A Kairos Moment for Theological Education in the ELCA: Reflections on TEAC from the Margins


[1] During my childhood my father used to talk about the rapidly changing times through a cartoon he saw. In Paris, a man was running with a new dress he bought for his wife so it would not become out of fashion by the time he reached home. Today we are living in rapidly and radically changing times. Science, technology and especially the tele-communications revolution are changing our lives beyond our imagination. In a letter dated October 5th 2015, responding to the ELCA Theological Education Advisory Committee’s (TEAC) report, the Conference of Bishops stated that: “We are at a Kairos1 moment for theological education in the ELCA.” Further, the Bishops commended the work of TEAC: “We are appreciative of the strong openness to imaginative and deep change that TEAC taskforce report has generated.”2 Over the past 5 years the findings and recommendations of TEAC (which later became an advisory committee) have directly or indirectly impacted and influenced the theological environment, theological ecology, new conversations and new initiatives for theological education in ELCA seminaries. The purpose of this article is to raise questions and offer a few reflections on TEAC from the margins: What is TEAC? What is its purpose? In what ways has the plan outlined by TEAC been beneficial for theological education in the ELCA? How will TEAC impact the ELCA’s TEEM programs (Theological Education for Emerging Ministry)? How does TEAC address the dreams and aspirations of people of color in our church? And finally how can TEAC be a resource in moving forward? 3

[2] One of the vital signs of the ELCA as a living Church, in my experience and assessment, has been our church’s constant engagement in critical study, research, reflection, and creative rethinking to make Lutheran theology relevant and meaningful to its context. Through such engagement the ELCA continues to strive to make the Lutheran tradition alive in the world for the sake of the Gospel. It is evident that the growing diversity of faiths and cultures in our society, combined with very complex issues of justice and equity, and the impact of science and technology (both positive and negative) on social, political, economic, environmental and religious spheres are creating an urgency for all faith traditions to redefine, rethink and reinterpret faith and culture in the present postcolonial, postmodern and post Christendom era. This is especially true of Christianity, Lutheranism included, because of its implication in the colonial, western, imperialistic project.

[3] The following reflection engages three of our church’s efforts to think about and do theology in that vein: the formation of leaders through the TEEM process, the work of TEAC, and a few insights from the ELCA’s Theological Roundtable (TRT).4 In conclusion I share my reflections about how theological education can get closer to its ideal of being life-giving and helping us get closer to achieving our God-given potential to become fully human. My reflections are based on my engagement and experience in theological education as director of the TEEM program at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary of California Lutheran University and as a member of the Theological Roundtable which has dedicated time to conversations and concerns about TEAC and its implementation.

1. Theological Education for Emerging Ministries TEEM 5

[4] TEEM (Theological Education for Emerging Ministries) is an example of how the Lutheran movement in our North American context is finding new ways to form leaders so that the church can continue to confess, witness, proclaim, teach and learn as the living body of the crucified and risen Christ here and now. “Always being made new,” as the motto for the ELCA Campaign proclaims we are gathered, renewed and sent out to be light, always struggling to become a better church together, striving to play a positive transformative role in society, being a sign of hope, working for the justice of the kingdom of God which includes all creation. The emerging ministries of the ELCA help the church get closer to that goal because of the great diversity of ministries they represent, crossing racial and ethnic boundaries but also reaching across cultures, denominations and even faith traditions. In this way theological education for emerging ministries complements the traditional model followed by our seminaries as one organic body providing various means of theological, intellectual, spiritual, and vocational formation for ministry. However, regardless of whether it takes place in a seminary classroom or in an emerging ministry setting, our experience has taught us that theological education is more effective when it takes shape in active context. The TEEM model of theological formation, based on a pedagogy of action/reflection/action offers the ELCA a challenge and an opportunity to change in radically new and imaginative ways how we prepare leaders to do theology and ministry with and among all God’s people.

