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Kent Gilbert

By Luther Lindberg


W. KENT GILBERT (1919 to 2005): Distinguished Lutheran educator and leader. Designer of the Inter-Lutheran Long-Range Program of Parish Education that culminated in the first and only curriculum of any denomination to coordinate fully the study resources for all ages and all the educational endeavors of the congregation. Executive Secretary of the Board of Parish Education of the Lutheran Church in America. Executive Director of the Division for Parish Services of the LCA. Author of the definitive history of the Lutheran Church in America.


Kent Gilbert was born in Scranton, PA. on January 2, 1919 to Marion Rutledge Gilbert and Helen (Best) Gilbert. He died August 23, 2005 in Lewisburg, PA. He was a bright child and showed early signs of intelligence. In 1922 his family moved to Harrisburg, PA where he grew up and graduated from high school as salutatorian of his class. He worked for two years during the depression as a reporter for the Harrisburg Evening News before entering Gettysburg College as a pre-ministerial student. He graduated with an A.B. degree, summa cum laude, as valedictorian of his class in 1941 and was elected to membership in a number of honor societies including Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Psi, Pi Delta Epsilon and Tau Kappa Alpha. Later he was recognized in 1971 as a Distinguished Alumnus of Gettysburg College. From 1966 to 1972 he served as a Trustee on the Board of Gettysburg College.

In 1944 he graduated from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg with a major in systematic theology. At that time Christian education was not a high priority for seminary students (Reumann, 1985, p. 2). He married Virginia Elizabeth Clift on June 19, 1944. His first call was to be Assistant Pastor at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Manhattan. In 1945 he accepted a call to The Church of the Redeemer in Ramsay, N.J. Following a disastrous fire, the congregation relocated, under Gilbert's leadership, to a larger site and built a new church facility. Being interested in systematic theology, he took courses at Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary and Teachers College. There, his theology was influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. He reported, however: "I was exposed…to my first real understanding of what education is all about. Most of us tend to assume education is what we have experienced in our schooling, and that's the limit of it and the way it should be done. But I began to become quite interested in Christian education and I saw the necessity to correlate educational theory with the teachings and doctrines of the church, which brought my interest in theology together with the educational side (Reumann, 1985, p. 2). In his studies he shifted his focus and earned his Master of Arts degree in Christian education. Harrison Sackett Elliott, head of the education department at Union, influenced his thinking and encouraged him to concentrate on the interplay of theology and the educational process. Basic educational theory, philosophy, developmental psychology, courses of that kind were taken at the Teachers College" (Reumann, 1985, p. 4). His Master's dissertation topic was Organization and administration of a church school (Gilbert, 1946).

In 1950 he was called to the Parish and Church School Board of the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) as Editor for the Weekday Church School Series. He moved to Philadelphia where Dr. S. White Rhyne was his executive secretary. Rhyne believed strongly that the board was responsible not only for church schools but for congregational life as a whole. At this time the ULCA was in the very early stages of developing a long-range program of Christian education for congregations. Gilbert was given the added task of directing the effort "without anybody quite knowing where it was going to go" (Reumann, 1985, p. 3). From 1950 to 1956 he was director of the now named Inter-Lutheran Long-Range Program of Parish Education, a cooperative effort of the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Lutheran Church in America, the American Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Soumi (Finnish Lutheran) Synod. His job was to develop an educational curriculum that coordinated fully the study resources for all age levels in the congregation.

In the fall of 1954 he took a four-month leave of absence to complete his residency requirements at Columbia University and write his 1955 Doctor of Education dissertation; Tested procedures for an evaluation of the Weekday Church School series of the United Lutheran Church in America: a report of a type B project (Gilbert, 1955). Max Brunnager was the head of his dissertation committee. Other members were Lewis Sherrill and Frank Herriott. In a 1979 lecture at the Martin Luther Colloquium at Gettysburg Seminary Gilbert reported that at his first meeting with Lewis Sherrill, Sherrill made the comment: "I see you're a Lutheran. Good! Lutherans are serious about education" (Gilbert, 1979, p. 2). Gilbert has also received the honorary degrees of Doctor of Letters (Litt.D., Hartwick College, 1965), Doctor of Divinity (D. D. Gettysburg College, 1973) and Doctor of Humane Letters (L.H.D.).

In 1954 there was a restructuring of the ULCA in which additional responsibilities were assigned to the Board of Parish Education. Earlier, editors of the church school curriculum materials were employees of the Board of Publication. In the oral history interview Gilbert noted: "By the time I came on the scene they [editors and writers] were paid by funds from the Board of Publication but they were administratively under the Board of Parish Education, so the collegial relationship between these boards was very critical" (Reumann, 1985, p. 5). Under the new plan the Board of Parish Education was in charge of determining what would be published. The idea was that the publisher would not publish only materials that were popular and "best sellers."

In the next decade the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) was formed (1962) from a merger of the four Lutheran bodies included in the long-range project. Kent Gilbert was elected Executive Secretary of the Board of Parish Education. In 1972 the LCA restructured and combined all the church wide units related to the parish: education, youth ministry, worship, evangelism, stewardship and social ministry. Gilbert became the Executive Director for the Division for Parish Services, having a staff of 115 persons who carried out congregation-related research, produced the printed resources for congregational ministry and carried out the training of congregational leaders across the country for the LCA.

In 1966 the Philadelphia Bulletin described Gilbert as deceptively quiet, tall, husky, a one-time college athlete, having the bounce of a tennis player, with the soft, scholarly tones of an educator. He works a 70-hour week, shuttles across the nation from conference to conclave averaging 100,000 miles a year, and still finds time for continued studies. He is a writer, lecturer, editor, and teacher (Zepp, 1966, p. 12). He was also a major consultant for the popular Davey and Goliath children's television series.

