Overcoming the Challenge of Technology in Pastoral Formation

In May 2022, North American Lutheran Seminary (NALS) President Eric Riesen traveled to Westfield House, a Lutheran College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and House of Theological Studies, in Cambridge, England. Dr. Riesen shared the history of the NALC with the students, and the denomination’s need to educate and form pastors who share the Lutheran ethos: being Christ-Centered, Congregationally Focused, Mission-Driven and Traditionally Grounded. He also shared his personal experience with how, six weeks after accepting the call to be president of the North American Lutheran Seminary, the pandemic hit, shutting down Trinity’s campus.

Dr. Riesen then explored problems and possibilities raised by technology for theological education and pastoral formation, which has been excerpted from his address below:

“As events unfolded, we soon realized that problems caused by the pandemic were not limited to technological know-how,” said Dr. Riesen. “Pastors were ill prepared and poorly formed theologically to cope with the pressures on ministry caused by a pandemic. For better or worse, the knee-jerk reaction of many pastors was to seek technological solutions to these problems. However, many of these solutions raised theological concerns.”

Three problems raised by technology for theological education and pastoral formation: 

Community (koinonia) can, and will, suffer from an overdependence on technology. It is easy to hide behind a computer screen. To use one rather extreme example, in the U.S. and probably other locations as well, completely virtual congregations are springing up. These congregations are made up of congregants that attend virtually via an avatar of themselves. Obviously, the pastor has his/her own avatar as well. What does this mean spiritual and pastoral formation? 

An overreliance on virtual, distance, online theological education and pastoral formation may help foster the idolatry of the ideal; leading to an idealized, or idolized, concept of Christian community.

We only need to think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together:

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God’s desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” 

In short, virtual church is nice because no one smells funny. Virtual church is easy. You don’t have to suffer community.

An overdependence upon online/virtual education/formation lends itself to excarnation. Excarnation, according to James K.A. Smith, is a process, “of disembodying the Christian faith, turning it into a ‘heady’ affair that could be boiled down to a message and grasped with the mind … this was Christianity reduced to something for brains-on-sticks.” 

It’s easy to see that when theological education and pastoral formation are reduced only to conveying ideas which can be grasped by the mind, technology/online/virtual education can seem as good as in person education.

But, as Smith also notes, “information does not produce transformation.”

Rather, we are formed by the story in which we are living. Theological education and pastoral formation are about learning to live in the true story of the world — the Gospel story.

Three Tactics to Address the Problems:

If online/distance theological education and pastoral formation is here to stay, we must develop a robust ecclesiology and sacramental theology. There is simply no substitute for in-person, incarnate, bodily participation in the worship and sacramental life of a congregation. Regarding the Eucharist, when the priest/pastor consecrates the bread and wine — “This is my body” and “This is the blood of the new covenant”— it is the bread and wine which you see on this altar which is taken into the hands of the presiding minister. As the Reformers insisted, the words of institution do not work ex opere operato (by the work worked). The Sacrament cannot be divorced from the entire sacramental action of “take, give thanks, bless, and distribute.”

We must develop a robust anthropology. This goes back to what James Smith said regarding how we treat people as “brains-on-sticks.” What is a human being? How do we live fully human lives? Can we live a fully human life as an online avatar? Why is it important to face the realities of life lived among a community of sinners?

Why is the Incarnation of the divine Logos central to our humanity? Why didn’t God just give us more information?

Third, as those entrusted with the task of theological education, we must be intentional about spiritual and pastoral formation in community. At Trinity School of Ministry, there is a special effort to engage online/distance students in formational practices. Each semester online students are contacted by a faculty person to discuss questions of their personal formational practices and disciplines. Not ideas “about” formation, but practices “of” formation — practices such as worship, prayer, devotional reading of Scripture, involvement in a worshipping community, and confession and

The Rev. Dr. Eric Riesen, President of NALS 

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