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2+2=New and Innovative Curriculum

by Margaret Farnham

The innovation of 2+2 will take the exemplary aspect of a Trinity degree--contextual education--and multiply the readiness of our new graduates to lead with passion and effectiveness from day one in their first call. -- President Rick Barger

karyn kostIn Karyn Kost’s previous career as a process engineer for a manufacturing plant, she helped to improve the production and efficiency of her company’s products. So when she learned she would be part of the first class of M.Div. students in Trinity’s new 2+2 program, she didn’t blink an eye. She sees herself as part of the process of making a good product—seminary education—even better.

“Manufacturers are always testing products. You’re never going to get it perfect,” she said. “This first time through at Trinity they probably won’t get it perfect either, but they’ll figure it out and learn from it. In the end, we’re doing this because contextual education is important.”

After nearly two years of careful work, much debate, and many meetings, the Trinity faculty voted last February to adopt the new and highly innovative M.Div. curriculum that Trinity now calls “2+2.” The program includes two years of residential learning followed by two years of serving and learning in a congregation.

“Everything we do at Trinity grows from a deep conviction that the world needs leaders who can further God’s mission to heal and redeem all creation,” said Brad Binau, academic dean and professor of pastoral theology. “We’re convinced that things Trinity does well—formation that integrates head and heart, along with contextual learning that highly values the roles of congregations and practitioners—can be done even better.”

M.Div. students like Kost and her classmates Justin Ferko and Branden Hunt, who entered seminary this fall, are the first to “test” the program.

Kost earned her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. She then worked for seven years as a process engineer for a manufacturer of flexible packaging that hold things like shredded cheese and snack foods.

While she is most comfortable with science, Kost said other forces pulled her toward theology. She became involved in youth ministry at her home congregation, Lord of the Lakes Lutheran Church in Winneconne, Wisconsin, and even earned a certificate through Vibrant Faith Ministries in Minnesota.
A lifelong Lutheran, she said she has thought about ministry as far back as middle school. “I didn’t think I was suited academically. My background is in science; I like end results and organization,” she said.

She took another position within her company, thinking a move in a new direction at work would fill the void she experienced. “Something inside of me just kept pulling me in another direction,” she said.

Kost visited Trinity two years ago, before 2+2 was a reality. “The biggest attraction was the culture here,” she said. “There is a lot of positive energy; everyone shares that energy. I think Trinity has the right attitude about forming leaders.”

As a hands-on learner, she appreciates the premise behind the new 2+2 curriculum.

branden hunt“After year one of internship, you’re just getting to know the people. We’re going to leave internship feeling more confident in our role as leaders,” said Kost.

Branden Hunt, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Detroit’s Wayne State University in May, agrees. “I’m more hands-on; I believe our experiences are our greatest teachers,” he said.

Hunt was born and raised on the east side of Detroit, where he is a member of Cross of Glory Lutheran Church. Since 2009, he has spent his summers as camp staff at Stony Lake Lutheran Camp in New Era, Mich. At staff training at Camp Michi-Lu-Ca, he met Trinity representatives Ben Sloss (’13) and Austin English, currently serving on internship.

“Ben put Trinity on my radar, and after talking to Austin this past summer I was sure I had made the right choice,” he said.

“I’m excited about being the first to enter the 2+2 program,” said Hunt. “I think youth are excited about change; youth in our churches know that things aren’t going well; teenagers see there are only three people in their youth group and college students don’t think the church speaks to them.”

“Trinity said let’s go with it. Establishing that kind of excitement and culture will prepare us to be a part of change,” he added.

The first two years of the M.Div. program will look similar to what students experience now: core courses in Bible, church history, theology and the pastoral arts – the best of the basics. There will be increased opportunities to learn online, but much of the learning in the first two years will happen in the seminary community.

It’s the second two years that will be distinctly different, said Binau.

The course work previously delivered when students returned to campus after a one-year internship will now be delivered while students serve a congregation. During those two contextual years, coursework will happen in a variety of ways: intern cohorts will return to campus for intensive coursework, via online teaching with faculty, and by deploying some faculty to teach in congregational settings when internship cohorts gather there. Cohorts might also converge in immersion experiences in Haiti or other global locations.

“Formation that takes place in context is not something new. It is actually the biblical model of how Jesus shaped and formed the disciples and how the Apostle Paul invested in Barnabas, Timothy and others,” said President Rick Barger.

