September 2020 Newsletter: Little Sprouts of Life Stir the Rubble
September 15, 2020
The Water that Washes, The Rain that Floods
September 8, 2020

The Central Role of Faculty in ABTS’
Emerging Hybrid Program

Martin Accad
September 14, 2020
Chapter four

I expect that the previous three articles (June-July-August) written by my colleagues, Elie, Walid and Bassem, have made it abundantly clear to our friends and partners around the world how the multiple crises that Lebanon has gone through since last summer have shaken ABTS to the core. What life has taught me, however, is that crises often give us the courage to enact those long-term changes that we have known for a while to be overdue.

In July, Walid explained the changes that we introduced into our curriculum delivery approach since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bassem, in August, highlighted the areas of transformation that we seek to continue facilitating in the lives of our students through the non-formal components of our curriculum. I want to reflect this month on what all of these changes mean for our faculty. In healthy academic institutions, faculty are generally at the heart of its operation, because they are instrumental in student formation. ABTS has been no different. But if our students are not physically on campus for most of the year, how are faculty supposed to invest their lives into their students, not just injecting information into their minds, but also contributing to the transformation of their hearts and characters through mentoring and rubbing shoulders with them day-to-day?
The changes that we have introduced into our program since April 2020 may well provoke an existential crisis among some of our faculty. For a theology faculty, who may have chosen this career because of a passion and calling for self-investment into the lives of students and holistic mentoring, losing the personal contact with students will represent a painful loss. Faculty may wonder whether ABTS is still the place for them. Some of our colleagues who are not Lebanese may wonder whether they could not do just as well serving ABTS students from their home country. These questions are not easy to face – even less to address – in a time of crisis, when after putting out fires all day, you end up drained and exhausted. It is difficult to think strategically in the midst of a storm, when your attention is hijacked by the urgent. In such circumstances, if you are driven by short-term urgency, you may miss your long-term objectives. But there is also a risk that if you are only focused on the long-term strategy, you may miss the immediate passing train which is critical to remaining on track.

These have been important considerations for our faculty. Yet at the same time, several have shared with us how in the midst of the storm, ABTS and the call to theological education have represented a crucially-needed constant – an important point of reference and a life compass in the midst of instability. My colleagues in this series of essays have highlighted on a number of occasions how our ability to cope, adapt, and transition quickly derived from the fact that God for a while had been preparing us for times like these. For our faculty, this sense of confidence in God’s hand over our past and guidance over our future is a source of great hope, even in the midst of constant crisis. In the remaining section of this essay, I want to zero in on six areas that are crucial to the role of faculty in this programmatic transition that ABTS is implementing.
First, and above all, this shift from a fully residential program to a hybrid modified-residential program has decompartmentalized student affairs from faculty responsibilities. There can no longer be a department that takes care of student affairs separately from the faculty role anymore. ABTS faculty have become de facto the principal point of contact with students all across the region. Faculty have always been a key link between the theology curriculum and the student, but now they are closer than ever in real time to the impact of theological education on the local church through our students.

Second, if the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that human beings crave for “contact” with other human beings. A great challenge for us, then, is how to create community and human fellowship virtually. We will have several segments of two weeks per year that we will be able to spend with various student cohorts, and these will be important in the formation process. But we will also need to use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous virtual platforms through which we can cultivate and consolidate our sense of being a learning community.
Third, faculty will need to undergo a significant paradigm shift. We will need to realize that we are no longer the primary source of formation for three years in the lives of our students. Of course, we are well aware that context and community life were always part of the “silent curriculum,” even when our students spent three consecutive years on campus in Lebanon. But now, more than ever, as faculty we will need to be aware that our students exist in local communities that are significantly different both from each other and from our own. Much of the impact of those elements on their leadership formation – both good and bad – will be inevitable and largely outside our control.

There follows a fourth important point, which is that our students’ local communities have also been affected and changed by this year’s crises, and they will continue to be so. As faculty, we will need to be constantly aware of this and ask ourselves how these changes are affecting our students’ own lives.

Fifth, although many of us on ABTS faculty have become fairly versed in the process of collaborative learning through a dialogical classroom that draws insight and context from each student’s own background, the questions from their contexts will now become paramount. We should hardly dare to author the learning questions unilaterally from here on. The immediacy of the questions of our students’ daily-lived reality will need to drive the orientation of learning. Theological formation will need to consist of a sort of real-life problem-solving process. Our students will not have the luxury of processing theological information, pending application every nine months in the summer or three years later. Their processing of theological information will now be driven, on the fly, by the immediacy of ministry challenges.

Sixth and finally, whereas for 60 years we have had the luxury of drawing students all the way from Morocco to Iraq, from Yemen to Kurdistan, into our classrooms, the major paradigm shift we have to come to terms with is that we are now to let ourselves be drawn into the context and community of our students. And this process of being drawn in will have to take place both virtually – for now – and actually once travel resumes in a post-pandemic world.

Life is a series of attachments, losses, and grief cycles. Those who have learned to suffer well know that healthy grieving is key to new life. When our leadership team began to get together through a series of virtual calls to address the implications of the pandemic on our seminary last March, we quickly reached a strong communal sense that God was about to undertake a series of fundamental changes among us, some of which we knew had been overdue. The most significant among these, perhaps, was our knowledge that our world had reached such a high point of transformation through the rise of social media and virtuality over the past 15 years that the traditional model of residential theological education was no longer viable. The COVID-19 crisis has pushed the world to the limits of its coping mechanism, and in many cases, people and organizations have been driven over the edge. But for those sensitive enough to the leading of the Holy Spirit, I believe that it is at this fragile liminal point that, in a retrospective future, we will discern a significant moment of the church’s transformation, growth, and maturity.