Ministry Essentials Cohort Begins 2nd Semester

dsc03493Sonoran Theological Group’s first Ministry Essentials Cohort kicked off its second semester of study last week with the classes Introduction to the New Testament and Theology and Why It Matters.

The cohort started last January with five students committing to engage academically with the Bible, gain foundational content knowledge, and to “translate” that learning.

“People in ministry are the great translators,” said STG Director of Operations Cory Peacock. “You’re translating Old Testament to your congregation. You’re translating systematic theology to the kids in your youth group. You’re translating practical theology to the kid at the single mothers‘ home.”

Last spring, STG guided students through two classes, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Issues in Human Development, this past spring. As a final project, the students combined their learning from each portion of the semester to create four lessons that could be part of a curriculum for a Sunday school, small group, or other class.

dsc03472Candice Tolliver works as a child nutrition compliance and site specialist and said she was especially intrigued by the Issues in Human Development class.

“It has opened up this new door of how to do ministry and see them where they are,” she said.

With the first cohort’s second semester underway, plans are now coming together for the start of a second cohort in January 2017.

“It is clear that what we are doing is one of several radical re-envisionings of theological education,” Peacock said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘The old models aren’t working. Let’s try something else.’ Ours is one of those interesting models.”

Ash Wednesday 2016

Today’s post is written by a friend of the Sonoran Theological Group, Matt Marino. Matt is the Associate Rector at The Church of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. Be sure to check out his own blog, The Gospel Side.


Ash-Wednesday-Forehead-1Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see them, please resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which we are charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)


What is Lent?

Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to a season of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the 40 days before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)


Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century. In 1091, Pope Urban II declared official the practice that the faithful would receive ashes on the first day of the Lent.


What’s the point?

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions – like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through his Son, Jesus. We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.


What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

They are usually brief. If you attend an Ash Wednesday service you will hear Biblical passages calling people to repentance read, have ashes imposed on your forehead with the counter-cultural words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Then Holy Communion is celebrated.

Afterward people spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. Self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the commemoration of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.


Can I come check out a service?

By all means! You do not need to be a member. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized we invite you forward, arms crossed, to receive a blessing). Be sure to ask the church you attend about its communion and Ash Wednesday traditions.


The best thing about learning biblical Hebrew


Do you want to know the best thing about learning to read biblical Hebrew? I’ll tell you my thoughts on that, but give me one or two quick paragraphs for context. 

I have taught biblical Hebrew 16 years to students of varying levels and abilities. It is one of my favorite things to do professionally or otherwise. I have lost track of how many students I have taught; it is certainly in the hundreds. For almost every one of them, there has come a moment when the light comes on, that spark of understanding where, even if the level of Hebrew comprehension remains basic, an insight into the Hebrew Bible touches them anew. Words they have read once, twice, or a dozen times before suddenly feel alive and powerful – not necessarily for the first time, but at the right time. When I am lucky enough to be present for that moment, it is wonderful to behold.

When I raise this subject, most people assume that this moment is the result of a particular lexical or grammatical insight. Perhaps students finally read something in the original language that is not conveyed well in our English translations. Or maybe, the breadth of meaning in the Hebrew word allows for connections that one would never envision in another language. The basic notion behind all these variations is that some specific knowledge of Hebrew can be gained that opens new worlds to those without Hebrew.

I would never deny such a notion. Yet, I do not think that this is exactly what happens in those wonderful eye opening moments.

The best thing that happens in learning to read Hebrew… you. slow. down.

You cannot read as fast and struggle more with every word. But wait, you say. Could I not do that in English? Well, gentle reader, you could, but I cannot assure you that the same thing would happen. And here is why.

It certainly IS that you slow down that is helpful, but more importantly is WHY you slow down. Biblical Hebrew is not your native language. It is no one’s native language, really. So you slow down as you try to put together these webs of meaning between each word and its neighbor. The semantic connections of a word in Hebrew are not necessarily the same as the semantic connections of the “equivalent” word in English. One example is the word “jealous” (קנא) in Hebrew. It can have a sense of being zealous for something or support (see The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament). This is not a typical understanding of the word “jealous” in English. The Hebrew possibility works better in a context like Zechariah 1.14 – “So the angel who talked with me said to me, Proclaim this message: Thus says the Lord of hosts; I am very jealous / zealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.”

Even the deeper understanding of the Hebrew word, קנא, is not the point. The point is that when someone comes to that word in the Hebrew text, all one’s presuppositions about how this word interacts with its neighbors must be set aside. You cannot just assume that it would be the same in our English language – a language far different linguistically than Hebrew and separated by centuries upon centuries. Try as you might, you can never replicate that level of slowing down by doing this exclusively in English. Your mind will automatically make connections for you. And that will reinforce your understanding of the Bible as you already knew it.

But reading the Bible in Hebrew… THAT challenges your presuppositions, your reading, and everything you think you know about the Bible and the nice tidy box you put it in. That is why slowing down to read the Bible is the very best thing you do when you read the Bible in Hebrew.

And that is why I’m so jealous / zealous for my students when they experience it for the first time.

Top 5 Ways You Benefit from Theological Education

OldBooksMaybe someone in your church has recently told you that you should be a pastor. Or perhaps, you’ve felt the stirring of your spirit in your devotional reading of the Bible and during your prayer time. Or maybe you’ve always known you were meant to serve God’s kingdom but haven’t yet begun your journey.

So seminary is the next stop, right? Well, maybe. While theological education does not necessarily imply seminary, we would not talk someone out of that path. Theological education can take several forms. In fact, the Sonoran Theological Group offers a formal alternative to seminary education called the Ministry Essentials Program that focuses on practical preparation for ministry.

Before you choose where to go for theological education, you might want to consider the ways you benefit from theological education. Here we list our Top Five Ways You Benefit from Theological Education.

1. You get First-hand Knowledge

So often in the church we rely on the knowledge of someone else. Our parents and grandparents teach us the ways in which we should walk. Elders in the church provide us with role models. Our Sunday school teachers tell us how to understand biblical texts and how to behave like a proper Christian.

At some point, you begin to realize that second-hand knowledge of the Bible, of theology, of the Christian life, and of God, is not enough. One of the best ways in which you benefit from undertaking formal theological education is that the “second-hand knowledge” gets augmented with FIRST-hand knowledge. You get to read the texts and commentaries yourself. You dig into the history of the church and the thoughts of the church mothers and fathers. Everything your church family has told you about, everything you’ve wished you could think about, you get to explore for yourself when you engage in theological education.

This first point is such a benefit, we almost don’t need to continue. But continue we will, because we promised you a Top Five. So you’re getting a Top Five.

2. You get to Ask Your Questions 

Closely related to point number one is this: you get to ask the questions you didn’t think you could ask in church. We’ve all read those passages in the Bible that make us stop and ask, “what was that?!?” For some of us, asking questions about those passages got us in trouble or trite answers or both.

Well, my father used to say, “If God is God, He can stand the questions.” Fortunately, most formal theological education works on a similar premise: bring your best questions; let’s explore them! So, instead of being forced to ignore the difficulties we encounter in the Bible and theology, theological education is the very place you get to wrestle with them.

3. You get to Be Surprised

First year Bible or seminary students often enter formal theological education thinking that they will have their beliefs affirmed… just as they are. Surprise! Surprise!! That’s not exactly what theological education is about. You will learn things you never knew about. That’s why it’s called education. Most of those students make it through that initial challenge and embrace the surprises that come. A few give up in frustration, which is too bad.

The best part, though, for those who make it past that initial challenge, is the way in which the whole world opens up. You study the Bible from ways and perspectives that you never knew were possible. You read theology from people you had never heard of before. You dive into history and learn about events and people that have shaped our understanding of God, even if they were forgotten by most of us.

Without formal theological education, we struggle to find the good stuff. An Amazon search only gets you so far. Studying with theological educators puts you at the precipice of a whole wide world of study… if you’re up for the inevitable surprises that will come.

4. You get a Community

This one has two facets. The first is this: theological education is a somewhat different beast that other educational ventures. There is a closeness that often, though not always, comes from studying and speaking of God and the Bible that does not form in other places. The friends you make will be yours for life. As you go off into ministry, when you need to think something through, you have a host of colleagues whom you can approach. Community like this often happens in formal theological educational settings. It doesn’t happen as easily elsewhere.

The second facet is this: theology and the Bible are hard. That’s a good thing. If it were easy, there’d be little point in pursuing it. But because it is hard, we need a community in which we can talk it out. Have you ever had that thought in your head that is clearly brilliant and solves everything? Then you go to explain it to your best friend, but she (or he) looks at you like you have two heads? Yeah. Theology and the Bible are like that. We think we have everything so clear in our heads. Community and conversation force us to articulate those thoughts, to test them against reality, against other believers, and against previous ideas. In so doing, we can grow beyond ourselves because we don’t see the holes in our own ideas. A community can reflect that back to us, and, as iron sharpens iron, make us stronger.

