The present and future of education for ministry. Discussions with Reformed church leaders

On 15-16 July 2021, at their fourth meeting in Illyefalva, representatives of the Transylvanian Reformed churches and the teachers of the PTI evaluated the present and future of education for ministry.

On 15-16 July 2021, the teachers of the Protestant Theological Institute participated in a joint meeting with representatives of the two Reformed church districts of Transylvania. Joint discussions and consultations on the present and future of theological higher education have been held regularly since 2016, this year for the fourth time.

The Protestant Theological Institute of Cluj-Napoca is a church-supported higher education institution. This background and the specific way in which it operates, specialising primarily in the training of Protestant ministers, are the main distinctive features of this institution. The close cooperation with the churches as institutional supporters and stakeholders is also a natural consequence of this special status. At the same time, in terms of its organisation, content and quality of its teaching and research, the Institute must be in line with national and European general standards in higher education. The negotiations have been conducted with these aspects in mind.

The two-day meeting started with a lunch and ended in the same informal setting. The main topics on the agenda included: the entrance examination for the current academic year, promotion strategies regarding the academic programs of the Theological Institute, evaluating the the aptitude of the students, the principal conclusions of recent surveys among the students, basic issues in the planning of a new curriculum, and the question of traineeships.

With respect to the entrance examination for the new academic year, 2021 could be considered as an unconventional year in many respects. In July 2021, the number of candidates who applied for a BA study was much lower than in previous years, and the proportion of candidates who failed the entrance examination was rather high. The content of the entrance exam has been raised in previous discussions with the church representatives. The practice of higher education institutions varies in this respect. In some cases, the examination consists of an aptitude interview, while the candidates' learning ability and aptitude is assessed subsequently during their studies. In this respect, the PTI still insists on an examination assessing preliminary knowledge in addition to entrance interviews assessing student personality. During accreditation evaluations, a serious entrance examination always receives a positive evaluation. This institutional practice is also closely linked to another important indicator, namely the low rate of students entering and leaving the institution during their early study years. This strongly positive indicator in terms of quality of training is clearly related to the comprehensive entrance examination. The Church and the Institute should take note of the demand from the congregations for supplying a higher number of ministers, but at the same time it is important to stick to quality indicators.

We cannot ignore the fact that the years 2020 and 2021 have been exceptional in terms of the epidemic situation. This has most likely had an impact on enrolment as well. In the context of admission interviews, candidates used to emphasise that the idea of applying for theological studies was outlined in their minds at a youth event or in a youth camp. Therefore, it is not negligible that the last two years imposed restrictions regarding the organisation of such events. Moreover, the number of Hungarian students graduating from high schools this year seems to be lower than in the past. The interest of young people in a career in the ministry cannot therefore be assessed without considering these unusual contexts.

Nevertheless, there are also some important lessons from the past years in terms of assessing the candidates preliminary knowledge. One is the growing unfamiliarity of candidates with traditional church hymns. Young people interested in theology are not all socialised in Sunday worship, and a significant proportion come from church schools or attend mainly youth services. This could be the reason why they are not familiar with hymn material primarily intended for congregational use. Consequently the study material for the admission examination should be reconsidered in the context of this phenomenon.

However, the issue of admissions, the declining number of students, also brings with it another question, namely how to promote theological education and ministerial training that essentially presupposes inner calling of potential candidates. This specific nature of the Theological Institute and the way it is promoted distinguishes it from other universities and their marketing strategies. The aim here is not only to attract as many new students as possible, but also to attract mostly those with a strong sense of vocation. Nonetheless, given that internal vocation can be reinforced by external vocation, it is not irrelevant to promote the institution among young people. This strategy requires developing and formulating a career model, while at the same time it presupposes that the Institute appears in as many forums as possible. It is important to note, for example, that more than 90% of this year's applicants came from a church-backed schools. On the one hand, this indicates that the pre-university environment is an important factor in the choice of a career as a pastor. On the other hand, it also indicates that young people who would are regarded as potential candidates for a future career in ministry (by congregations, pastors, teachers, parents) should be initiated into pastoral training at an earlier stage. Specific resources need to be concentrated for this task in the framework of the PTI and an appropriate strategy should be developed.