From his early days of work in churchwide agencies, Kent Gilbert was an active leader in interchurch and inter-Lutheran efforts. His first experience with inter-Lutheran cooperation came in 1950, when he served on the Lutheran Intersynodical Committee on Parish Education, which represented all Lutheran bodies in the National Lutheran Council (Reumann, 1985, p. 30). The focus of Lutheran concern at this time was the attempt to translate Luther's Small Catechism into contemporary English. Along with this concern came the early years of the church's dealing with sexist language (Reumann, 1985, p. 33).

His involvement with worldwide Lutheranism came through the Lutheran World Federation when, in 1961, he participated in a world consultation on confirmation.

In the course of his churchwide service he served as Chairman of the Lutheran World Federation Commission on Education and was a member of the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches, chairing the Executive Committee of its Division of Christian Education. He was Director of the Religious Education Association from 1964 to 1972. He was a central figure in the World Council of Christian Education and the World Council of Churches. His travels took him to all 50 states, the Canadian provinces, and more than 40 other countries. He taught courses at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Guest Professor, 1954), Pacific Lutheran Seminary (Visiting Professor, 1957) and lectured at most Lutheran seminaries in the US and in many other theological schools in the US and abroad including Jerusalem, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Tanzania, Brazil, and Hong Kong.

Kent Gilbert was also a central figure (founder and chairman) in the work of the Inter-Lutheran Joint Commission on Confirmation, which enabled the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to cooperate in the development of a common definition of confirmation and parish catechetical resources.

Gilbert authored articles in many magazines including Religious Education , Lutheran World , The Lutheran , International Journal of Religious Education and Resource . He was a long-time member and leader (from 1959) in St. Luke Lutheran Church, Devon, PA where both he and his wife, Libby, were valued for their commitment and hard work on behalf of the congregation and the church at large.

He retired in 1985 and died Aug. 23, 2005 in Lewisburg, PA. In retirement he had moved to Lewisburg to be close to his daughter, Carol Main, and her husband, Donald, Bishop of the Upper Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In 2004 Gilbert and the church celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination into the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Contributions to Christian Education

Kent Gilbert was "Mr. Christian Education" for large segments of the Lutheran church (Reumann, 1985, p. 1). His contributions to educational ministry are broad and show insight into the educational dimensions of church life. They fall into four categories:

  • His work as educational ministry leader including an unprecedented and visionary approach to long-range curriculum development, the management of a churchwide program of educational ministry, and the key role played by confirmation ministry in the overall development of the Christian person.
  • His inter-Lutheran leadership in the revitalization of confirmation ministry.
  • His work as a church executive and administrator in which he gave direction to the work of hundreds of church staff persons across the LCA for more than a third of a century.
  • His monumental work in capturing the history of the Lutheran Church in America. His passion for the role played by education in the life of the larger church is obvious.

Gilbert was involved in Christian education in many ways but is best known for his leadership as a church education curriculum developer. His understanding of Christian learning in the parish came from his early experience as a pastor, as a graduate student, as editor of weekday church school materials, as planner and administrator of a weekday church school program, and as author of study materials. He steadfastly insisted on using the term church school where the common term had always been Sunday school. He picked up the nomenclature from S. White Rhyne, his first churchwide agency supervisor. He picked up his deep love for and commitment to the church (both the larger church and the congregation) from his family and early education.

He was the mastermind behind the long-range Christian education planning and curriculum development of the Lutheran Church in America. The Long-Range Program of Christian Education, later known as The LCA Parish Education Curriculum, appeared in congregations in January of 1964.

In his 1988 history of the LCA Gilbert wrote: "In 1953 the ULCA board [of parish education] undertook a 'unified study' of its total educational program. Paul Vieth, an outstanding religious education professor at Yale Divinity School, led the study. The result was a document produced in 1954 titled Parish Education: A Statement of Basic Principles and a Program of Christian Education . The seminal idea in the report was that the church should begin planning at once a coordinated program for parish education that would serve long-range needs. In 1955 work began on the Long-Range Program of Parish Education. When it soon became apparent that other Lutheran bodies, especially the ALC (American Lutheran Church) and Augustana (The Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church), were interested in cooperation, an invitation was issued to all churches in the National Lutheran Council to join in the project. All eight bodies accepted, and in 1957 a joint staff picked up the work at the point of developing age-group objectives" (Gilbert, 1988, p. 89).

In describing the curriculum as it was introduced to congregations, Gilbert wrote in the 1963 Yearbook of the Lutheran Church in America : "The 'quiet revolution' in parish education promised to the present bodies of the Lutheran Church in America in 1956 is already underway. Right now congregations are engaged in the staggering task of training 150,000 leaders to handle the new curriculum which will be introduced in our church schools next year. Obviously 1963 is the critical time 'to get I ready' and 1964, the year 'to go'" (Gilbert, 1963a, p. 17).

The planners of the new curriculum agreed early that it must be: (1) Lutheran in theological and biblical outlook, (2) educationally sound, using the best insights available, (3) comprehensive and take into account all the educational arms of the congregation, and (4) coordinated among all age groups and all avenues of learning (Reumann, 1985, p. 8). The basic principles are contained in a document titled "A Plan of Cooperation in a Long-Range Program for Parish Education." When the plan was reported at a National Council of Churches educators meeting, the general response was that it could not be done (Reumann, 1985, p. 9).

