The identity of religious educators

In this discussion we will explore the identity of religious educators — past, present and future. This topic allows us to tell our stories of our journeys, our present identity and what we see in the future – perhaps by way of our students. Please write a few paragraphs on this topic either initiating your own thoughts or responding to posts.

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6 Responses to The identity of religious educators

  1. Tom Groome says:

    Dear Friends

    I think I first began thinking of myself as a religious educator – though I didn’t know it yet – when I was about 9 years old and set out to explain “the Faith” to my buddies. I’ve been doing it ever since, and proudly, though seldom as well as I’d like to.

    Now, after many years of attempting to help ground the scholarly foundations of our enterprise, I recognize that we still have “miles to travel” by way of establishing its credentials in the academy – as a very serious scholarly enterprise. Indeed, none is more important than our own good work of enabling our communities of faith to educate-in-faith and in ways that are life-giving for people and for our societies/cultures. However, I take heart in the many fine young scholars that are coming behind me and I urge them onward in the task. It is most worthwhile, though the challenges are greater than ever in this post-modern and secular age.
    Let’s redouble our good efforts.


  2. Harold (Bud) Horell says:

    My first teaching job was as a preschool teacher. I had a homeroom of early-four- year-old children, and taught various classes to children ages 3 to 6. I learned a lot and the experience ignited a lifelong love for teaching. My second teaching job, when I was in my early twenties, was teaching Introduction to Philosophy courses to college freshman. The experience can be best described as trial by fire. I learned how little I really knew about teaching. Then, when I enrolled in a graduate program in theology, a desire to learn how to teach, led me to scout out available courses in religious education. I found three extraordinary teachers: Tom Groome, Mary Boys, and Sharon Parks. I soon discovered that these three extraordinary teachers were also exceptional scholars, each making a distinctive scholarly contribution to the field of religious education. Since that time, I have always thought of my identity as a religious educator as having dual focal points: teaching and scholarship.

    More recently, my interest in teaching has led me to venture into the wilderness of online teaching – and more trials by fire, that is, a few rough years while I figured out how to teach in cyberspace. Over the years, life experiences and further study has expanded my understanding of education, and I am now interested in teaching and learning in a variety of contexts – including schools, homes, work environments, public forums, and other settings as well. In particular, I have drawn insight from Gabriel Moran’s analysis of how education and religious education should be both lifelong and life-wide. However, one thing has not changed over the years. I still think of my identity as a professional religious educator as a dual identity as a scholar and teacher.

  3. For years, before attending seminary, I believed a religious educator was a Sunday School teacher or youth minister. It wasn’t until I began to realize that as a theological being, all that I do can be viewed as religious education. That was quite a revelation to me. What I have endeavored to do ever since it to support our students in equally broadening their view of a “religious educator.” I still get the odd question in class every now and then – What exactly is religious education? Hopefully, the students leave class with a better understanding of this question and their role.

    The one area of being a religious educator that has been most important to me is that of social justice and social advocacy. I taught a new course last Spring that helped me reflect on this aspect of being a religious educator. The course was: “Living Justly in an Unjust World.” The challenge of such a course was to create the environment in which the students didn’t just focus on the area of social justice but they could deeply connect being a religious educator with being a person who lives justly and who motivates others to live justly. This, to me, is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Now in my courses dealing with teaching one’s faith and beliefs to another, I cannot divorce teaching concepts from being these concepts. That is the identity I have come to embrace more vigorously.

  4. Jack L. Seymour says:

    I appreciate the conversation that these three questions have sparked. In fact, I wonder if the three questions don’t in fact overlap. While I’ll make some comments about identity, know that they connect to practical theology and the future of the field. I understand myself as an educator who is a person of faith. Therefore for me the broader term is in fact religious education. I am afraid that we downplay the field of education in our work – probably because most of us work in theological seminaries or faith-related colleges.

    Education is basically a dynamic traditioning process – it is passing on a heritage through time, or as Duane Huebner has said, it is care for the future. Traditioning has elements of holding onto and honoring a tradition, of making that tradition new in a new day, and of critiquing that tradition and enlivening it when it misses the new dynamics in a new day. That is why Lawrence Cremin always said, with Dewey, that education was prophetic – “the artistic linking of tradition and aspiration.”

    Religious education is therefore basically a dynamic traditioning process linking the traditions of our faith communities and their aspirations to the public contexts and global contexts in which we live. To be a religious educator requires, I think, knowledge of learning and teaching, of traditioning, of the multiple settings for education, of our deepest faith commitments and aspirations, and of the public contexts in which we live – and the learning that occurs in those contexts.

    While I consider myself a practical theologian and am a member of APT and IAPT, I think “practical theology” is a particular and limited subset of religious education and education. My theological convictions affect the ways I define and teach about religious education, but my work in religious education honors the contributions of faithful colleagues from other religious traditions and the impact we can have together in the public world.

