Local Learning Groups
A briefing paper about local learning groups
Christian theology is a conversation involving many ‘partners’, which should not only include members of the academic community of critical scholarship, but people from local churches and local communities. It is essential that those training for ministry, who will help communities explore faith and issues of public life, are enabled to relate the academic theology they learn in their studies to the theology and spirituality they experience in every day ministerial life with members of their churches and those outside of the Christian tradition. Theology for ministry involves listening to those who have traditionally been marginalised or excluded from theology, so drawing their perspectives into the conversation. We therefore use some members of the local community within the students’ training context, asking them to be a sounding board of issues and concerns, drawing from their life experience and faith/spiritual journeys. These should form the students’ Local Learning Group.
During each ten week module there will be two occasions when the student will meet with their Local Learning Group (LLG). In these weeks, this meeting replaces their meeting with their tutor. The programme of students learning therefore incorporates
- Tutorials (6 meetings over a 10 week module)
- Local Learning Group Meetings (2 meetings a module, in weeks 4 and 7)
- Supervision with Training Ministers (monthly)
What is the Local Learning Group for?
The primary aims of the Local Learning Group (LLG) for the student are to:
- enable the students to develop listening skills and sensitivity, through the opportunity to hear the concerns of local people and to develop their theological intelligence and pastoral understanding;
- enable the students to learn skills of group facilitation for collaborative leadership, and to develop shared learning with LLG members, while drawing out the theological understanding already present among members;
- form the student’s theological engagement, by keeping central such concerns as the groups raise in the students’ approach to and appropriation of theology;
- develop an imaginative and perceptive grasp of the Christian faith, through an intelligent and understanding approach that integrates theology and ministry; &
- provide a reflective learning community, which also provides peer personal support to all members.
It is also intended that LLG meetings will
- give members of the group an input into the student’s programme and a way of feeding back to their church(es) about their training;
- provide an introduction to theological exploration by members of the group; &
- provide some personal and prayerful support of the student and other members of the group.
How regularly will the Local Learning Group meet?
There are 8 meetings a year, which fall in ‘term time’, at approximately in the 4th and 7th weeks of each module. The pattern is therefore 3 tutorials followed by an LLG meeting, 2 tutorials followed by a second LLG meeting, followed by completion of the module.
How are Local Learning Groups formed?
We ask the Training Minister to consider with the student who to invite onto this group.
There should be between 6 and 8 members of the group, including the student. Where the group will meet will influence the ideal size.
- Members should provide a broad range of opinion and reflect some of the diversity of the community. Diversity may include age, gender, education background, religious diversity (of denomination or tradition), new and long term Christians, different levels of participation in church life, for example. We’d advise not bringing people together who are unlikely to be unable to respect those who hold different theological views than their own.
- It is often appropriate to include people from different churches in a circuit or multi-parish benefice, but don’t aim to provide a balance. The group is not representative of the churches, as might form a council, but an indicator of the diversity of the population.
- Most members may be regular church members, but it is ideal if not all are. If there are willing people from a non-religious backgrounds (non-believers) or a non-Christian religious traditions (such as Judaism, Pagan/Wiccan), but of an open persuasion sympathetic to exploration, you should invite one or two to be a part of the group.
- The Training Minister should not be a member, to provide the detachment of a supervisor, enabling the student’s reflective learning. Other ordained and licensed Lay Leaders (e.g. Readers) may be, though it is generally preferable that they are not. Experience tells us that members of the group may often expect answers from clergy, especially students of their Training Ministers, but this inhibits exploration of issues by the group.
- It is ideal if the majority of members can be stable, over three years, so that a group can reach a level of honest and open engagement with one another. However, be careful not to exclude a valuable member on these grounds, such as a young student or potential candidate for licensed (lay or ordained) ministry, who may yet go to university or begin training. It is possible to replace members who do need to move on.
However, the mix is for you to negotiate , in light of the learning that can be gained from hearing different ways of reflecting on the Christian faith, from within the church, from the margins of Christianity and from without.
Who invites the people to be members of it?
After discussion the composition of the group with the student, students should invite members within the first four weeks of their first module. They will need to explain the regularity of the meetings and level of commitment, when inviting possible members. Those invited will not have to prepare for meetings with much preliminary reading – it is their experience and perspective and engagement with one another and questions raised by the student which will be valued.
Who ‘owns’ the group?
The group is a self-owning group, not a student-led group. The student is not a ‘teacher’, either handing on wisdom didactically or even asking questions and teasing out understanding from the group, but leads by facilitating the conversation between members of the group. This will foster a collaborative style of leadership, which takes on the agendas of the group and enables members to find a voice. The student will need to foster that sense of shared ownership and accountability, enabling members to care for each other and be attentive to each other, rather than responsive to the student’s learning agenda.