"In many respects," Gilbert commented later, "the new LCA curriculum is among the most ambitious educational projects any Protestant church has ever attempted. Recognizing the urgent need for an informed and committed laity, leaders in the AELC, Augustana, Suomi, and ULCA began more than six years ago to build a new program of Christian Education from the ground up. With a merger in the offing, they pooled their resources to make sure that when our new church was born, it would have the finest educational system possible. They actually beat the merger by almost a year, and their Long-Range Program of Parish Education began to be used in congregations in early 1962."

"All through the past year and the present one [1962 and 1963], tens of thousands of teachers have been hard at work learning new skills in teaching Bible and doctrine, fresh insights into age-group psychology, and a new concept of Christian education. What makes all this preparation necessary is that the new curriculum will demand more of teachers and pupils alike than has ever been expected before. Lutherans have been learning the hard way that there is no easy road to a solid Christian education. Seeming shortcuts usually lead to blind alleys of biblical and theological illiteracy" (Gilbert, 1963a, p. 17).

Life-long Learning

Gilbert wrote: "What then are some of the 'outstanding features of this new curriculum? To begin with, it is a lifelong educational program. It encompasses every age level from early childhood through the adult years. It has never been difficult to get Lutherans to agree that children need a Christian education, but when it comes to adults, that is another matter. Many congregations end their educational program at confirmation age while at the same time expecting mature adult leadership from people who have never been equipped with anything more than a 13 year-old's understanding of Christianity.

"Christian education is a lifelong process, and the LCA curriculum has been built with this in mind. Educational experiences have been carefully planned to provide for various kinds of learning to take place at those times in life when the opportunity for mastering them is greatest. There is no point in wasting effort in trying to teach the right things at the wrong time (Gilbert, 1963a, p. 18).


"The second unique feature of the LCA curriculum is that it coordinates the efforts of the various educational arms of the church. There once was a time when congregations were content to provide a Sunday school and a catechetical class and let it go at that. It has become painfully apparent, however, that this simply was not enough time for an adequate Christian education. As a result, almost every congregation has added a vacation church school. Many have weekday church schools, family education, and leadership education as well. Often a pupil is involved in several of these programs at the same time. The problem has been to get the agencies to work together so that there are no blank spots or cases of overlapping in the pupil's education.

"On the basis of research it was concluded that each of the church's educational arms had its own unique potential. For example, the Sunday school with it's week-by-week, year-round classes closely related in time to the church service was in a position to accomplish certain kinds of objectives. The vacation church school with its two-and-one-half hour sessions concentrated in a two-week period could serve other purposes. The family with its daily laboratory of Christian living had other opportunities.

"In constructing the new curriculum the planners assigned each agency the role it could fulfill best and the learnings it could deal with most effectively. The result was an educational plan in which all parts build firmly upon one another year-by-year and each agency's task fit smoothly into those of other agencies. The product was the first completely coordinated curriculum in Protestant history" (Gilbert, 1963a, p. 18).

It is important to note that the concern for overall coordination of educational efforts in the congregation was not limited to the LCA curriculum. Gilbert presented a paper to the 1965 World Conference on Christian Education sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation in Jerusalem titled "How can the church coordinate efforts-in the United States?" (Gilbert, 1965). The conference demonstrated that even though Christian churches across the world were eager to develop more coordination in the educational efforts of congregations, the LCA was the first to demonstrate that it could be achieved. In his lecture Gilbert pointed out the advantages and limitations of the strategies of the US Lutheran churches and the problems faced in developing more coordination.


"A third feature of the LCA program is its firm rootage in Lutheran theology. The educational philosophy on which the curriculum is founded grew out of a concern for communicating the gospel. Its key concern lies in response and witness to the Word of God" (Gilbert, 1963a, p. 18). While Gilbert notes that the material is admittedly Lutheran in theology, the curriculum respects and learns from other Christian churches and other religions.


"A fourth aspect which is closely related to the third is the biblical emphasis of the LCA curriculum. The sequence of courses has been carefully plotted so that the pupil gains an unfolding understanding of the Scriptures. By sixth grade the learner will have studied all of the basic stories and portions of the Bible. In later years this study is continually broadened and intensified.

"No one expects that the proposed revolution in the church schools will be accomplished overnight. Good education is really a 'long-range' process. It takes tireless and patient reconstruction. But there is no other way. The Christian church lives always one generation from extinction. It must communicate God's word from age to age, from life to life, from person to person, or it will die" (Gilbert, 1963a, pp. 17-18).

Continual Life Involvements

One of the most difficult aspects of the plan was to create or identify a connecting link between the agencies within the congregation that would make coordination possible. Gilbert recalled: "As the staff wrestled with this they adapted a concept which was built on studies that were done by Florence Stratemeyer and associates at Columbia University where they were trying to determine what would be the connective thread that could be used in curriculum evaluation. And the term that emerged from the Stratemeyer study was 'persistent life situations.' They saw persistent life situations as something that was a characteristic of people who were part of our society by virtue of being human and by virtue of participating in the kind of society that existed at the time. People went through various stages of growth and interaction within which learning occurred" (Reumann, 1985, p.12). These handles became known as continual life involvements to the long-range planners. They provided a way for objectives to become" functional objectives" for each of the various educational agencies of the parish.

In 1964 Time magazine reported on the new curriculum of the Lutheran Church in America: "Life-Involvement Learning. Just as secular schools have discovered the need for 'new math' and 'new reading,' churches have had to devise new ways of teaching religion. No U.S. denomination has spent more time and money ($5,000,000) solving the problem than the 3,227,157 member Lutheran Church in America which last week introduced the most modern and most comprehensive Christian education program in the nation's history.

