Good News in a World of Pandemic

Tim Sensing, Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Theology


While the pandemic is far from over for various people both nationally and internationally (∆ variant), several innovative practices emerged for corporations, media, congregations, and other social and political relationships. Take for example, Thanatechnology. Thanatechnology is a new word for me but it is not a new experience. As I watched the Zoom memorial service of the most influential person in my spiritual journey, I felt disconnected. Yet, travel restrictions constrained me in heart wrenching ways. “Surely,” I thought, “this temporary, expedient, and impersonal approach to death and dying would be short-lived.” I am wrong. The forthcoming new book The Soul Online: Bereavement, Social Media, and Competent Care by Graham Joseph Hill and Desiree Geldenhuys is but one example how the digital world innovatively moves a field beyond the standard ways of being. The Soul Online not only rehearses how social media engages issues of death and dying, it provides wise counsel to pastors and other caring professions about ethical and efficacious practices for the digital care of souls. The pandemic accelerated the change in the field of bereavement.

The speed of change and progress are signs of our secular age (à la Charles Taylor). The pandemic accelerated innovation in many domains. The flood waters swelling at the dam before the pandemic finally burst forth without hindrance. What may have taken several years to accomplish otherwise, happened overnight. Some of these changes were inevitable and welcomed. The underbrush was cleaned out. The deadwood was removed and washed away. Sunlight spurring new growth filtered through.

So too, with the Graduate School of Theology here at ACU.

In 2009, the GST introduced a new curricular philosophy that focused on contextual theology as the primary paradigm to think about relational and formative graduate education. The new curriculum engaged residential practices with innovation and care. The overarching practices of spiritual life, community, wisdom, and mission guided all aspects of the redesign. Over the next few years, the GST added a more robust distance education component that culminated in our partnership with ACU-Dallas. We believed strongly that the GST embraced a “one program with two modalities” model for theological education.

However, cracks were appearing in this foundation before the pandemic. Distance education practices primarily were additives to a residential model, for example. The pressures to adapt and assimilate to the changing digital landscape of a pandemic exposed these cracks as major fissures. The fact that we were serving two student constituencies with two modalities sent seismic tremors through our system. Yes, changes were coming and plans were simmering for new curricular structures (2009 is ancient history in many ways), but the pandemic propelled the GST forward. While our commitment to relational and formative theological education that is contextually based remains intact, embracing contextual education as the fulcrum of our service to theological education also spurs us to instantiate new ways of doing a very ancient practice of training others for ministry (2 Tim 2:2).

No one wanted a pandemic. All of us were adversely affected and can name precious people in our lives who were crushed by its economic and social effects. All of us can name names at the graveside, in memorial, or still suffering long-haul physical and emotional pain. Nevertheless, we also experienced grace in unexpected ways.

The Good News in a pandemic world, in part, is that people, organizations, congregations, and schools like the GST engaged in new conceptualizations and reconstructions that engage its constituencies in new ways. My PhD dissertation embraced the concept “Churches give birth to ministers. No one really learns how to be an effective minister in the classroom alone.” I’ve been pursuing that concept throughout my entire 23 years at ACU. Educational systems and churches that abdicate their responsibility to train the next generation of ministers erect barriers for future generations. Free church traditions especially have a poor track record for taking responsibility for training its future leadership. While the waters swelled against those barriers prior to the pandemic, the water is now flowing over. That ineffable dream of churches partnering with schools to train the next generation is closer to reality than ever before. In the next few months and years, stay tuned for ways you as an individual or your congregation can engage our students as mentors and contextual partners. The GST will initiate new partnerships for the training of ministers in our ever-changing world.