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You learn something new every day

What’s your title?

I’m the Director for Education and Formation for Leadership within eLM (Equipping Leadership for Mission) and Head of Pilgrim Theological College as part of that role.

How did you come to get the job?

My family and I moved to Australia in 2009 and I had been teaching in theological education in the UK for about nine years prior to that. And when this job came up I applied for it and got it. When I first arrived it wasn’t called Pilgrim. The Uniting Church Theological College was part of an ecumenical federation called the United Faculty of Theology and it came to an end in 2014. So at that point we transitioned to becoming a college in our own right and rebranded to become Pilgrim. So 2015 was the first year of Pilgrim’s existence as a separate body. I was appointed as Academic Dean and in 2016 I became Head of College.

Can you tell us a little bit about your role?

In my role as Head of College I basically have responsibility for connecting the college to the two main stakeholders involved in its work – one of which is the Synod and beyond the Synod, there’s UCA national assembly, and then the other is the University of Divinity. So there’s the church-facing bit and the university-facing bit. And my role is to cultivate those relationships. And I do that primarily through overseeing the work of the faculty.

I have three areas of work. One is the teaching of courses for the university. The second is the area of formation of candidates for UCA ministries. And then the third is research and public engagement. So my work is leading the faculty team and then the broader team of teachers and researchers and candidates in the college.

How many staff do you have? I’m referring to lecturers and so on.

In addition to me, there are six fulltime faculty positions and then we have 10-15 associate teachers.

How many other UCA colleges are there in Australia?

There are now four main ones – United Theological College in Paramatta, Uniting College in Adelaide and  Trinity College in Queensland. Western Australia still does theological formation, but it no longer has a college.

Do you have to get a degree from one of these colleges to be a minister?

Yes. The Assembly has developed a set of national standards for ministry and we’re accountable to those standards. Those standards refer to someone who would usually get an undergraduate award, or greater, in theology as part of their training.

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Of the four colleges, where does Pilgrim in terms of size?

They’re all about equal in size, to be honest. Maybe South Australia has kind of more numbers but we probably have the largest full-time faculty.

 On average, how many students would you have in any given year?

There’s different ways of cutting the cake. In higher education, we often talk about fulltime equivalent places and we have 45-50 fulltime equivalent students at any given time in terms of a head count. And there’s between 100-130 bodies who, in any given year, are attending a course that we run. And then there’s the candidate numbers, people training to be ministers, and we will have 15 next year. It’s usually 15-20.

So there’s 15 ministers coming through next year. Is that about normal? More? Less?

It’s been growing slowly and we’re seeing a greater number of younger candidates. There’s also been a strong multicultural mix.

When you say “younger”, do you mean 20s? 30s?

Some in their 20s. When I first arrived, you could barely find anyone under 40.

Do you get general folk who take courses just for the pleasure of learning something?

I would say probably a third of the people in our classes are doing it for interest or for some kind of exploration or deepening of understanding of their Christian faith. The majority of those people probably have some kind of connection with the UCA, but not all of them. And we also have students who study with us because they want to kind of deepen or develop their theological understanding.

Generally speaking, how many courses do you offer?

In terms of units or awards?

Good question. You tell me, which is going to be the most easy to explain.

OK, so the best way of saying it is that we offer we offer a suite of undergraduate awards and we offer an equivalent suite of postgraduate awards. We usually offer about 30 subjects.

How much does that change from year to year?

There are certain foundational subjects that pretty much everyone needs to do. And we tend to offer those every year. For example, an introduction to theology or an introduction to the New Testament or an introduction to pastoral care. And then there are a whole suite of what we would call “elective units”. They run on a kind of two-to-three year cycle. So most of them are only offered once every other year or so.

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Are there any courses that you teach or have taught that might surprise people? Like, for example, this year there was a course on Sex and the Bible.

We have a few distinctives. We teach a very strong suite of units in philosophy, which has to do with the fact that we have someone on our faculty who is a Jesuit philosopher. We teach courses in feminist theologies. There’s a unit next year on the figure of Mary in the Christian tradition, which in a Protestant college would be a surprise to some people.