We recommend that the group members makes a covenant with each other when the group forms, a draft of which is given to the student as a model for the student to negotiate with the group.
Where should the group meet?
The group meets at any practical location, though ideally one that is warm, welcoming, and relaxed, rather than a church office or board room. It may be a home, cafe, room in a social club, or even a pub, though if it is not a suitable home there may be budget implications which the Training Church may need to consider supporting. The student is not funded for the renting of rooms.
The structure of the sessions
The sessions are 90 minutes long. Initially in the Foundation Degree programme they will be structured with reflective questions or sharing of learning by the module writer. As the programme progresses the designing and structuring of meetings will gradually become the student’s responsibility, once they are familiar with the design of the sessions. It is good to use materials with some flexibility, appropriate to your understanding of the group and their interests and values, though redesigning sessions shouldn’t become an onerous task.
There should be security for the group members to share opinions and experiences within the group, without these being shared beyond the group. However, the group will need to understand that some issues will be shared in confidence in supervision with their training minister – though this will be done so anonymously and to assist the student’s learning.
The Training Minister and Tutor’s roles
Issues raised by the group may well be suspicious of traditional approaches to theology, and may even be hostile, when the group is ‘forming’ or once the group is ‘storming’. There is an important critique implicit in this suspicion or hostility which needs to be heard, and indeed the group should appropriately be empowered to articulate this practical/pastoral critique of disciplines such as systematic theology. Training Ministers and Tutors will need to be aware that this is a predictable pattern, as the group finds its identity, and need not be alarmed – though the student should not be fuelling this but learning to understand it and to work with it: The aim is to enable the student to engage in dialogue between the academic disciplines of theology and the ideas, issues and attitudes of the group members, to inform their pastoral practice as well as their theological study.
We therefore ask training ministers and tutors to work with the tension the student will experience, as they mediate between the interests of academic study of theology and the interests of the group – for it is through experiencing this tension and working to hold a critical conversation between academic theology and the pastoral interests of the church that the two areas can be brought into dialogue
Supervising meetings, exploring issues with the Training Minister
Students will bring experiences of facilitating the meetings to their supervision session with their Training Minister. The supervision is a supervision of the student’s reflective practice on pastoral and educational engagement. Resources for supervision are given in the bibliography below.
This may include practical issues, such as encouraging quieter members, or may be a matter of handling the theological differences that arise, which should also be shared at the tutorial meetings. There are other issues and practical arrangements which will be covered at such supervision meetings, but the progression of the group takes place under the training minister’s supervision and oversight. If the relationship with the group is not going well, issues should be shared with the student’s Staff Consultant in the first instance.
The critical engagement of theology with the Tutor
As mentioned above, the group may well be suspicious of traditional approaches to theology. Yet the student needs to develop the theological insight which will bring an appropriate and sensitive critique to the implicit theology that informs group members’ spirituality, not personally critical to the members, but in their understanding and handling of the theological materials.
Tutorial sessions following Local Learning Group meeting should allow the students to share their experiences of Local Learning Group sessions, what they learned from them and the questions that they can bring to the academic discipline of theology. The purpose will be to resource the students’ reflective practice.
Some complex supervision and critical reflection skills are required of Training Ministers and Tutors, in managing groups and in enabling the student to relate sympathetically but critically to the local and contextual theology which emerges, in order to bring this into their own studies of theology. There are set training sessions each year, with the opportunity of learning from one another’s experience of learning from students’ engagement with LLGs, and developing training ministers’ and tutors’ own skills and insight.
Resources for Supervision (order of recommendation)
Leach, J. and Paterson, M. (2010 Pastoral Supervision: A Handbook. London: SCM
Hawkins, P. and Shohet, R. ( 2006) Supervision in the helping professions: An Individual Group and Organizational Approach, Second Edition. Maidenhead: OUP
Lamdin, K. and Tilley, D. (2007) Supporting New Ministers in the Local Church, London: SPCK
For further resources, please see the following annotated bibliography of resources from the Association of Pastoral Supervisors and Educators (APSE).
Other general CofE/Ecumenical resources
Ministry Division of the Archbishops’ Council, 2003, Formation for Ministry within a Learning Church, the structure and funding of ordination training, London, Church House Publishing
Ministry Division of the Archbishops’ Council, 2006, Shaping the Future, London, Church House Publishing
Ministry Division (2010) Initial Ministerial Education. http://www.churchofengland.org/clergy-office-holders/ministry/ministerial-education-and-development/initial-ministerial-education.aspx