Global Protestant Education Collaboration and the Reformation

Dec 21st, 2017 | Category: Faith/Learning, Lutheran Education Commentary
By Jonathan C. Laabs

As students, staff and communities who are part of Lutheran schools around the world spent the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation learning the significance of Martin Luther nailing 95 thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, they may not have realized how big the celebration has been. Most Lutherans have been used to hearing the references to Luther in everyday discussion, in classrooms, in church, and, especially, during 2017 in publications, films and advertisements. After all, Lutherans bear his surname as part of their denominational identity. But Lutherans are not alone in recognizing this year as special!

Martin Luther opened the floodgates of inquiry, confrontation, and change. During his time, and for the centuries that followed, many individuals led the charge for reform. Names such as Wesley, Knox, Calvin, and Zwingli are commonly known to be associated with Protestant denominations formed through the years. What many of these leaders had in common as they formed their church groups was the importance of education: as an extension of the home, as a responsibility of the government to provide a system of public education, as a right to be experienced by all children regardless of social class or gender, and as an alternative to the state systems that did not permit the teachings of the church. As the churches grew in their communities and missionaries took their ministry into all parts of the world, the priority of education went with them. Schools became a foundation not only for the nurturing of missionary families and members, but a form of outreach into the newly established communities.

Despite the dramatic changes that have impacted education in a variety of Protestant settings, the presence of these schools is very visible in countries around the world. Church denominations have had to face challenges in working with government control of schools, changing demographics, declining church affiliation, and funding issues. Governance models have shifted, names have sometimes been modified, and responsiveness to societal and global changes have been responsible for new ways of operating. Questions about identity, relevance, quality, sustainability, diversity and global connectedness have recently been raised across all Protestant systems that work in the education field.

In the fall of 2015, 70 representatives from 25 different countries gathered in Wittenberg, Germany for the purpose of exploring how Protestant schools throughout the world see themselves as carrying out their missions in the context of the Reformation theme. Sponsored by the Evangelical Church in Germany in cooperation with the University of Bamberg, this gathering highlighted the diverse settings and types of education institutions that are operated throughout all parts of the world. The uniqueness of the event was evident in the makeup of the participants: educators, leaders and decision makers from schools, systems and churches in many different Protestant denominations who may or may not have had previous association with each other. Participants from African nations and Europe were particularly noteworthy, as they represented systems that were often isolated from other denominations around the world. The challenge was to identify common purposes, learn about how each system works, and explore ideas for potential common projects around the Reformation celebration.

The successful results of this interactive meeting in the city of the Reformation led to a follow-up event in December of 2016 in The Netherlands at which a smaller group assembled. The main purpose of the group was to produce a position paper which would articulate the elements which Protestant schools across the globe have in common and suggest ways in which collaboration on regional and global levels might be enhanced. Seventeen countries were represented by educators and leaders from a variety of Protestant schools and agencies, including Lutheran Education Association. The resulting document, “Establishing Common Ground for Protestant Schools Worldwide”, is printed at the conclusion to this article, with permission by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany.

In conjunction with the development of the positon paper, there has been much activity which has emanated from the 2014, 2015 and 2016 meetings; from the early activities of the Reformation celebration in schools throughout the world; and from the developmental stages leading to the establishment of a new global organization (summaries of many of these activities can be found at www.gpenreformation.net). Following are several examples of such activities:

• In 2013, Protestant schools around the world were invited to join the emerging network named “schools500reformation” for the purpose of interacting, sharing resources, and establishing a common bond around the theme of the Reformation. Initially, the goal was to connect at least 500 schools. Schools and institutions have been added on a regular basis and can now be found in countries on six continents.

• Throughout 2014, three regional conferences were held in Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, and Tanzania to unite educators, explore ways of improving education, and celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

• Protestant schools in many parts of the world were connected in 2015 through an initiative in which students who were studying about Martin Luther and the 95 theses were asked to submit their own statements about problems, issues, and concerns that they believed required attention and reform. From over 1000 submissions, 95 were selection that were referenced multiple times and outlined in a document.

• The year 2017 was filled with events based in Wittenberg, culminating with the official Reformation celebration on October 31. From May through September, the  schools500reformation activities were based at the World Reformation Exhibition where a pavilion housed featured speakers, video presentations, and opportunities for interaction among visitors. In June, the International Schools Camp brought together students from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America to learn, share and experience both the diversity and unity of the various cultures, histories, and education systems. June 23 marked the launching of the next stage of development: the Global Pedagogical Network (GPEN).

In November of 2017, the most recent conference of the newly formed GPEN was held in Kigali, Rwanda. Hosted by the Protestant Council of Rwanda, the event involved over 50 participants from 18 countries around the theme of “Peace Education at Protestant Schools as a Contribution to Learning for Sustainability.” Special focus was placed on conflicts in the field of protestant education. Recent experiences by representatives from South Sudan, DR Congo, and Rwanda highlighted the conference and provided for new insights into ways in which schools can be helping each other globally.

The November conference also marked the beginning of the formally constituted Global Pedagogical Network, where a leadership council was established and national ambassadors were affirmed. Planning for the future of GPEN was also conducted. The activities of this event and those of the past four years have demonstrated the dramatic need for collaboration among education personnel and institutions across Protestant education worldwide. The position paper which follows is representative of the spirit in which the leaders and representatives from six continents have been working toward a common direction of Christian education in an increasingly diverse world. The future development of the new GPEN organization, the professional growth of educators, and the secure future of Protestant schools are all headed in a positive direction as a result of such global collaboration.

Author Information

Dr. Jonathan Laabs has served in various teaching and leadership capacities in Lutheran education for 40 years, including teacher and administrator in Texas and Michigan, Director of Teacher Education at Concordia University, Ann Arbor and, for the past 20 years, Executive Director of Lutheran Education Association. He earned his BA (1977) and MA (1980) from Concordia University Chicago and his Doctor of Education degree from The University of Michigan. Dr. Laabs has also been extensively involved at the international level as speaker, consultant, tour leader and collaborator with Lutheran schools on six continents and currently serves on the Council for the Global Pedagogical Network – Joining in Reformation.

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