Your Syllabus Saved My Ministry - Gordon Conwell

Your Syllabus Saved My Ministry

Dr. David Currie (MDiv ’84)

True confession from a faculty member: syllabus creation does not rank in the top three, or even the top ten, of what I love about teaching.

I doubt that most of my colleagues at Gordon-Conwell would rank it much differently. It’s not that we hate creating syllabi, but we tend to view it as a necessary evil to get to the things we love, such as interacting with students, facilitating learning and spiritual growth, and creating fresh ways of making our subject matter come alive.

Creating a syllabus can seem like a tedious, thankless, never-finished task. No matter how many times you have taught a course, you always have to make a few tweaks. When the learning technology changes, as it seems to do every few years, you have to redo the whole thing. Then, there are always new publications to consider adding to your reading lists, which means saying goodbye to old “friends,” so you don’t overwhelm students with too many pages to read.

Therefore, I am not surprised when new students contact me with questions about the syllabus before a class. I am resigned to the inevitability of such interactions and try to approach them as graciously and patiently as I can. This dynamic is especially the case for my Doctor of Ministry (DMin) syllabi since they are unlike those most students have experienced in their academic career. DMin syllabi cover up to a whole year’s worth of work and have many more options for readings (e.g., read 1000 pages from this list of books, 500 pages from this other list, and 500 pages of independent reading). Students are sometimes a bit spoiled for choice, tentatively asking, “Would it be OK if I read this book that I’ve always wanted to read that relates to the residency topic but is not on your list?” To which I reply, as will not surprise any DMin student: “Will it nurture you as a passionate, reflective practitioner? If so, go for it!”

For the Pastoral Theology in Practice DMin track, my co-mentors[1] and I teach the “Deepening the Call: The Person of the Pastor” residency following an approach to teaching leadership developed by trailblazers in this field, Rodney Cooper and Ken Swetland. The resulting reading list and assignments often seem unusual and generate questions. For one assignment, students have to read a novel and reflect on where they saw themselves in its pages. The centerpiece of the syllabus is writing about a significant barrier to their personal growth to share with the class—something they notice gets in the way of them leading as fully and effectively as God has called them to do.

Therefore, it was no great shock a few months ago when a recently accepted student in the program asked if we could go over the syllabus for the first residency of “Deepening the Call: The Person of the Pastor.” He and I set up a time to talk, and we addressed his questions one-by-one. With each answer, I sensed his excitement and anticipation to dive more deeply, face-to-face with ministry peers and faculty mentors, into the areas of leadership that he is passionate about.

But, his last comment took me by surprise: “You know, your syllabus saved my ministry.” He went on to relate, “I was ready to resign in January, but just delving into some of the books on the reading list and beginning to reflect on my leadership through the assignments helped to renew my sense of calling. I can’t wait to finish everything and see what God does in our upcoming residency.”

Another true confession: This interaction has changed my attitude toward creating syllabi. While it may never become my favorite thing about teaching, my appreciation has grown for the potential personal and Kingdom transformation that can result from crafting a good balance of diverse readings and creative assignments. The Lord can use a thoughtfully created syllabus to stretch the mind, encourage the heart, and shape the soul. I don’t expect every Gordon-Conwell syllabi to save a ministry, but I trust that they might. We are committed to making that a potential outcome for every syllabus we write and class we teach.

[1] Current co-mentors include Phil Thorne, Calvin Choi, Simon Vibert, Mike Moses, Mary Havens, and Doug Carver.

Dr. David Currie has been a part of the Gordon-Conwell community for over two decades and currently serves as the Dean of the Doctor of Ministry Program and Professor of Pastoral Theology.