We teach units to children and families ministry. We teach leadership skills. There’s a wide range of courses that are explicitly intended to address all kinds of particular needs in the church. I think the perception sometimes is we still teach a fairly kind of old-fashioned and traditional curriculum. And the reality is that we really don’t. We work hard on a curriculum that genuinely pushes against the edges of the questions that we think the Church is facing. For example, what’s the nature of Christian faith in contemporary Australia? How do you connect theology to other disciplines? How do we deal with issues that are raised by the reality of a multicultural church? And even when we’re teaching what look like traditional subjects, very often we’re using those subjects as a gateway into addressing those broader questions. I’ll give you an example. I’m teaching a course on the Apostle Paul next year. The course is called Working Out Salvation Theology and Ethics in Paul. On one level you could think that sounds kind of boring. You know, this is what Paul says in this letter, but actually what we do is we spend the first few weeks looking at kind of what the core ideas are in Paul’s thinking in these ancient letters. And then we ask how do those thoughts relate to all sorts of issues that we recognise as our issues? So the second half of the course is about Paul and the place of women in the church, Paul and issues of race and ethnicity, Paul and ethical behavior and what constitutes a good life. So those are all live issues for today. And what looks like a fairly traditional boring course actually is oriented towards addressing issues relevant to today using the insights that theological study provided for Christian disciples. We’re pretty committed to a curriculum that is constantly attentive to the challenges that face the church and the broader social, political and cultural context in which we find ourselves.

In mainstream universities, such as Melbourne Uni etc, you have to qualify to get in. I’m assuming you don’t have to have X qualifications to do some of your courses. You just have to have an interest. How much knowledge do you need to really do some of these courses? Because I’m assuming some people might get put off thinking, “I don’t know that much, I might look a bit silly”.

The university has an admissions policy and it’s basically VCE or equivalent, but mature students very often qualify on the basis of life experience. You can see qualifications, but I think the broader question is whether people need to know things before they come into a class and the answer to that is yes, they do, but not necessarily what they think they need to know, because what we constantly want is for  people to bring their experience, their life experience, their wisdom and bring that into the conversation with what’s going on in the classroom. We see people as empty vessels who need to be filled out. They come as people who are already full of experience and insights and levels of understanding. And that’s a contribution into the learning context and that works differently in different classes. If you’re doing a pastoral studies class, you may have learned more about the nature of pastoral care from your own experience of receiving pastoral care from someone else. So bring that experience into the classroom so that you can deepen that understanding or broaden that understanding. And I think the other thing to say is that we strongly encourage people to just try it, to give it a go. You can come and audit a class, which means that you don’t need to enrol formally with the university and you pay cheaper fees, but you don’t get any credit for doing it, but that will give you a sense of what it means to kind of be in a university classroom, studying theology, you’ll get a feel for it. Or you could sign up, dip your toe in, take a unit, see how you get on. Pilgrim makes it possible for people who have very little experience in higher education to actually succeed at university level. We have small class sizes and we have a very experienced and attentive faculty. We have academic skill support built in. We have a fantastic library. There are lots of things that give you the best possible chance to succeed. I could list off any number of people who have come in incredibly nervous at the start and have loved what they’ve done and thrived in the room.

How have you gone this year, with everything being done remotely?

In March we had to move everything into an online mode of delivery. That was challenging but I think on the whole it has been a good experience and we’ve surveyed students in both semesters of this year and both surveys have kind of let us know that students have been able to learn online and learn well. And have felt supported in that learning. It’s not without its challenges. What you gain in flexibility and accessibility, you lose in collegiality, the experience of being together in a classroom. But we recognise that some form of remote access to learning will continue to be a permanent feature of what we offer, but probably in what’s usually called a blended mode rather than everything being online.

Back to ministers in training. Can you talk about what candidates must do at Pilgrim in order to “pass”? Is it a one-year course? What’s involved?