The introduction of an examination to assess the aptitude of students was also raised in the discussion. Where university students are being trained for a role such as pastoral ministry, the focus will be on their educational and ministerial aptitude. There are already models for this adopted by various universities with a similar profile. Youth pastor Árpád Sógor summarised and presented some of those. The Theological Institute did have such assessments until 2007, but it was one emphasising rather important basic knowledge than a test of theological and pastoral aptitude. It was pointed out in the discussion that this issue is closely linked to mentoring theological students. For the time being, there is no consensus on whether the current role of leaders of study groups should be strengthened, or whether the role of teachers leading Bible study groups should be reclassified, or whether a new type of mentor should be introduced. In addition, the youth pastor and responsible staff for spiritual formation are also involved in related activities. Opinions tended to point in the direction of the need to rethink the content of existing structures, which do not always function optimally, to reorganise them and to formulate more concrete objectives. In the coming academic year, the PTI will rethink its internal operating system for education and will draw up a student aptitude and assessment policy accordingly.

The second day of the meeting started with a presentation by teacher Szabolcs Kató, in which he presented the results of a recent survey among theology students conducted in June 2021. The survey examined the students' study habits, learning difficulties, social-community interaction, church socialization, church image, etc. in the context of their family, social and church backgrounds. This analysis, to which about 70% of the students interviewed responded, provides a comprehensive picture of the citizens of the university, those involved in pastoral training. The survey, whose main aim is to assess the learning habits of theological students, in many ways breaks down stereotypes and prompts to rethink the structure of training, its content, its use of tools, methods, as well as the internal organisation of institutional life. (The results of the survey will also be published in a separate post on the website.)

The survey also served as a prelude to the next topic, the plans regarding the restructuring of the ministerial studies programme at the Protestant Theological Institute. In his introduction, Csaba Balogh noted that the last modification of the current curriculum for ministerial training dates back to 2007, and that it was also framed by a traditional theological curriculum. In fact, the curriculum follows a system that has been in place for several decades and shows weaknesses from both a professional and a pedagogical point of view. While the traditional form of education is geared to the transmission of knowledge, modern educational theory takes into account the whole person and his or her context at least as much. In addition to the transfer of knowledge, the development of the personality is also important. Furthermore, the traditional curriculum is based on a "Christian world" paradigm, which cannot be taken for granted any more, not only in Western Europe but also in Transylvania. Therefore, a mission paradigm is more commonly voiced in contemporary ministerial training, which in turn would take the curriculum in a different direction in many respects. The reform of the curriculum can be hampered by serious external and internal factors, such as conflicting expectations, lack of formulation of a minimal consensus, the difficulties in reconciling church strategy and university training, the strong disharmony between the academic world and its expectations and the reality of the church-society, etc. The introduction presented the outlines and pillars of the development of a new curriculum, formulated proposals and suggested topics for discussion. These included the concretisation of the ideal church for which students should be trained, the contextual challenges, the profile of the ideal church leader, the knowledge of the current audience and current church, and the optimisation of the time frame. An up-to-date curriculum should focus on developing basic skills and leave room for, and even making continuing education a prerequisite.

An important measure of the quality of university education is the ability of its graduates to apply in practice the knowledge and learned professional skills. One important indicator of this is the internship training introduced at PTI since 2017. Students in the final year of the programme undertake their internships in churches under the coordination of mentors. An overall evaluation of the 2020-2021 internships was presented at the meeting. Specific suggestions and textual feedback from students and mentors were highlighted, confirming that the system works well, but needs further fine-tuning. It is clear that, in addition to professional development, the internship also makes a major contribution to personal development. The mentor is acting as a role model for future ministers. Moreover, the student's own critical self-evaluation which is implemented in the programme, helps them to strengthen their own personality and deepen their professional skills. At the same time, the PTI should work on optimising the ratio between the trainees' study and practical commitments. For the future, this aspect of the training will also be the subject of further discussion, including at the mentoring meeting in September, where all evaluations and concrete proposals will be discussed.

Compared to previous years, at the 2021 meeting at Illyefalva, the churches were represented from both church districts. Another significant development was the presence not only of full-time teachers of the PTI, but also of associate professors teaching theological subjects. This enlarged structure indicates that the issues raised here are the concern of a larger community, in which there is a place for all those, from both the church and the university, who consider the training of Reformed pastors in Transylvania, in the narrow sense, and the shaping of the future Reformed Church in Transylvania, in the broader sense, to be their heartfelt concern.

(Photo illustration by Gábor Kiss)