Academics and practitioners

A few days ago on the “Key Resources” blog, a blog about faith formation from Virginia Theological Seminary blog, Kyle Oliver asked: “What has the academy to do with congregational faith formation (and vice versa)?”

What prompted this question? Kyle had been at the recent annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA), which is supposed to be an organization of scholars and practitioners. But he had not been convinced that the REA offers much to practitioners: “I wasn’t entirely convinced of the value of the conference for a non-academically-aspiring faith formation minister in a congregation.”

Speaking as a minister of religious education, I agree with Kyle that the academics, not the practitioners, dominate the conference. Two examples of what I mean when I say the academics dominate: (1) At the 2011 conference, I went to an excellent workshop given by Ryan Gardner on teacher reflection for volunteer teachers; it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet only two other people showed up, one of whom admitted she was in the wrong workshop (she stayed anyway, bless her heart). (2) At this year’s conference, I went to a good workshop given by Tom Groome on practical approaches to pedagogy for the local congregation; again, it was the only practical workshop in that time slot; yet the conversation got taken over at a couple of points by academics who wanted to argue rather obscure theoretical points. At the same time, all the academics whom I met were sympathetic to practitioners; some of them appeared to be pleased when they found out I actually worked in a congregation with real, live children and youth. I don’t think the academics want to dominate the REA conference.

Some of the problem may lie in the realities that we religious education practitioners face these days. When I started working as a religious educator in the Boston area, back in 1994, it was commonplace for some of the older religious educators to talk about how they studied with Robert Kegan, James Fowler, Tom Groome, and other scholars. Back then it was also commonplace for lay Directors of Religious Education to have a full-time, well-compensated job; there were many more Ministers of Religious Education; congregations expected us to take time to study and keep up with the field. That’s no longer true. As staff costs for congregations outpace inflation, as organized religion declines in an era of civic disengagement, as society changes rapidly around us, as congregations need more from us and are able to offer less to us — as all this goes on, many of us who work in local congregations feel overwhelmed as we try to do more and more with less and less, as we try to keep kids engaged, as we try to hold on to our jobs and our pay.

As a result, when we practitioners go to any kind of conference, we’re usually looking for relentlessly useful ideas that we can use right now. We’re desperate. John Roberto of Faith Formation 2020 gets this; he gives us practitioners what we need in easily digestible bites. At the recent REA conference, I think Beth Katz of Project Interfaith intuited some of this; she showed us excellent and innovative curricula that were both immediately useful and grounded in interesting theoretical perspectives. Mind you, Katz and Roberto are not exactly academics, though they are academically informed. One academic who gets this is Bob Pazmino: I talked with Bob informally at the recent REA conference, and he not only asked me about what was going on in my congregation, and listened carefully and respectfully, but he was able to present me with some interesting possibilities for new directions based on his academic work.

In short, I think Kyle Oliver is correct when he says that he’s not “entirely convinced of the value of the REA conference” for most of us practitioners. I think the academics might want to pay more attention to Kyle’s critique, and think about how they might better unite their theory with our practical realities.

I would also say that we practitioners have to remember that our praxis should be informed with theory. Perhaps it’s time to get a little more assertive, as Kyle is doing, and help the academics pay better attention to what’s going on in our local congregations.

3 thoughts on “Academics and practitioners”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection, Daniel. Beth and John are exactly the kind of folks who understand the rich interplay between the academic and practitioner perspectives, if we make space for them. Sounds like Bob Pazmino gets it too. Let’s keep building on these relationships and see what happens. So much potential for good learning together.

  2. I’m sorry I missed this year’s REA conference (I was too sick to come), but I will tell you — as a past president and board member of the association — that we remain deeply interested in figuring out how to support people in differing contexts. I suspect that one of our many challenges is that increasingly few congregationally employed folk have access to funds to come to a meeting such as this, so inevitably it comes to be dominated by particular strands of the academic terrain. But religious education is a very wide arena, and the fact that we have specific structures on the program for workshops that are intended to be hands-on speaks to that. I’ll make a point of reaching out to Kyle to invite him to take some leadership in creating what he would find most useful — and commit myself to making it happen.

  3. Mary, thanks for the helpful insights in your comment. I especially agree with you when you write: “…increasingly few congregationally employed folk have access to funds to come to a meeting such as this…”

    And the REA has been good at making information freely available to those who cannot attend the conference. One of the best things the REA does is to make the conference Proceedings available online (e.g., the Proceedings of the 2013 conference are here). And there’s usually a follow-up issue of the journal that also presents some of the most important material from the conferences.

    The rest of us can help out, too. This year’s conference had a Twitter hashtag, and there were quite a few of us tweeting during the conference. Kyle has blogged about the conference, and it looks like he’ll be passing on information to the practitioners he knows. I try to do my part by blogging detailed summaries of the sessions I attend at the REA conference (and some of my congregationally-based colleagues who are not able to attend the conference do actually read my summaries on my blog).

    Perhaps there are ways that we in the REA could go even further. Earlier this fall, I attended UNCO, a conference for progressive Christian ministers and lay people. At UNCO, all the major plenary sessions, and quite a few of the breakout sessions, were livecast on the Web. Admittedly, that took a lot of volunteer effort and technical knowhow, but if we can’t do live Webcasts, perhaps we could think about video recordings.

    In any case, your comment has caused me to think about ways in which we could increase accessibility, making the REA conference available in new and innovative ways.

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