"Nine years in the making, the Lutheran Long Range Program combines sound scholarship, modern educational theory and a correlated curriculum for every teaching agency of the church. The aim is to provide a cradle-to-grave 'life involvement' with religion, and the more than 400 texts range from colorfully illustrated kindergarten paperbacks to bibliography-laden study books for adult courses. The lessons have been carefully geared to the learning capacities and interests of the students. Thus for eight-year-olds, who are learning how to play and live equably with classmates, the title of the Sunday church school book is Fellow Workers for God . If they attend a vacation church school, they will learn about Exploring God's World .

"Modern in Tone. For some Lutheran conservatives, the curriculum is almost painfully modern in tone. There is a candid text for teen-age students on Love, Sex, and Life , and a seventh grade Sunday school course on the Gospels admits there is a considerable discrepancy among the Evangelists' accounts of the Resurrection. Another seventh grade text explains the grandeur of God by making this comparison: 'When you stand before a 6-ft. 10-in. basketball player, you feel like a runt.'

"At all levels, teaching material has been carefully vetted in the interests of interfaith good will. Biweekly newspapers for children will describe Jewish feasts of the season, and explain what the Vatican Council means to Roman Catholics. Says Dr. W. Kent Gilbert, executive secretary of the Board of Parish Education and director of the project: 'It is an attempt to understand what the beliefs of others are, rather than try to render judgments about people.'


Gilbert says that the ultimate success or failure of the program will not be known until the year 2000, when three-year-olds now learning about God will have become church leaders. But the Lutherans have painstakingly tested it. For four years draft texts were tried out in 62 congregations and rewritten in the light of weekly critical reports submitted by the churches. The pilot parishes reported that their teen-age group classes went up in attendance as the program unfolded" (Time, 1964, September, pp. 25, 65).

In 1963 Gilbert described further the four principles of the effort in the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Education : "It was to be frankly Lutheran, growing out of the theological position of the Lutheran Church and relating to it the insights of the educational sciences. It was to be comprehensive, providing the curriculum for all age levels and all educational agencies of the parish. It was to be fully coordinated. This meant building a single, overarching curriculum that related the educational work of the family, Sunday church school, weekday church school, vacation church school, catechetics, school of religion (a weekday program for senior highs and adults), church camps, and leadership education. It was to be long-range in the sense that it sought to envision the kind of educational program the church would require in the late 1960's and early 1970's" (Gilbert, 1963b, pp. 401-403).

In reporting the work of the Board of Parish Education to the 1964 convention of the church, Gilbert wrote: "The new educational materials offer congregations a total program of parish education which:

  • blends the insights of Lutheran theology with educational science;
  • uses the findings of biblical scholarship to unfold the whole message of the Bible to pupils of every age;
  • is vitally related to the questions people are asking and the problems they face in their daily life and witness as Christians;
  • has been use-tested by hundreds of teachers and thousands of pupils across the united States and Canada;
  • integrates the teaching efforts of all parish education agencies of the congregation into a total program of Christian education for persons of all ages" (Gilbert, 1964, p. 378).

Central Purpose and Objectives

Gilbert describes the importance of objectives in Christian education in his 1962 book As Christians Teach . He noted that the central objective of the curriculum is: "Inasmuch as the church, as the body of Christ, seeks to become more effectively the community of believers in which the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies individuals in their relationships with God, and their fellow men, the church's central education objective, therefore, shall be­To assist the individual in his response and witness to the eternal and incarnate Word of God as he grows within this community of the church toward greater maturity in his Christian life through ever-deepening understandings, more wholesome attitudes, and more responsible patterns of action" (Gilbert, 1962, p. 157).

It was conceived that this growth toward Christian maturity is a never-ending process that occurs in the six basic relationships of life. These are: the learner's relationship to God, the church, other people, the Scriptures, the physical world, and the self. The general objectives governing the program were stated, therefore, in terms of changes in understandings, attitudes and patterns of action developed in these relationships (Gilbert, 1962, pp. 157-8).

The planning document that was most widely recognized and used at all levels of the church is titled The Age Group Objectives of Christian Education . It presents the basic objectives for writers of materials for every age level in a grid: a horizontal axis of types of learnings (understandings, attitudes and action patters) and a vertical listing of the six areas of learning (Gilbert, 1958).


The long-range program was conceived of in four phases: (1) Development of general and age group objectives for all learners in the parish, (2) development of curriculum materials, (3) preparation of the materials, and (4) introduction of the program in congregations.


The long-range program was unique in its unprecedented reliance on research. In the 1963 Westminster article, Gilbert wrote that research helped to determine the responsibilities of the education-related agencies of the parish: "This involved extensive research as to the potential and limitations of the existing agencies in the merging bodies. On the basis of these data it was determined what function each educating arm could serve best. For example, the Sunday church school became the 'nuclear school' because it reaches the largest number of persons over the greatest span of years. It has the function of dealing with the most significant learnings at a given age and helping the pupil relate to them the experiences he has elsewhere in the educational program.

"The Lutherans have been giving new weight to research in Christian education, the whole curriculum being built around a framework of research, experimentation, and evaluation" (Gilbert, 1963b, p. 401).

Computer Assisted Research

The church's first foray into computer-assisted research came with the LCA parish education curriculum. "Since the BPE [research] department represented the only operating research facility in the LCA and was the first to install a computer, it was increasingly asked to take on projects for other agencies and the offices of the church. By the end of the decade, it was even processing on its computer data from the parochial reports for the secretary, a task that had previously been farmed out to a service bureau. The in-house operation made possible the starting of an ongoing process of analyzing the data for use in the church's program that is still going on in more advanced ways" (Reumann, 1985, pp. 7, 8). This is all the more significant because the time was 40 years ago.


