowledge, professional competencies, and a personal identification with a profession’s ethics and mission — what traditionally has been called “formation.”

Practices that integrate the three apprenticeships of professional education abound on these pages. There is a description here of a personal and theological metanoia through cross-cultural learning that integrates newfound knowledge and identity (Conde-Frazier). There is an argument for introducing critical, historical knowledge in ways that do not demolish but expand preseminary piety and identity (Butler). One educator describes the common life and ethos of a school — including shared table and worship — as embodying a relational epistemology that shapes professional identity and the knowledge of God (Battle). Another professor relates identity-forming, spiritual practices to broader community practices of learning and worship (Liebert). One field education program has the commitment to integrate vocational competency and identity in the social context of local “communities of accountability” (Rhodes). Each of these collaborative social practices involves complex intellectual knowing, discrete professional skills, and person-forming capacities. Developing mature personhood, I would argue, is one of the marks of theological education, as compared to many forms of professional schooling.

In this Spotlight we ask, “How do integrative teaching and learning practices shape theological imagination”? Educators that appeal here to religious tradition or denominational context do so in a dynamic way (Benson, Hymans), where “faith seeks understanding” in living dialogue and debate with a theological tradition. One teacher-scholar describes a course’s movement from practicing the systematic logic of a Barth or Rahner to coaching students in their own integrative, theological imagination by playing with new rubrics and gestures (Jones). One professor describes transformative practices that move students from a dominant culture position to one of multiple cultural realities and views (Conde-Frazier). Other educators challenge the theological imagination to be shaped through wider public engagement: with the sciences, social politics of power, or the new U.S. empire (Couture, Hopkins).

In the end, developing a “theological imagination” at the MDiv level marks the transition from being a skilled beginner — who can recite various theological sources, teachings, and perhaps even frameworks that relate to a ministry situation — to a competent practitioner who “thinks on one’s feet” theologically, in order to quickly assess and act in unforeseen situations. This is no soft view of the imagination, but one rooted in reconstructive knowing, doing, and perceiving that goes back at least to Kant. One prominent social theorist of globalization, Arjun Appadurai, has described the imagination as a “field of social practices” by which local communities negotiate the global flows (technology, media, ideology, etc.) to form symbolic “neighborhoods” that allow human subjects and their practices of meaning to flourish. A theological imagination, then, could be the set of social practices by which seminaries, congregations, and other communities of faith selectively co-opt, critique, or resist various global forces, for the sake of human meaning and flourishing in their locale. If this is the case, then theological education may be one of the few social practices in today’s academy that can engage popular movements and institutions, through teaching and ministerial leadership, in local and imaginative practices of human meaning and hope. If symbolic retrieval, renewed social practices, and the reconstruction of meaning are at the heart of the theological enterprise, and if the imagination is one of its primary fields of operation, then the theological imagination is well served by educators such as the ones represented here. May their work continue to be blessed and thrive.


Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Foster, Charles R., Lisa E. Dahill, Lawrence A. Golemon, and Barbara Wang Tolentino. Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Sullivan, William M. Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Wheeler, Barbara G., Sharon L. Miller, and Katarina Schuth. Signs of the Times: Present and Future Theological Faculty. New York: Auburn Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education, 2005. Available at


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