When it was announced in March that the Spring 2020 learning circles would move online in response to the coronavirus, a number of people who had been planning to take “Oppression and Resistance” or “Ages and Stages” as continuing education withdrew their registration. A very reasonable decision. For one person, the sudden need for childcare was a barrier to participation. For another, the new pandemic reality provided enough new challenges without adding one more.
But for Paul Gehrs and Steve Scott, both of whom had been planning to spend a week at the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg, the appeal of being part of a community of co-learners exploring vital issues of ministry outweighed the disappointment of not being able to sit in the same room with those co-learners.
Paul and Steve decided to continue with their continuing studies, despite the change in format.
Paul Gehrs works for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, in the areas of justice and ecumenical and interfaith relations. He staffs three task groups dealing with oppression and resistance in the church, and was drawn to the “Oppression and Resistance” learning circle by the title. “I wanted to explore the concept of resistance,” he says. He recalls hearing similar messages from both Palestinian Christian leaders and Indigenous leaders: “The oppressors do not get to determine the forms of resistance.”
“This is part of a life-long process of learning to work for justice as a person of privilege,” says Paul.
Paul also has another connection to CCS. He was part of the hiring committee that selected David Lappano and Janet Ross to join the CCS program staff a number of years ago. “So at a personal level,” he says, “I was interested in experiencing their teaching in action.”
Steve Scott is a United Methodist pastor from Wisconsin. Steve fell in love with Canada after a vacation to Alberta last year, so when the time came to think about continuing education he went looking for theological schools in Canada. “I’m 10 years into full-time ministry and felt ready for a more immersive experience than a typical one- or two-day seminar.”
His interest was piqued by the concept of “learning circles” at the Centre for Christian Studies, and by the specific content of “Ages and Stages.”
“I was looking forward to visiting Winnipeg,” Steve says, “But I feared my opportunity to take part in the learning circle was dashed upon news of covid-19.”
Moving the April learning circles online allowed diaconal ministry students and continuing studies students to have the learning experience without needing to leave their homes.
But of course, it’s not the same.
“I was disappointed that it was to be online rather than in person,” says Paul. “I quite missed being able to go out for lunch and possibly a beer after class.” But Paul also realized that the task force work he was engaged in would also most likely be moving online, so the learning circle was an opportunity to practice listening deeply and respectfully in a virtual context. “There are some different skills needed to be present and listen in-person instead of online… Experiencing the CCS process for creating respectful and reflective space will be useful.”
Steve also acknowledges that an online intensive was not his first choice, but it provided an opportunity for “six wonderful days to make new friends and colleagues. I was energized by the in-depth learning and conversations, and appreciative of the careful planning and thoughtful leadership of CCS staff.”
An added benefit for Paul, besides not having to commute, was that he was able to immediately share some of his learning with his spouse. “We were able to do some of the ‘go outside and observe’ exercises together.”
Both Paul and Steve brought questions from their own contexts, as well as experience and theological insights. Other students expressed appreciation for their presence in the circle, for their open and enthusiastic engagement in the conversations, and for their contribution to the richness of the learning community. “I really appreciated the review of learnings group,” says Paul. “It was a nice size and offered continuity of debriefing space. In feedback time, I was encouraged to speak up more often at appropriate times… This will have a lasting effect.”
“I learned (and re-learned) a great deal about intergenerational ministry,” says Steve, “which will be immeasurably valuable in my pastoral ministry. Being exposed to the learning circle concept also has shaped my interactions with leaders and congregants back home with new creativity.”
“Although I still hope to visit CCS and Winnipeg in-person someday, the online learning circle was a bright spot and source of encouragement in these uncertain times.”