Jul 152015 Tagged with , , , 1 Response

Do seminaries train pastors for the church?

In Trust has asked me to provide for its quarterly publication snapshots of data about the industry and insights we might find or actions we could take based on that data. Below is an adaptation of the article I provided for the Summer 2015 edition of In Trust Magazine. After reading it, I encourage you to review the rest of the Summer 2015 edition.

Two questionnaires from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) bookend the seminary experience. The first, the Entering Student Questionnaire (ESQ), captures data provided by more than 5,600 incoming students, while the second, the Graduating Student Questionnaire (GSQ), reflects data supplied by 6,300 departing graduates. If interpreted wisely, they can offer insights for the decision makers who are trying to ensure that a school’s mission, programs, and messages are in sync.


The ESQ and GSQ are invaluable sources that can inform administrators and boards as they recruit new students, form current students, and raise funds from graduates and friends.

Among the most important revelations:

  • Future plans of entering students. About 40 percent of incoming seminarians have specific plans to pursue congregational ministry, and an equal number plan to pursue ministry in a setting outside a traditional congregation. Another 8 percent are interested in congregational ministry but are unsure what form their ministry might take.
  • Future plans of graduating students. Until the revision of the GSQ last year, the survey showed that about 40 percent of graduating students planned to head into full-time congregational ministry. This year, with slightly revised questions, that percentage has increased to almost 55 percent.
  • Fluidity of vocational calling. At least 40 percent of incoming students, and at least 35 percent of graduating students, plan to pursue a vocation outside parish ministry. But it’s important to remember that the plans of any particular student may change once or even several times during an academic career.


Data from the Association of Theological Schools should always encourage the boards and leaders of theological schools to compare their own schools with the reported information. What is happening at your own seminary? What percentage of incoming and graduating students plan to serve in congregations? Why are they attending seminary? To what other vocations do they feel called?

Across North America, seminary taglines employ words like “equipping,” “training,” “teaching,” “educating,” and “transforming.” And indeed, most people believe that the purpose of theological education is to teach, train, and equip people for ministry.

But the data suggest that theological schools are already doing more than just training future pastors. We should recognize that half of our students — even a great many who are enrolled in M.Div. programs — are going to do something other than lead a local congregation; and almost 20 percent of our students, incoming and graduating alike, are unsure of their vocational direction.


While seminaries are training future pastors, the preparation of students for full-time Christian ministry is only a subset of a broader mission: developing people who will be ready to serve Christ — in the church and in their lives, whether in a paid or unpaid capacity, whether full time or part time. At some schools, this understanding of “theological education for all” has percolated through the whole institution, but at others, it’s a new idea.

How can we connect with and develop students who have no plans to become pastors? Some schools are already doing this well. But at other institutions, curricula and enrollment management processes may need to be updated. Perhaps communications with current and prospective givers may need to be refreshed so that they reflect reality more accurately.

In my own experience, when presented with the data, givers start to question the institution — “Why aren’t you doing what you are supposed to do?” Next, they question North American culture, and then they worry about the well-being of the church. Eventually, they seek understanding. My recommendation for helping givers understand the broader mission of our seminaries is twofold. First, we need to think about the “Five P’s” to which Gary Hoag and I referred in “Practices that Foster Generosity” (In Trust, Spring 2014, page 10). Second, we need to think differently about our governing boards.

The Five P’s

When most seminary leaders and fundraisers think about raising money, we consider what we want from the giver. That’s why we are concerned about the reaction of the giver to the news that many seminarians do not plan to pursue full-time pastoral ministry.

But what if we changed the order, considering instead what we want for the giver? “We do not need to worry about the money,” wrote Henri Nouwen. “Rather, we need to worry about whether, through the invitation we offer them and the relationship we develop with them, they will come closer to God.”


The Five P’s can guide our conversations with current and prospective givers alike. First, we focus on the person with whom we are speaking and learn more about his or her passion. Next, we ask permission to share what God is doing in and through our institution and invite that prospective giver to participate in that work. Finally, we ask him or her to seek God’s guidance through prayer.