The pre-testing of the materials for congregational use was elaborate and thorough. When they were in their final form, materials were pilot-tested in a cross section of 62 congregations across the US. A representative stratified sample of the church was used and the research responses used in the revision of the materials (Reumann, 1985, p. 16). This testing was done early so that the final printed materials for congregations could be revised and corrected. "One thing which should be reassuring to the church is that its new curriculum will not be the untried dream of armchair strategists. No program of Christian education has ever been given more careful planning or more rigorous pretesting than the LCA curriculum. Thousands of persons have had a hand in shaping and refining its every aspect.

"The work began with specialists of a dozen kinds - theologians, biblical scholars, educators, sociologists, psychologists, historians, age-group experts, and many more. When the blueprints had been drawn, skilled writers were engaged to prepare the curricular materials. But this was not enough. Each course, as it was produced, was tested in scores of church schools by hundreds of teachers and pupils. Literally millions of items of data were reported and analyzed. On the basis of this information, the courses were revised and polished to ready them for churchwide usage.

"As a result of this painstaking field testing, teachers will be able to approach the new educational tools with greater confidence. Each time some teaching or learning device is suggested it will not be with the hope that 'this might work' but with the knowledge that 'this has worked'" (Gilbert, 1963a, p. 17).

Introduction in Congregations

An important part of the long-range plan had to do with how the new curriculum would be introduced to congregations. The plan divided the church into approximately 1000 clusters of congregations with a key pastor in each cluster. Each cluster was visited for a three year period by a team of leaders made up of staff from the Board of Parish Education and expert teachers including seminary and university professors. In these sessions congregational leaders were trained to understand the educational and theological approach of the materials and use them to best advantage in light of the size and setting of the congregation. Gilbert recalls: "In 1964 it was decided to launch grades 3,5,7,10 and adult. It was impossible to put out all of the things in one year. In the following year we filled in with grades 2,4,6,8, and 11 until we had the whole panorama, including pre-school" (Reumann, 1985, p. 21).

Gilbert has an interesting comment to make about how these training sessions raised some significant questions for the church: "There were some very revealing things happening, particularly in the area of teaching the Bible and teaching doctrine. Lay people repeatedly said, 'Is this what you pastors have known all along and haven't let us in on?' It was kind of an indirect indictment, I think, of the way in which the church had thrown a protective shell around its laity and assumed that people in the congregation were not ready to deal with biblical questions such as literalism in the Bible" (Reumann, 1985, p. 15).

Evaluation and Revision

In 1963 The Lutheran magazine reported on the effectiveness of the curriculum in congregations: "Never before had anything been so promptly and widely accepted by the congregations of the LCA (or its pre-merger churches) as the new curriculum for parish education. Ninety-one percent of the 6,200 congregations are using the new courses of study" (Trexler, 1963, p. 13). At the 1966 convention of the Lutheran Church in America it was reported that more than 4,750,000 church school textbooks plus thousands of filmstrips and recordings had been distributed. The curriculum hit its peak in the Sunday church school in 1964, when 1,246,846 learners in congregations were involved (Trexler, 1963, p. 13).

Evaluation of the materials and the process began in 1965 with a different set of test congregations. The Educational Testing Service at Princeton assisted in the developing of pre- and post-tests that were administered to pupils prior to taking courses and at the conclusion of the courses to see whether anything really happened as a consequence. This evaluation process fit in well with the plan to revise materials after their first year of use. It was expected that the evaluated and revised materials would have a ten year life span before they would be replaced. Where the American Lutheran Church (ALC) had pulled out of the pan-Lutheran curriculum process before the LCA merger in 1962, it now joined with the LCA in taking a new look at educational ministry curriculum. In September of 1969 a document called A Central Objective for Educational Ministry, ALC/LCA was agreed to. A second 1969 document called A Plan for Developing a Comprehensive Program of Parish Education was developed jointly. These two documents shaped the curriculum that followed the long-range program introduced to congregations in the early 60s in the LCA. The partnership forged out of this common plan played a leading role in the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988.

Confirmation Ministry

In the early 1960s one of the highest interests in world Lutheranism was confirmation ministry. The Lutheran understanding of confirmation was in flux. Kent Gilbert distinguished himself by taking learnings from his work in the long-range educational strategizing, curriculum development and total parish ministry by applying them to the studies of confirmation in the USA. A committee on the theology and practice of confirmation had been working in the USA to develop a common understanding of confirmation and guidelines for dealing with catechetics and first communion. Gilbert was a central figure in these discussions. Since the Reformation the church of Martin Luther had taken seriously the importance of the confirmation rite and the educational process (most commonly two or three years) that lead to adolescent confirmation at age 13 or 14. The common conviction among Lutheran leaders had evolved to the place where the rite of confirmation itself was less important than the educational process that lead up to it. However, in the mind of the average church member, the act of being confirmed was tantamount to assurance of salvation and put an end to the need for further learning.

Cooperation with other US Lutherans in Christian education had been going on for many years. Beginning in 1928, those churches that eventually became the ALC, LCA, and LCMS had taken part in what was known as the Intersynodical Committee on Parish Education (Gilbert, 1988, p. 411). One of its major projects undertaken jointly was a translation of Luther's Small Catechism . The committee involved in the ten-year project involved some of the leading scholars of the member churches and was finally completed in 1963 with the publication of The Small Catechism in Contemporary English . This translation was commonly used in Lutheran congregations until 1980 when need was seen to take still another serious look at the confirmation process, language and social changes.

