Thursday, October 28

Religion professors shift course content to equip students for ministry in COVID-19 era

As Tim Green sits down to plan the syllabus for his Fall 2020 Old Testament Theology class, there’s one thing he knows with certainty: he can’t teach this class the same way he has in previous years.

Green, dean of the Millard Reed School of Theology and Christian Ministry, said a Zoom conversation with other Nazarene Old Testament professors across the country confirmed his feelings that the course needed to be redesigned from the ground up in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and other 2020 tragedies.

“Can we ignore the elephant in the room and teach this like we would any old time?” Green asked himself.

Immediately, he knew he couldn’t. So the redesign began.

“For the group that made up our class, the elephant in the room was that their spring semester ended in March and they basically had to just get out of here and didn’t get to say goodbye. Then the next reality was suddenly we were all wearing masks and we didn’t know what the future looked like. Then the next reality was we were all stuck inside and watching the TV constantly as we saw cities burning down because of racial issues,” Green said.

If what gave birth to the Old Testament writings was a crisis season and a brokenness between people groups, Green said, it made perfect sense to redesign this course to look at the Old Testament through the lens of current similar circumstances.

“Way over half of the Old Testament comes to us either in the middle of the most catastrophic season of God’s people, exile, or right after exile, which was just as catastrophic and is probably where this fall’s Old Testament Theology class will land: the doors are open, but no one is coming back,” Green said.

While the redesign was challenging, Green describes the way the students fostered a sense of community and honesty as one of the highlights of his career.

“Of all the years I’ve taught Old Testament Theology, I’ve never enjoyed it so much in my life as I did this time. When my time, hopefully way out there in the distance, comes to an end at Trevecca, I probably will look at Old Testament Theology in the Fall COVID year as one of the greatest experiences in my ministerial life. For me, it was phenomenal.”

Carolyn Johnson, a junior Worship Arts Major who got to experience Green’s renewed Old Testament Theology class firsthand, agrees.

“It really caused us to ask ‘how does this apply to what’s going on in the world right now?’ and I think that’s good for us to continually do. I think cultivating that mindset now is preparing us to continue to do these things after we graduate.”

It wasn’t just Green who had to shift course to better prepare students for stepping into ministry in a COVID-19 era though. The whole religion department is feeling the tension, Associate Professor of Religion Tim Gaines said.

“Everything about the curriculum is being shaped by this. Not just the way they deliver it, but the questions it’s raising. I have shifted a lot of my content toward an examination of some of the core content we would study anyway in light of what we’re doing. For example, in Systematic Theology II, we normally study the church and sacraments. But now we are facing a major question of if the sacraments still possible if the people cannot gather together,” Gaines said.

Photo by Andrew Winkler

Not only is previous course content shifting to accommodate the current circumstances, but a new graduate program course has been created in response to the pandemic. Lament and Hope in the Midst of the Crisis focuses on learning how to help a congregation grieve well.

“We opened up lots of content on lament and how to invite them into a process of crying out in the midst of the hard stuff we’re walking through together, whether that means taking care of people who are suffering even when you can’t be with them physically or giving them tools and resources that are deeply embedded in the Christian tradition to engage a season like this,” Gaines said.

While the last year has been anything but easy, Green said students have risen to the occasion and displayed a true passion for ministry, even with the current challenges.

“I could never in my life say how exemplary students in every one of my classes have been. The maturity and the commitment has blown me away. I saw a depth of commitment and a hope of moving into the future that I’ll never get away from. I heard some saying, ‘Rather than despairing about the COVID season and doing ministry, I think I’m getting a brand new hope of what ministry really does look like in times of crisis.’”

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