Such conversations help givers develop personal connections between what God is doing and where God is asking them to participate. By using this framework, the conversation is rooted in the work of God and focused on the heart of the giver. Rather than selling an idea or a mission, we are inviting participation.

Our Governing Boards

Many governing boards include clergy as members because pastors understand the day-to-day implications of seminary work. Having been through the process of theological education, they put that work into practice, gaining insights that can be valuable to the seminary community.

But it’s myopic to assume that pastors are the only people for whom seminary training is valuable. Seminary grads who are not in congregational ministry can provide a broader understanding of the work of the theological school and can help everyone, including fellow board members, remember whom the seminary serves.


Does your institution administer the Entering Student Questionnaire and the Graduate Student Questionnaire? If so, you may use the findings of both surveys to guide you in your strategic planning.

Some suggestions:

  • Read your data. Where are your incoming students planning to serve after graduating? Where are your graduates planning to serve?
  • Compare your data to your mission statement and marketing communications. Do the interests and expectations of the student body align with what the institution says about itself?
  • Analyze the structure of your curriculum. Does it reflect your students’ plans for ministry, or is it built solely to prepare students for congregational ministry?
  • Review your fundraising philosophy and messaging. Do they align with the realities of your enrollment?
  • Revise your mission, messaging, and programs, based on the data, if your answers to these questions suggest that revision is needed.



Jan 042015 Tagged with , 2 Responses

From Data to Decision – What compels prospective students?

Nearly 70% of incoming students learned about their school through a personal referral, and only 2.5% were compelled to learn more about their school through traditional advertising. In fact, only 8.6 percent learned about their school because they knew a faculty member or read a theological publication from their school.

Your institution has a plethora of data at its fingertips. Are you using that data to leaven your decision-making processes? Do the members of your board, administration, faculty, and staff know what information is available and how it applies to your specific context?

In Trust has asked me to provide for its quarterly publication snapshots of data about the industry and insights we might find or actions we could take based on that data. Below is an adaptation of the article I provided for the New Year 2015 edition of In Trust Magazine. After reading it, I encourage you to review the rest of the New Year 2015 edition. I found the article on effective leadership to be particularly useful.

Let’s see what we can learn from the 2014-2015 ESQ, a questionnaire that has thus far been completed by nearly 5,700 students entering ATS seminaries this academic year.


As I review this data, several things stand out:

  • Nearly 70 percent of incoming students learned about their school through a personal referral.
  • Only 2.5 percent of incoming students learned about their school through traditional advertising, which pales in comparison to the 15 percent who learned about it through the web.
  • Only 8.6 percent learned about their school because they knew a faculty member or read a theological publication from their school

What can we learn?

Looking at this aggregate data may prompt you to review what is happening at your own institution. It may be that you have similar results — or perhaps you are the exception. You don’t know until you look at your own data! Then, consider how your marketing efforts align with results.

When it comes to generating prospective students, word-of-mouth marketing appears to be significantly more valuable than all other types of marketing. At the same time, it’s reasonable to conclude that a well-designed online presence can be a good support system to bolster recommendations by graduates, pastors, and others. Certainly all recruiting efforts should be coordinated so that whether potential students hear about you through a conference, a professor, or a website, they’re getting a similar message.

What can we do?

  1. If your institution participates in the ESQ (which I highly recommend), you can easily compare your school’s data to industry-wide data. Therefore, step 1 is to look at your data and share it with your faculty, staff, board, and administration.
  2. Step 2 is to review, at a macro or institutional level, how your strategic planning and your recruiting initiatives align with reality. Are you allocating your staff and resources appropriately?
  3. Finally, step 3, at a micro or day-to-day level, consider how you may need to adjust specific activities related to the data. After you have aligned staffing resources and institutional budgets, it may make sense to adjust specific activities to build on lessons from the data. For example, you may decide to move money and people toward referral-based marketing, but if so, you may need to create a plan. Which referral-based activities will you pursue? Is your staff going to spend time with face-to-face visits, social media, or specific segments of the referral market?

