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0ver 500 Religious Leaders Learn about Science Advances in a AAAS DoSER Continuing Education Project

Participants at the 2019 Continuing Education Workshop discuss in small groups.
Continuing Education workshop participants discuss next steps for the project. | Elise Miller & Rob O'Malley, AAAS

New scientific and technological advancements come to the attention of the public and policy makers on a nearly daily basis. Most US adults claim a religious affiliation1, and religious leaders often find themselves in the critical role of framing new discoveries for those communities they serve. Unfortunately, clergy often have little exposure or resources to learn about advances in science and technology. To address this need, the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program designed a pilot project to integrate science and technology topics relevant to contemporary ministry into continuing education courses. The Science in Continuing Education for Pastors (“Continuing Education”) project provided religious leaders with resources and opportunities to learn about and discuss issues at the forefront of science and technology with scientists and fellow faith leaders. The pilot project ran from 2017-2019, jointly funded by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation. 

Through the Continuing Education pilot project, AAAS sought to assist clergy to be prepared to engage with congregants’ questions and concerns around new advances in science and technology. DoSER partnered with four seminaries from across the country that serve a variety of Christian denominations: Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School (non-denominational), Concordia Seminary (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod), Columbia Theological Seminary (Presbyterian Church (USA)), and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (Presbyterian Church (USA)). The seminaries were required to offer at least one continuing education course integrated with science, and host at least one science themed campus-wide event. By the end of the 18-month project, the seminaries had offered 6 courses and hosted over 12 campus events for at least 565 congregational leaders. Continuing education courses included traditional in-class meetings, online courses, and a hybrid model with both a classroom and an online format. They also discussed a diverse array of scientific topics, including astronomy, conservation, anthropology, biology, neurology, psychology, and public health and medicine.

A strength of this project was that the partners had the freedom to tailor their courses and events to fit the needs and schedules of the participating clergy. At Andover Newton, 15 pastors and chaplains attended classes once a month on theology and medicine during the 2017 fall semester. While most of the participants were from Connecticut, several religious leaders traveled from neighboring states (NY, NJ, NC, MA). One participant, an Air Force chaplain, flew from the US Air Base in Ramstein, Germany. Columbia, on the other hand, took their project on the road. They hosted five “Leadership in Ministry” workshops in Atlanta, GA, Lynchburg, VA, and Boston, MA for more than 50 pastors. They also offered an online continuing education course on “Your Spiritual Brain” in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for 19 clergy members. Concordia offered a three-day workshop that was attended by 13 minsters and lay leaders from five different states (MO, MD, SD, MN, and CA). More early- to mid-career leaders engaged with the project at Concordia than at other participating seminaries. Pittsburgh hosted six monthly “Community and Conversations” sessions that touched upon a variety of science topics and were held at venues including the Pittsburgh Google Headquarters and the Carnegie Mellon Natural History Museum. Around 250 participants attended these lectures, an overwhelming response compared to their previous programs. In winter 2018, Pittsburgh offered a 4-week online continuing education course attended by 25 clergy members. 

Events hosted by the seminaries also reached a broad audience and touched on a variety of science topics. At least 30 clergy members and seminary students at Concordia attended a lecture by physicist Dr. Erica Carlson of Purdue University. Andover Newton’s event, “Clergy Burnout and Coping,” used studies from psychology and social science to get a deeper understanding of why there are such high rates of burnout in clergy members, and to identify coping strategies that help mitigate this issue. Pittsburgh hosted a one-day workshop for their campus-wide event titled “Holy Curiosity! Science, Wonder, and the Desire to Know” that drew 149 clergy and laity. Attendees at all the Continuing Education events found the presentations “insightful,” “incredible,” “exhilarating,” and “one of the more valuable conferences I’ve been to; in fact, near the top.”

As a culminating event, DoSER hosted a Science in Continuing Education for Pastors Workshop at AAAS Headquarters in Washington, DC in August 2019. Seventeen local scientists and clergy attended the workshop, along with leaders or participants from all four partner institutions. The objectives of the workshop were to:  

  • highlight the goals, activities and outcomes of the Science in Continuing Education for Pastors pilot project;
  • identify, through a structured planning process, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges facing the science-religion relationship within church communities;
  • recommend actionable initiatives that can be formulated into practical, fundable projects after the workshop; and,
  • encourage the establishment of working relationships between scientific and religious leaders in the local DC area.

During the workshop, attendees met in small groups to brainstorm and evaluate potential next steps for the project. Outputs included constructive ideas about what types of science resources and programming are needed to better prepare religious leaders to have conversations on new advances in science and technology with their constituents. Attendees also thought about areas of growth for the project, including expanding engagement to communities that are often left out of the conversation. As one participant stated, “having localized dialogue about the needs of underrepresented populations will help bring clarity and actionable activities to promoting more science and faith connections.”      

Several themes appeared through the qualitative and quantitative evaluation of this pilot initiative. First, surveys found that participants overwhelmingly felt that understanding science is important for their work as clergy. As one pastor put it, “a world where science and theology [are] at odds is a world that is poorer.” Second, while the program was initially created for pastors, the continuing education courses, workshops, and events frequently elicited interest from non-ordained congregational leaders. This is not surprising, since many of the lay leaders have pivotal educational and influential roles within their congregations. In-depth interviews at Columbia suggested the knowledge gained through the workshops was incorporated into their work as ministers or lay leaders, with one individual stating, “I use this on a nearly daily basis…[Before the workshop,] I didn’t have a social science background to draw on…It’s been very helpful…[specifically,] it’s helped me to be more resilient in my role as pastor.” One Andover Newton attendee suggested that the course caused them to “take my ministry in a different direction, and it’s making me more of a leader in my community now.” 

AAAS DoSER plans to launch a second phase of the Continuing Education project in the coming years that will build upon the pilot project. The second phase will expand interactions with the broader theological education community and other clergy members who are interested in participating in conversations at the nexus of science and faith. More information, as it becomes available, will be posted online at www.aaas.org/DoSER

 

1Jones, Robert P., and Daniel Cox. “America’s Changing Religious Identity.” PRRI. 2017. https://www.prri.org/research/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated/