Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Teaching Online--One Big Classroom!

I have been infrequent in posting lately, in part because I have been preparing for and beginning an online course. This is a brief look at the course.

How is this for amazing: my current class room is 5500 miles long and 2500 miles wide stretching over 7 time zones! I am in Hawaii and students are in Oregon, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Last fall I was invited to teach an online course on presiding at the Eucharist. The course took shape around a notion of the presider as icon of the risen Christ as host—in persona Christi—and of the congregation as icon of the beloved community, the holy Trinity. Recalling Hovda’s book and the scriptural text from which he drew the title (2 Timothy 1:6-7) I titled the course “No Cowardly Spirit.” The subtitle, “Grace Driven Holy Communion” was chosen by the host organization for the course, Lumicon, as a not so subtle link to the popular “Purpose Driven” books by Rick Warren.[i] I taught the course in the winter of 2006 and am, as of this writing, leading it again in the fall of 2006. I envisioned a course that would combine readings in pastoral care, liturgy, the arts and practical liturgical sources. I was convinced that it needed to be more than a course in gestures—touch here and rub there. The online context gives the students time that my a-day-or-less “labs” could not afford. The challenge I saw was how to engage learners at a distance, particularly when it came the sharpening their skills at the table and inviting peer feedback.

The course description reads:

A pastoral and practical exploration of leading the assembly’s celebration of the Eucharist. Participants will enrich and expand their sense of the congregation’s sacramental life through reflection on art, explore the significance of the body and of our senses in ritual prayer, and form a deeper sense of self-identity in presiding or assisting at the Lord’s Table, including a sharpened discernment of the grace of their call to preside or assist. The course will employ readings, online media, film, observation and hands-on practice. Access to and use of a digital video camera… will be basic to the course. A high-speed internet connection is essential.

The inclusion of those who assist at table was to remind myself and participants that the role of the deacon (and assisting ministers) should be included in consideration of best practices at the Table.

I structured the course with the intent that participants would:

  1. Deepen their awareness of the factors shaping leadership and participation in the Lord’s Supper as communal ritual prayer
  2. Appreciate the significance of the body and senses in embodying “presence” to God and to the assemblyDevelop an expanded presidential style and practice congruent with their self-identity and their denomination’s theological and liturgical understandings and norms for the Sacrament
  3. Engage with art and film as venues for reflection on the iconic and metaphorical dimensions of presiding
  4. Create a digital presentation of their presiding at the table to be shared with other course participants (real time peer observation and feedback would be preferable but is not possible in this learning venue)
  5. Develop a statement of their “best practices” intention and outline a plan for implementing these practices in their ministry setting
  6. Experience themselves within a distance learning community

The reading for the course includes Robert W. Hovda’s Strong, Loving and Wise, Robin Jensen’s The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community, William Willimon’s Worship as Pastoral Care, and each participant’s primary church statement or directory on its theology and practice of Holy Communion. In both courses all have been United Methodist and so, we used This Holy Mystery (Discipleship Resources, 2005; also online--search Google) linked to the official ritual texts and rubrics in our hymnal and book of worship as the source of norms. Additional readings were drawn from Volume 1 of Worship Matters, ed. E. Byron Anderson. The course includes six sessions with reading and activity assignments for each.

Here are the session titles and flow of the course:

  • Course introduction, including self-introductions and establishment of online relationships and familiarization with the Blackboard Learning System™ and the syllabus.
  • Bench Marking and Stretching: participants prepare and share statements of their current understandings and practices related to the sacramental presidency and of what formative experiences shaped them. They also identify and interact with their denomination’s normative sources, and move further into course readings.
  • Iconography and the Eucharist: participants engage iconic art from the ancient and ecumenical church and explore it as a venue for deepening their sense of biblical and liturgical connections in appreciating the Eucharistic action. Students begin to sketch their understanding of how the presider can be understood as an icon of Christ and of how the whole assembly is an icon of the Trinity.
  • Sacramental Leadership and Communal Liturgical Prayer: participants explore pastoral relationships and how liturgical prayer and full engagement of body gestures, vestments, and attentiveness informs the larger context of congregational prayer, life and witness. This includes interviews of members of their congregation relative to how they experience services of Word and Table.
  • Actions that Pray: here participants move to deeper integration of their reading, listening, reflection and interaction with each other around issues of liturgical prayer. Participants hone their sense of the communal action of the church in the Sacrament and their role as presiders. In a sense, the course culminates in this session as participants make and share a digital video of themselves presiding (or assisting) at the table. Each receives feedback based on the observations of the instructor and their peers.
  • Imagining and Implementing “Best Practices”: in the final integrative session students reflect on and share what they have learned and how they intend to enact it in their ongoing presidential practice in their setting. Each, using the medium of their choice, makes a presentation of how they imagine and intend to grow into a stronger presidential or assisting role in their ministry setting.

In recent years I have been increasingly drawn to the ministry of forming pastors and priests in their vocation of leading the assembly in sacramental prayer. I have led a number of half-day and day long "lab" type events. While I delighted doing those practicums, I love teaching in this more extended conversation with students.

In the two courses I have had the pleasure of working with learners from a variety of settings and stages in their lives. So far I have worked with seminary students, students in graduate programs, seasoned clergy in large and small membership churches, and pastors who lead with quite different assumptions about worship, particularly in matters of style. I even had a few laity in the first course because they wanted to dig deeper and explore what it means to be an "assisting minister."

So far, the level of participation has been high, which is essential for an online course. Much of the “teaching” function happens in the peer relationships over the weeks of the course. It is almost as much fun as being a pastor serving a local congregation!

Daniel Bendict

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