A popular program in lay theological education is undergoing its first major revision in 15 years to help participants better navigate today’s diverse theological landscape.
Education for Ministry (EfM), a program of the University of the South’s School of Theology, will no longer rely on a single guidebook to introduce students to biblical texts, Church history, theology, and ethics. Starting in September, EfM will add eight textbooks to its curriculum, which students follow in a four-year period.
“There’s been a complaint in the past that perhaps EfM was a little on the liberal side,” said Karen Meridith, EfM’s executive director. “Now the broad spectrum of the church will find ways to come into the study. … The extreme ends may still be unhappy that it’s not as extreme as they’d like it to be in one direction or the other, but I feel that our calling is to be a program for the broad church.”
EfM helps Christians learn the craft of reflecting theologically on their lives, careers, and callings. Around the world, 1,400 groups of six to 12 participants do the program by gathering weekly for nine months of the year. In any given year, 8,000 individuals take part, including 7,000 in the United States.
Participants discuss readings, share prayer concerns as well as worship, and learn with a mentor’s help how to discern God’s calling. After receiving their certificates commemorating four years of study, some students continue to the diaconate or priesthood, but most continue in lay careers in fields from business to nursing and teaching.
This year’s changes mark only the latest of several revisions to EfM, which has been evolving since inception in 1975. Since that time, 80,000 have taken part in some capacity and 35,000 have graduated with certificates.
This revision is necessary in part, Meridith said, to expose students to the most recent biblical and theological scholarship. Revision also will help the church in a time of polarization.
Too often dialogue fails, she said, because one person’s self-expression may trigger another to assume insurmountable differences.
But with deeper understanding of origins and emphases in theological terms, such as born again and orthodox, Christians better appreciate what binds them together.
“To be critical of where our own particular statements are coming from, and be able to really listen to what another person is saying, is of deep value in this program,” Meridith says. “We need to understand that the particular context that we come out of sometimes colors the way we talk about these things.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald