Monday, January 29, 2018

This January, 39 students in Guatemala received a Certificate in Methodist Pastoral Ministry through a Duke Divinity School program that began there in August 2014. The program, which consisted of three-day intensive sessions each January and August, was launched with the support of the General Board of Global Ministries, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and at the request of the Methodist church in Guatemala to help support Methodist Guatemalan pastors.

A law passed in Guatemala in 2013 requires that all pastors have both secular and theological training. This law presented a challenge to Methodist pastors in the country, as there were limited opportunities for the needed training within the country. In addition, there are no salaried ministers in the Methodist church in Guatemala, and ministers typically hold jobs outside of the church, circumstances that make a more traditional clergy training program unworkable. The certificate program was intended to fill the gap in credentialing so that Methodist pastors could continue their work.

Graduates of the program gathered after the graduation ceremony for a group photo.
Graduates of the program gathered after the graduation ceremony for a group photo.

Divinity School faculty, staff, students, and alumni taught in the program. In addition, pastors who were part of a Divinity School program in El Salvador helped teach, including some Guatemalans. Teachers in the program included Professors Edgardo Colón-Emeric and Warren Smith, Divinity staff members Ismael Ruiz-Millan and Alaina Kleinbeck, students Mandy Rodgers-Gates and Tito Madrazo, and alumni Erwin Lopez and Chauncey Handy.

During the program, which was taught in Spanish, instructors learned how to adjust to the realities of teaching students who had limited literacy.

“Many of our students are not native Spanish speakers,” said Colón-Emeric. “The native language is called Quiché. We had to radically change how we were doing the teaching. At first it was heavily lecture-based teaching with exams and assignments. But we had a very high failure rate—the problems stemmed from lack of Spanish fluency and also literacy issues.”

The instructors adjusted the curriculum to meet students’ needs, switching away from long lectures to short lectures and small group work that would serve to reinforce the material, in addition to more oral testing.

“Mutual teaching and learning is what happens in Guatemala,” said Ismael Ruiz-Millan. “Instructors need to adopt a posture of receiving and learning, and more significantly, instructors need to let students guide them as they teach—the students become instructors, too, in a way. This is without a doubt a tangible way to see the Holy Spirit overcoming cultural, linguistic and theological barriers.”

“Many of the pastors can’t read or can’t read quickly because they haven’t had many formal education opportunities,” said Kleinbeck, who was the program registrar. “I sat next to a man I had helped with lecture notes. During a snack break, we were talking about discipleship, and he said, ‘Tell me in a short phrase that I can remember, what is the most important thing I need to remember when I serve holy communion for our church?’ It was really touching moment for me—the humility that ‘I need to remember this.’ I think that kind of opportunity for someone who is faithfully serving a church but is simultaneously doing it without being able to read is kind of a miracle.”

Students were instructed in such topics as Methodist history, worship, and discipleship. In addition, there were social aspects to the program that extended the teaching beyond formal instruction. For example, while the Methodist Church in Guatemala has historically not made room for women in leadership roles, some of the students were women, and some of the lecturers and small group leaders were women. “That experience has broadened their horizons and helped them think more broadly about the possibilities for women to serve the Methodist church in Guatemala,” said Colón-Emeric.

The experience also helped students solidify their sense of Methodist identity, said Colón-Emeric. “Their ministry and their preaching are now more theologically aware of where they are located in Guatemala and the gifts that they have as Guatemalans and Methodist Guatemalans. The Methodist church in Guatemala has been somewhat isolated in the region because of the geography, language, and culture, and there’s a real hunger to connect with other Methodists. They’re proud of being Guatemalan Methodists, but also eager to connect with Methodists from other contexts and share with them who they are,” he said.

The graduation service was a poignant and celebratory end to the program. Graduates organized a committee to plan the service, inviting a youth band to play, decorating the worship space with balloons and streamers, and covering the floor with pine straw, a traditional Guatemalan celebratory decoration. More than 350 family members, church members, and friends gathered for the service. Graduates wore gowns handmade by a teacher in the program and received diplomas from Duke and the executive committee of the church.  

What comes next for the program isn’t entirely clear. The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry made a commitment to support a single cohort through 2018. “This will be the end of that commitment,” said Colón-Emeric. “The resources aren’t there to start a whole new session. We’ll be having conversation with Guatemalans and others in the region about what comes next.”

Still, the impact of the program has been clear to all involved. “It’s a great achievement for them to finish the program in terms of perseverance and doing the work,” said Colón-Emeric. “They’re very excited, and there’s a lot of buzz in the community about them finishing the work. It will be a very important moment for them in the life of their church in Guatemala.”