During the early months of 2020, two groups gathered weekly in local Atlanta churches to learn alongside one another. Spanning age, denomination, and background, they found shared connection and renewed energy as they explored what it means to be God’s people in today’s world.
This is Courses in the Community, a new endeavor at Candler bringing seminarians and laypeople together for in-depth learning situated within local congregations.
Offered by the Candler Foundry, Candler’s new initiative in public theological education, Courses in the Community are led by Candler faculty and address a range of topics related to faith, theology, and pressing issues in public life. There are two types: Short Courses, which run for four to six weeks and take place within particular congregations; and Master Classes, semester-long courses that community members take alongside Candler students in a congregational setting.
Learn more about three opportunities to take a Course in the Community this fall.
Assistant Professor in the Practice of Old Testament and Director of the Candler Foundry Ryan Bonfiglio says that Courses in the Community is the embodiment of the Foundry’s desire to explore learning opportunities at the intersection of the church and academy. And it’s beneficial for both students and laypeople.
“I think it makes sense for our students to have opportunities to learn where they one day will lead and live—that is, congregations,” he says. “And to have the opportunity to learn alongside and from these congregants who have incredible experience serving the church, and years of wisdom from faithful discipleship.”
For community members, Candler Foundry Program Coordinator Chrystal Golden 20T frames it this way: “Courses in the Community seeks to make theological education accessible to anyone and everyone from any church. We all know the church members who go to Sunday school faithfully and even teach, people who are budding theologians in their own right.” But, Golden says, they may not have ever been “activated” to go deeper into the text or topic.
Bonfiglio’s work serving congregations introduced him to laypeople committed to every form of study the church offered who still sought more in-depth knowledge but weren’t necessarily planning to go to seminary. “Again and again, I heard from people across all ages and denominations that they wanted to be co-learners from the ground up and connect that learning to issues that matter to their congregation.”
Issues that matter to their congregation—and herein lies the heart of these courses. Each Course in the Community opens up space to explore the “so what?” questions around a given topic. How does it inform the way we respond to the needs of our communities? What do we do with this knowledge in our churches and ministries? In what ways do these new insights shape our daily lives and the ways we live out our faith?
Sometimes, Bonfiglio says, a typical seminary course will address the “so what?” questions as the semester winds down, only after weeks of focusing on information and ideas (the “what?” questions). “In Courses in the Community, the ‘so what?’ is there from the beginning,” he says. “It animates the entire content and discussion, so that the teaching we do, the discussions we seek to spark, are intrinsically and intimately rooted in the questions and concerns of local congregations.”
Two semester-long courses launched in January of 2020, meeting in person before moving online in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bonfiglio taught “The Ten Commandments: Exegesis, Ethics, and the Legacy of the Bible’s Most Iconic Text” with members of North Decatur United Methodist Church and Decatur First United Methodist Church. “I love teaching familiar texts, and I think the Ten Commandments is the most familiar text in all of Scripture,” he says. “Familiar texts are also the most dangerous for congregations—because we typically stop reading them and stop making connections between the text and our world, when they’re still shockingly relevant.”
The Candler students who signed up for the course had experienced Bonfiglio’s passion and expertise in previous Old Testament courses and were excited to delve deeper. Rising third-year MDiv student Delaney Wray also appreciated the chance to take a class off campus, and more than that, in a local church. “This class made me feel more connected to the Atlanta community and other believers outside of school,” she says. “I was blessed by the wide range of opinions I heard from these fellow classmates that I usually do not get in other classes.”
The opportunity to connect with laypeople in a course setting was a gift on multiple levels. Rising third-year MDiv student Joya Moore says the nature of seminary learning can cause a disconnect between those studying to be pastors and the congregants they will serve.
“Seminary trains us to engage the biblical text critically and closely. While that approach is appropriate for our education, it inevitably creates distance between a student’s understanding of the text and a layperson’s,” she says. “Engagement with this diverse group of students helped me to truly hear the concerns expressed by lay members who found it difficult to challenge traditional thoughts and interpretations of the Bible, while opening my mind to the ways in which those issues could be resolved.”
Drew Nix 20T agrees, calling the church members inspiring. “Their dedication and the remarkable depth of their faith blew me away,” he says. “This course restored so much of my excitement about being a pastor and reminded me to be humble.”
