Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Getting a Job with Jesus

Written by: on January 25, 2024

I have been trying to use the idea of threshold concepts to put language to what I have observed with ministerial development candidates during my participation in the annual interview process occurring every January. Candidates initially interview for their first district license, then every year for renewal culminating in a final interview to be recommended for Ordination. Five is the average number of interviews before the final Ordination interview. I have been involved in reshaping the process in my district for about 4 years.

One area of questioning that seems simple, but which tends to present students with a significant challenge, has to do with being able to connect the overarching story of the Bible. In the past, students have often approached the Bible as a timeline and attempted to relay a specific set of ‘facts’ laid out in chronological order. They were spiritually dry. As part of my work in reshaping our district process, we now ask candidates to develop a theme around which to build the redemptive story of God and humans as revealed in scripture.  Applying this week’s reading I would say that we are guiding candidates to move beyond the recitation of ritual knowledge towards integrating their theology with the story of God’s activity. Whether or not they can do so indicates a movement from head to heart and demonstrates if the candidate is truly in the process of transformation.

Just asking the question in a new way does not fully address the problem. Many of our candidates receive their theological education entirely through an online modular Course of Study. This delivery method, though convenient, does not produce consistently strong results. Last year our district offered peer-to-peer learning cohorts facilitated by experienced pastors from the Board of Ministry. Not only did participants give very positive feedback about the experience, but they all showed improvement beyond what any of us expected. Today, I recognize that the cohorts are a means of constructive learning which are both active and social. They are active in the discussions of making practical application of what they learn and create a social learning environment by connecting them with others on the district.

Sometimes we encounter ministerial candidates who just want to be told what to know and exactly how to say it.  Perhaps these students are fearful of being in liminal spaces? Might new concepts which stretch their understanding of God’s identity be threatening to their own identity? This year I met a woman for first district license interview who could have been a spokesperson for the concept of troublesome knowledge. Her seminary professor had introduced sophia and the idea of God having feminine characteristics.  God having a feminine side was so far outside any previous framework that she was shocked and upset to the point of considering quitting her degree program. Sadly, I knew that some of my colleagues educated in the modular Course of Study system would likely have encouraged her to do just that. Reflecting back, I am so thankful I was there with the privilege of my own education to share with her. It is critical that we carefully consider who will be on every interview team or we will fail to “give students a supportive liminal space while they wrestle with difficult new concepts.”[1] Forcing them into narrow views or pushing them along too quickly stunts their ability to be transformed by their developing theology. Without personal transformation, the pastor cannot integrate their new knowledge into helpful practical ministry within a congregation, and thus be able to lead that congregation outward.

That seems to be the root of their struggle with our denominational doctrinal distinctive of ‘Entire Sanctification’. Perhaps it can be considered the threshold concept in the theological understanding of ministerial candidates in the Church of the Nazarene.

Some give canned answers trying to hit main buzz words on which they have been coached. These clearly memorized speeches and this passing off of ritual knowledge makes my soul whisper ‘Pharisee.’ One manner of recognizing threshold concepts is that “ways of thinking in a subject necessarily entail particular ways of practising.” [2] A memorized answer does not a practice make. The outworking of sanctification is seen in loving others as God loves them and interacting with humans in the way that Jesus demonstrated. If the student cannot articulate a picture of the evidence of being transformed by the Spirit of Jesus, then we cannot say they have integrated the threshold concept and so been transformed themselves.

This week’s reading helped me understand the ways in which my work in ministerial development has improved the candidate’s experience of the process and affected the visible outcomes. Organizing cohorts, training facilitators and getting feedback takes time and effort from me and others, but seeing students move from confusion to transformation is worth the work.

[1] Jan H.F. Meyer and Ray Land, eds., Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (Routledge, 2006), 199.

[2] Meyer and Land, eds., Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding,  70.

About the Author

Julie O'Hara

14 responses to “Getting a Job with Jesus”

  1. Diane Tuttle says:

    Julie, As I read your blog I thought how thankful I am that students coming into ministry have your guidance. You intentionality to who is on interview teams may impact the faith journey of many people. I am interested in the peer to peer learning that was so successful. You mentioned that it was offered. Will or has this become part of the journey for all students now or was it just in a certain area? If not what influence is there to further encourage its inclusion?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hello Diane, Thank you for your questions. We are offering them again this year – they remain optional but are highly recommended, especially for first year licenses. Cohorts were offered and encouraged at the end of the first district license interview. We surveyed participants halfway through the year and provided feedback to the facilitators. Then, we surveyed them during this month of interviews and 90% wished to continue. The surveys revealed that guided conversation led to the most learning, but to be really effective about half the time needed to be spent in support of one another via listening and prayer.