5. You get Personal Enrichment

Before theological education is about serving God’s kingdom and preparing yourself for ministry, it is about your journey with God. Formal theological education allows you the opportunity to dig deep into your faith, ask the questions you need to ask, and engage God at newer and deeper levels than you would have ever done if left to your own devices.

Part of the personal enrichment you gain from theological education comes from doing things you never would have chosen for yourself, in submitting yourself to a regimen not of your choosing. But again, that’s what education is about, isn’t it? Growing beyond yourself? Learning what you didn’t know? Seeing new horizons and new perspectives?

Each of these five things is predicated on the notion that the theological education is done well, of course. In a sense, then, these are both the benefits of theological education and the very markers of good theological education. Or, in other words, how do you know if you’re in a good program? You’ll know you are if you see these benefits.

So, those are our Top Five Ways You Benefit from Theological Education. Let us know if you agree or would have added something else. We’d love to hear from you.




Does anybody need Ministry Essentials? Part 5: Yes

MEClogoThis January 2016, the Sonoran Theological Group is beginning its first Ministry Essentials Cohort, providing practical preparation for ministry for 15-20 women and men in the Valley. If you want the Essential elements of ministry preparation, be sure to join us. Information for the program can be found here.

This week we’re answering the question: “does anybody really need Ministry Essentials?”

If you missed our previous entries in the series, take one of the links:

So, for the last time in this series, we ask: “does anyone need Ministry Essentials?”

Sonoran Theological Group thinks the answer is YES.

The question motivating this series all along hasn’t been ‘does anyone need Ministry Essentials,’ but ‘who needs Ministry Essentials.’ Of course some people will be best suited for traditional seminaries, and others will be perfectly satisfied in local church discipleship programs. But there is a significant and growing segment of the church community who needs something that isn’t offered just anywhere. There is a gap in theological education. The Ministries Essentials Cohort fills that gap. This cohort has been designed for a couple types of people. Here are a few of those categories.

The Ministry Essentials Cohort is for those ready to begin ministry. If you’re considering entering ministry but have no formal training, the Ministry Essentials Cohort will provide for you that foundation to begin your ministry in a strong and sustainable way.

The Ministry Essentials Cohort is for those already in ministry but want support, or assurance, or new layers of depth. We all need some support. Whether that is a little more theory to undergird our practice, or some time for guided reflection, or a community in which to sit and learn some new ideas, the Ministry Essentials Cohort can be that place for you.

The Ministry Essentials Cohort is for those who want to serve inside the church as elders or deacons. The essentials you will take away with you from the Ministry Essentials Cohort provide a way for you to participate in Kingdom work within your church context, supporting your pastor and serving your fellow church-goers.

The Ministry Essentials Cohort is for those who don’t want to go “into the ministry,” but want to see their whole lives as ministry. Vocational ministry, or “tent-making,” has received renewed focus from the Christian community at large as full-time ministry positions become less common in the 21st century. Many also recognize that ministry takes place outside of church walls and, while they are very important, lead pastors are not the only ones called to minister in God’s Kingdom. The Ministry Essentials Cohort prepares you for a life of ministry, for whatever context you choose to engage.

Does anybody need Ministry Essentials? Yes. A whole bunch of people need it. In fact, many of us need it more than ever. The Ministry Essentials Cohort fills that gap for those of us who want to do ministry in new and broader and better ways than we’ve done it before.

Join us.

Does anybody need Ministry Essentials? Part 4: Learning Together

MEClogoThis January 2016, the Sonoran Theological Group is beginning its first Ministry Essentials Cohort, providing practical preparation for ministry for 15-20 women and men in the Valley. If you want the Essential elements of ministry preparation, be sure to join us. Information for the program can be found here.

This week we’re answering the question: “does anybody really need Ministry Essentials?” If you missed our previous entries in the series, you can see Part I, Part 2, and Part 3 via these links.

So what is another response to the question: does anybody really need Ministry Essentials?

Hypothetical Response #4: No. I can get everything I need, from classes to commentaries to community, online.

As we discussed yesterday, there are more resources online than ever before. Google can provide you with resources aplenty within moments. Many of those resources are free. But how do you decide which resources are good? That is a problem. Our response, today, though is less about your ability to vet resources and more about the isolation that comes from preparing for ministry online.

