Alfred Roger Gobbel
By Nelson T. Strobert
A [Alfred] Roger Gobbel (1926-2015). Gobbel is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is professor emeritus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His concern for the importance of cognitive development in the human creature and it's relationship to the field of religious education has contributed to the preparation of religious educators and practitioners in the field. The continuing question he poses to all involved in Christian education and that under girds his work, "What does it mean for me this day to be a baptized Christian?" has prompted students, Christian educators, pastors, and laity to reflect on their responsibility in this area of ministry.
A Roger Gobbel was born in Columbia, South Carolina on June 24, 1926, the son of Henry Ray and Alice Vermel McLindon Gobbel. His parents worked in the cotton mills where his grandfather was the superintendent. His childhood years were spent in the southern part of the United States is significant in that he grew up in the segregated south. Although he lived in a mixed community, the social interaction was separated by color. His family was tangentially Southern Baptists and that was his denominational experience. He attributes his grandmother for modeling going to church noting that she was insistent on that activity. His independent manner is exemplified in his decision to change denominations when he was 16 or 17 years of age. This developed through relationships with his peers, who attended the Lutheran Church in the community. However, while this took place in later adolescence, the decision to change denominations occurred years before from his own theological reflection and discernment. In addition to his friends who are active members of the Lutheran Church, Gobbel also attributes his affiliation with the Lutheran Church to the fine pastor of the congregation.
Gobbel's elementary education took place in Columbia which was racially segregated. Each day he walked passed the so called "colored" school in order to attend the white school. From this early recognition of difference, he recalled reflecting to himself "Why do I have to do this?" As a youngster, one of his earliest memories of color was the Black woman walking down the street with a bloodied face. He doesn't know the circumstances of this encounter but it made an indelible impression on him. These two incidences made him cognizant of race and color and its impact on the human community. Due to a change in jobs, his family relocated to Baltimore, Maryland in 1940. It was the beginning of his high school years. He attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute from which he graduated in 1944.
In the fall of 1944 he entered Gettysburg College, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where he majored in Philosophy. During his college years he was involved in the Lutheran Student Movement and served as its vice-president. Gobbel graduated from Gettysburg College in 1947. Following his undergraduate studies, he ventured across the railroad tracks and enrolled in the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg where he majored in New Testament. His thesis, "The Mysticism of St. Paul and Its Role in the Interpretation of His Message in the Epistle to the Galatians" examined mysticism in the Apostle in order to experience with Paul the richness of the Gospel and therefore better able to understand the work of this Apostle in his message to the Galatians. During his senior year, he worked as an instructor in the Bible Department at Gettysburg College. On May 19, 1950 Gobbel successfully completed his theological studies and received the Bachelor of Divinity.
Gobbel was ordained in May 1950 by the Maryland Synod of the United Lutheran Church in America. On 17 June 1950, he married Gertrude W. Gustafson. During the same month he accepted a call to serve as pastor to Manor Lutheran Parish (which consisted of three churches) in Frederick County, Maryland. This call to Word and Sacrament Ministry carried with it the normal ebb and flow of congregational life including preaching, teaching, visiting the sick and shut-in. He remained there until August of 1954 when he accepted a call to serve in campus ministry. In September of the same year, he began his ministry as Campus Pastor of the Lutheran Student Foundation of the National Lutheran Council at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois. It was a student center located across from the university. Although it was not a congregation, worship services were held there. In campus ministry, Gobbel found on-going conversations among and with the students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, stimulating. Intrigued by their questions and discussions, he found the content and processes of his own thinking changing. It was during this period that he took a group of students to Europe and was in Heidelberg when the Wall went up. Gobbel remained in the position for twelve year. In August of 1966, he accepted the call to become the Central Regional Director of the National Lutheran Campus Ministry in Chicago, Illinois. This position involved oversight of and travel to the Lutheran campus ministries in Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois.
The Illinois years proved to be a turning point for Gobbel in terms of his professional development and continuing education. Since he was located across the road from the university campus he decided to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to him as well as to "keep the educational processes going." He began taking Master's classes in the area of social sciences. Not seeing what was down the road for him, he took the courses which were preparing him for something else. Gobbel completed the Master of Arts degree in Communication in 1957. The emphasis of the program was in the area of communication theory and processes. He completed the Ph.D. in 1967 in the College of Communication. His dissertation, "The Christian Century: Its Editorial Policies and Positions, 1908-1966." He attempted to look at the impact of the magazine, wanting to see and examine some of the dominate roles. Although the editor of the Christian Century, Charles Clayton Madison, was a liberal he invited other opinions to be voiced in the publication. Gobbel asked himself the question, "How do you do that?" His interest in this area was also sparked by conversations with Dallas Smythe, then director of the communications center at the University of Illinois.
