By Jack L. Seymour
Born into an active church family, Charles R. (Chuck) Foster (1937 - ) saw from childhood how the community of faith shapes the identity and vocation of a person to serve as a faithful Christian disciple. He is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church (ordained 1964; retired 2001). Not only has Dr. Foster's work focused on the history of Christian religious education, the relationship of culture to learning faith, and congregational teaching, but he has also shaped the understanding of and practices of teaching in theological education.
Born in Reardon, Washington, on November 16, 1937, Chuck Foster's family eventually moved to Hood River, Oregon where he grew up under the shadow of Mt. Hood. His family was active in The Methodist Church with his father serving as Sunday school teacher and his mother a leader in the WSCS (Women's Society for Christian Service). His father was a powerful storyteller who worked as an agricultural extension agent (in conjunction with Oregon State University) to assist families in the development of farm and family life. Grounded in a tradition of education, all four of his grandparents had significant years of education. In addition, ministry was embedded in the family through a history of active church involvement and a grandfather who served as a Methodist minister.
Indeed, the church became a primary setting for community where not only were friends developed and perspectives shaped, but where the wider world entered through excellent church school materials and the mission studies of the WSCS. During high school, Foster was both a local church leader and also involved in sub-district, district and conference youth activities. Church activities coupled with 4-H provided adult role models who were committed to the development of youth leaders to serve church and public life. Themes of mission, community of faith, leadership, and service to public life were nurtured in this rich environment, nestled by the slopes of Mt. Hood. When seventeen, he preached his first sermon, the theme was Romans 12: 1-3. That text about "not being conformed to this world," but being "transformed by the renewal of the mind" provided foundations for his thought that were to be developed in the future.
A B.A. degree was earned at Willamette University in 1960 with a major in English literature. The Methodist environment of the college and continuing annual conference service maintained the influences of mission, community of faith, leadership development, and public service. During college he participated in campus musical activities (choir, voice and organ), an experimental honors program (which emphasized learning across disciplines), and provided leadership for several campus groups. Church involvement continued in the campus Wesley Fellowship, the student choir in a local Methodist church, and as the conference president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship and later of the Methodist Student Movement.
Foster completed his seminary degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1963 amidst profound cultural and social changes. Outstanding faculty members seeking to connect the traditions of the faith to the realities of daily life were profoundly influential - Robert McAfee Brown, Robert Lynn, C. Ellis Nelson, Robert Handy, and James Muilenberg, to name a few. In particular, participation in an experimental field education program directed by Dr. John L. Casteel set directions for the future. Casteel engaged students in a "laboratory school" approach to church renewal through small group ministry. Here Chuck Foster was introduced to learning from praxis and shaping educational structures for faith development. Westfield Methodist Church in New Jersey and The Riverside Church in New York became training grounds with Eugene Laubach, Ethel Johnson, and Norma Barsness as guides. They all demonstrated the power of education to teach tradition, to transform it as it faithfully engaged public life, and to deepen faith development through shared commitments and mutual support.
Furthermore, Dr. Foster was trained in the lab school movement of The Methodist Church - a movement to teach clergy and lay, congregational teachers teaching skills by critically reflecting on their practices of teaching. Aileen Sanborn, national coordinator of Methodist teacher training programs also became a mentor. In his last year in seminary, Chuck Foster taught his first lab school with junior high youth and adult youth leaders at The Riverside Church.
While at seminary, September 1, 1962, he and Janet Troxel married. They have two children: Anne who lives with her children Naomi and Susan in Bloomington, IN and Scott who lives in Moab, UT.
Following seminary, Chuck Foster moved to Corning, New York to First Methodist Church, serving there from 1963-1966. During these years he pursued ordination in The Methodist Church (now The United Methodist Church, after its merger in 1968 with the Evangelical United Brethren Church). Under the mentorship of the Reverend Thomas Steen, Foster served as congregational educator. The church engaged in research on koinonia (small) groups and he continued as a lab school teacher. He was convinced that recruiting Sunday school teachers also meant training them in lab school models. Training laity in biblical and theological scholarship, seeking to connect faith with public life, and developing excellent teaching and mentoring practices actually occurred in this congregation. For example, a group of youth gathered together with him weekly to read significant theological texts, like Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith. In addition, he prepared teams of youth from the congregation for mission trips and United Nations seminars. He continued to give leadership to regional lab schools for workers with youth (both junior and senior high). Here he met another mentor, the Reverend Richard (Dick) Cookson (later to become a Christian education leader at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship). Through this program, he gained national exposure in The Methodist Church, leading events at Lake Junaluska and Mount Sequioa, both Methodist conference training centers in the Southern U.S and as the leader of regional seminars training future lab school leaders.
Again, community of faith, teaching practices, deepening theological and biblical understandings, and connecting to social and cultural realities of public life were themes that were reinforced. The interlocking set of district, annual conference and national structures for education in the Methodist Church had a profound impact. Education was seen as crucial throughout the denomination and was nurtured by the national structures of the denomination.
He applied to and was admitted to the Ed.D. program at Teachers College-Columbia University. His study was motivated by a passionate desire to advance youth ministry - to connect youth leadership development and ministry with the profound changes occurring in public life, particularly the civil rights movement and the reaction to the Vietnam War. Mentors like Lawrence Cremin, Philip Phoenix, Maxine Greene and Douglas Sloan (Cremin's graduate assistant) at Teachers College and Robert Lynn and C. Ellis Nelson at Union, as well as students from Jewish Theological Seminary made this a profound nurturing environment of exploring issues of church and public life and the formative influences of community. History of education and theological commitments merged in efforts to form young persons who impacted church and culture. His dissertation focused on the relationship of Horace Bushnell's organic, i.e. community model of education and Henry Barnard's emerging public school movement. In addition, during this time, Chuck served as minister to single adults at The Riverside Church (1966-1968) - again a laboratory to explore how Christian education affects the lives of emerging adults.
