Talanoa with Dr. Cosden

Dr. Darell Cosden, who is from the United States of America, joined the Pacific Theological College this year as Senior Lecturer Theology and Ethics. He also serves PTC as its Academic Dean, taking over the role from Rev. Dr. Gwayaweng Kiki who held the role for the past three years. 

The College is at a time of transition, progressing towards being a University as part of its new Strategic Plan 2020 – 2025 with the theme ‘Towards Excellence in Theological Education for Leadership for Justice.’

Dr. Cosden is spearheading PTC’s curriculum redevelopment and design to deliver on the Strategic Plan vision and contextual theological education that meets the needs of Pacific Islanders. 

He has carried out similar work in theological colleges in Europe and the United States of America, reinventing curriculums in order for the theological colleges to survive and to grow. 

Q. What excites you about your new role as Academic Dean?


I think right now we stand at a very interesting moment in the history of the College and theological study globally. Even cursory study with theological education globally is in trouble. We have declining numbers. We have shifting patterns of church and education for church. We have rising costs. We have basically a global crisis in theological education.

I say the Pacific has maybe have been shielded from some of that or feeling less the effect of that. But what is happening there, we see signs it is coming this direction. We also have some unique challenges at PTC. So, for me, it’s an exciting time. It is an exciting time to do something new, something different, something that builds in the heritage of the past, does not throw away the good heritage and the good past but also does something that has not been done before and not in this way. I think that’s the moment that I arrived with the new institutional strategic plan making the same kind of claims trying to chart a new course. For the strategic plan to succeed there has got to be a creative re-thinking, redesign, creative editions, creative theological scholarships that’s going to reshape the academic plan and structure of what we do here. People have different views of what the Dean does. We typically think of them as an Administrator and Operational person and in an institution, that is what they do. The problem is in an institution you don’t need primarily an administrator but a builder and a leader. For me personally I’m not the administrator. It’s not my gift, skills set or interest. I’ve always been a builder at the three previous high and institutions where I taught or led. 

Q. What do you intend to build for PTC?


We are in the brainstorming and collecting phase at this stage, getting feedback and collecting ideas, getting input from faculty, key stakeholders, churches and potential students. We have pieced a broad skeleton of what is possible.  In 2010, the Pacific Higher Education Framework came into play in the region. By 2015, those had made their way into the South Pacific Association of Theological Schools (SPATS), into the theological world. To date SPATS and the Fiji Higher Education Commission are really at the early stages of trying to figure out what these frameworks are and how to implement them. To be honest and fair they were brought into the context, with no training of the implementors and sort of imposed on the context. There seems to be little understanding of it. It is an essentially British framework that made its way into the Pacific Islands by way of Australia and New Zealand but is essentially a British system of design. To be entirely fair, SPATS has struggled to understand it. And PTC, working with SPATS, has struggled to understand it too.

I think one of the reasons I was asked to do this role because back as early as the late 90’s I was trained to understand the structure and the system.

You asked the questions what I intend to build? I intend to help our faculty and team here rebuild curriculum; I don’t intend to build anything for anyone. I simply want to provide the tools and the training and the skills and as a builder I take leadership rather than administration as my goal. So, I want to lead us through the processes. For me there is a difference between a leader and a manger. 

Q. Share some thoughts on the expected changes for the PTC curriculum?


The curriculum is going to take full advantage of the frameworks. We are going to rethink our current Masters in Theology (MTh) and re-align it within the framework.  Right now (referring to Masters in Theology) it tries to do everything, a one size fits all and if you try to do everything you run the risk of doing nothing, or at least to the level you want to do it at. You do a whole lot of things at a more dispersed level rather than a focussed goal. I can’t tell you what the purpose of that degree is because we haven’t decided. 

The masters in Theology tries to serve multiple purposes helping people to become writers and scholars, helping them to become faculty members in their own church schools, helping people to become leaders in their churches. You know, which is it? What is it trying to accomplish? If we are trying to create teachers for emerging theological colleges. That’s a set of specific set of skills and goals. If we are trying to build pastors who go deeper, that’s a specific set of skills. If we are trying to produce researchers and writers, that’s a different set of skills. 