The constituting convention of the Lutheran Church in America in 1962 called for the establishment of an inter-Lutheran Joint Commission on the Theology and Practice of Confirmation. The commission didn't become operative until 1964. Gilbert was a leader in the work of the commission. A major task of the commission was to come to inter-Lutheran agreement on a definition of confirmation. The commission undertook a number of basic studies of the history, the current situation in the churches, and what was going on in other denominations. It examined the sociological and psychological development of age groups, theology, Scripture, absolution, Baptism, and Holy Communion (Reumann, 1985, p. 57). In 1969 Gilbert's commission issued its influential report on confirmation and first Communion that was studied in Lutheran seminaries, colleges, schools and congregations across the church. The study process in congregations dramatically changed the shape of confirmation ministry across the church (Klos, 1968). Gilbert noted that there was enormous interest in the report and in the subject of confirmation in the church (Reumann, 1985, p. 59).

Gilbert's reforming work in confirmation culminated in the report of the commission to the 1970 convention of the LCA. The convention approved the report and moved forward with its implementation (1970, Report, pp. 568-591). Four recommendations of the report proved to be especially significant: (1) confirmation is more a life-long ministry process than it is a rite. (2) The confirmation process is based on a Lutheran theology of Baptism. It is affirmation of Baptism. (3) The rite of confirmation must be separated from first Communion so that the sacrament will not be seen as a reward for attending or completing confirmation classes or memorizing Luther's Small Catechism . The congregational research and testing done for the 1964 curriculum demonstrated that both theologically and educationally young people were ready for first Communion at a younger age. (4) The process of confirmation ministry belongs to the entire congregation and not just to clergy. The actual result of the action of the LCA was the separation of confirmation from first Communion and the drastic lowering of the age of first Communion. Where prior to this action first Holy Communion followed the rite of confirmation, the average age for first Communion now became grade five or younger. Neither Holy Communion nor the confirmation rite nor the memorization of the catechism is ex opera operato. The high energy of Gilbert's concern for confirmation ministry is evident in his oral history review by John Reumann (1985, pp. 30-67).

Cooperation with worldwide Lutheran confirmation questions was a high concern for Gilbert. Characteristic of the Lutheran World Federation study of confirmation was the constant, thoroughgoing concern for theology and society. The nature of the widespread concern for understanding and practicing confirmation is captured in a land-mark Commission on Education report at the fourth assembly of the LWF in Geneva, July 30, to August 11, 1963. Besides being the definitive analysis of worldwide confirmation at the time it contains the most thorough bibliography of confirmation writings ever compiled. (Report, 1963, pp. 106-120). It didn't take many years for the US Lutheran church to realize that the confirmation education process was even more important than had been outlined in the long-range program. Kent Gilbert was a key leader in the church's focus on confirmation as a ministry more than a rite.

The Role of Education in Parish Renewal and the Total Ministry of the Congregation

For Kent Gilbert there was always something more to the theory and practice of education and curriculum development than most church educators see. His thinking could never put education in a box but saw teaching and learning as a part of every human experience for the individual person and for persons in groups. Learning doesn't take place only in classes and planned educational settings. It goes on constantly in all corners of life.

Gilbert's first administrative position in the LCA (1962) was as Executive Secretary of the Board of Parish Education. A decade later the structure of the LCA still had many boards related to congregational ministries: parish education, worship, stewardship, evangelism and social ministry. As the 1960s progressed it became more and more evident to the church that congregations and synods were confused because they were being approached programmatically by each of these boards. This smacked of competition rather than coordination and led the leaders of the church as early as 1966 to think about how parish and churchwide ministries could be combined into an integrated whole. Because of its effective history in viewing congregational ministry as a whole, Kent Gilbert and the BPE research capacities led the way in a churchwide study of the need to streamline parish services.

An important 1967 study document developed for congregational use under the guidance of the BPE was called the Manifesto for the Congregation . The document calls each congregation "to examine its organizational life at regular intervals to make sure that every part of it is an authentic expression of the gospel and contributes to the fulfilling of its mission" (Pichaske, 1967, p. 205). The Manifesto was officially approved by the 1968 Convention of the Lutheran Church in America. Dr. Franklin Clark Fry, President of the church, strongly supported the parish renewal process reflected in the Manifesto : "Every congregation in the LCA is to be invited, and if need be, pressed to enter into the searching self-examination using the tools provided" (Reumann, 1985, p. 72). The Board of Parish Education was the producer of the congregational study material. The text did not offer a neat blueprint for what needed to be done in congregations toward renewal but took the position that each congregation must find the means and methods by which it best fulfills God's call to be his people in this place at this time. In truly effective renewal, every facet of the congregation's life must be examined and evaluated. The use of the study documents and procedures in congregations resulted in an upsurge in self-study and planning in congregations and a refreshed sense of self-identity (Reumann, 1985, p. 73).