After graduate school, a trajectory of church leadership and seminary teaching was set - at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, from 1968-1981; at Scarritt Graduate School, 1981-1988; at Candler School of Theology of Emory University, 1988-2001; and at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2001-2006. By reviewing key events in each institution, the development of his understanding of and impact on Christian education theory and practice will become clear.
Methodist Theological School in Ohio
In 1968 he joined the faculty of Methodist Theological School in Ohio. While committed to returning to the parish and to United Methodist Church conference activities, he was convinced to "try" seminary teaching for five years. His exposure to Methodist Theological School had come through teaching a laboratory school for a seminary class taught by Dr. Robert Browning (who would become a mentor and colleague). It was a newly established seminary of The Methodist Church, beginning in 1958. During the 1960s, it was known for innovation and creativity in curriculum, for teaching, and for a commitment to social justice ministries.
Here Charles Foster developed his voice as a theological educator. Not only did he teach in its Master of Divinity program, but with Browning, helped create a Master of Christian Education program. Many students completed both degrees simultaneously. It was an environment for understanding excellence in educational ministries. For several years he chaired a faculty team engaged in an experimental program of praxis education in which students completed required work in Christian education, pastoral care, and church administration while participating in those ministries in a local congregation. Course leadership paired a faculty member and a member of that congregation's staff. Robust readings in the academic disciplines with critical reflection on practice in community were integral features of student learning experience. During his tenure at Methodist Theological Seminary, Foster was promoted through the ranks from instructor to professor of Christian education and served as acting dean in 1980-81.
With Professors Robert Browning, Professor of Christian Education, and Everett Tilson, Professor of Old Testament, he worked with the Board of Education of The United Methodist Church (later Board of Discipleship) in developing a set of audio/ tape assisted self-instruction programs for lay theological education. Four books were developed that demonstrated how theological scholarship and lay education could be combined. Looking At Leadership through the Eyes of Biblical Faith: A self instruction course of study for teachers and leadÂ¬ers in Christian education (Discipleship Resources, 1978); Ways Persons Become Christian: A self instruction course of study for teachers and leaders in Christian education (Abingdon, 1976); Ways the Bible Comes Alive: A self instruction course of study for teachers and leaders in Christian education (Abingdon, 1975); and Communicating the Faith with Children: A self instruction course of study for teachers and leaders in Christian education (Board of Education, The United Methodist Church, 1971). This last was awarded in April of 1972 the Paul M. Hinkhouse Award of the Public RelaÂ¬tions Council for audio-tape resources.
Scarritt Graduate School
In the early 1980s, the board of trustees of Scarritt College in Nashville, TN, with the assistance of the United Methodist Church Boards of Discipleship and Higher Education and Ministry dreamed of a new program to advance Christian education and church music. A new faculty was hired.
Chuck Foster became one of four new faculty members in Christian education. His decision to join the faculty had to do with his desire to address policy-makers in denominational education. Furthermore, he looked forward to working in a scholarly environment with several colleagues in the field. He hoped that together they could work across education, theology, and history. These hopes were realized. In cooperation with Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Scarritt offered the Master of Arts in Christian Education and Master of Arts in Church Music. With the educational leadership faculty of Peabody College for Teachers of Vanderbilt University, they developed a joint Ed.D. program in religious education. Dr. Foster served as professor of Christian education, as director of the Multicultural Resources Center, and as faculty chair.
While only short-lived, a confluence of forces made Scarritt Graduate School a fertile setting to reflect on the theory and practice of Christian religious education - including The United Methodist Church offices of Christian education, distinguished schools of theology and education, curriculum publishing houses, and the national offices of Christian Educators Fellowship, an association for church educators; along with a lively and talented group of masters' and doctoral students. Consultations were held on "Ethnicity in Church Education;" on "The Church's Ministry to Black Youth," a Lilly Endowment-funded project on youth ministry and theological education; and with the education staff of the National Council of Churches along with two conferences of Japanese and American Christian educators. The atmosphere of Scarritt resulted in five of Foster's publications: Working with Black Youth: Opportunities for Ministry, ed. with Grant S. Shockley (Abingdon Press, 1989); Ethnicity in the Education of the Church (Scarritt Press, 1987); The Ministry of the Volunteer Teacher (Abingdon Press, 1986); The Church in the Education of the Public, co-written with colleagues Jack L. Seymour and Robert T. O'Gorman (Abingdon Press, 1984); Teaching in the Community of Faith (Abingdon Press, 1982. Scarritt closed as an academic institution granting degrees in 1988 and was transformed into the Scarritt Bennett Center, a conference, retreat, and education center.
Candler School of Theology, Emory University
The move to Emory University continued Chuck Foster's work with doctoral education in Christian religious education as well as work with M.Div. students. At Emory he served from 1988-2001 as Professor of Religion and Education and as director of the program in Christian education. Again a rich environment, Emory early received a grant from the Lilly Endowment for the Youth Theology Initiative (YTI). The planning and initial coordinating team for YTI was chaired by Foster. Not only was YTI a summer program offering high quality theology and leadership education for high school students throughout the U.S., but it also became a setting to attract and train Ph.D. students with a focus in youth ministry. This program continues today to provide a significant influence on theological vocation for youth and a place of research on youth ministry.
