Historic: Western Field Based Program

Western Field Based Program St. Stephen’s College 1989 to 1996

A group of women in Alberta and Northwest Conference of the United Church of Canada, interested in responding to their call to Diaconal Ministry, found their dream realized when St. Stephen’s College, Edmonton, agreed to develop and coordinate a non-residential pilot program for studies in Diaconal Ministry.

Reflection on ministry preparation in The United Church during the 1980’s had resulted in an interest in testing new distance models of education (variously called field based, non-residential, flexible, extension, among others). In addition an expanding view of the need for diaconal ministries in the changing church context prompted the General Council, through its Committee on Theological Education for Ministry, to explore possibilities for other sites for preparation for diaconal ministry.  In 1982 an agreement by the Church and the Centre for Christian Studies (CCS) to begin to explore dispersed educational possibilities was made. The western based grass movement, along with St. Stephen’s College, entered into the discussions with CCS. St. Stephen’s College had been engaged in non-residential programs for several years and it was felt that this would be an asset, which indeed it was.  The experience of CCS in curriculum for diaconal formation and action-reflection methodologies was essential.

The Western Field Based Program for Diaconal Ministry (1989-1996) had two intakes each with 30 participants. Thirty women and men from eastern Ontario to Vancouver Island completed the program.  (Click here for a complete list of graduates.) All of the graduates entered active professional ministry in the United Church. Some are now retired and some have died.  Most participants were from Alberta and Northwest, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conferences.

Participants were required to be away from home for a little better than five weeks a year, spending most of their five years of study in their home communities where they were employed half time in pastoral charges or outreach ministries.

In addition to their field work, participants attended three community events each year for both academic and integrative work. The remaining seven academic courses were taken from a nearby University or Theological College.

A ten day global education experience was a significant component of the program. One intake went to Cuba, the other to Korea. Graduates were eligible for a diploma, a Bth or an MTS in Diaconal Ministry.

The program was developed, coordinated and administered by Betty Marlin and Yvonne Stewart with strong support from the Alberta and Northwest Conference diaconal community. Diaconal Ministers throughout the Church were involved working directly with students as facilitators.

The WFB program kept in close contact with the CCS and benefitted from the wisdom and experience of their staff.  Staff from the Centre for Christian Studies were involved as consultants and provided leadership at several of the community learning sessions.  The WFB program was an important development in the evaluation of community based learning.  Beyond influencing CCS, the WFB program, along with First Nations schools who pioneered community based programs, helped shape new directions in theological education throughout Canada.

Graduates of the program work in all kinds of ministry settings: team ministry, rural congregations, interim ministry, inner-city outreach, or specialized ministry.

The graduates have, and still are, making a significant contribution to the life of the church in many communities.  The program itself brought great influence to bear on the development of other programs, including a pilot for training for Ordination, the In-Community Program for Ordination (ICPO). A permanent program for field based Ordination (non native) is now offered at Atlantic School of Theology. The Centre for Christian Studies introduced a dispersed model, drawing on the learning from the WFB Program in 1998 when its residential model was phased out. Many of the other theological colleges in the United Church have incorporated parts of the model and have been encouraged by the success of the WFB Program, and later CCS, to redesign their program and delivery in some ways.  The program introduced in 2010 for Designated Lay Ministry in the United Church also benefitted from the early work of the WFB Program.

Ken DeLisle, a graduate of the program has written A MOMENT IN TIME: WESTERN FIELD-BASED DIACONAL PROGRAM. This interesting paper provides an overview of the program and includes reflections from other participants and staff. The Centre for Christian Studies archives contains primary documents related to the WFB Program.  Click here for a list.