Gobbel's master's and the doctoral programs took him out of what he calls the "strict academic disciplines" and put him into contact with human beings. Gobbel was exposed to and learned about language, linguistics, and the nature of meaning. The question that captured the focus of his studies and appeared at the culmination of his doctoral studies during his oral defense, "Where does meaning reside?" It became the critical question for him. It wasn't a trick question but one which demanded a response. Gobbel's response was "in persons." That question and his response became the conduit to the field of education in general and religious education specifically. For Gobbel, it is the response to this question which teachers and preachers must address themselves and to which they must come to grips. For Gobbels, it defines what they can and cannot do. They cannot of themselves give meaning to others. Human beings must come to their own understandings. From this response, Gobbel changed his focus to the area of religious education.
In 1967, Donald Heiges president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg asked Gobbel to come to the seminary as the Director of Continuing Education and Associate Professor Communication and Education. He was an offer he accepted . At the same time his spouse, Gertrude, was pursuing her doctoral studies in psychology and was able to accept an appointment in the Psychology Department at Gettysburg College. In 1975, he was promoted to professor of Communication and Education.
This joint move to Gettysburg was significant in Gobbel's research and writing for it was through his wife's immersion into the world of Piaget that Piagean thought would affect his thinking. Furthermore, through the groundbreaking work of James Fowler, the work of the British scholar John Hull and the Lawrence Kohlberg, he was thoroughly enmeshed in the area of cognitive development. During a year in England (1975), he was able to spend some time with Hull and examine his work. The research and work of these notable figures informed the way in which Gobble worked in the context of teaching. With the addition of the work of Lucie Barber in the religious education of the child, it became apparent to him that if we are teaching, we are helping them in an interpretive task, that is, the hermeneutical task.
Gobbel credits the work of Piaget as being important and informative for him. It is his contention that many in the church do not have the ability to deal with Piaget's contribution. Gobbel further asserts that if indeed that theoretical framework is coming close to the way human beings learn, not to use it is ignoring a part of God's creation. The teacher or educator cannot shape someone. The responsibility of the educator is about shaping an environment in which the student might change.
In addition to his teaching, Gobbel also took administrative responsibilities while on the faculty at Gettysburg Seminary. During the 1976-1977 academic year, he was acting Dean of the Seminary. In 1979 and 1980 he was the acting director of the Washington Lutheran House of Studies. It was part of the Washington Theological Consortium, where Gettysburg Seminary students were able to commute to or live in Washington, DC and take theological courses in an ecumenical environment. As director he interacted with the Gettysburg students who gathered for conversation and worship. In addition it gave him the opportunity to interact with fellow colleagues in the Washington Theological Consortium.
His interest and involvement in education in the church brought him to other geographical areas of the globe. He was the faculty advisor to Gettysburg Seminary Exchange Program where students studied and experienced Lutheran theological education and church structure in primarily in northern Germany. This experience brought him into contact with colleagues at the predigerseminars (Church seminaries) in Preetz and Herborn, as well as visits to cities in the former Eastern Germany in 1979, 1983, and 1987. In the alternate years (1981, 1985, 1989), Gobbel helped to coordinate the visits of his German colleagues and their seminary students to Gettysburg Seminary.
In 1977 Gobbel traveled to India under the auspices of the Lutheran World Federation Exchange Program. This trip was particularly significant for him, in that it altered his perception about the world and helped him to develop a consciousness about the poor and poverty in the world. This experience and reflection on the plight of the poor in the world prompted he and his wife to donate the profits from their Christmas tree farm to the Lutheran Hunger Appeal to combat world hunger.
His interest in religious education was not limited to the classroom and publishing. In 1970 developed "The Seminary Explores" a public service radio program of conversation on issues important to the local Gettysburg community. He didn't see it as traditional religious programming but a way for the community to see the breath of issues about which the seminary concerned itself. The invited guests had a particular expertise of a subject or community issue which included social, health, economic, education, and theological areas of concern. A unique feature of the program was that it aired not only on Sunday mornings for a half-hour but also on weeknights at 5 o'clock in the evening in five minute segments; thereby, communicating to a broad audience during commuting and dinner times. While some thought the program would last for only three to four months, at the time of this writing, the program continues to be a voice from the seminary into the Gettysburg and surrounding communities with seminary faculty as hosts.