Furthermore, the role of Christian practices in the formation of identity, mission, and faith development were connected to practices of education as faculty colleagues in Christian education, liturgy, pastoral care, and social ethics worked together. During his time at Emory University, Foster continued his work on culture and Christian education and on the practices of the community of faith as setting for education, resulting in Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education (Abingdon Press, 1994); Black Religious Experience: Conversations on Double Consciousness and the Work of Grant Shockley (Abingdon Press, 2003); Embracing Diversity: Leading Multicultural Congregations (The Alban Institute, 1997); We Are the Church: Cultural Diversity in Congregational Life, written with Theodore Brelsford (Trinity Press, 1996); and Diversity, Pluralism, Multiculturalism: A Working Glossary Contributing to the Discussion of Diversity in the Ministries of the Church, written with Theodore Brelsford (United Methodist Publishing House, 1995).
Through the Ph.D. program, Dr. Foster became involved in Emory University's "university teaching program." This was founded by a provost of Emory University to enhance the quality of teaching of all Ph.D. students. Foster developed and taught the program for students in the graduate program in religion. Moreover, his work for theological education expanded as he served as associate dean for faculty development from 1997-1999 and interim dean of Candler from 1999-2000.
During his time at Emory, he was one of a group of persons gathered to envision means of enhancing teaching in theological education. With the funding of the Lilly Endowment, the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion was born. Foster served on its advisory board from its inception until 2001. He also directed Wabash Center workshops on teaching for seminary teachers in 1997-1998; 1999-2000, and 2000-2001 and co-edited its journal Teaching Theology and Religion from 2001-2005.
Academic leadership, directing the program on teaching, national leadership in seminary education, and research with faculty colleagues on seminary teaching prepared him well for an invitation to serve as director for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching project on clergy education.
From 2001- 2006 Foster was a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation. The Carnegie Foundation had embarked on a major set of research projects to explore teaching practices in the professions - law, medicine, engineering, nursing, and ministry. Educating Clergy was the result of the study on ministry education. A team of researchers, including Lisa Dahill, Larry Golemon, and Barbara Wang Tolentino was assembled around Charles Foster to complete a major qualitative study on seminary education in Christian and Jewish seminaries in the United States. Foster and colleagues worked in partnership with other leaders of the Carnegie Foundation, director Lee Shulman, William Sullivan, Anne Colby, and Pat Hutchings, to name a few, to explore the relationships within and the enhancement of professional education and doctoral education in the U.S.
For Foster, involvement in the Carnegie Foundation connected the practices of Christian education and of theological education to those of public and university education. Following the publication of Educating Clergy, through the leadership of the Wabash Center, Foster and others led over 100 workshops across the U.S. and Canada to improve the practices of teaching in theological schools (http://www.wabashcenter.wabash...).
In fact, the very commitments he had been introduced to in the shadow of Mt. Hood, those of mission, community of faith, leadership, and service to public life, were reinforced and expanded. The creation of networks for education was also reinforced as was the relationship of scholarship to practice. These themes continue with Charles Foster in his retirement as he leads workshops, writes, and serves in his local congregation in Salem, OR.
Over the years, Chuck Foster has participated in and given leadership to the following organizations: Religious Education Association, United Methodist Association of Scholars in Christian Education; Christian Educators Fellowship; and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning.
Religious Education Association (this association is currently the merger of the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education and the Religious Education Association) - 1971 to present. While presently chair of the Harper Committee (2011-present) for REA, most of Foster's contributions came through the previous organization APRRE where he was a member of the executive committee from 1989-1998; first vice president in 1993-1995; and president in 1995-96. In the previous REA, he was a member of the Board of Directors from 1992-1995 and chair of its editorial committee from 1993-1995. A primary impact Dr. Foster has had on REA and APRRE is the focus on multi-cultural education - particularly the roles of power and privilege in education and the development of culturally appropriate practices of Christian religious education. This became the focus of the conference he coordinated as first vice-president in 1995 where his presidential essay was "Teaching for Belief: Power and Pedagogical Practices" and in guest editing an issue of Religious Education in the spring of 1992 on "Multicultural Religious Education."
United Methodist Association of Scholars in Christian Education (formerly called the United Methodist Association of Professors in Christian Education): 1974-present. He served as chair of research committee in 1982-1984; as Vice President in 1984-1986; and president in 1986-88. He led UMASCE to consider the theme of the teaching authority of the church. This resulted in the publication of a volume co-edited with Elizabeth Box Price, By What Authority: A conversation on teaching among United Methodists, Abingdon Press, 1989.
Christian Educators Fellowship, 1968-present (and its predecessor organization the Methodist Conference on Christian Education, joining in 1966). He has served this Methodist Church and later United Methodist Church organization as frequent workshop leader and plenary speaker. Moreover, he served as a member of the board of directors in 1967-68 when it transitioned to become CEF.
Several of Chuck Foster's students are serving effectively in churches and denominational structures; others are serving in public life; and others in academic institutions. In particular, some of his students in academic institutions include Drs. Ed. Trimmer, Martin College; N. Lynne Westfield, Drew University; Margaret Ann Crain, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary; Fred Smith, Wesley Theological Seminary; Joyce Mercer, Virginia Union Theological Seminary; Theodore Brelsford, Emory University; Katherine Turpin, Iliff School of Theology; Reginald Blount, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary; and Timothy Van Meter, Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
Contributions to Christian Education
Chuck and Jan Foster are wonderful hosts. Over the years, friends and students have joined their warm hospitality remembering shared traditions, listening to the stories of strangers, celebrating friendships, and building community. Indeed these very practices connect to his deeply-held educational commitments. They reflect his contributions to the field of Christian education. To name four:
Community of faith as context of learning
Culture and diversity in Christian religious education
Defining theological education
Public role of Christian religious education
Community of faith as context of learning
As we have seen through the biography, the community of faith as context for learning was a key theme of his life. It was nurtured in a home congregational environment, became the subject of a seminary experimental field education program focused on church renewal through small groups, and was undergirded by scholarly research on Horace Bushnell who himself had advocated for the comprehensive role of the church in faith development. Others in the field of Christian religious education, for example, C. Ellis Nelson, John Westerhoff, III, and Maria Harris, also developed and deepened reflection on how the life of the whole congregation teaches.