[5] When the ELCA became a unified body of three traditions – AELC, LCA and ALC, it recognized the need to embrace diversity and create inclusive communities that intentionally welcome into the church people of color not only as members but also as leaders. With such a vision of inclusivity, and understanding the particular challenges and realities faced by many people of color wanting to seek theological formation to serve the church, the Church Council authorized TEEM as a pathway to address those challenges:

Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) is a leadership formation process in the ELCA designed for those who meet the established criteria. Authorized in the ELCA Constitution (7:31.14) and described in the Study of Ministry (2003), the Study of Theological Education (1993; 1995), and the ELCA’s Plan for Mission adopted at the 2003 Churchwide Assembly, the TEEM process responds to ministry needs of the ELCA.6

Though we are yet to reach the goal of bringing more diversity into the church, the ELCA affirms that TEEM has equipped both the church and seminaries to rethink and restructure theological pedagogy since through this way of teaching and learning, the seminary goes to church and the church goes to seminary. Through TEEM, the church teaches and learns ways of “doing” theology and ministry in a collaborative pedagogy of action-reflection-action.

[6] This form of education that is integrated into specific ministry contexts creates the type of learning and equipping of leaders that communities need to live faithfully into God’s mission. TEEM is one of the best ways to prepare leaders because through it the whole church engages in teaching and learning and preparation for ministry. In today’s scenario of education, especially the scenario of theological education, TEEM will continue to play an important role. While there are many ways of doing theology and preparing for pastoral leadership, TEEM has the advantage that it puts at the student’s disposal use of resources from the ministry context, seminary campus, peers (TEEM cohort), pastors who play a significant role as academic mentors, and teaching faculty in the classroom. Finally, by making use of cost effective approaches to theological formation while maintaining good academic standards, TEEM has allowed us to raise well equipped leaders for the church and the society.

2. Theological Education Advisory Committee

[7] Consider the following quote from Marion Eggert in reference to Christopher A. Bayly’s, The Birth of the Modern World:

In his history of the ‘Birth of Modern World,’ C. A. Bayly describes a tendency towards greater architectural uniformity of religious buildings throughout Eurasia, leading to a dominance of “the Arabic mosque style” as well as the “central Indian style of Hindu Temple” and the “late Qin Confucian temple style” in the later Nineteenth century. He goes on to show that this “diffusion of styles” was the result of contact although not necessarily “a reaction to the expansion of Christendom.7

Now the tables have turned! The Christian tradition has to respond to the emergence of diverse cultures and faith traditions. Today the world’s faith traditions are recognizing the need to respond not just to one dominant faith tradition (like it was the case with Christendom in the 19th century) but to the pertinent issues that are urgent and common to all communities of faith. In my opinion, TEAC is a good example of how the ELCA is committed to respond to the emergence of global and local issues in a prophetic way to transform ourselves and the whole world for justice and truth and not for power and domination.

[8] TEAC (Theological Education Advisory Committee) was authorized by the ELCA Church Council in 2013 with a purpose to address in a comprehensive way issues of theological education, leadership development, candidacy, call and rostered leaders. In her opening report to the Council, ELCA Presiding Bishop, Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, said: “We’re taking a look at the need for theological education as well as the way we deliver theological education across this church.”

[9] With the above agenda in mind, TEAC initiated an asset mapping with strong support by Research and Evaluation and professional services. TEAC identified various important factors of culture and environment in ELCA. The report and recommendations of TEAC to the Church Council are found on the ELCA website. Among many findings TEAC has made important contributions by identifying the following and enabling the church to address the same:

  1. Naming the gap TEAC has identified between the office of word and sacrament served by ordained pastors and the ministry of word and service carried out by deacons and lay leaders.
  2. Identifying the need to create one roster for Word and Sacrament and Word and Service. TEAC recognized the need to create one roster that is inclusive and recognize the many forms of ministry in the world fostered by various types of leadership.
  3. Addressing the financial issues and burden of the seminaries and students for theological education. TEAC highlighted the challenges the seminaries have been facing, especially the students carrying heavy debt which impacts their leadership and the communities they serve.
  4. Addressing the need to make the ELCA embrace diversity, TEAC recognized the need to make our seminaries and churches diverse. However, it has not yet been successful since the majority of ELCA is still predominantly white.

