When Learning Makes a Difference: A Case Study in the Teaching and Learning of UCC History, Polity, and Theology

This week’s post is written by three widely-celebrated ministers and teachers: Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund, Rev. Dr. Carolyn Call, and Rev. Kathy Clark. We are grateful for their thoughtful and timely reflections. You can learn more about each of these authors at the end of this article.

How do we know when learning has occurred?  This is an age old question for teachers and students alike.  These days, educators and those who are interested in educational outcomes are paying close attention to questions related to learning assessment and competency-based education.  Some are asking a further question: how do we know when learning makes a difference – not only in the life of the learner, but also in the world that will be shaped by the learner?  We begin by defining the difference we hope to make in any teaching/learning transaction.  Most individuals who enter into learning, whether by enrolling in a class, picking up a book, attending a workshop, consulting an elder, or googling on their smartphone,  have at least implicit hopes for what they will gain in the experience – new or renewed knowledge, skills, or attitudes.  These hoped-for results are called learning outcomes.  Learning outcomes can be explicit or implicit, clearly articulated or intuitively understood, conscious or unconscious.  Even if one engages in learning for its own sake, an implicit learning outcome is the pleasure that learning itself brings.


UCC Polity Teachers Network (Courtesy: UCC Library Logo)

Let’s be clear.  Learning outcomes are not about what should be taught.  They are about what will be learned – the cultivation of meaningful knowledge, skills, and attitudes – and, ultimately, what will be demonstrable.  The Latin American educator, Paulo Freire, takes it a step further.  According to Freire, if learning does not lead to action – i.e., a new way of being and acting in the world – then no learning has taken place (cf. Education for Critical Consciousness by Paulo Freire, Bloomsbury Revelations, 2013).

Dr.  Randi Walker, a founding member of the UCC Polity Teachers Network and Professor of Church History at the Pacific School of Religion, describes learning objectives this way:

…These days those of us teaching in accredited institutions have to give an account of how we know students learn what we claim to teach, and the outcomes need to be measurable.  My teaching goal is that they understand polity.  The learning outcome might be that the student can articulate an informed understanding of the basic settings of the UCC and the responsibilities of each along with their relationships to each other.  The student will demonstrate this in an oral report, in a written exam, or by creating a Power Point presentation for use with a congregation.  The Marks (of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers of the UCC) are in some ways this kind of demonstrable learning outcome.  In our lingo we might say that (the Marks) are the learning outcome for the whole process – and the learning outcomes for my course fit in the larger set of outcomes.

The UCC Polity Teachers Network is a grassroots organization that has been in existence for several decades.  The purpose of the Network is to inspire excellence in teaching and learning (both content and pedagogy), share resources, re/discover new materials and topics, explore what may be missing but should be included in the courses, and to practice metacognition, i.e., thinking about thinking about teaching and learning.

Barbara Brown Zikmund remembers how the Network began:

The Network was created when Associations began to expect that candidates for ordination needed to take a course in UCC history, polity and theology, rather than be tutored about, or write a paper witnessing to their knowledge of the UCC as part of the ordination process.  Many Protestant denominations were requiring candidates for ordination take a “polity course.” UCC denominational staff and Committees on Ministry encouraged the creation of such courses. At the beginning, the content of UCC courses varied dramatically.  In some parts of the country they simply carried on earlier denominational habits and assumptions. Often courses were based on the experiences and perspectives of the instructors, or local geographic habits. As national issues and events shaped the maturing UCC, things were added.  If someone asked, “What were the qualifications to teach such a course?” or “What the content of the course ought to be?” there was no consistent answer. Soon the teachers of these courses started sharing syllabi, resources, outlines, etc.  They met at church meetings and professional gatherings. They made themselves into an ad hoc task force and set about developing a brief one page outline called the Essentials of a UCC History and Polity Course.  They felt that if every UCC course could be built around that outline, the Church would be well served. As the leadership needs of the UCC have expanded courses are now being taught by conferences and associations, and being offered online.  The “essentials” have been tweaked slightly, but the core of the outline has remained constant. The Polity Teachers Network continues to meet for fellowship, curricular updates and pedagogical support for anyone teaching this material.