Chuck Foster has creatively contributed to the dialogue on the role of community of faith in Christian education. It is at the heart of his books, Educating Congregations and Teaching in the Community of Faith. In particular Foster has shown how the practices of congregation life can be organized and unified in "event centered" Christian education. Worship, preaching, mission, and community life can be connected with study to provide an active and reflective connection among congregational practices. Through events, as in the church's holy seasons, congregants can study and practice the deepest meanings of the faith. Foster has attended to and contributed to the emerging literature on Christian practices. He has in particular shown how worship, mission, and Christian education can all be interlocked to provide a profound formative environment as well as a powerful ministry context.
Yet, many who take the "community of faith" turn do not emphasize as much as Foster the part that schooling plays in the learning of the community of faith. Foster has been a regular Sunday school teacher and participant. He has led Sunday school workshops and has explored and advocated for the unique contributions of the Sunday school. For Foster, classes for learning are a critical component in the community of faith. Here persons learn the tools of interpretation by which they engage the traditions and practices they encounter elsewhere in the congregation and life. The open and progressive message of much of the Methodist tradition for reasoned reflection growing out of the interdependence of scripture, tradition and experience is at the heart of his understanding of Christian education. Christian education is important because it assists persons to live contributing to justice and community building.
Another unique contribution of Foster's work is extending the dialogue beyond the congregation to the denomination itself. Foster has reminded mainline denominations of the consequences of denominational dismantling of Christian education agencies. Under budget pressure and the reduction of members, many mainline denominations have streamlines national staffs. The streamlining however has not resulted in more facile or responsive agencies. Rather, as Foster argues, it has profoundly affected the networks which supported Christian education and faith formation. In an earlier day, the Methodist Board of Education provided a nationwide training program for teachers, e.g. the laboratory school program. The network of curriculum staff, national training programs, congregational leaders, colleges, and seminaries provided a network of formation. This pattern of linking district, annual conference and national efforts together with congregational practices with high-quality leadership supported Christian education. For Foster, the community of faith, its whole life, is clearly, the setting for Christian education. Yet, this context for learning is further reinforced with the interlocking network of Christian education structures. Congregations by themselves are powerful, but limited contexts for Christian learning. Denominational networks provide fuller context for formation - connecting national agencies and commitments with local practices. Without denominational support, the community of faith is weakened.
Culture and diversity in Christian religious education
Charles Foster has been a primary advocate assisting the field of Christian religious education to take culture seriously. Again he was influenced by his upbringing and his doctoral research. Education, he learned from people like Robert Lynn and Lawrence Cremin, is about culture - about the process of passing on and transforming the integrity of traditions through the process of history.
In a 1992 editorial for an issue of Religious Education on multi-cultural education that Charles Foster edited, he writes:
If the basic assumptions of a multicultural education are taken seriously, it will lead to more than the reform of educational practice. It will transform the way we understand the tasks of forming, sustaining, and renewing community life. The quest to understand this transformation has only begun. The literature is scant. The exploration is still tentative… the quest to understand the function of cultural diversity in religious education in North America has occurred primarily among a small group of Christian religious educators (171).
And he was a leader of that small group of Christian educators focusing on multi-cultural education. Foster wanted to assist the field to acknowledge that each perspective on religious education is rooted in a cultural context. Because it is "Christian," Christian education in a congregation in rural West Virginia shares much with education in Baptist churches on the Southside of Chicago, yet there are important differences. Culture influences how the faith is understood, embodied, and engaged. Moreover, multi-cultural education seeks to address the limitations imposed by the powers of dominating cultures to control and oppress.
Foster advocates for a cultural sensitivity that honors and seeks to understand the unique dimensions of particular expressions of Christian faith. An example is the work he has done to research and communicate the dimensions of "black Christian religious education. To this end, he wrote with Fred Smith, Black Religious Experience: Conversations on Double Consciousness and the Work of Grant Shockley (2003) and wrote and edited with Grant Shockley, Working with Black Youth and The Christian Education Journey of Black Americans (1985). Moreover, his conference leadership and writing project, Ethnicity in the Education of the Church (1987), expanded to include how Christian education is differently embodied in several different cultural traditions.
But rather than simply describing ethnic patterns in Christian education, he looked at how multicultural congregations were seeking justice and embodying new patterns of inclusion within the church. Here Embracing Diversity: Leading Multicultural Congregations (1997) and We Are the Church: Cultural Diversity in Congregational Life, the latter written with Theodore Brelsford (1996) described the practices of multi-cultural congregations and advocated for inclusion.
Furthermore, his work has sought to challenge the patterns of control and exclusion. Several essays challenged hegemony in educational practice: "Beyond White Privilege: Choosing Resources for Teaching and Learning in a Multicultural World" and "Rainbows and Mosaics: The Quest for a Multicultural Future" both written in 1995 and "Imperialism in the Religious Education of Cultural Minorities" in 1991. Understanding cultural practices, challenging power and oppression in dominating patterns of congregational church life, and seeking to honor diversity were all themes in his contribution to the field.
Defining theological education
The last years of his employed career were spent in the major research study on clergy education. He and a team of researchers and consultants sought to define the pedagogical practices of clergy education. Rather than finding a signature pedagogy shared by Jewish and Christian seminary educators, they offered four practices that interacted in seminaries to shape teaching. A summary of that study concluded:
Through their pastoral and teaching functions, clergy of all faiths share characteristics and important tasks. They help individuals and communities interpret and respond to the events of their individual and family lives. But clergy also shape the ways individuals and groups make sense of the larger events of our common life. The study provided a searching examination of how religious leaders-pastors, priests, and rabbis-are prepared for these challenging times. (Media Summary: Educating Clergy, Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2005; p. 3)
The study identified four practices of clergy education:
Developing in students the facility for interpreting texts, situations, and relationships.