Contributions to Christian Education
After twenty-three years of teaching, Gobbel retired from Gettysburg Seminary in 1990; however, his contributions to the religious education field and with the theological education within the Lutheran church will continue for years to come. Reviewers of his writings noted his integration of theory and practice. Gobbel was not satisfied to give educators a list of strategies or skills for teaching children or youth, he was intentional about educators taking seriously the work of researchers and developmentalists such as Piaget and Fowler and utilizing their work on the human creature for the on-going task of religious education in the church. It becomes imperative that we engage students as they are able and not impose our desired outcomes on them. He has sought to have teachers and educators see children and youth as thinking creatures of God whom we called to work with and respect. (32)
Gobbel has helped teachers and educators to deal with the resources of the church. Specifically, he has helped teachers to find ways to engage students and themselves in the life of the worshipping community and as they delve into the Bible, the textbook of the church. In both areas of the church's ministry, the educator helps to create an environment for students to inquire, question, and engage in conversation. This demands flexibility and an openness on the part of teachers and educators to be comfortable with being vulnerable and working with the unanticipated questions and concerns which come from the children and youth we teach.
Gobbel has helped researchers and those involved in the field to see themselves working collaboratively. Very often he has worked in partnership with his spouse, Dr. Gertrude Gobbel, a psychologist. He also worked with the Dr. Thomas Ridenhour, an Old Testament scholar and Professor of Homiletics as well as Philip Huber, a parish pastor. Gobbel has demonstrated by these collaborations that the religious educator works in collaboratively and interdependently within the community of believers to transmit the gospel.
Addendum: The Reverend Dr. Alfred Roger Gobbel, 89, passed away on October 17, 2015.
- Gobbel, A. Roger, Gobbel, Gertrude, and Ridenhour, Thomas R. (1984). Helping Youth Understand the Bible: A Teaching Resource. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
- Gobbel, A. Roger and Gobbel, Gertrude G. (1986). The Bible â€“ A Child's Playground. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
- Gobbel, A. Roger and Huber, Phillip C. (1981). Creative Designs with Children in Worship. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
- Gobbel, A. Roger and Matthews, Elaine C. (1989). Living In The Light: A Short History in Word and Picture of St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Gettysburg, PA: St. James Lutheran Church.
- Gobbel, A. Roger, Matthews, Donald N., Matthews, Elaine C. (1976). On the Glorious Hill: A Short History in Word and Picture of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. Lancaster, PA: Pridemark Press.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1970). Some Implications from Communication Research for the Task of the Church Bulletin Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, 50 (1), 14-26.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1977). Documents from the 'Glorious Hill.' Bulletin Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg 57 (1), 11-19.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1978). A Time to Mourn and to Celebrate. In Victor A. Myers (Ed.), I'll Give You a Daisy a Day (pp. 93-96). Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co.
- Gobbel, A. Roger and Gobbel, Gertrude G. (1979). Constructing Sexuality. Dialogue 18 (3), 186-191.
- Gobbel, A. Roger and Gobbel, Gertrude G. (1979). Children and Worship. Religious Education 74 (6), 571-582.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1980). Catechetical Instruction: An Invitation to Thinking. Bulletin Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. 60 (1), 32-43.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1980). On Finding God. In Victor A. Myers (Ed), The Story I Love to Tell. (pp. 107-111). Springfield, OH: JLJ Press.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1980). Christian Education with Adolescents: An Invitation to Thinking. The Living Light 17 (2), 134-143.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1980). On Constructing Spirituality. Religious Education 75 (4), 409-421.
- Gobbel, A. Roger and Avery, William O. (1980). The Word of God and the Words of the Preacher. Review of Religious Research 22 (1), 41-53.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1980). The Sunday Church School: What Now, After 200 Years. Learning With 8 (8), 3-5.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1980). The Sunday Church School: What Now, After 200 Years. Interaction 21 (8), 12-15.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1980). The Worshipping Congregation: Beginning and Center of Christian Education. Learning With 8 (10), 5-6.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1981). Teaching the Bible with Children: Not How Much, But How? Learning With 9 (1), 1-
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1981) the Congregation: An Educating Community. Learning With 9 (4), 2-5.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1982). Receiving and Constructing Knowledge and Understanding. Religious Education 77 (1), 69-83.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (1984). To Preserve Us Pure and Holy. Lutheran Theological Seminary Bulletin 64 (1), 56-59.
- Gobbel, A. Roger (Speaker). (1983). Luther Teaches (Cassette Recording Seminary Archives). Gettysburg, PA: Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
Excerpts from Publications
"Catechetical Instruction: An Invitation to Thinking"
Catechetical instruction remains one of the most bothersome, distressing and seemingly almost futile tasks for the parish pastor. It is not my intent, however, to attempt a catalogue of the myriad difficulties, problems, confusions and frustrations so frequently encountered in that task. Rather, I propose to focus on a very specific aim or intent which can inform and guide whatever we do in catechetical instruction with the young adolescent. What is said here is not regarded or offered as a panacea for all our difficulties. It does not constitute all that needs to be said about a full catechetical program. It can give direction and force to what we do.
Catechetical instruction should have as its primary aim to initiate the young adolescent in learning a new thinking, in learning a new task of interpretation with the context of a faith community, the Lutheran faith community for most of us here. Our failure to focus deliberately and directly on the learning of thinking and interpreting produces much of the frustration we encounter in our task and contributes greatly to an inane and insipid catechetical program.
"On Constructing Spirituality"
From within the Christian Faith I wan to propose another language of spirituality by building a three-part definition of spirituality and by exploring its implications regarding both the source of spirituality and by exploring its implications regarding both the source of spirituality and the task of spiritual formation. It is a language that can give focus to our concerns and efforts. And I strongly suspect the directions, certainly not the peculiar details, suggested here are applicable for other religious traditions.
First, in building the definition I suggest that spirituality, for the Christian, is "life lived under and interpreted by the Christian Gospel." Second, "a life lived under and interpreted by the Christian Gospel" is the Christian's response to the question, "What does it mean for me this day to be a Christian, to be a baptized person?" But there is no such thing as a solitary, individual Christian. And so, third, spirituality or "a life lived under and interpreted by the Christian Gospel" is the Christian's response together with brothers and sisters in the Faith to the question, What is it to be Christian together in community and in the world?" (412-413)
Creative Designs with Children at Worship
In the gathered community are those words, stories, symbols, cultic acts and events which identify all of us together as Christian. How the children may understand those identifications intellectually and effectively is not our first concern at this point. Rather, children in the gathered, worshiping community are totally surrounded by those identifications which proclaim to them the reality of who they already are, while continuing to point to that reality in ever new, exciting ways. That is a matter of first concern. So, whatever we do with children vis-Ã -vis worship or in the activity of Christian education, our task in the first instance is not that of "making" Christians of them. We are charged however, with the work of socialization within the Christian community, of ongoing conversion, and of assisting children to claim their baptism. Our task is to help our children to be and do who they already are, and to learn what it is to be Christian together. (4-5).
The Bible the Child's Playground
To some adults it may appear foolish, even outrageous, to write of children as interpreters of the Bible. Regardless of how foolish and outrageous it may appear, when children engage the Bible in various situations, they interpret the Bible, employing whatever abilities and experiences they possess and constrained by limitations within their developmental sequences. They create their understandings of the Bibl as it impinges upon them and their life content. The task of interpretation, an essential human task, belongs to the children. As they do that task in their encounters with the Bible, it remains our task to encourage and to assist them to engage the Bible as richly and thoroughly as they are able, to challenge them to return to their work time and time and time again, and to encourage them to take their place in a common adventure with others in the household of faith. It is to encourage and assist them to think, feel, wonder, be amazed, and ask questions not only about the Bible but about themselves as they have heard the claims and promises of the Bible. (156)
Helping Youth Interpret the Bible: A Teaching Resource
As Christians we are a pilgrim people ever on the way of becoming who we are. Aid along our pilgrim way comes from a diversity of sources. The Scriptures provide the critical and necessary data for Christians to interpret, order, and construct their lives.
Christian education occurs within the context of human existence and development. In the large arena of human existence all persons participate in a continuing activity of interpreting, ordering, and constructing their lives. They endeavor to make sense of and give meaning to their lives and the world.
At any point in human development, all individuals are subject to both possibilities and limitations in cognitive, affective, motivational, and social realms. They are the recipients of a range of particular experiences. At any point they have already created their own values, commitments, understandings, and meaning. All of these variables interact, working together to influence and to give shape to the continuing activity of interpreting, ordering, and constructing. A task of Christian education is to bring "particular" data and experiences to bear upon the lives of Christian people as they engage in that continuing activity. These data and experiences challenge and enable persons to construct their lives under the event of Jesus.
Our work as pastors, teachers, and parents of youth is difficult and complex. There are no short-cuts. There are no easy, simple methods or materials. If we determine to engage adolescent young persons in learning the ongoing task of interpreting the Bible, we must perceive and accept our work in all its complexity and difficulty. It demands our time, energy, patience, and best thinking. And above all, we enter an exciting, always surprising adventure with young Christians in the household of faith. (3-4)
Nelson T. Strobert
Nelson T. Strobert, Ph.D. University of Akron, Professor of Christian Education, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.