New plan aims to improve theological writing

Communications Staff — March 14, 2013

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, missionary pastor Nathan Price preaches to villagers in the Belgian Congo for three decades with no fruit from his labors. Price’s fruitless ministry, which culminates in the death of a daughter and the abandonment of his family, centers on his poor communication. For 30 years, he preaches “Jesus is Bangala,” which translates as “Jesus is a poisonwood tree.” Price’s ministry isn’t fruitless because of a lack of zeal, but because he lacks clear communication.

“Pastors need the ability to communicate the greatest truths clearly, in such a way that the least educated person in their congregation can clearly understand them and see the beauty of these life-changing truths,” said Joe Harrod, director of assessment at Southern Seminary.

Toward that end, the seminary will implement a plan to improve theological writing among master’s degree-level students.

As a part of the seminary’s regular 10-year accreditation reaffirmation process, the school formed an enhancement plan to strengthen an area of student learning. In the process, the faculty at Southern Seminary decided to focus on student writing ability. So, starting fall 2013, the seminary will initiate a quality enhancement plan (QEP) to improve theological writing among master’s students.

Harrod says that while theological writing may seem only an academic pursuit, the fruits of better papers will be “vitally important for the church.”

“We recognized that writing is a key feature of academic life, and also a key feature of pastoral ministry,” Harrod said. “Pastors, missionaries and those serving in other ministries — whether they go on to do a higher academic degree or not — will always be writing. We want to help them write better papers while they’re here, and, ultimately, we want them to be better communicators of the gospel.”

The seminary will improve theological writing among master’s level students primarily through a new rubric for evaluating academic papers in systematic theology courses. This rubric, which represents the consensus and expertise of the Southern Seminary faculty, emphasizes eight areas of theological writing: (1) thesis statements, (2) methodology statements, (3) argument and organization, (4) biblical interaction, (5) source and information literacy, (6) grammar and mechanics, (7) style and (8) Southern Seminary format.

This new rubric will allow professors and graders to give students both objective and constructive feedback on written assignments; students will understand clearly those areas in which they need to improve. They can then pursue improvement through the seminary’s newly bolstered Writing Center.

The QEP team also launched a campus-wide campaign to raise awareness of the initiative, which is an important aspect of the QEP. The seminary’s midterm review of the plan takes place in 2018, at which point the seminary must report to accreditors on the impact of its QEP. But that won’t be the end of the seminary’s emphasis on writing.

“This project will extend far beyond 2018; we want it to become part of Southern’s culture,” said Harrod. “This isn’t just something we do because we have to, we want to improve student writing for the long-run.”

More information about the QEP and the Southern Seminary Writing Center is available at

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