Teaching When You're the Expert

June 13th, 2011

One of my professors in seminary provided the best definition I’ve ever heard of an “expert”: a fool fifty miles from home. Regardless of how far you are from home, if you’re an ordained minister you are automatically the congregation’s expert on the Bible, theology, and Christian tradition. Now, we’ve all known clergy who wear their status as “experts” on their sleeve, lording their superior knowledge of all things theological over the congregation (and in the process proving my professor right). None of us wants to be that person. Yet the fact remains that your training places you in a unique position as a teacher within the congregation. Your challenge is to use that position to make your teaching more authentic and effective.

Let me start by pointing out that while I am not the pastor of the church I attend, I am ordained, and have seminary and graduate degrees in theology. Thus I am at least an honorary expert, and in that capacity do a good bit of teaching in my church and elsewhere. I’ve tried to make that status a tool in my teaching, seeking to understand how it both helps and hinders the learning experience of those in my classes. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

First, being the expert opens doors to conversation and discussion if you work to make it so. Eschewing the “expert as jerk” model mentioned above doesn’t mean you should deny the fact that people have questions about theological and spiritual matters, and they want to hear what you have to say about them. The trick is to make your comments the starting point, not the whole, of the conversation. Regardless of your preferred teaching style–lecture, moderated discussion, roundtable conversation, or something else—engage the members of the class early and often. Always respond to a question or comment as soon as it is presented, even if it’s only to ask that the person hold that thought while you complete what you were saying (then make certain you get right back to them). Make room for their questions and comments, either by asking for them explicitly, or by pausing a few moments to let someone else speak.

Second, use your authority in the setting to praise and encourage the members of the class. Can’t most of us remember that time a cherished teacher singled us out with a word of congratulations or appreciation? “That’s an excellent question”; “that’s good; I’ve never thought of it that way before”; “I wish I’d thought of that!”; statements like these, coming from you, will reinforce their interest in the subject and increase the impact of that discussion on their own spiritual and theological formation.

Third, if at all possible, find something in their questions and comments to affirm, even when they come from out in left field. In a class I was teaching shortly after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, someone offered the opinion that God had sent the earthquake in response to “all that voodoo down there.” My first reaction was to disagree with this idea, marshaling all my “expert” theological arguments to prove this person wrong. But instead I noted that the comment demonstrates the desire to believe that the world is in God’s hands and under God’s care, a desire I certainly share. Then I drew on another class member’s earlier concern about the earthquake’s toll on Haiti’s children to note that we also want to believe in a God who is more, not less, compassionate than we are. From there I moved the class into a discussion of how we deal with the tension between these two aspects of our belief in God. Anyone who was paying attention would have known what I believed about this alleged punishment of the Haitians. But in spite of disagreeing with the person who made the initial suggestion, I tried to respond in a way that included him in the ongoing conversation.

Sometimes, of course, this doesn’t work. Sometimes folks show up in your class who monopolize the conversation, asking questions that go on too long and that display an agenda other than what the class is about. Onerous as it can be to deal with this situation, yours is the best setting in which to do so. Other classes that share responsibility for leadership usually can’t deal with members like this, at least not without creating trauma for all involved. Your status as the expert gives you an authority to deal with problem individuals that others lack. Use that authority compassionately, yet firmly. If all else fails, suggest to the person privately that he or she bring questions to you outside of class.

In the end, what you know and can teach about the Bible and theology isn’t your best gift to the class. Rather, it’s that your standing as the “professional theologian” provides a context for them to think about, talk about, wrestle with, and encounter Christian truth in ways they wouldn’t have done otherwise. It’s possible to misuse this gift, but the worst abuse is to fail to use it at all.


Bob Ratcliff is an editor and teacher living in Franklin, Tennessee. He blogs about theology, the Bible, and other curious stuff at http://thinkandbelieve.wordpress.com/.

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