OK, so to be a minister, the process doesn’t start with the college, but once they get here we’re responsible for what’s called phase two of someone’s formation towards ministry. Broadly speaking, there are three areas of work that we engage people in. The first is their theological learning. The second is their kind of experience of ministry in placements. And then the third is their own personal and spiritual development. Most people take three years to go through that process. And that three years usually enables them to get either a full undergraduate or a full postgraduate award in theology. But in addition to their academic studies, they do this other work of field education placements and then meeting as a formation community on a regular basis to work with us.

Can they fail, or is completing these classes all that is required?

It’s not quite as strict as that. What we work to are these standards and they say things like someone who is ordained in the Uniting Church should have a grasp of how to interpret the Bible and to be able to communicate the Bible in public worship. What that looks like for different people varies and can  depend on educational backgrounds. So some people could pass an academic course but not demonstrate that they’re able to meet the standard and people can demonstrate that they can meet the standard, but might really struggle academically. So the two things aren’t the same. But, in a nutshell, becoming a minister isn’t a question of passing exams. It is about taking the opportunities that theological study provides to show you are capable of communicating the Christian faith in whatever ministry setting you’re in.

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How have you personally found theological education with regards to faith? Has it enhanced your faith? Have you found at times it has forced you to question your faith?

Theological study has helped me to rethink what I thought faith was. It’s challenging if your understanding of faith is associated with ideas of clear and certain answers to questions. It’s challenging if you think that faith is a set of affirmations that you can kind of make without exploring what they might mean. But if faith is about genuinely wrestling with fundamental questions about who God is, how God relates to us and what difference that makes then I would argue that theological study of some sort is actually at the core of what faith is. It is a core practice, a core discipline of faith. And to that extent, it should be something that should be happening throughout the life of the church. Pilgrim isn’t the only place where theological education should be happening. It’s representative of something that should be happening across the life of the Church more broadly. Our task is to prepare those who do that work more broadly across the life of the Church itself. So, for me, theological study is really about wrestling in a very intentional and specific way with fundamental questions raised by what it means to be a Christian, who is God, how does God relate to us? Once you start to open them up, open up whole vistas of possible lines of thinking and reflection and experience and practice, well we do our best to offer those opportunities for people. Theological education works best when you come out the other side of whatever process you’ve been through as a different person, not when you’ve come out with a set of answers to the questions that you went in with.

We interviewed an elderly woman last year who was an atheist, which surprised me. Do you often get people who don’t have faith attending Pilgrim?

Yes, we have people who certainly don’t have any explicit church engagement or commitment and who want to explore Christian faith for a number of different reasons. And we have had people who would say they have very little or no faith commitment. And of course it’s possible to study theology with that kind of conviction. You just reframe the questions from, “who is God?” to “how does this major religious tradition understand who God is?”. And that’s an interesting fundamental question which actually relates to some overall issues in Australian society about people not understanding religious traditions terribly well. We would welcome more atheist in our classes. It’s important to say there’s no religious test for coming to Pilgrim.

If someone is wrestling with their faith, is there something at Pilgrim that would help them with that?

Theological study itself would be helpful for people who are wrestling with those questions. We offer a community where people are asking those questions together. We offer significant expertise for people who have devoted their lives to wrestling with these questions and trying to articulate how you might go about answering them. And we certainly offer a kind of supportive and non-judgmental space which those questions can be explored. We’re not in the game of kind of pushing people towards a predetermined outcome. If you have questions about the Bible, come and take an introductory Bible class and you will find there’s a very strong permission for you to bring those questions into the classroom. So that’s what people would find.

Last question. If for whatever reason you couldn’t do this job anymore, or a similar job, what do you think you would do? Do you see yourself teaching and, if so, would it still be in religious education?

If I wasn’t doing this job, I’d be involved in some other form of ministry in the life of the church and probably even parish ministry. That’s where I started. And I’ve never ruled out the possibility of doing that again at some stage. If I wasn’t involved in the church anymore, I probably would be doing something with food. I don’t know what my perfect alternative career is at the moment. I would love to have been a butcher. I didn’t see that coming. You really do learn something here every day.

Sean Winter

Sean Winter is the Head of Pilgrim Theological College. He teaches the New Testament and has a particular interest in the writings of the apostle Paul and their significance for Christian faith and practice today.

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