Nurturing the dispositions and habits integral to the spiritual and vocational formation of clergy.
Heightening student consciousness of the content and agency of historical and contemporary contexts.
Cultivating student performance in clergy roles and ways of thinking. (Media Summary, p. 6)
The identification of these four elements - interpretation, formation, contextualization and performance - provided a language for faculty development in seminaries throughout the U.S. Educating Clergy is used as a text in classes to prepare Ph.D. students in theological and rabbinic studies for teaching. In addition, with the assistance of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Education, workshops were conducted across the US and Canada to assist seminary faculties to reflect on the relationship of institutional culture, seminary goals, curricular integration, and pedagogical practices.
A particular twist that Chuck Foster has contributed within this study is the identification of a "pedagogical imagination" or … the capacity of a teacher to envision the construction of a pedagogical event by drawing on the interplay of disciplinary and professional knowledge and the skills to fulfill his or her intentions for the learning of a particular group of students in a given place and at a designated time (p. 40).
He has assisted the study to identify the "pedagogical imaginations" of seminary educators - showing their passions, strengths, and repertoires. The book is filled with stories of their work and the particular ways they "art" their teaching.
This study has defined for the present time the sources that shaped theological and rabbinic education, the practices of teachers, and the issues of purpose and curriculum that seminaries are facing. These contributions have been extended in Foster's role within the Wabash Center itself, editing its journal Teaching Theology and Religion, and serving on the faculty of workshops for pre-tenure teachers. Theological educators are more sensitized to their pedagogical imaginations, to their contributions to whole of the curriculum, and to the dynamics of serving as members of faculties of seminaries.
Public role of Christian religious education
What is the purpose of Christian religious education? This question has been discussed throughout the field. Is it to form Christian disciples, to teach Christian practices, to teach theological skills, to help people grow in faith, and to transform society? Foster has contributed robustly to this discussion. He has shown how these multiple purposes of Christian religious education can be connected.
In addition, an historian, like Foster, knows that religious communities are one aspect of a broad ecology of education where multiple forces such as voluntary associations, political factions, cultural groups, community organizations, cultural institutions, business organizations, and professional societies all teach. Within a society, these forces relate and impinge on each other to influence and shape values and commitments by which people live, relate to each other, build communities, and engage the stranger. Within this complex pattern, the roles of associations, like churches can be vital and vibrant, or can be hollow vestiges of the past, or overwhelmed by particular cultural practices. The church and its education are grounded within the educational practices of communities in an historical process of transmitting and transforming meanings by which we live.
As the biography of Charles Foster has made clear, he is a committed Christian, raised in a Christian community, and influenced by a Christian mindset as he engages the world and those who hold very different values and commitments. He is clear that Christian faith can provide a powerful message of justice, hope and community that saves by offering new ways of living with each other, the world, and God - by reconciliation. But, in turn, these commitments are coupled with the open commitments of a dynamic tradition engaging real living. Christian education is a form of interpretation where the tradition (revealed in and shaped out of the life and work of Jesus called Christ for over 2000 years) seeks to continue the practices of grace, of inclusion, of hope, and of justice birthed in that originating tradition.
Foster has taught us that unless Christian religious education is public - engaging the understandings of others and seeking to affect and be affected by others - it is not the dynamic living expression of a grace-filled and just living God. A powerful expression of his commitments is stated in his essay, "Religious Education at the Edge of History" (2004):
… religious educators must be fluent in a native religious education language to sustain and renew their particular religious traditions; fluent in an interreligious education language to engage each other respectfully and reverentially across those traditions; fluent in a public religious education language for native and interreligious conversations in the public square about the economic, political and social forces affecting the lives of people; fluent in the languages of a post-religion religious education to engage in conversation those who dismiss, critique, or despise religious perspectives and practices, traditions and institutions, and finally, fluent in what (Gabriel) Moran called the "second language" of discourse on religious education itself (77-78).
Such a definition of the aims of Christian religious education expects a lot of all of us - to be actively engaged in seeking the directions of the living God for the shaping of public life together with others in a shared world. Another way he says this same powerful vocation appears in Educating Congregations:
Perhaps the most powerful of all gifts to the world found in the Christian heritage is its sense of community. Its promises confront the messages of fragmentation and violence dominating social relationships. It breaks through our finite distinctions of race, culture, age, class, gender, and ability to celebrate the necessary interdependence of all people. It confronts our human proclivity to argument and dissension in the affirmation that all of us are children of God. We therefore have a "common ancestry." We share "a common heritage" originating in God's creativity and spilling across the ages and through the nations of humanity. We "have a common experience"-an insight increasingly real to those us living into the twenty-first century. A rape in Bosnia, a drought in Africa, a wheat crop failure in the Ukraine, the relentless deforestation along the Amazon or in the Pacific Northwest affect us all. At the same time the selfless giving of Mother Teresa, the finesse of an Olympic ice skater, the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. can inspire us all. The media declares we live in a "global village." The interdependence implied in that metaphor, however, has long been at the heart of the Christian vision of community (P. 56).
