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Start with Telling Stories: A Reflection on ALLLM’s Conversation with Dr. Willie James Jennings

Dr. Willie James Jennings was the first of four authors to be featured in a conversation series between ALLLM members and scholars contributing to the Theological Education Between the Times (TEBT) project initiated by Dr. Ted Smith at Candler Theological Seminary at Emory. The global audience of leaders in lifelong learning for ministry who gathered via Zoom on March 20, 2024 experienced affirmation, conviction, and inspiration in an hour of shared consideration of an alternate vision for theological education beyond the colonialist, “plantation pedagogy” that has shaped our institutions, denominations, and individual motivations. In an era when leaders are often driven to commodify everything via exclusive consideration of economic models, numbers, and the market, Dr. Jennings implored that the most critical question we ask ourselves be, “Who are you forming people toward?”


“After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging,” Dr. Jennings’ 2020 contribution to the TEBT project, “basically wrote itself.” Giving permission for people to name what we often notice in silence, Dr. Jennings takes us into theological education “through the back door” with storytelling, poetry, and some pointed prose about how we perpetuate the values of “the master,” unconsciously and consciously forming all people toward the equivalent of the independent, white man. 


While disruptions in this model exist, the reality is that no institution or organization is sustaining an alternate way of being, challenged Dr. Jennings, and he posited that this is the work that is before us in these “between times.” The vision proposed by Jennings is birthed in Jesus’ willingness to “come for the crowd” – that we would be gatherers of people who wouldn’t otherwise gather, and that we would be changed by belonging to one another.


Acknowledging the daily pressures of our work, Dr. Jennings encouraged those gathered to “know what story you are within and become exquisite storytellers. Tell little stories over and over that reflect the values of the broader story. . . When we do this, we humanize ourselves, our listeners, and the process.” 


“What does the in-between offer?” moderator Dr. Aaron Stauffer asked, a closing question to be asked of all the hosted authors. “Hope. It offers the opportunity to be disciplined by hope,” Dr. Jennings replied with a smile. “We’ve been on automatic, and the automatic has never been healthy. . . Now we can actually pray and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”


In reflecting on this first conversation, Dr. Helen Blier, wrote, “We (ALLLM) are, indeed, a small-but-potentially-mighty collection of people existing between the spaces of more established providers of theological education while simultaneously doing work that gathers people in those spaces. If the series is ‘theological education between the times,’ we are theological educators between the spaces.”


The series is a membership event for those who join ALLLM in search of encouragement, practical resources, and companionship in leading “between the spaces and the times.” The next author conversation will take place May 8, 12noon ET, with Dr. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, author of “Atando Cabos: Latinx Contributions to Theological Education.”

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