What we are clear about is that we need to have a very academic route here. Whatever degrees we offer. We need to be the place where academic scholarly training takes place. So, I possibly envision this degree fulfilling that role. That the MTH is the Masters that leads us into the PhD route. And the PhD route is for scholars, writers and teachers. 

But I’m also convinced the vast majority of our students are not academically oriented. They don’t come from having academic aspirations. They don’t come from having experience doing the more academic things. Some do. but the vast majority come from years of experience in ministry. And we don’t have a developed professional route at this point. So, you ask what I envision? I think we need to develop entire pathways, an entire route that goes from undergraduate level to a professional doctorate. We haven’t named it yet. We have some ideas; I don’t want to give those away at this moment. 

A professional doctorate that is on ministry/missional based issues. Things like the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) works on all the time. Addressing Pacific issues, social justice issues. We have a number of people coming from churches and we really want them to work on those issues when they return. And these students won’t become the teachers in theological colleges and if they are, they won’t be in New Testament or Old Testament studies but in Mission Studies. Our students come from years of ministry experience and yet this contribution is undervalued in classrooms, not on purpose but by design. We currently work on more academic skills. We try to turn people into people they might not be, people that might not be their vocation or calling from God. The churches aren’t sending us those kinds of people primarily. That’s not how they select or how they send. So instead of trying to make every square fit into a round circle, let’s broaden the offerings. A professional doctorate for example would have maybe no more than a year’s worth of coursework, than it would have on the ground implementation of a project for a couple years and then a writeup period where you recontribute to the scholarship of the Pacific, of the practical dimensions, of the social justice side. 

At this moment our curriculum is structured for academic, research and writing. We don’t want to lose that. I think there are fewer students suited for that route. But we need to have that route and need to make that a strong suite of what we do for them that’s appropriate. For the rest of our students, who experience a lot of frustration and anxiety for trying to become something they are not, or don’t want to be or not passionate about, they are not going to go home and do that anyway, we can design a something that really meets their needs. It meets that social justice leadership of the Strategic Plan and really serves the vision of the church in the Pacific.

The key to all of this is pathways. Pathways that start at the Institute for Mission and Research (IMR) level where Capacity Building Courses are offered. That people in the churches, ministers, but mostly also lay people, who have an interest and need for theological education, can begin a process that can take them from IMR right up to the professional doctorate level. But with appropriate exit points at every step of the way, either because they are satisfied, that is sufficient for what they need or because their skills don’t allow them to progress to the next level. And the frameworks allow this. The quality mechanisms of the framework make sure students don’t go away empty handed. That there is exit points at each place, that it’s appropriate that an award can be taken away. And you can move on and not reach a dead end at any point. That has not been understood and exploited in the Pacific and particularly not at PTC yet. 

Q. Will the new design assist churches to play a greater role in helping Pacific islanders meet the challenges of this new age? Should the churches get involved beyond the pulpit?


Yes, I strongly do. The purpose of the church is to embody the presence of Christ in the world and context. But the idea that church focusses on eternal things only, or some narrow definition for spiritual, this other worldly and life in society is temporal and isn’t the business of the church, is viewed as a flawed ecclesiology. It’s a flawed theology of creation. That type of thinking can lead to the church becoming an oppressive problem when it is forced to engage culture and the world, without thinking through things. Christ comes in a cultural context. The new curriculum will help students to embody Christ in the world. While addressing the pressing issues that everyone in the congregation and society face, it will address the eternal and spiritual questions. 

