Ministerial studies assessment program comes of age

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

Five years ago, the seeds of a program designed to integrate the academic, spiritual, and vocational aspects of education at Yale Divinity School were planted in conversations between Dean Harold Attridge and Assistant Dean William Goettler.  Since then, the program has blossomed, even gaining the attention of other theological schools that are exploring similar strategies on their own campuses.

Goettler and groupThe ministerial studies assessment program is now an integral part of each and every Master of Divinity student’s life at YDS—a program that Goettler describes as being “essentially about integrative education.”  As the religious landscape shifts, and as vocations in the pulpit ministry become less a “given” for divinity students, it is increasingly important for students to have opportunities to address serious questions about faith and life in a framework of intellectual pursuit and vocational possibilities.

“It’s designed for students to integrate their academic work, spiritual journey, and vocational aspirations,” explained Goettler, whose full title is “assistant dean for assessment and ministerial studies.” A foundational element of the program is the reflective essay written by all M.Div. students at the end of every semester that addresses each of the three areas.

“After a semester of rigorous work, sometimes it’s difficult for students to take more time to reflect deeply on the projects they do,” observed Goettler, “but it eventually happens.” The point of the essays is to engage each student in continued examination of how his or her academic, spiritual, and vocational experiences are evolving and impacting one another at YDS. These essays are compiled, along with standout term papers, to form a cumulative portfolio.

Another defining element of the program is the consultation that takes place during the spring semester of each M. Div. student’s second year, just at the mid-point of his or her YDS career—an intensive meeting that, in Goettler's words, “gives the student a chance to put together the Yale side of life with the ministry side.” Called the “mid-degree consultation,” the meeting involves the student, his or her academic advisor, a vocational mentor, and either Goettler or, for Epicopal students, Greta Getlein, director of Anglican studies and formation and associate dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.  Goettler convenes about 40 of these meetings every year.

Landis and KempsonAttendees read the student’s portfolio prior to the meeting, and during the session each student is given around 90 minutes to engage in intense advising, deep reflection, and direct feedback on his or her academic, spiritual, and vocational trajectories.  It is a place to talk about discoveries, doubts, places of strength, and areas of vulnerability—a kind of conversation that, historically, was primarily the responsibility of denominational ordination committees.

Since students’ mentors are frequently coming in from out of state, coordinating a meeting can be a feat in itself. (In some cases, when distance is an issue, an online “Skype” video session is set up to bring a person into the conversation.) Despite the work required to prepare their portfolios and middler review meetings, M. Div. students are grateful for it.

“I had to go back and reexamine where I’d come from,” said Jennifer Landis, a third-year Episcopalian. “It was exiting to see how I’d progressed, what I’d learned, and how I was changing during my time at YDS.”

Emily Kempson, Landis’s classmate at Berkeley and YDS, had a similarly positive assessment experience. “During my review, people who I respected and admired and knew me well got to know me better because of the things that I’d written for my portfolio,” recalled Kempson. “And in that atmosphere I could get candid feedback from them about what I was planning to do and where I was planning to go.”

The middler review provides a specific place for a very important conversation that might not otherwise occur. The review is intended to be supportive and affirming—but not uncritically so. As Alex Peterson, a graduating Presbyterian student, reflected, “My review was one of the most honest conversations I’ve had at YDS. It was pastoral but also pointed—and pushed me to ask me hard questions about my faith and future.”

Alex PetersonThe student side of the ministerial studies assessment program is but half of the assessment initiative. The other half is the “programs outcomes assessment.” Prompted by the Association of Theological Schools, which is requiring seminaries and divinity schools to assess their programs more intentionally, YDS wants faculty to be clear about their learning goals for professional students. This involves assembling data and drawing broad conclusions about how well YDS is achieving stated learning goals.

Based on information gleaned in the student consultation process, broader questions can also be asked and answered, such as: How well are we teaching the Bible? How well are students able to use theology? Do students have a clear understanding of ministry? How well can students integrate social analysis into their ministry?

“I think of it as closing the loop,” said Goettler, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  “It begins with what students understand themselves to be learning, and the completion of the project is when the institution, YDS, tries to draw some conclusions about what is correctively taught.” In cases where the assessment suggests that changes in curriculum or pedagogy might be in order, Goettler takes up the issue with faculty and also seeks feedback from students.

One sign of the maturation of the YDS assessment program is the attention it has gained from other theological schools. In early November representatives from other schools gathered on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle to learn more about the YDS initiative and to share their own approaches.

Emily Click of Harvard Divinity School had talked with Goettler about the YDS model and suggested the gathering so that a larger conversation could occur. As a result, Harvard, along with Andover-Newton, Drew Theological School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and other peer institutions in the Northeast spent a day sharing their insights.

“YDS has the model that’s being talked about because we have a much more clearly defined program than most, and it’s fully in place and operational,” said Goettler.

Although Harvard began its assessment initiative at about the time YDS began its, Harvard is still experimenting with a design that will fit it best.  Goettler notes that the goal is not that there be a “one-size-fits-all” model but that each school construct its own model to fit its unique goals and priorities.

Date Posted: Monday, February 6, 2012 - 4:42pm