Things were happening across the church that caused the convention of the LCA to take yet another look at the future. A two-year study of the issues facing the church in the 1970s was commissioned. The aspect of the study that was spearheaded by the educational leaders of the LCA changes in congregations was undertaken by Gilbert and the BPE. The study led to the development of three analytical volumes designed to help the LCA in effectively guiding synods and congregations in gearing up for massive changes taking place in the world. It noted the importance of issues not heretofore taken seriously, e.g. the beginning of membership decline, inclusive language, racism, and the role of women in the church. The series dealt with trends in the social scene, trends in theology, and congregational ministry. The volume that dealt with addressing these issues in congregational life and ministry was called The Significant Issues for the 1970s . In these studies it became evident that there was need to do a better job of coordinating ministries at all levels of the church. The 1970 convention of the LCA set up a Commission on Function and Structure to report to the 1972 convention of the church. Gilbert was appointed to chair a Coordinating Committee on Parish Life. The work of the commission led to the restructuring of the LCA, which included an educational agency that coordinated all ministries related to congregations (Reumann, 1985, p. 78).

The first large-scale attempt by the new Division for Parish Services to coordinate ministries in the congregation was known as Parish Life and Ministry Development (cf. excerpts at the end of this article (Gilbert, 1975). "That plan became operational in 1974 as the principal way in which the division hoped to coordinate congregational efforts in all of the functional areas referred to" (Reumann, 1985, p. 98). The process assisted congregations in looking at their own unique situations and developing a statement of mission to guide their work. Gilbert served as Executive Director of DPS until his retirement in 1985. During his tenure careful attention was paid to the powerful role played by education in the total life of the congregation and in parish renewal.

The Role of Education in Lutheran Church Merger

The important role education played in the Lutheran church mergers of the middle to late 20th century cannot be overstated. It wasn't by accident that the coming together of four Lutheran church bodies into a merged Lutheran church was spear-headed by educational process. In recalling the development of the new curriculum in his 1988 book, Kent Gilbert wrote: "The project had been started by the predecessor boards, and by the time of the merger a joint staff was already in place and the transition to the new church virtually a fait accompli. Launching the program began with two years of intensive leadership training. In his report to the 1964 convention, President [Franklin Clark] Fry pointed out that more than a quarter million leaders had been trained in skills ranging from the rationale for Christian education to teaching Bible and doctrine. 'This plan, plus the efforts that will continue, go far,' he said, 'toward filling up what has been the sorriest lack in many, if not most, of our parishes. the paucity of trained leadership'" (Gilbert, 1988, p. 154).

The development of the Long-Range Program of Christian Education was an essential base for the merger of four Lutheran bodies into the Lutheran Church in America in 1963. The broader concept of education as a part of total parish ministry was noted later by Bishop H. George Anderson of the LCA who was quoted in Commitment to Unity : "During the decade of the 1970s the LCA pursued (Lutheran) unity. How did this happen? Certainly its participative structure helped; but a more subtle reason lay in the extensive educational effort which accompanied the introduction of the Long-Range Program of Parish Education in 1964. Parish school teachers from all over the country were taught to use contemporary biblical scholarship to interpret the Bible in a way consistent with the Lutheran Confessions" (Gilbert, 1988, p. xiii). It is to be noted that the development of the Lutheran Book of Worship in 1978 was also the responsibility of Gilbert's education/parish ministry agency. The LBW was another important key in laying the groundwork of the merger that formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988.


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  • Gilbert, W. K. (1957). Festschrift for Dr. Bjarne Hareide. "Opp-dragelse og undervisning I Lutherske kirker. Utviklingen av et verdensomfattende samarbeid." Archives. Church of Norway. Archive.
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Excerpts from Publications

Gilbert, W. K. (1958). The age group objectives of Christian education. Prepared in connection with the Long-Range Program of Lutheran Boards of Parish Education. Philadelphia: Board of Parish Education.

"For years Christian educators have looked for a reliable guide for the religious development of persons at various age levels. The document which you are about to examine is the most thorough-going attempt made by any denomination to answer the need.
The viewpoint taken here is that Christian education deals with growing persons, and growth in this sense is a continuous process which lasts throughout life. Any objectives which are conceived as guides for this process must take into account the learning opportunities which appear in one form or another at various stages of growth. As Mursell (1949. 35-36) puts it, "the first step is to set up and define a clear developmental line. One must isolate and operate in terms of a certain aspects of growth, in which a certain way of thinking, feeling, and acting establishes itself from the first, is promoted throughout, and becomes clearer and more effective in a continuous sequence with its essential features unchanged from the lowest to the highest levels." (p. 1)

Gilbert, W. K. (1962). As Christians teach. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

"The real basis for Christian education [lies] in the nature of Christianity itself. The Christian religion is not a set of high ideas which are to be passed on from one generation to another. It is not certain abstract, propositional truths about God and life. Christianity is concerned with a dynamic, living relationship between God and man. This is the ground of all being, of all reality This is the fiber from which the fabric of every moment of life and all of eternity is made."
"If it is true that education is one of the basic responsibilities of the Christian church, it becomes necessary to understand exactly what education is and what it can be expected to accomplish. This means that it becomes necessary to blend our theological views of God, man, and the church with insights from the educational sciences.
"There was a time, not so many years ago, when education was thought of as a simple process of transferring certain subject matter from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the pupil. The process was centered in what the teacher did with little regard for what was happening to the learner. As a result educators were frequently disturbed to find that either very little change had taken place in the pupil or the change that did occur was different from what had been intended.
"With the development of educational psychology, however, fresh attention was focused upon the learner. Educators came to see that the whole process of education was futile unless after the experience the pupil was somehow different-and desirably so. The emphasis shifted from what was going on outside the pupil to what was going on within him. The pupil himself became the object of much study, and aims for education began to be formulated in terms of desired changes in him.
"As is often the case when any new idea is introduced into a field, some enthusiasts carry it to extremes. The new insights regarding learning were pushed too far. 'Pupil-centered education' became the byword in American schools for several decades. To many persons this became a matter of focusing so completely upon the learner that his interests and whims became the controlling factor in education. The result was bitter controversy between the 'traditionalists'; who emphasized transmitting content, and the 'progressivists' who emphasized the learner. Unfortunately the discussions tended to generate more heat than light, and education generally wallowed in confusion while the values of both systems were in danger of being lost.
"In recent years, however, a new wave seems to be growing in education which reveals a more sober blending of insights. Educators now speak of education as a 'teaching-learning' process. There is full recognition that the aims of education must be those which are regarded as important by the educating community. Ways must be found to make essential content from man's heritage available to the pupil in such a manner that he can learn it. At the same time there is an awareness that the pupil himself must do the learning and that subject matter is sterile unless it has meaning to him."
"Education, therefore, may be thought of as that process whereby the community seeks to assist the learner to assimilate, react to, integrate, and use those elements of its heritage which are most valued and relevant in such a way that he may grow in his own person and make the greatest contribution to the common good. (pp. 7, 13, 14)

