The Spiritual Roles of the Christian Teacher
Teaching is one of the primary functions in the Church, both in importance and necessity. In the early church, the function and calling of teaching was indistinguishable from that of Pastor. But in our age of specialization the role of teacher has come to stand alone as a distinct and primary calling in the Church.
The spiritual role and calling of Teacher in the church is unique. Because of the nature of the setting in which Christian education takes place—the Church—the function of teaching takes on other dimensions not found in other contexts. Functioning as a teacher in a college classroom or in an elementary school or even in a seminary graduate course is different from practicing the role of a teacher in the church setting.
Two important underlying assumptions about Christian teaching in the church provide the impetus for understanding the spiritual roles of the Christian teacher.
1. Christian learning is a lifelong process. Since the Christian’s calling is to “grow up into Him who is the head,” Christian teaching is a critical component to growth in the spiritual life. No one graduates from Sunday School. We don’t give out master’s degrees in the Christian life. Once a Christian sets his or her foot on the path of discipleship the journey never ends.
2. Christian teaching is qualitatively different from other ways of teaching. Christian education has more to do with matters of the spirit and will than of the mind. The content of Christian education is not a body of knowledge, but a person: Jesus Christ. Knowing God is primary, knowing *about* God is secondary in Christian teaching. Therefore, basic educational categories in Christian teaching (content, the role of the teacher, the role of the student, methodology, epistemology, etc.) take on a distinct quality.
THE SPIRITUAL ROLES OF THE TEACHER
To argue that the role of the teacher in Christian education is more “spiritual” is not to say that it makes for an easier task. In fact, the challenges of being a Christian teacher is such that James the Apostle warned, “My friends, not many of you should become teachers. As you know, we teachers will be judged with greater strictness than others” (James 3:1 TEV). Below are five roles that Christian teachers must master to become effective in working out their calling.
CONTENT SPECIALIST. Secondary to a relationship with Christ, the teacher will be effective to the extent that he or she has mastered the content of the faith: history, the Biblical literature, classic spiritual writings, theology, doctrine, and Christian arts. Some may argue, “But I only teach preschoolers, I don’t need to know all that!” Or, “I teach youth. They’d be bored to tears if I talked about theology or history.”
The fact of the matter is that in the business of lifelong Christian discipleship, all of these matter. The greatest tragedies in the history of the church have been helped by ignorance of sound theology, lack of knowledge of history, biblical illiteracy, and an inability to appreciate the awakening and inspiring powers of the arts. These are necessary even from the earliest preschool years when children are beginning to learn to order and understand their world. For the adolescent, exposure to history, the arts, and theology are helpful cures for the egocentricity that is normative of that group.
INSTRUCTOR. Instruction refers to the art and technique of teaching. The Christian teacher must be both artist and technician when it comes to the learning arts. Leon McKenzie said, “A false mysticism which maintains that the good intentions of the religious educator are alone important, and that the Holy Spirit will intervene to salvage poor instruction, is perhaps the primary source for ineffectual instruction.”1
The spiritual role of instructor includes mundane matters such as classroom management, formulating learning outcomes, sequencing activities, and working with media. But instruction also includes loftier skills like motivating the learner, firing the imagination, and inspiring action and application of biblical truths to daily living.
COUNSELOR. One of the most natural roles of the teacher is that of counselor. It will not take long for learners to seek out good teachers for advice and counsel. The spiritual role of counseling is much more than helping with decision-making, listening, and giving advice. The teacher must be able to help learners explore their life situations and help them discern their own paths in Christian discipleship.
But counseling requires more than good intentions. The teacher will need skills, understanding, and expertise that only come through study and experience. The Christian teacher must be knowledgeable about counseling and its appropriate use in the teacher-learner relationship.
MODEL & MENTOR. Perhaps the spiritual role that is most demanding of the Christian teacher is that of being a model and mentor to learners. Being a model in the Christian life is a daunting prospect, because we realize that this comes not out of performance, but out of being. We are called to be teachers not because we perform well in a classroom, but because we live a Christian life based on our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is the being and the relationship that we model.
The spiritual role of the mentoring relationship is the highest expression of teaching. When a teacher and a learner enter into this relationship, a new dimension of learning takes place. A new level of mutual responsibility and accountability exists in this teaching-learning relationship. In the spiritual role of mentor, the teacher shares more than skills and knowledge; he or she shares the passion of their calling.
LEARNER. An important role of the teacher is that of being a lifelong learner. Only the teacher that is growing and learning will serve learners well. The calling to be a teacher is not for those who have “arrived;” it is for those who can model in their life and living what it means to be a lifelong disciple of Jesus Christ; ever-growing, ever-learning, ever becoming—that is perhaps the greatest lesson one can teach.
As you seek to grow in your calling as a teacher, give attention to the spiritual roles of teaching. Take a moment to articulate your assumptions about teaching and learning.
**QUESTIONS FOR PONDERING**
- Which of the spiritual roles are you most competent in: content expert, instructor, counselor, model and mentor, or learner?
- How is each spiritual role evident in your teaching ministry?
- How can you become better in the spiritual role you are lacking?
1Leon McKenzie, “Developmental Spirituality and the Religious Educator,” in *The Spirituality of the Religious Educator*, James Michael Lee, ed. (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 185).
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).