When placed in the proper context, data can be very helpful in the decision-making process. It can help us evaluate past decisions, prepare for strategic conversations, or educate those who serve within our institutions. If you need data for your institution, I encourage you to contact ATS. I have found our friends at ATS to be more than willing to provide data and insights as requested.

What are you learning from data about our “industry” and your institution?

Nov 022014 Tagged with , , , , , 1 Response

Theological Education in the Kingdom

What does it mean to serve “in” the Kingdom of God?

We could spend hours discussing the theological, missiological, and ecclesiological implications of various definitions of the “Kingdom of God.” Rather than dive deeply into a theological conversation about such definitions, I want to talk about partnership within the Kingdom and how it impacts the work of a seminary. This will be a different post than you might usually find me writing. However, I think it is important given the landscape of theological education.

When given the task to guide an organization, leaders are often bitten by the “scarcity” bug, which tends to result in a very competitive approach to our work. Under that paradigm, we quarantine our staff and our organizations in an effort to sustain a “competitive advantage.” Such an approach is diametrically opposed to what we find in scripture.

Competition of this type doesn’t have a place in the Kingdom. Sioux Falls Seminary does not compete with other seminaries, nor does it compete with churches or other ministry training opportunities.

Yes, students may choose to attend another seminary rather than attend Sioux Falls Seminary or vice versa. They may choose to enroll in a program offered in a church or ministry rather than enroll in seminary. This is not competition. It is service. We are all working together to serve those called God has called into a journey of theological education.

We serve a God of abundance, and God is at work! Rather than trying to build walls around our own little kingdoms, we are to be about the work of the Kingdom. Our work starts with the local church and moves from there. As the people of God, we come together as the Church and participate in the work of the Kingdom.

Partnering with others to participate in the work of the Kingdom does not excuse us from robust strategic planning. It simply shifts the focus of our planning.

Part of our role as leaders is effective strategic planning, which is the stewardship of an institution’s vision and mission. We plan, execute, and assess our work in order to pursue our calling. However, our calling is a Kingdom calling, one that operates within the economy of God. In God’s divine order of things, we work together as we follow Jesus into mission.

Rather than compete to attract students out of fear that we won’t get our piece of the pie, we are called to be faithful in the stewardship of what we do have.

Sioux Falls Seminary is committed to this process of stewardship and kingdom-minded ministry. We are committed to walking alongside others as we cooperatively participate in God’s work.

The Kingdom of God is all encompassing. Our understanding of it and calling to participate in the Kingdom mission should permeate everything we do. For us, an important aspect of this mindset is the process of looking beyond ourselves.

Note: This is an edited repost of an article I wrote for Sioux Falls Seminary. The original article is available here

Oct 252014 Tagged with , , , , , 2 Responses

Faculty and New Paradigms of Theological Education

For the past three weeks, we have looked at various components of theological education that might need to be addressed if we create a new paradigm of theological education.

Today, we are going to discuss the role of faculty in a new paradigm.  Specifically, we’ll look at how faculty might direct student learning and maintain academic oversight in a system of theological education in which courses are focused more on integrated moments of learning than they are on traditional chronological time and progression.

Faculty-directed learning is an important aspect of accredited theological education, as is the faculty’s role in academic oversight.  It brings value, accountability, resources, community, and much more.  In a traditional model of theological education, the primary means of faculty-directed learning is classroom instruction.  Academic oversight occurs mostly in the committee structure of the faculty.  How do we extend the value of faculty-directed learning beyond the traditional classroom and even beyond the online classroom?

In the Kairos Project at Sioux Falls Seminary, we integrate the value of faculty-directed learning into the life and ministry of students through a mentor model of education.  First, the faculty, in conversation with ministry leaders, creates a set of integrated outcomes to which students are held accountable in our various degree programs.  The outcomes extend into the three spheres of one’s development for ministry – Knowledge, Character, and Competency.  Then, we work to define outcome-based courses and assessments that are fully integrated into the life and ministry of a student.  In so doing, faculty-directed learning occurs in each sphere of ministry development rather than being relegated to the knowledge sphere.  But how do we get a well-rounded picture of a student?