It was, says Teaching Assistant Tim McNinch 23G, a sort of field test for Candler students to try out their knowledge in a supportive environment of laity. “They had to learn—sometimes on the fly—how to translate their own theological reflections into language that non-graduate-students could access and wrestle with.
“And community members helped keep the conversation grounded in practical matters. They shared from their professional experience, or anecdotes from life. Bringing that to the table really enriched the experience for everyone,” McNinch says.
Retired lawyer and current Sunday school teacher Roger Quillen found that the mix of seminarians and laypeople provided fertile ground for discussion. “As my wife and I got to know the students and what to expect from their commentary and questions, we began to look forward to what they might add to our knowledge and experience.”
A lifelong learner active in Bible studies and book clubs, North Decatur UMC member Ashley Jensen says she wasn’t able to finish college, so she was excited to once again be part of a university-level course.
“I was extremely pleased to be considered a ‘student’ again,” she says. “I enjoyed getting a chance to speak with Candler students, so they could see what we see from the congregation’s point of view.” Conversely, she was able to glean new perspectives from Bonfiglio and the seminarians.
Even when the class moved to meeting on Zoom instead of at the church, Jensen says, “it was still fulfilling and easy to understand and communicate to learn from one another. I learned a lot that has enriched my life in a way I didn’t think would be possible again.”
Participants across town at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church also found inspiration from Associate Professor of Christian Ethics Elizabeth Bounds’ Course in the Community, “Rethinking Criminal Justice: Why America’s Incarceration System is Failing and What the Church Might Do About It.”
Most members of Bounds’ course came in with knowledge and experience around criminal justice in the U.S. Many Candler students had served at prison-related contextual education sites. Some community participants were active in Peachtree Road’s longstanding criminal justice ministry. Others were returning citizens who had been previously incarcerated and are now activists.
Bounds says that the shared passion around criminal justice was “a wonderful link for people. I found the whole experience to be extraordinarily positive.”
She frequently brought in guest presenters to speak about different elements of the criminal justice system and prison ministry, which she believes was important for Candler students to see in this setting. “I could still have had speakers sitting in the Candler classroom, but it was a different experience in this context,” she says. “There was a way that students saw connections being made that you wouldn’t have seen at Candler.”
Candler alumna Kathryn Stanley 16T is active in the movement to end mass incarceration at her home congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church. She jumped at the chance to learn again from Bounds, one of her favorite Candler professors. “This was the first time I’d taken a course that had seminarians and seminary graduates and community members, especially those who were formerly incarcerated. It gave an urgency and authenticity to the class. People in the course were actually living and doing the work.”
For Arabia Sweet 20T, the course was transformative. One powerful class session featured a panel of formerly incarcerated returning citizens who shared about their experiences. “When I watched the participants give their testimonies and be vulnerable, I was brought into their world,” Sweet says. “To have people share some of the hardest and most personal parts of their lives was such an honor. I had no idea about their experiences, and they have really stayed with me.”
Hearing from those who have directly experienced the U.S. criminal justice system made a deep impression. Kathryn Stanley recalls an exchange after a presenter spoke about a special meal served for Family Day in a prison. “One class member challenged this as being inane, and said what really needed to happen was for them to fight to ensure that prisons serve better food.
“Another class member who had been formerly incarcerated responded, ‘Don’t knock what this organization does. A good meal when you are inside is more than just a meal; it provides hope for a better day.’”
Stanley says this served as one of many reminders that the work of prison ministry must be led by those who have lived it. “Their voices are important, and they must participate in their own liberation.”
Sweet says it was meaningful for seminarians to hear from those doing real world work and thus envision how they themselves might connect within it. “This class was not just textbook and theory. It also gave us the chance to witness and practice the work. Now, I understand the dynamics and how I fit into the equation, and also what I can do to help.”
Stanley agrees. “One of my ‘aha’ moments was understanding that God calls us to different aspects of the work of prison ministry. Some are called to minister to the incarcerated, some to returning citizens, and others to work of systemic change—yet the work is all divine.”
Perhaps that is the true takeaway from the space that Courses in the Community offers, be it in person or virtual, connecting students and community members from all walks of life who come together in shared scholarship: that the gifts, passions, and experiences of each individual strengthen the whole of God’s kingdom on earth.
Photos: Allison Shirreffs