In May 2017, I walked into an exam room for the first time in over 34 years. I’d spent the previous two years as part of the G-dip Learning Community in Porthcawl. (G-dip is short for Union School of Theology’s Graduate Diploma programme.) Most of the group are a lot younger than I am. If working life is the spectrum, we’re at opposite ends. But we’re studying together, and for me, this has been a major plus. It has been such a privilege to be a part of their journey.
During the classroom discussion, I’ve found their youthful insight into the gospel so refreshing; their grasp and articulation of deep truth challenging; and the price they’re paying to put themselves in a position to better serve the One they obviously love, humbling.
What has enabled most of us to do the programme is that it’s a part-time course. During term time, our learning community, along with others across the world, spend a day a week together viewing lectures recorded for us. Mentors, who are generally local pastors, guide our discussion. Lectures are accompanied by additional reading material. The package aims to get us to degree level standard. This academic standard means the course is accredited. And obviously, accreditation means assessment.
Walking into that exam room was daunting. I have found the essays tough. But the assessment has turned out to be a most rewarding part. As the course is recorded, to prepare for the exams I just spent a couple of weeks repeating the course lectures and some highlighted reading — Systematic Theology last year and Old Testament this. It’s difficult to think of a more rewarding way to spend a fortnight. And the essays? Somehow, every single essay drew out powerful spiritual lessons for me and the titles were skilfully crafted to consolidate our learning. The reading associated with the preparation has given me more confidence to look deeply at issues in a way I wouldn’t have done without assessment.
Because the course is accessible, there’s a wide range of people studying. In my group are a church pastor, church planter and someone working abroad with refugees. I’m an elder and have been for some 13 years, and the study has played into this role in some surprising ways. God has used it both to uncover some deep-seated doubts. I discovered that after years of a professional career, I am actually deeply resistant to assessment. But the course has also given me the framework and confidence to go after my doubts. As an elder, I need to be able genuinely to pray with psalmist, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart… And see if there be any grievous way in me’ (Ps. 139:23–24). It’s been helpful in other ways, too. In preparation for teaching, the intimacy of spending time with God and just the text has become a priority for me, before I dive into the range of interpretive aides available.
And, unlike the other choices I could have made – creating a show-room home and garden; rekindling an interest in my original degree subject (geography) by travel, or pursuing the benefits of being a ‘Fellow’ of my profession – my time on G-dip was an investment in the future.