Each student has a team of three mentors – a faculty mentor, a ministry mentor, and a personal mentor.  Each member of the team walks alongside the student during his or her journey.  The faculty mentor interacts with the student in multiple ways and serves as a resource, guide, educator, listener, advisor, and servant.  In this model, faculty-directed learning moves outside of a traditional or even online classroom and into the life and ministry of a student.

Such a model requires much of a student and much of a faculty member.  The student needs to be open to input and direction from mentors.  In the traditional model, faculty input and direction only occur in the classroom.  If learning occurs outside a traditional classroom, then input will occur outside the classroom as well.  This will be a shift for students.  Suddenly the faculty mentor is involved in a student’s life and ministry in an intimate way.  The Kairos Project requires significantly more of the student.

At the same time, a faculty mentor will need to expand his or her view beyond traditional disciplines and beyond his or her individual discipline.  This will be a shift for faculty.  Suddenly a faculty member is asked to bring value and input to areas beyond the courses they have traditionally taught.  In order to do this well, faculty will need to be cross-disciplinary and to actively pursue feedback from his or her peers. In addition, the faculty mentor’s input will be supported and sharpened by others on the mentor team thereby broadening and deepening the value added by faculty.

Faculty have much to offer those whom God has called to engage in theological education.  However, if we merely change the paradigm of theological education without giving significant thought to how faculty will continue to bring value, we will miss an important opportunity.

I am excited about the faculty we have at Sioux Falls Seminary and their desire to engage in this new paradigm of theological education.  In many ways, our faculty already model the cross-disciplinary nature of this new paradigm.  Faculty mentors are meeting with students, providing input, and listening in new and spectacular ways.  It is great to see how God works through relationships.

What are your thoughts on faculty-directed learning and oversight?  How might it look in a new paradigm of theological education?

Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote for Sioux Falls Seminary. The original article is available here.

Oct 192014 Tagged with , , , , , , , 8 Responses

Theological Education as a Platform

I love technology.  I am that guy that loves talking about new technology, new apps, or things that only exist in technology research laboratories.  One could argue that the evolution of the software platform has significantly impacted the trajectory of technological development.   As Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do, writes, “The most successful enterprises today are networks…and the platforms on which those networks are built.”

So what would happen if we progressed from thinking about a seminary as “place” or “institution” to considering its role as a platform for theological education?  What would a platform for theological education mean in light of the fact that theological education is (and should be) a system?

I could spend a lot of time trying to explain the nuances of a software platform.  Instead, let me share a brief explanation from Ryan Sarver.  He explains why Apple’s creation of the iOS platform, the software that runs the iPhone and iPad, created such a stir.

By becoming a platform, they enabled developers to build applications that would make their device more valuable to users, thus selling more devices.  As more devices were sold, it created more revenue potential for app developers, thus drawing more developers to iOS.  This created a very powerful network effect that drove growth on both sides of the business (developers and users) where growth on one side directly benefited the other.

In essence, a platform enables everyone in the network to progress toward stated goals relevant to his or her context.

Imagine with me, then, a system of theological education in which the seminary serves as a platform.  Rather than a place where students must go and from which they must be sent, the seminary would serve as a connector between students and their callings, ministries and their needs, and ministry training programs and their participants.

In their traditional form, seminaries across the Association of Theological Schools extract students from ministry and act as the sole provider of all resources and learning.  As a platform, seminaries would create value for students by allowing them to plug into a learning process in a way that serves them and their callings.  At the same time, a seminary could find partners who could walk alongside students.  As a result, we may see more individuals engage in a process of theological education because they are able to connect to something that matters to them.  Likewise, we may see ministry training programs that currently operate apart from seminaries begin to partner with seminaries in transformational ways because they see how they might reach more students or participants.

A platform builds value for every part of the network.  That is to say that “all ships rise” when the tide of the network rises.  At times, we as seminaries have tended to extract rather than to add value for others within the system of theological education.  Our models of theological education tend to assume a certain level of competition, a certain “rightness” to how we do things, and a certain separateness nature of theological education.  While our work as seminaries is valuable, one could argue that the value doesn’t extend very far into the network.