Foster's impact on the field of Christian religious education has been substantial. With a spirit of generosity, he has invited others into conversation and partnered to advance projects in the field. In fact, one of the most distinctive features of his work is this "collaborative spirit." Throughout his training and career, he has worked in communities of faith seeking to affect wider community life. During seminary, he was invited into the experience of team teaching as a seminary student. His first writing project was collaboration with Gene Laubach on a sex education curriculum for junior high youth. His congregational ministry experience was in team ministries. Much of his teaching was deliberately collaborative either by teaching with colleagues or by structuring the classroom learning environment for students to enter into shared investigative projects. Much of his research and writing has involved collaboration. In fact, he has embodied his commitment to empower the community of faith in his own teaching, research, and leadership. His scholarship and his practice have aligned as he has sought to understand and embody Christian faith and its practices. He continues to invite us into collaboration to learn and live Christian faith in public life.
Academic and Professional Publications
- From Generation to Generation: The Adaptive Challenge of Mainline Protestant Education in Forming Faith. (Cascade Books, 2012).
- Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education. Abingdon Press, 2006 (1994)
- Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination. With Lisa E. Dahill, Lawrence A. Golemon, Barbara Wang Tolentino. Foreword by Lee S. Shulman. Introduction by William M. Sullivan. Jossey Bass, 2005
- Study Guide: Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination. With Lisa E. Dahill, Lawrence A. Golemon, Barbara Wang Tolentino. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2005
- Black Religious Experience: Conversations on Double Consciousness and the Work of Grant Shockley. With Fred Smith. Abingdon Press, 2003
- Embracing Diversity: Leading Multicultural Congregations. The Alban Institute, 1997
- We Are the Church: Cultural Diversity in Congregational Life. With Theodore Brelsford. Trinity Press, 1996
- Diversity, Pluralism, Multiculturalism: A Working Glossary Contributing to the Discussion of Diversity in the Ministries of the Church. With Theodore Brelsford. United Methodist Publishing House, 1995
- By What Authority: A Conversation on Teaching among United Methodists. Edited with Elizabeth Box Price. Abingdon Press, 1991
- Working with Black Youth: Opportunities for Ministry, ed. with Grant S. Shockley. Abingdon Press, 1989
- Ethnicity in the Education of the Church, ed. Scarritt Press, 1987
- The Christian Education Journey of Black Americans: Past, Present and Future. With Grant Shockley. Discipleship Resources, 1985
- The Church in the Education of the Public. With Jack L. Seymour and Robert T. O'Gormon. Abingdon Press, 1984
- Teaching in the Community of Faith. Abingdon Press, 1982
Articles in Scholarly Journals and Books
- "Cultures Matter," Religious Education. 102 (Spring 2007) 2:120-23
- "Teaching and Learning in the Service of Transformation." Change. 39 (May-June 2007) 3:38-42
- "Pedagogies of Interpretation in Educating Clergy." With Lisa E. Dahill, Lawrence A. Golemon, Barbara Wang Tolentino. Teaching Theology and Religion. 8 (October 2005) 4: 204-17
- "Hearing the Congregation's Voice in Theological Education: A Response to the Consultation Conversation." Theological Education, 40 (Supplement 2005): 87-92
- "Religious Education at the Edge of History." Religious Education, 99 (Winter 2004) 1: 72-78
- "Cultural Diversity: A Challenge for Seminary Teaching." Seminary Journal 9 (Spring 2003) 1: 26-33
- "Where Shall We Sit? The Vocational Conversations of a Religious Educator." Religious Education 98 (Summer 2003) 3: 311-330
- "The Scholarship of Teaching in Theology and Religion." Teaching Theology and Religion. 5 (Fall 2002) 3
- "Diversity in Theological Education." Theological Education. 38 (July 2002) 2: 15-38
- "How Clearly Must I See? Art and Ethics in Pedagogical Practice." With Joyce Ann Mercer. Teaching and Learning Theology and Religion 4 (October 2001) 3: 124-32
- "Why Don't They Remember? Reflections on the Future of Congregational Education." Forging a Better Religious Education for the Third Millennium. Religious Education Press, 2000: 89-112
- "Teaching for Belief: Power and Pedagogical Practice." Religious Education 92 (Spring 97) 2: 270-84
- "Beyond White Privilege: Choosing Resources for Teaching and Learning in a Multicultural World." Liberal Religious Education 15 (Fall 1995): 25-34
- "Rainbows and Mosaics: The Quest for a Multicultural Future." Liberal Religious Education (Fall, 1995): 25-34
- "Multicultural Religious Education." guest editor, Religious Education (Spring 1992)
- "Teaching Authority in Cultural Perspective." Quarterly Review 12:45 (Fall 1992): 27-38
- "Diaconal Ministry: Vision and Reality." Quarterly Review 11:41 (Spring, 1991): 22-36
- "Imperialism in the Religious Education of Cultural Minorities." Religious Education 89:1 (Winter, 1991): 145-55
- "Introduction." In William R. Myers. Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry. Pilgrim Press, 1990: xxi-xxix
- "Education in the Quest for Church." In Jack L. Seymour and Donald E. Miller (eds.). Theological Approaches to Christian Religious Education. Abingdon, 1990: 83-101
- "Clergy as Educators," 133-35; "Ethnicity," 227-28; and "Hugh Hartshorne," 287; in Iris V. Cully and Kendig B. Cully, (eds.), Harpers Dictionary of Religious Education. Harper and Row, 1990
- "Changing Patterns of Family Life." In Allen Moore (ed.), Religious Education as Social Transformation: A Social Theory Approach. Abingdon, 1989: 37-65
- "For the Life of a Child: The Religious in the Education of the Public. Religious Education 1989:4 (Fall 1994): 516-529
- "The Pastor: Agent of Vision in the Education of a Community of Faith." In Robert L. Browning (ed.), The Pastor as Religious Educator. Religious Education Press, 1989: 11-34
- "Communicating: Informal Conversation in the Congregation's Education." In C. Ellis Nelson (ed.), Congregations: Their Power to Form and Transform. John Knox, 1987: 218-37