  2. Debbie Owen says:

    Julie, this is fantastic. What a wonderful way to appropriate our learnings this week immediately into your leadership and professional context.

    I am left wondering, however, what sorts of personal threshold concepts or troublesome knowledge might be eating at the edges of your awareness? 😉

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Debbie,
      Right now I am learning so many new things all at once that your question puts a lump in my throat and not the good kind. I am putting one foot in front of the other believing that there is a ‘threshold’ to cross which will make me comfortably proficient at research, using Zotero, taking notes in Obsidian, reading electronic instead of print media, etc. I do not rightly know if there are threshold concepts in these activities or simply practice-makes-perfect…Ahem, use of the “P” word (perfect) suggests that I may still be struggling with identity…

      • Debbie Owen says:

        I have a coach who taught me that “practice makes perfect” just doesn’t work. Try “Practice makes progress.” 😉

        • I had the same question as Debbie, looking for any personal experiences that you would classify as threshold concepts, but I recognize being in one now makes it hard to reach back to others. Yet, I suspect they are there for you.

          I see your passion for making change in the licensing and theopraxis of pastors in your Denomination, which is likely rooted in some good steps into new rooms along the way.

          I really like this bit: “Today, I recognize that the cohorts are a means of constructive learning which are both active and social. They are active in the discussions of making practical application of what they learn and create a social learning environment by connecting them with others on the district”.

          It suggests they learn alongide others, as well as learn from the others. This is so enriching, and has great potential to help the whole Nazarene movement become defined by the next crop of constructive learners, with you among them. Does this resonate?

  3. Graham English says:

    Julie, thanks for your reflections on the ordination process and the value of constructive learning in peer to peer cohorts. I can definitely see the importance of these groups in a learning journey that has largely been online.
    How do you perceive constructive learning in peer groups benefiting development beyond the initial ministry years?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Graham, Thanks for the question. Based on feedback from some Beta-test Peer-to-Peer Learning Cohorts begun last September in my main work I found the following to be true: the feedback loops we built in vital to expose blind spots (but must be in a trusted environment) and the pastors repeatedly mentioned how much the connections with one another were encouraging them in ministry – even though these Cohorts are focused exclusively on preaching. Bottom Line: based on what I know so far, Cohorts that build trust, are topically based, and constructively critique against benchmarks would help us all continue to grow.

  4. Adam Cheney says:

    Great reflections on the current issue that you are wrestling with and using the idea of threshold concepts to develop a deeper understanding yourself. It seems that you have learned that a cohort group has a better chance of success. For those who have been mentored simply to say the right answers I wonder if they would have been better off to be mentored by someone who would encourage them to think deeply about the issue themselves rather than just learn the right answers. So, I wonder if the issue is not only the students issue but also the issue of those who are already ordained and mentoring the new candidates.

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Adam,
      Yes, I agree with what you are saying about those who have been doing the mentoring. Jeff reminded us about Martyn Percy’s remarks that education should make us suspicious. I fear that some in my tribe are rather suspicious OF education…this has many implications beyond the scope of this conversation. I confess to feeling a weight of responsibility to slow down, listen well, and speak gently to provide any opportunity to highlight troublesome knowledge in positive ways.

  5. Daren Jaime says:

    Julie! I am always a fan of your posts. Thank you for adopting the mindset to approach and adjust ministerial candidates towards a new way of thinking. Sadly much of our training is both linear and rote. You also inspire me to look at how we handle our incoming ministerial candidates. As the times are shifting so must our training for this new season. Causing candidates to think differently is a real time way of implementing threshold concepts. You are ahead of the game this week! Thanks for this post.

  6. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Hi Julie!
    I smiled when I read your words about “God having feminine characteristics” and the struggle your candidate had with that concept. My very first class in Seminary was “Images of God,” and we had to throw away all that we had thought of who God was and try to wrap ourselves around God being portrayed differently – i.e., a feminine God. It was a great way to start my journey and still has an effect on me now on how I address God (normally in a feminine or neutral manner, but never “He”.
    It seems to me that these last two weeks are right up your alley!! How would you teach the people you work with to embrace and move towards the confusion?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Chris, Thanks for the question, I appreciate the opportunity to think it through. Perhaps we need to normalize confusion as part of the process of learning. In the spaces I inhabit this would include being willing to have listening conversations rather than just correcting people all the time. Using some leadership coaching style questions can help draw out what the ministerial candidates are saying and they often reformulate themselves when given the space to do so.

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