Online education is being viewed as the savior of higher education… by those in higher education. Why? Because it brings in a lot of money. It brings in enough money that not enough people are asking whether it is doing what it should be doing.

Many online courses do one of two things. (1) the course facilitator presents information for the student to learn or master. The pedagogical model is primarily about content mastery. The evidence for acceptable course completion is demonstrated by the student reciting the course content. These courses tend to emphasize level one depth of knowledge proficiency. That is, students are asked to recall information for tests rather than demonstrating strategic or complex thinking. These are known as “bucket” courses. The course facilitator pours their bucket of knowledge into your bucket. These bucket courses are typically neither interesting nor transformational.

(2) Online courses also tend to encourage participation and force community upon the students. This is done by requiring students to post in a forum some number of times per week. This forced participation tends to backfire. It does not cause genuine interaction and often generates resentment in the students. What’s worse is that there are a number of studies that show that our interaction with others is different on the Internet than it is when we’re with someone in person. Even with the best of intentions, we do not receive the ideas and comments of others in the same way when those ideas and comments come through our computer screen as we do when they come from the person him or herself sitting right across the table from us. We are inclined to believe our own ideas and dismiss those of others online. This, then, is not an environment conducive to actual learning.

Sonoran Theological Group’s Ministry Essentials Cohort seeks to utilize technology and the Internet for the things for which they excel: sharing information. Learning, though, is better suited face-to-face, where we can see one another and the differences we bring to the table. Seeing other students in a cohort, then, becomes an important element in education itself.

Genuine difference is necessary in education. Without genuine difference, we are speaking and listening in an echo chamber, devoid of new information, new processes, or new ideas. In order to learn, students must be exposed to “New.” When we are online, it is too easy to dismiss “New” as other, weird, and simply wrong and crazy. But when we hear something “New” from a member of our own cohort, someone we care about and have studied with before, it isn’t so easy to dismiss. We engage those ideas differently. We actually consider them. This, then, is where an environment of new ideas can lead to education.

Check back tomorrow to see our final response to the question: does anybody need Ministry Essentials?

Does anybody need Ministry Essentials? Part 3: Going Solo

MEClogoThis January 2016, the Sonoran Theological Group is beginning its first Ministry Essentials Cohort, providing practical preparation for ministry for 15-20 women and men in the Valley. If you want the Essential elements of ministry preparation, be sure to join us. Information for the program can be found here.

On Monday and Tuesday this week, we have asked the question: “does anybody really need this program?” We have focused our response so far on how the Ministry Essentials Cohort differs from a traditional seminary. Seminaries are not for everyone. They are expensive and highly theoretical. STG wants to do something about that.

Let’s ask the question again: does anybody really need ministry essentials?

Hypothetical Response #3: No. If God has called you to ministry, doesn’t the Holy Spirit essentially equip you for ministry?

How can you argue with that? Well, there’s both no point and no reason. Of course the Holy Spirit equips women and men for ministry. The question is whether that is all that is required.

Absolutely, you can go into ministry with just you and the Holy Spirit going it alone. I am sure God will reward your faithfulness and earnestness. But why rely on the ways in which the Holy Spirit has spoken to just you when you can open yourself up to the ways in which the Holy Spirit has inspired hundreds and thousands of people in ministry before you?

God created humanity in His image. That image is both creative and thoughtful. He equipped us with brains in order to think and study and discover. For this reason, I think it behooves us to study because of the ways in which we, and our ministries, benefit.

We have both a blessing and a burden if we choose to go into ministry. In the 21st century, there is more information than ever before about God, the Bible, ministry, and church right at your fingertips. A simple Google search will retrieve for you millions of webpages on just about any topic that might interest you in your ministry. That is a blessing that no previous generation before us has had.

The burden, though, lies in knowing how to sift through the good sites and the bad, between good / helpful information and bad. How do you decide? Many people cannot decide. They have no framework for making decisions, and so they cobble together ideas that do not work together.

This is where the Ministry Essentials Cohort enters the picture. We will walk with you and give you the tools to learn how decide what resources are valuable and which ones are… well, less valuable. We will help you to construct your framework for making decisions, for vetting the quality of resources, and for knowing where you need help and where you can go it alone.

The Ministry Essentials Cohort is no replacement for the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit resides in the Godhead, the divine community. Your preparation for ministry should take place in community, too.

Check back tomorrow to see another hypothetical response to the question: does anybody need Ministry Essentials?