Over the course of the week I was able to spend some time with people who have a vested interest in theological education in the Vineyard. We are a diverse group but we all share the desire to develop healthy learning communities. After one of the meetings, Frank suggested that perhaps I could share what has proven helpful for us in Montreal. Since I always do what Frank says, here is my attempt to do just that.
We didn't really plan it this way, but Vineyard Montreal has become quite an articulate, knowledgeable, and motivated learning community. No doubt some of that has to do with being located in a university city where degrees are as common as potholes, but I believe a lot of it has come from developing solid learning practices together. Fostering a learning community will no doubt look and feel and smell different in each location and situation, but perhaps some of these ideas will prove useful to someone.
1. Cultivating a joy for learning. When I first went back to school to get my Masters in Theological Studies, I was so excited about the experience that everyone got to hear about it. Dean, my husband, called it a 2 for 1 education, since I gave him the condensed version of every class right after I got home. And this spilled over to my friends and quite naturally, to our faith community. Insights I had gleaned from my readings and my classes showed up in casual conversations, in talks on Sunday morning, and in our small groups. Certain friends started to regularly ask me what I was learning, eager to hear the latest (a student's dream!). My wonderful faith community encouraged me with comments about how courageous I was to undertake such a strenuous learning journey. They humbled me by pointing out that I was being transformed before their eyes (learning should always be a transformative experience, not just a knowledge boost). Others who had some training, theological or otherwise, offered what they had learned or were learning, and we discovered richness in the shared knowledge and experience of our group. The entire atmosphere of our community has slowly blossomed into one of wonder at and fascination with the endless riches and mysteries to be found in God and this world. The joy of learning is really quite contagious.
2. Does anyone want to learn this with me? Pretty much every time I teach on something in our faith community, I usually mention that it is a topic I want to and need to learn about. When I ask the group if they want to learn it together with me, most of them say yes! How cool is that? I try to remain open, honest, and vulnerable while I learn/teach; transformation is inevitably a catalyst for more transformation. Almost two years ago, we embarked on a course called The Apprentice Series which covers three books: The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community. These three books deal, respectively, with developing good and true narratives about God, developing the character of Jesus, and developing healthy communities. About a dozen or so of us worked our way through all three books with several more joining us here and there along the way. It was quite phenomenal to see how people opened up to each other during these courses, honestly sharing their struggles and willingly trying a multitude of different spiritual exercises despite some of them being a bit foreign and uncomfortable. People noted that even if they didn't find a chapter particularly interesting, someone else might be deeply moved by it. This fostered a shared learning experience and got us away from focusing solely on individual progress. At the end of the course there was immediate talk of "What will we study next?"
3. Being both intentional and flexible/spontaneous. Learning usually does not happen unless we are intentional about it so we make a plan, we buy books, we plot a course, we set dates to meet, and we engage in activities and exercises together. But in the midst of it all, we try to make a lot of room for people to be themselves. If someone is uncomfortable with a certain activity, there is always grace to bow out of it, to just sit and watch. People can pass on a question, show up late, miss a few classes, forget to do their homework, or even take up precious meeting time venting about a personal issue. Because we are a learning community that tries to recognize that everyone has something to bring to the group and the group has something to give to each one, we make room for questions, comments, interruptions, and even the hiccups of life. We also try to keep guilt, isolation, and inadequacy at bay. It means that we move more slowly at times or adapt/toss out a lesson as needed. Not every class or meeting will be spectacular, but over time, something special is built in the group as we learn together, witness each other's journey, and share the challenges along the way.
4. Stating the obvious. When a particular plan of action or a particular lesson does not seem to be working, we give people (and ourselves) the freedom to say so. When I make a mistake as a teacher or facilitator, I admit it. Usually we laugh, correct or adapt it, and move on. When I don't know the answer to something, I say so. More often than not, someone in the group will have something to offer on the topic. When I am having a tough morning or evening, perhaps tired and overwhelmed, I say so. Inevitably people gather around, pray for me, and then the group graciously steps up and we share the weight of responsibility. When someone disagrees with a particular point, they say so, and we discuss different ways of looking at things. We may not end up agreeing, but we always learn from these exchanges. Things that are obvious to me are not obvious to others, and things that seem obvious to others can often be revelatory to me. Learning to state the obvious cultivates an atmosphere of trust, a culture of not taking offense, and an openness to the voice of the Holy Spirit. To be honest, this entire blog seems so obvious to me that I wonder why I am writing it. And yet, I know that stating the obvious is a good learning practice. So there.
And now I have to go read a book. Let the learning continue.
Matte from Montreal