Recently, in order to focus on improvement in teaching and learning, the Polity Teachers Network conducted a research project on learning outcomes in UCC History, Polity and Theology courses.  The results demonstrated that not all of our instructors develop or share learning outcomes in their teaching. In some cases, the institution where an instructor is nested requires the inclusion of learning outcomes in the syllabus. Yet in other settings, no such requirement exists. Further, we do not have consensus on what the primary learning objectives should be for our History, Theology and Polity classes. Not surprisingly, most instructors agreed that foundational concepts in history (four strands, hidden histories) and polity (especially covenant) are basic to any course.  However, the culture and ethos of the UCC are more important to some than to others. And theology as a whole isn’t a primary focus. The hope that the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers of the UCC would provide a general platform for learning outcomes is taking hold but has not yet been fully realized. Further, our instructors need increased opportunities for discussion and sharing syllabi and teaching methods if we wish to reach a consensus on which learning outcomes are critical for the preparation of our clergy. Complete survey results can be found here.

In these days when we are reimagining the present and future of theological education and ministerial formation, we are starting with the question, “What does an authorized minister in the UCC need to know and be able to do in order to serve faithfully and effectively?” We are focusing on learning outcomes.  As noted above, the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers of the UCC are a tool to help the church identify the competencies we look for in candidates for authorized ministry and those who are already serving in local churches and specialized ministry settings.  “UCC Identity for Ministry” is a significant section of the “Marks.” Teachers of UCC History, Polity and Theology play key roles in helping clergy and laity alike develop leadership competencies that will help the UCC thrive – and strengthen our distinctive way of being and acting in the world on behalf of the gospel of Jesus Christ.


A modified version of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There are different kinds of learning, of course, and different levels of competency that must be demonstrated for anyone preparing for work in the world.  We want our auto mechanics to demonstrate not just knowledge of but also competence in car maintenance and repair in a technologically complex industry; just as we want our health care providers to be able to diagnose and treat illnesses and promote health and wellbeing using both ancient wisdom and the most recent medical research findings.  The same is true for our ministers.  A tool for creating learning outcomes of any type can be found in the revised version of (educator Benjamin) Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Learning outcomes for UCC History, Polity and Theology can include:

  • Remembering facts, such as the Biblical stories of covenant
  • Understanding how the concept of covenant informs the nature and purposes of UCC polity
  • Applying one’s understanding of covenant by living in relationships of mutual accountability that characterize authorized ministry in the UCC
  • Analyzing how culturally diverse understandings of covenant impact an evolving UCC
  • Evaluating if and how our covenantal structures reflect our deepest values and commitments as a denomination
  • Creating new ways of relating to one another and the wider world in a changing religious landscape that are faithful to who we have been and who we are called by God to become.

Remembering – understanding – applying – analyzing – evaluating – creating: these are levels and outcomes of learning that can be measured and assessed.  When it comes to Members in Discernment and Authorized Ministers of the UCC, the individuals themselves, their teachers, local churches, and Committees on Ministry are looking for demonstrated competencies of these kinds of learning outcomes in cultivating excellence in ministerial leadership for the church.

With so many paths of learning available, learning outcomes serve as a guide to know the way toward the ultimate destination, to know if and when we have arrived, and to become equipped to make a difference when we get there, wherever that may be.


bbz cropped.jpgRev. Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund is a long time historian of the United Church of Christ. She has been active in the UCC Polity Teachers Network from its beginnings.  She has written extensively about the UCC and been involved in teaching and administration in theological education for over fifty years. She is retired and lives in Chelsea, Michigan near Ann Arbor.



Rev. Dr. Carrie Call is an Associate Conference Minister in the Indiana-Kentucky Conference and teaches UCC History and Polity at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Prior to serving as an ACM, she taught a range of psychology courses for ten years at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame. She lives outside of South Bend, Indiana and also serves on the UCC Board, the Combined Global Ministries Board, and the Historical Council.


kathy-head (2)

Rev. Kathy Clark is the Minister for Members in Discernment on the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team of Local Church Ministries in the United Church of Christ.  She holds advanced degrees in both theology and adult education and serves as the national staff liaison to the UCC Polity Teachers Network.

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