Q. What do you think is causing the decline in interest in theological education globally?


Several factors:

  1. Curricular approach and structure built on a medieval 19th century model of theological education which many churches are not finding really prepares its leadership. Its curriculum is irrelevant.
  2. Rising costs of higher education – that’s across the board not just theological education. We are particularly vulnerable within that. Costs are rising because of technology, and the needs for an internet infrastructure that is constantly changing and needs constant upgrade
  3. Administrative costs – so as we add more frameworks and layers of accountability there needs to be hired people to oversee those things so you might end with an institution that needs hugely drives up costs.
  4. As in the history of modern missions, a lot of theological colleges are built on a charitable giving model. It’s sort of a colonial model where you need rich people to give you crumbs from their table and support that way. That is not the world we live in and will not be the future. We need more revenue generating activities which could be an in-demand curriculum. 

Global institutes are shutting down monthly, globally. So far, we have been shielded. In the Pacific the historic Protestant denominations compared to the rest of the globe are still very strong. Globally, the historical Protestant denominations are dying. The entrepreneurial church movement, free church, with the rock band in front, is growing. The rise of the mega-church. These churches start to function more like a corporate model instead of the traditional denominational model. They function more as a corporate structure. And many of them, if they want training, they have in-house training. They want their own methods of leadership, interpretations of the Bible. It’s a global phenomenon. 

Q. How does the re-design of the curriculum position PTC to deal with threats to theological education globally?


The key to that is expanding on the vision of who theological education is for. Theological education is obviously for priests, pastors and church leaders. But theological education primarily belongs to all the people of God. We need a mixed focus of all the above at PTC. People who are obviously priest, or ministers in the formal denominational sense of the world, but also the laity at all levels, women, men, who aren’t seeking ordination. That’s where the excitement is generating from. Some of the proposals that were passing around, and every time when I’m talking to people, every time when I do a presentation, the people in the room not part of the power structure or priest structure, there would be something they want to do.  We haven’t rolled this out, yet we are already getting inquiries from outside the traditional PTC structure of those identified, chosen, sent, sponsored by the church. 

Right now, we have an unsustainable student-faculty ratio. It  3:1. That is not economically sustainable in any way. The kind of curriculum we have structured right now, requires a workload for faculty that means we can’t get much more than a 3:1 to one student faculty ratio, if our students are going to, we are going to succeed. The model is just not financially viable or sustainable. That suggests to me that the kind of curricular structures that we have right now can’t work in the context of the sustainable vision. 

The new curriculum is also the igniting factor to pull together again the three main pillars of historical ecumenical movement in the Pacific – PCC, PTC and SPATS.

I am working on issues that requires the integration of those three ecumenical bodies in the Pacific. Instead of just talking about the structures of these three institutions we actually have a missional purpose for them again. 

This will also make us appealing outside of the traditional churches that supports us to a wider group of churches, from outside the narrow Pacific confines, for diaspora of Pacific people, or for people in Australia and NZ and other parts of the world, interested in the context of the ecological crisis and post-colonial issues and these kinds of things. We are getting interest in that area as well. I think the narrow vision, of working here to serve the traditional group of churches will continue to be a focus. But do we have to be limited to that? To actually serve those churches well, we actually have to serve Christ’s purpose as well and that includes people outside of those structures. And that includes engaging globally and having something to contribute on the global scene as well.

Q. So this is about crafting a good in-demand product?


The curriculum is the product that must get in the income. I know that even talking that way will make some of my colleagues angry. Because it’s the commodification of the curriculum. It is the neo-liberal capitalist model. If what we have to offer is a theological college, our theological education is the product. If you want to call it a produce, we will call it such. If it is good and people want it, they will do what they must to get it. They will make personal sacrifices, they will pay. If it is not worth having why would they want it. 

Q. When do you expect the new curriculum to roll-out?


Progressively. We are on a three-five-year path to make a completely comprehensive overview and overhaul of everything. This is an organic, integrated design process. The plan is to have significant, online learning. The plans for PTC are to continue residential, but move also to fully online and hybrid models. 

Q. What do you like about working at PTC?


I love the ecumenical nature, the diverse student body, the unique role and vision that we can have in the pacific and in the globe. For a little tinny place that is so insignificant in this corner of the globe we have so much potential.