- "Double Messages: Ethnocentricism in the Church's Education." Religious Education 82:3 (Summer, l987), 447 68
- "Abundance of Managers and Scarcity of Teachers." Religious Education. 80:3 (Summer, 1985), 437 46
- "Intergenerational Religious Education." In Marvin J. Taylor, (ed.), Changing Patterns in Religious Education. Abingdon, 1984: 278-89
- "The Community of Faith as a Guiding Image for the Church's Educational Ministries." In Jack L. Seymour and Donald Miller (eds.), Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education. Abingdon, 1982: 53-72
- "Curriculum and the Struggle for Power in the Churches." In R. Harold Hipps (ed.), Confrontation Curriculum. Christian Educators Fellowship , 1982: 43-64
Professional and Popular Publications
- Steward: Living as Disciples in Everyday Life (Training Manual and Leaders Guide). Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2000
- The Ministry of the Volunteer Teacher. Abingdon Press, 1986
- With Robert L. Browning and Everett Tilson. Looking At Leadership Through the Eyes of Biblical Faith. A self instruction course of study for teachers and leaders in Christian education. Discipleship Resources, 1978; Ways Persons Become Christian. A self instruction course of study for teachers and leaders in Christian education. Abingdon, 1976; Ways the Bible Comes Alive. A self instruction course of study for teachers and leaders in Christian education. Abingdon, 1975; Communicating the Faith with Children. A self instruction course of study for teachers and leaders in Christian education. Board of Education, The United Methodist Church, 1971
Articles and Curriculum Resources for the Church Public
- "Visioning our Future." Christians in Education. (11(Winter 2004-05)3: 2-3
- "New Dimensions." In Trust 11 (2000) 2: 2
- "The Words We Use, and the Messages They Communicate," Part I. Christians in Education: Equipping Leaders for Christian Formation (6 (Fall 2000) 4: 2-7
- "The Words We Use and the Messages They Communicate," Part II. Christians in Education: Equipping Leaders for Christian Formation (7 (Winter 2000-0001) 15-21
- "Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education - An Interview." Leader. 7 (1995) 4: 8-10
- "Multicultural Education: A New Direction for Religious Education." PACE 20 (1991): 220-23
- "Figures of Speech." In Trust 10 (1999) 4: 7
- "Some Second Thoughts on Ethnicity, Culture, and Christian Education." Culture Crossings (Candler School of Theology) 1 (Summer 1990). 2: 2-5
- "Looking Back into the Future: Reflections on the Twentieth Anniversary Year of CEF" (Christian Educators Fellowship). [A CEF publication, 1988 or 89]
- "From Babel to Pentecost." Baptist Leader (April 1987): 19-21
- "Proclaiming the Word with Children." Worship Alive: Children in Worship. Nashville: Discipleship Resources, early 1980's
- "When Pastors Teach." Circuit Rider. November/December, 1982: 3-4
- "Guiding the Development of Persons." The Church School (October 1978): 2-3
- "What Does It Mean to be a Whole Person?" The Church School (September 1978): 2-3
- "The Spirit People" Senior High School Curriculum Resource for Teachers, mid 1970's
- "Rebellion and the Search for the Self." New Creation 3 (Fall 1970) 1: 3-41
- Workbook for Junior High Youth on The Role of Sex in Christian Living. With Eugene E. Laubach. A Joint Project of Division of the Local Church, Board of Education, The Methodist Church and Division of Alcohol Problems and General Welfare, Board of Christian Social Concerns, The Methodist Church, 1968
- "The Director's Page." The Church School. 20 (January, 1967) 5: 13
Excerpts from Publications
Foster, C. (Winter 2004) "Religious Education at the Edge of History" Religious Education, 99, 1: 77-8.
In the radically changing social, technological, economic, political and religious context in which we find ourselves, religious educators must necessarily approach their work in some new ways. I have suggested that one way to engage in this effort is to think about the languages needed for the continuity and revitalization of the religious in the multiple discourses of contemporary life. To this end, I argue, religious educators must be fluent in a native religious education language to sustain and renew their particular religious traditions; fluent in an interreligious education language to engage each other respectfully and reverentially across those traditions; fluent in a public religious education language for native and interreligious conversations in the public square about the economic, political and social forces affecting the lives of people; fluent in the languages of a post-religion religious education to engage in conversation those who dismiss, critique, or despise religious perspectives and practices, traditions and institutions, and finally, fluent in what (Gabriel) Moran called the "second language" of discourse on religious education itself.
Foster, C. (2002) "Diversity in Theological Education" Theological Education, 38 2: 19.
Questions about theological pedagogy… have haunted me… . How does academic formation in any given theological discipline contribute to the academic, spiritual, and professional formation needed by students for empowered leadership in diverse cultural contexts and ecclesial traditions? Or the reverse: How are academic disciplines influenced by pedagogies of professional formation? … . How might academic formation empower students from a diversity of cultural and ecclesial contexts to "preach" (or teach or care) "back home"? The dilemma for contemporary theological faculty is actually more complex. What is required for pedagogies of formation to empower students to preach, teach, or care in congregations or other ministry settings with diverse cultural, racial, class, and gender perspectives and experience? Or to state the issue another way: How will students be prepared to engage in these ministries so that the diversity of the people they serve in ministry might hear the gospel "in their own language"? In this situation we are confronted with the possibility that our pedagogies of spiritual, academic, and professional formation are not congruent. Indeed they may be dysfunctional enough to diminish student capacities for empowered religious leadership.
Foster, C. (Summer 2003) "Where Shall We Sit: The Vocational Conversations of a Religious Educator" Religious Education, 98 3:316.