If we design new models of theological education that encourage students, partners, resource providers, faculty, authors, and more to build new experiences for students and participants, I think we will see significant transformation.

For instance, the Kairos Project at Sioux Falls Seminary encourages students to engage in learning experiences and resources that exist outside the “walls” of the seminary.  One student may participate in a spiritual direction program offered by another institution.  Another student might take courses from another seminary.  Still others may participate in a leadership program offered by their churches.  Our faculty then guide, direct, and mentor students alongside a team of two “outside” mentors.  The goal is for the seminary to be the connector between multiple points within the network of theological education.

Throughout the Kairos Project, we ask for feedback from students, partners, resource providers, faculty, and alumni.  We also share what we learn.  What are your thoughts?  Does the concept of a seminary as a platform make sense? Does it present new possibilities or set the system up for failure?  We would love to hear your thoughts.  To engage in the conversation please subscribe here.  If you would like to support us in this work, you may give here or pray for God’s wisdom and guidance we as dive into new waters.

Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote for Sioux Falls Seminary. The original article is available here.

Oct 132014 Tagged with , , , , , , 1 Response

The Cost of Theological Education

Since 2003, total enrollment in seminaries across the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) has declined by about 7% and giving has decreased by about 2%. During that same period of time, the amount seminaries are spending to deliver theological education has risen by about 30%. If you are a visual person, you can see all of this in Graph #1. These opposing realities are having a significant impact on seminaries across North America.

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expenses at ATS schools are rising while enrollment and giving are declining

Nearly 70% of schools in ATS are struggling financially. Many seminaries are searching for ways to bridge the gap between rising costs and declining enrollment. Something needs to change. At Sioux Falls Seminary, we are committed to developing a new way forward.

This article is the third in a series about the Kairos Project at Sioux Falls Seminary. In the first article, I shared the common story behind many students who consider seminary. The second article addressed a few of the problems with the traditional concept of the “full-time” student. Findings like the ones listed above and below should cause those serving in theological education to reflect upon the inherent cost structures in our seminaries.

Let me share some of the reflections we have had here at Sioux Falls Seminary. Our conversations have been based on data related to freestanding schools within the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Freestanding seminaries, those not related to a college or university, comprise nearly 70% of schools within ATS. Sioux Falls Seminary is included in that group.

If we look at the cost structures of these schools and the ways in which they have “overcome” rising institutional costs, it leads us to believe that something may be wrong with the current system of theological education. Based on the data from ATS, it seems as though the gap between revenue and expenses is being filled by tuition from students.

Over the last 13 years, net tuition, which is the actual cash received from students, is outpacing the Consumer Price Index, by a wide margin. Students are being asked to pay significantly more in tuition than they were in 2001. Of course, many will say, “Tuition across all of higher education is rising.” That is true. The number people use to track the change in the cost of higher education is called the Higher Education Price Index. Net tuition at ATS schools is outpacing the Higher Education Price Index by nearly 60%. In simple terms, the burden we are placing on students is quite heavy, and it is increasing at a startling pace.

index small

Tuition at ATS schools is rising significantly faster than the higher education price index.

How can we change this staggering reality? Many people suggest raising more money for scholarships as a solution. Scholarships are important, and students should receive them. Unfortunately, providing more scholarships simply shifts the burden of cost to the wider church. Instead, I believe we need to consider what affordability means.

To make theological education truly affordable, we need to reimagine the systems of support, delivery, partnership, and resource management. In short, we need to function and think differently.

Our goal with the Kairos Project is not only to test a different model of education, but also to test different models for student support, faculty involvement, and institutional structures. Rather than a standard credit hour-based tuition, students pay a very low monthly fee – one that is roughly 1/4th the cost of a traditional Master of Divinity. It could be that this new model allows for us to charge significantly less in tuition while maintaining high levels of interaction and quality.

We need to be passionate about designing systems of theological education that are less expensive to operate. Best of all, these new systems of theological education will pass on savings to students—giving them even more freedom to follow God and participate in the work of the Kingdom.

Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote for Sioux Falls Seminary. The original article is available here.

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