Gilbert, W. K. (Ed.). (1975). The shaping of the parish for the future. Philadelphia: Parish Life Press. The following is an illustration that parish education or educational ministry, for Kent Gilbert, naturally flows through the total life and ministry of the congregation.

"The concept [of educational ministry] was tested on persons, such as synod staff, seminary professors, pastors and lay leaders of congregations. What captured the imagination of many of them was that here was a strategy not only for educational ministry but also for the whole scope of parish life. They urged that the plan be expanded and tested as a way to help congregations 'put it all together,' to think of their ministry holistically and to have the resources available to fulfill their total mission…. Out of that testing emerged certain principles which have shaped the strategy for Parish Life and Ministry development being employed in Lutheran congregations today:
The congregation thinks and acts as a corporate body.
The congregation encourages and affirms the personal commitment of its members.
The congregation shares a common biblical and theological vision.
The congregation recognizes and responds to its own unique history and community situation.
The congregation recognizes a partnership of congregations, synods, and other churchwide agencies.
The congregation worships in ways which express its life, struggle, and heritage as people of God.
The congregation relies on groups to meet a variety of needs and to contribute to the total life of the congregation.
The congregation plans for change.
The congregation encourages candor, two-way communication, and open dealing with conflict.
The congregation recognizes the key role of the pastor.
The congregation relies on internal initiative.
The congregation uses a wide range of social and technical resources." (pp. 226-227)

Gilbert, W. K. (Ed.). (1969). Confirmation and Education. Yearbooks in Christian Education. Volume I. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. The book clarifies and comments on the definition of confirmation in US Lutheran churches.

"'Confirmation is a pastoral and educational ministry of the church that is designed to help baptized children identify with the life and mission of the adult Christian community and that is celebrated in a public rite.' [Joint Commission on the Theology and Practice of Confirmation]. Since education looms so large in the definition of confirmation, his yearbook is devoted to exploring the implications of that aspect of the commission's report. (p. 6)

Gilbert, W. K. (1988). Commitment to Unity: A History of the Lutheran Church in America. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

"It was a moving moment on the morning of June 28, 1962, when seven thousand people gathered in Cobo Hall, Detroit, to celebrate the formation of the Lutheran Church in America. Slowly, four lighted candles were brought together to form one huge candle and a single flame. For those who watched, that joining symbolized more than the merging of four ecclesiastical organizations into a new church body. It also meant the blending of four rich Lutheran traditions rooted in Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Sweden. It underscored that in many ways the history of Lutheranism in North America has been the story of immigrants-their hopes, their beliefs, their customs, and their experiences through the years in the new land." (p. 1)
"Although the formation of the LCA created the largest Lutheran body in North America, the four groups which came together did not look upon this as the end of the quest for unity. The people at Cobo Hall seemed to have a much broader vision…. This commitment to unity has been a continuing motif in the LCA's history and does much to explain its many efforts toward inter-Lutheran cooperation through the years." (p. 2)

Recommended Readings

Gilbert, W. K. (1958). The age group objectives of Christian education. Philadelphia: Lutheran Boards of Parish Education.

The core planning piece for the LCA Long-Range Program of Christian Education.

Gilbert, W. K. (1962). As Christians teach. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Designed to help leaders, especially but not limited to teachers, in the congregation to understand what is meant by education and learning in the new curriculum.

Gilbert, W. K. (Ed.). (1969). Confirmation and Education. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

First of a series of volumes designed for congregational leaders and pastors. Deals with the definition, purpose, and process of confirmation.

Gilbert, W. K. (Ed.). (1975). The shaping of the parish for the future. Yearbooks in Christian Education. Volume 1. Philadelphia: Parish Life Press.

The parish and its future as a vehicle for God's activity in the world. Dedicated to the premise that the parish is being reshaped by God for the future and that there are ways that we can be part of that process intelligently and purposefully. Explores the foundations on which parish life and ministry in the future may be developed.

Gilbert, W. K. (1988). Commitment to Unity: A History of the Lutheran Church in America. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

History of the LCA from its beginning in 1962 with a merger of four Lutheran bodies in the US up to the establishment of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988. Traces the prior history of each of the four.

Author Information

Luther Lindberg

Luther Lindberg is Professor Emeritus of Educational Ministry at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, SC. He received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of education from Boston University in 1969 where his dissertation topic was The Relationship of Educational Philosophy to the Issues of Confirmation in the Contemporary Lutheran Churches of the United States. He served on the staff of the LCA Division for Parish Services as Assistant Executive Director under Kent Gilbert. From 1987 until his retirement in 1997 he was Professor of Educational Ministry at LTSS.