When I teach… I do not teach "religious education" as such, but instead teach that students and I may encounter mystery-the unknown-breaking through the fictional orderliness of our lives to invite us toward possibilities in our selves, in our relations to the world, and ultimately in our relation to the source of those possibilities-the ultimate mystery itself that we call God. Creation, in other words, is the starting point of all pedagogical activity, the earth is the context of all pedagogical activity; the intimate in-breaking of mystery is the initiator and object of all pedagogical activity-whether in Methodist Christian religious education, Christian or Jewish or Buddhist religious education, or the religious education of the public. As religious educators we have no corner on creating events through which students might encounter and engage the mystery that calls us beyond our knowing. The teacher of scripture and theology, of ethics and evangelism, of anthropology and psychology, of chemistry and mathematics similarly lead students to the abyss that lies just beyond their knowing to engage them in the quest for "good news" in the mystery of the not yet known.
From this perspective teachers share in common the quest for what Maxine Greene (1978) calls "wide awakeness," for conscientization in Freire's (1986) terms, for revelatory consciousness as described by H. Richard Niebuhr (1951), to see through the mystifications that align not only our hearts and minds, but those of our students, with the ignorance, injustice, and oppression that feeds the brokenness and hopelessness in our own lives and those around us and shutters our vision from the possibilities that lie before us. We teach, in other words, for the possibility of transformation-for the alignment of lives toward the possibilities in the good, acceptable, and perfect.
Foster, C. (1988) "Communicating: Informal Conversation in the Congregation's Education" in C. Ellis Nelson, Congregations: Their Power to Form and Transform, 221-2.
The informal conversation of a congregation often functions similarly as an "undercurrent" to its formal educational and program life. In the classroom, curricular resources and teaching plans reveal the "surface" or obvious features of congregational education. But the influence of these intentional efforts is due, in part, to the vitality of the conversations on the edges, underneath, and around these formal educational activities. These conversations beneath the surface can reinforce and carry the formal dialogical interaction of teacher and learner, of priest or preacher and worshipper, or of committee chairperson and committee member. They also can hinder and block those efforts. The intent of informal conversation, in other words, is also educational in that it helps to shape the vision, values, and actions of its participants.
Foster, C. , (2006) Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education Abingdon, 56.
Perhaps the most powerful of all gifts to the world found in the Christian heritage is its sense of community. Its promises confront the messages of fragmentation and violence dominating social relationships. It breaks through our finite distinctions of race, culture, age, class, gender, and ability to celebrate the necessary interdependence of all people. It confronts our human proclivity to argument and dissension in the affirmation that all of us are children of God. We therefore have a "common ancestry." We share "a common heritage" originating in God's creativity and spilling across the ages and through the nations of humanity. We "have a common experience"-an insight increasingly real to those us living into the twenty-first century. A rape in Bosnia, a drought in Africa, a wheat crop failure in the Ukraine, the relentless deforestation along the Amazon or in the Pacific Northwest affect us all. At the same time the selfless giving of Mother Teresa, the finesse of an Olympic ice skater, the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. can inspire us all. The media declares we live in a "global village." The interdependence implied in that metaphor, however, has long been at the heart of the Christian vision of community.
Foster, C. (2006) Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education Abingdon, 96-8.
The dynamics of being at home with a word, symbol, concept, metaphor, image, or method of knowing involves the freedom to explore its hidden potential and the demands those discoveries may make on our lives. This activity is doing theology. So, for example, in this effort, the Cross becomes more than a tree or two logs fashioned into an instrument of corporal punishment; it becomes a metaphor for the character of God. If we find ourselves claiming with the apostle Paul that through Christ we have been reconciled to God, then we begin to discover what it means to be ambassadors of Christ to others (3 Cor. 5:20). In that role we see the Cross whenever and wherever we encounter suffering for the sake of another. Indeed, we take upon ourselves the possibilities of suffering for others. If we eat the bread and drink from the cup conscious of the demands of this act on our lives, we become agents of hospitality in a world full of strangers. We explore the limits of our responsiveness. We are reminded of the commonness and pervasiveness of God's activity in our midst. We are humbled by our finitude as we struggle to understand the religious meanings that motivate us.
Foster, C.(Fall 1992) "Teaching Authority in Cultural Perspective" Quarterly Review, 36.
In our quest for the normative we must reconstrue the relationship between the universal and the particular. When we recognize that no attempt to transmit or interpret the gospel can avoid explicit cultural symbols and structures, we will see that any attempt to engage in educational activities from the center must be seen as efforts to extend cultural domination. If we approached the quest for normative beliefs and actions with the expectation that the particular reflects the universal rather than with the assumption that the universal is revealed in the particular, we would acknowledge the finitude of all human perceptions and constructions. We would recognize that every theology and each/learning activity is "a construction of particular persons and faith communities who confess their faith in God in a language, metaphor, and thought pattern appropriate to the context" (Letty Russell, Household of Freedom).
Foster, Charles R. (2006, 1994) Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education Abingdon Press
An introduction to the work of Charles R. Foster. This book develops the concept of event-centered education. Foster shows how the activities of the lives of a congregation can be connected and focused to empower Christian education
Foster, Charles R., Dahill, Lisa E., Goleman, Lawrence A., and Tolentino, Barbara W. (2005) Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination (The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
This study guide gives a concise summary and development of the research study on theological education.
Foster, Charles R. (1997) Embracing Diversity: Leading Multicultural Congregations The Alban Institute
Finally, "Embracing Diversity: Leading Multicultural Congregations" which describes his commitment to inclusion and his work to understand the power of culture in Christian education. This book is a guide for multi-cultural congregations.
Jack L. Seymour
Jack L. Seymour (PhD, Vanderbilt University), serves as Professor of Religious Education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, in Evanston, IL. He also serves as editor of Religious Education journal.