[10] Introducing the working group’s proposal to the council, the Rev. Dr. Robin J. Steinke, president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, co-chair of TEAC and a member of the working group, described a leading question received during TEAC’s work: “What does the mission of the gospel require of us to do in this time for the sake of the mission of the church?” Bishop’s Eaton answer is that: “If we want to become truly multicultural, we have to be honest about racial injustice in our church and in our nation. That’s how we start.” She further added that: “I think this is probably the most difficult and among the most critical things that we do as a church.”8

3. Theological Round Table and TEAC

[11] Perhaps one of the groups in the ELCA that is best suited to help the Presiding Bishop, the Church Council and the church in general to deal with this “most difficult question” is the Theological Roundtable. As stated above, the Roundtable is an annual meeting where each official theological network of the ELCA sends two representatives with the following objectives in mind:

  • To provide a means and mechanism for “inter-group” sharing that affirms theological diversity and the polyphonic witness of the gospel, and that promotes theological dialogue, as well as deeper understanding and communal discernment.
  • To build relationships that help avoid theological alienation and fragmentation.
  • To promote project collaboration, communication and coordination between and among conversational groups.
  • To foster a culture of theological discernment throughout the ELCA.
  • To encourage the communal identification and development of theological leadership.
  • To provide advice and counsel to the ELCA and the Theological Discernment Team as requested.9

[12] Over the past 4 years, I have had the privilege and honor to represent the Asian International Lutheran Conference (ALIC) at the Theological Roundtable and had various opportunities to review and reflect on the TEAC reports and recommendations. My reflections here are based on my own understanding of discussions at those Roundtable (TRT) meetings, and with thanks for the minutes taken by Heather Dean.10 The TEAC process was initiated by the ELCA Church Council in 2013, with a call “to consider how our interdependent network of theological education providers can best serve the church as it seeks to address in a holistic manner, issues in leadership development, theological education, candidacy and call, and the rosters of this church.”11 Given TEAC’s recognition that many networks for education and theology already exist in the ELCA, it seemed quite appropriate that a “network of networks,” namely, the Theological Roundtable, devote time for conversation on the TEAC process as it unfolds. Seven networks and the Conference of Bishops compose the Theological Roundtable supported by the Office of the Presiding Bishop. Member networks include: Asian Lutheran International Conference (ALIC), Association of Teaching Theologians (ATT), Conference of Bishops (COB), Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL), Latinx Lutheran Scholars, Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology (LAFST), Lutheran Ethicists (LE), Lutheran Women in Theological and Religious Studies (LWTRS), and American Indians/Alaska Natives engaged in formal theological education. The ELCA Theological Roundtable was created to foster intentional theological sharing and cross-fertilization across network boundaries and social location groupings within the Lutheran tradition and vocation.12

TEAC and Feedback from TRT: Network of Networks

[13] Below I offer an overview of the conversations on TEAC that have happened at the Roundtable meetings dedicated to that topic.