    To simply understand myself as a practical theologian and education as a subset would mean, I fear, that I remain in one world with one set of educational practices – Christian. We need each other; we need the concern education has for how a culture is “traditioned” and the many ways and places where teaching and learning occur from congregations, to schools, to media, to our places of work, to voluntary associations, to public actions for health and wholeness, to community interaction, and to public living itself.

    I respect the theological commitments and methods that shape faith – giving each of us a place to stand; yet I also respect and honor our interactions with each other, learning from each other, and our wider focus on all the ways faiths impact public living. That is artistically linking the tradition and aspirations of our faiths together in a linking of our learning and commitments for the traditions and aspirations of our shared world. I think we are religious educators and educators and need to work hard to reclaim this identity.

  5. Bill Myers says:

    I am suspicious of adjectives used to modify words as in “religious” educator and “Christian” educator. “Religious” suggests a universalism (all religions), while “Christian” suggests parochialism (My faith and my congregation).

    The position of “Religious” educator seems to me to be the end result of Schleiermacher’s bargain with the first modern university, the University of Berlin. His acceptance of the scientific method (over the confessional method) resulted in university appointments for theologians. Still, the seminary has kept as central the confessional method, yet has difficulty connecting that posture with modernity and the scientific method.

    The dichotomies are real (of academy and congregation; scientific method and confessional method) : I am introduced at meetings of the academy as Professor of Religious Education. I am introduced in church settings as the Christian Educator from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. And those seminaries that seek to employ Christian Educators who embody a bridging way, knowing the ins and outs of educational process in the church while being able to function in the academy, tend to find dry holes. Having a foot in both places (being able to bridge the dichotomy) is difficult; a shifting of the techtonic plates——call it post-modernity, post-Christianity, post-denominationalism, even post-religion, means that things we have accepted as normative are no longer normative.

    In my cynical moments, I think that we may fast become artifacts of Christendom, once viewed as important players, but given the emerging outlier position of the church, no longer seen as important to the academy’s scheme of things; or, this may be a kairos moment, we might sort out who we are vocationally and then ride the whirlwind.

    • Cindy Nolan says:

      I have been meaning for some time to write a few thoughts on the very important topic of finding our identity as religious educators in the twenty-first century. You see, I have been using my allotted time for writing (I am, after all retired) to research and write for the Talbot website on Christian Educators of the Twentieth Century ( It occurred to me that maybe the reason I am focused on and find such enjoyment in the study of the history of religious education is at its essence related to the topic at hand. What is my identity as a religious educator and why is it important that I continue to do it?

      The reflective and insightful entries on the Senior Task Force link provoke thought and illuminate some of the very serious questions we are asking ourselves. It is important that the first generation of professors and practitioners in REA/APPRRE era consider and dialogue about where we have been and what we will leave as a legacy to those who come after us.

      In essence I would agree with Gabriel Moran’s point that, what began as the REA in 1903 ought to “carry forward” into today’s association at least at some level of entelechy. Those original guiding principles must in some way still be present in our development and progress as an organization. However, alternatively, I know that movements sometimes live themselves out, expire and give way to paradigmatic shifts. I would prefer to think, as Gabe does, that we are still in our infancy and will somehow find a future of real meaning and purpose in religious and educational realms.

      I recall a discussion at one of our past meetings (one of my earliest while still a student at Fordham) that deeply impacted the way I understand religious education. I wish I could remember who said it, but, well, that is why I’m in the senior task force. The idea that we live and teach and research and write at the intersection of religion and education and whatever else we have chosen to bring to the table (history, psychology, sociology, ministry, social justice, ecology, etc.) means that we are always operating at the crossroad. While that is a very precarious place to be, perhaps that is the attraction for some of us. It is for me.

      Our interconnectivity with other fields is what makes us unique. In most of my teaching I have juggled education, religion, religious education and catechetics. Tom Groome has helped us all to make sense of these related yet disparate arenas. Others operate at the intersection of other disciplines, and while being grounded in one might be easier, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable. Departmentalization never appealed to me.

      I have combed the works of religious educators, (Sophia Fahs, John Lancaster Spalding, Rosalia Walsh, J. Elliot Ross, Edwin O’Hara and now Virgil Michel) to try to discover what they thought they were doing and why it mattered so much to them. In my readings, I try to find common ground with my own feeble attempts to help folks recognize that living religiously can help us to become more deeply and authentically human.

      I will be attending the meeting in Chicago this year to hear Br. Gunn discuss his research on William Rainey Harper. I do not want to miss a chance to tell him how important I think his work is to our organization and our profession.

      Back to the entry on Virgil Michel. It seems that while we think he led the liturgical movement in this country, and well he did, what he really wanted to do was help people better understand and express their worship in order to make the world a better and more just place to live.

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