“I believe the path towards greater excellence in the formation of future leaders will be forged at the grassroots level through partnerships that Trinity has with those on the front line in today’s mission field – primarily our congregations and its leaders,” said Barger.

Dean Binau noted that there are questions to which the seminary is paying a great deal of attention.

For instance:
  • Will a sufficient number of congregations respond to the challenge of becoming internship sites?
  • What if a supervisor becomes ill or takes another call during the “+2” years?
  • How will students further relationships with classmates and faculty during the “+2” years?
Binau observed that embarking on this new curriculum is a lot like making a path as you walk on it. “The good news is we are walking together. No one is going it alone,” he said. “We have superb leaders in our contextual education office in Dr. Hank Langknecht and Sister Becky Swanson. They will be there to assist with any supervisory issues that may arise. We have great leadership in our Advancement office which is directed by Pastor Brad Gee. His team, along with the contextual education office, is actively soliciting congregations to serve as sites and reminding them of the opportunities they can have to form the next generation of the church’s leaders.”

As for staying in touch, Binau said, “That’s a twentieth century question for which we have a number of twenty-first century answers in the realm of technology and social media. I think we will be delightfully surprised by the creativity we can bring to this area.”

Justin Ferko relates the 2+2 model to his experience as a teacher.

“After one year of student teaching I still felt like a novice. In the third year of teaching I finally found my pace,” said Ferko, who taught high school Spanish for five justin ferkoyears and Engish as a Second Language for two years prior to coming to seminary.

“I imagine congregational life to be similar to the classroom,” he added. “Hopefully the classes we take in the cohort will be focused on what we’re doing in the congregation.”

Last January – before Ferko was officially enrolled – he took Ecological Spirituality with Professor Lisa Dahill, “to learn more about Trinity and to free up space in my schedule for more electives this year.” He also did additional reading in church history and asked for special permission to take the Bonhoeffer class this fall, knowing it might be his only opportunity to take this elective before internship.

Like Hunt, he has some concerns as the faculty and administration wade into these new waters.

“Some courses are only offered every two years. What if you’re on internship and you can’t take a course you want?” he said.

Dean Binau acknowledged the uncertainty represented by Ferko’s question. “It’s a valid concern, this curiosity about how it will all fit together. But we do know what courses will be offered for those in the ‘+2’ part of the M.Div. curriculum. What we are still fine-tuning are the issues of when and how.”

Ferko was awarded an ELCA Fund for Leaders Scholarship, a merit-based, full-tuition scholarship awarded to ELCA seminarians in the Master of Divinity program.

During the fall banquet in Chicago, when recipients were honored, Ferko learned other seminaries are experimenting with innovative internship models and “re-imagining” their curricula. Dean Binau reported that there is indeed much “creative juice” flowing at all of the ELCA seminaries, though none have carried their innovations as far as Trinity has done with its new curriculum.

Like Hunt, Ferko initially chose Trinity for reasons other than the new curriculum which was not yet in place when he began to explore his call two years ago. He was attracted by Trinity’s sense of community, its Spanish for Ministry program, and its attention to matters of ecological justice.

“This is the only seminary I looked at,” he said. He had heard good things from Pastor Kim Conway Hester (’07), who serves St. Luke Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, where Ferko attended with his husband Craig Foster.

Ferko was raised Roman Catholic and was always involved in his church. He and Foster, an investment attorney, did “the whole spiritual, but not religious thing” before they discovered the Lutheran church following college. They were married two years ago in Cumberland, Maryland.

A 2003 graduate of the University of Virginia, Ferko ultimately attended the 2012 Oregon Synod Assembly as a representative of St. Luke, and he met other gay pastors and second-career pastors. That experience fueled his desire to come to seminary.

Ferko said he would love to start a “street church,” where the marginalized could find a place of welcome. He also would welcome a two-year internship in an urban setting.

Hunt, also a Fund for Leaders scholar, likewise has an interest in urban ministry. “If it were up to me I would end up in an urban setting or a very small town, one or the other. I’m not exactly sure where I will end up; I’m just excited to see where I go,” he said.

Kost senses the excitement among her student colleagues about the new academic year and about the 2+2 program.

“We’ll kind of roll with the punches as we need to,” she said. “I’m excited to see how it all plays out.”

Upon hearing Kost’s comment Dean Binau nodded in agreement. “Indeed! And the reason it will all play out to the glory of God and the benefit of the church is that we have students like Karyn, Justin and Branden who are so ready and willing to embrace the future even before it fully arrives!”