  • Those from the Native American/American Indian community present at the meeting expressed that the church needs to take the recommendations of TEAC seriously and implement them. They see hope around having several different nodes in a network. Something akin to a House of Studies would be great—a place where Native people can do theological education in their context and cultural worldview. It doesn’t need to be geographically bound, though that would be ideal.
  • Other members expressed the need for TEAC to recognize the impact of science on ethical questions, to respect the vocation of scientists in the congregations as resources for the church and to intentionally engage them and scientific perspectives in theological education.
  • Asian Lutherans, who celebrate unity in diversity, highlighted that the church should be more welcoming to the theological perspective offered by Asian Lutheran theologians, regarding the richness of pluralism, spirituality and ecumenical openness to faiths and cultures especially in the contexts of Asia and the Pacific.
  • The need for TEAC to address the use of science and technology in faith formation and Christian witness, and the role that values must play making wise use of science and technology was also discussed.
  • The Latinx Lutheran Scholars challenged TEAC and the ELCA to recognize that racial and ethnic diversity is of the essence of the church, not an addendum.
  • The Conference of Bishops’ (COB) representatives recognized the need to address systemic issues with seminaries. Theological education happens in formal and informal ways, sometimes sponsored by congregations, often by informal groups of people. COB recognizes and supports multicultural and interfaith initiatives to make the church more prophetic and alive.
  • CIBL promotes diverse models and patterns of witness and formation. “Black”, “brown”, “white”, “yellow” and all people of God in the world, a vision radically different from the vision of church which is predominantly monocultural and white.
  • LWTRS shared with the group that the LWF recently approved a policy to encourage communion member churches to address issues of gender justice in ways that are sensitive to the local contexts while also remaining faithful to the gospel’s demand for gender justice. The 45th Anniversary of Women’s ordination provides a good opportunity to address issues of gender justice in theological education. For example, it is appalling that over 1/3 of women reported experiencing sexual assaults at seminaries and in the call process! Additionally, the principles articulated in the LWF document could help guide curriculum conversations on how to get gender analysis in the curriculum overall.
  • ATT representatives pointed out that there is a need for diversity of theological and cultural expressions in the “ecology” of theological education in order to have a healthy “theological ecosystem.” Furthermore, we must also recover the view of the theologian not only as a teacher and trainer of future rostered leaders for the church but also as a spiritual leader and public intellectual.

[14] Overall, TRT took time to welcome and reflect on the report and recommendations of TEAC and expressed its desire to engage in similar conversations again.


[15] One of our students at PLTS, an accomplished physician, discerned her call for ministry by limiting her medical vocation and studying theology to serve as a pastor in the ELCA. When asked why she would leave a lustrous position and embrace the call of pastoral ministry, her reply was, “I want to study theology to be fully human.” There is growing interest among many today to study theology, to critically reflect on tradition and culture, to find true meaning and purpose in life. Seminaries have a greater call to address this need for theological education. As an Asian Lutheran theologian, I share an insight from an ancient faith tradition. In Confucianism, moral education is integral to the scientific spirit and vice versa. Education, especially moral education enables the individual to cultivate self-realization which, according to Xinzhong Yao is “to become fully human through embodiment of the qualities of neishen (inner sage-liness) and waiwang (outer kindliness).13 Theological education could inculcate critical and vital attributes in those doing theology and enable them for self-realization of their being in relationship to all the life and become fully human. What he says about Confusion education also applies to Christian Theological formation:

The purpose of Confucian education is not only to transmit and develop knowledge but also to deliver and apply values. Confucian learning is seldom meant to be merely a scholarly exercise. It has a wide practical extension and employs tools to help students put into practice the doctrinal understanding of the individual, family, community, and society; the core of values fostering a spirit of self-discipline, family solidarity, public morality and social responsibility.14

[16] For a long time, as a pastor, I thought I had complete self-realization, that I was fully aware of myself. I thought that I already was fully human. In preparing for a sermon on the theme “One True Humanity,” on Ephesians 2:15, I read a commentary by Paul Nuechterlein that changed my perspective. Referring to Walter Wink (1935-2012), a pastor, biblical scholar, a political activist and civil rights movement leader who wrote the memoir Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, he said the following:

And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. 15

[17] Theological education rooted in scripture and tradition, engaged in the struggles of life for justice, involved in celebrating life in abundance is what is most needed in today’s context. We as “only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human” are at a true Kairos moment in the ELCA.

Moses Penumaka

Moses Penumaka is director of Theological Education for Emerging Ministries at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.