From the Gettysburg PO by
President Michael L. Cooper-White
Well, we’ve done it again! In mid-March I received the following notification by email: “I am pleased to announce that Lutheran Theological Seminary has been selected as a winner of the 2012 Best of Gettysburg Awards in the Seminary category by the US Commerce Association (USCA).” Now, to be transparent for any who don’t know our local situation, it so happens that we are the ONLY Seminary in Gettysburg, but that fact notwithstanding, it’s good to get this annual pat on the back from USCA. The only remaining decision now is whether or not we should shell out $200 in order to receive our official recognition plaque and crystal award.
Of course, I write the above opening paragraph tongue-in-cheek. Being deemed “best” at anything where one is also “only” carries scant significance. Far more helpful and affirming is feedback and assessment from those who have true expertise and a basis on which to compare our institution with its peers. In our case, as a school of graduate-level education, the feedback received this past year from a team bearing responsibilities to recommend our continuing unqualified accreditation has proven helpful in our ongoing quest to be the strongest possible school of theological education and leadership formation. To gain additional advice and counsel as to how we may further strengthen our “offer,” from time to time we engage expert outside consultants. Like most schools, we find this especially critical in areas like endowment management and investment, and our development or fund-raising and communication ministries.
For me, some of the most valuable feedback of all comes from those most directly on the “receiving end” of our work—namely, current students and the Seminary’s hundreds of alumni/ae. As I write this piece, I’m amidst a round of visits with alumni, including witnessing a couple of them in their current parish contexts. In the course of such visits with our alums, often over lunch or a cup of coffee, sooner or later I steer the conversation in the direction of soliciting feedback as to how well they felt prepared for their ministries by their time spent at LTSG. In general, as you might imagine, the feedback is positive and Seminary graduates are grateful for their education and formation on Seminary Ridge, in the Washington Consortium, through their internships and other field education experiences.
Feedback, evaluation, assessment—whatever name we might call this kind of information on how well we’re doing—must, of course, be sifted and weighed in terms of its value for ongoing planning and possible rebalancing of emphases and priorities. In some cases, where an area of instruction is deemed insufficient by an alumnus/a out of school for 30 years or more, I can respond that things are very different in the Seminary of 2012. All faculty members in all areas have changed since some of our alums sat in classrooms on the hill. While broad outlines of the curriculum have remained fairly constant for several generations, course syllabi and the nature of pedagogy have changed fairly radically in many ways. In this regard, feedback from alumni/ae of the past decade or so can be especially helpful, since their evaluation is more current and helps us assess the effectiveness of the current faculty, curriculum and overall formational trajectory. I also value highly, and share with the faculty, staff and our Board of Directors insights gained each year from a round of senior lunches held at my home. During the course of these table gatherings with those about to graduate, colleagues and I ask what our seniors most cherish about their time at LTSG, and also seek their counsel regarding areas in which we can strengthen our ministry and further enhance our offer for those who will come after them.
Looking back over the course of my ministry thus far, I think my musings about gaining helpful feedback on our work at the Seminary are applicable in most contexts. Whether we solicit it or not, all of us involved in public ministry receive some measure of feedback all the time. And it must be sifted, weighed and evaluated in terms of its value in suggesting significant changes or minor course corrections. Lavish praise about our wonderful sermons can feel so good! In many cases it’s deserved. And it must be balanced by our own self-reflection, and perhaps occasional solicitation of feedback from those who tend to be more critical and perhaps more discerning. By the same token, getting blasted by a handful of persistent trouble-makers needs to be balanced by clinging to the positive assessment that often goes unspoken by those one politician some years ago referred to as “the silent majority.”
I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of evaluation and assessment occurring within the context of good planning and goal-setting. If there are no criteria by which one’s work is to be evaluated, then it may be better not to start down the assessment road at all. This recognition has been driving our faculty to give a great deal of attention in recent times to sharpening expectations for evaluating students’ work, as well as soliciting and sifting feedback on our own pedagogical effectiveness.
Among its many dimensions, Lent has traditionally been viewed as a time for assessment, reflection, self-evaluation and deepening our personal and communal commitments. In these last days of this Lenten season, may we all be led by God’s Spirit as we prayerfully sift, sort and strive to be faithful.