Case Study Initiative

What are the best methods for preparing religious leaders for a multifaith world?

Since 2009, Auburn - in fruitful partnership with the Pluralism Project at Harvard University - has been pioneering the use of case study learning methods to train leaders to more effectively navigate the complexities of a multifaith world.

About the Initiative
To champion the case study learning method, Auburn has offered two case study minimesters for seminary students across the NY region. Auburn has also introduced the pedagogy to a variety of educational settings, including the dozens of scholars and seminary faculty at the 2009 AAR/Luce Summer Seminars in Theologies of Religious Pluralism and Comparative Theology, the Christian-Jewish Scholars Group, Fordham Law School, American Jewish World Service Rabbinic alumni, and rabbinical schools including the Jewish Theological Seminary and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Along the way, a fruitful partnership with the Pluralism Project at Harvard University through Ellie Pierce and their Case Study Initiative has allows Auburn to test a wide variety of well-written cases in different settings.

Modern case study learning was pioneered in the early 20th century by Harvard Business School as a way to train future business leaders for the messy and complex realities of the business world. As Barnes, Christensen, and Hansen wrote in 1994 (in “Teaching and the Case Method”):

A good case is the vehicle by which a chunk of reality is brought into the classroom to be worked over by the class and the instructor. A good case keeps the class discussion grounded upon some of the stubborn facts that must be faced in real life situations. It is the anchor on academic flights of speculation. It is the record of complex situations that must be literally pulled apart and put together again for the expression of attitudes or ways of thinking brought into the classroom.

Surprisingly or not, religious communities have been engaged in case learning methods for centuries. The use of cases in the development of religious law and the use of reality-based narratives as sources of wisdom (parables for Christians, midrash and halakhah for Jews) is so deep and wide that religious traditions simply would not exist as they do today without the use of case learning methods.

Looking Ahead
Effectively addressing intergroup problems requires mature, experienced, and wise leadership. Learning to navigate the complex dynamics of different communities and their politics often takes years of learning from the ‘school of hard knocks.’ Case studies are a version of highly-concentrated wisdom waiting to be explored. By learning from the past mistakes of others, leaders can effectively gain insight and judgment that might otherwise take years to achieve. For more information about the Case Study Initiative, please contact Rabbi Justus Baird at

Impact of the Learning Method
For an example of how the method has made an impact on educational circles, see this article by Karla Suomala at Luther College. Additionally, students of the method have made the following comments to us (these comments are from seminary students):

  • In all the training we get at school - there are a lot of holes. We talk often of hypothetical situations, role playing how to deal with an annoying grandma…We do not, however, spend much time talking about building interfaith relationships or considering real life situations we will undoubtedly face. The case-study method was a perfect tool because it utilized the value of story - a very Jewish framework. They presented modern situations many of us had experienced growing up or feared we might face professionally, which no antiquated rabbinic text could accurately address in a pluralistic way. The stories of the people and places became a holy text that was well written, detailed, engaging and personal.
  • I really enjoyed the case study method because it helped me consider the impact on people rather than just abstract issues, consider implications of decisions which I would not have otherwise, and understand how other future religious leaders understood their responsibility to their congregations.
  • When considering each of the cases, I really felt some of the challenges of practically navigating complex situations. I also felt like the method allowed for participants (at least myself) to discuss their beliefs openly without feeling like they were challenging others' beliefs.
  • The case-study method forced me to consider not only the central tenets of my religion but also my politics, values, relationships and gut-reactions to situations. I also appreciated that these were not fabricated case-studies but actual situations that unfolded naturally. It allowed us to observe possible mistakes and note how we might have done things differently.
  • I gained an awareness of my own prejudices, particularly in the disparity between the respect I show to people of other religions but do not show to conservative Christians.
  • I learned how important it is to be thoughtful and conscious of multifaith perspectives, and how dangerous ignorance of it can be on one's career and faith community. But I also learned that accommodation and pluralism have serious limits in being able to fully address the challenges of living in a multifaith world.
  • I can't say that I learned anything new, but the class reinforced for me a number of things: having colleagues across all religions communities is important; thinking about difficult situations before they happen is good training; there are no RIGHT answers; story, particularly in the case-study format, is an important way of sharing information.
  • Thank you for preparing me for meeting some of the most important - yet generally neglected - aspects of religious leadership. My home institution does not prepare me to consider how I will co-exist with other faith communities. This program at Auburn opened my eyes and my definition of what it means to be a current and future religious leader.
  • These five classes with Jewish and Christian seminarians discussing case studies of interfaith encounters was one of the most unique and meaningful seminary experiences, and it will definitely shape the way I approach both my congregation and the members of congregations of other faiths.