Jun 252014 Tagged with , , , , , , 0 Responses

More is Not the Reason for Change

For (what seems to be) the first time in a long time, there is a lot of change occurring within schools across ATS. In a recent conversation with an individual from ATS I learned that number of applications for changes that have been submitted to the Board of Commissioners has increased quite significantly. More schools are asking permission to do more things. This is good. It shows a willingness to change.

Unfortunately, many of the conversations I hear are focused on how we need more students or more money or more types of programs/degrees. I would like to challenge that reasoning. Yes, more students would be great, but the enrollment decline we are seeing in our “industry” is related to the quality of our product. Therefore, our case for change should rest primarily on the fact that we need graduates who are uniquely and fully developed for their specific calling – something many current ministry leaders would say seminaries are failing to do. Secondarily, our case for change should rest on the fact that theological education is rarely integrated into the life and ministry of our students. We shouldn’t change because new programs will bring more students and more tuition. We should change because we are not achieving our missions to the best of our abilities.

Good Work is Being Done

Let me begin by saying that good work is being done when it comes to change within theological education. Some schools are developing innovative ways in which students can complete a certificate or degree. Other schools are testing ways in which theological education can be more fully integrated into one’s ministry. Good work is being done.

This post is not a critique of the work being done. It is a challenge issued to those of us who are leading the charge when it comes to change. I want us to look closely at why we are pushing for change. If we are starting with the idea that we need “more” of something, then we are starting in the wrong place.

Developing Students for Their Unique Calling

If you have read any of my other posts, you will know that the majority of students entering seminary do not plan to pursue congregational ministry when they graduate. How then shall we develop students? That question should call us to consider change that may be needed. Does our system of theological education produce students or graduates who are knowledgeable, competent, and display Christ-like character? Many current models of theological education focus on knowledge and others focus on competency. Few have adequately addressed all three.

Students come to us expressing various calls on their lives. Our system of theological education should help them develop the knowledge, character, and competency that will serve them in their unique ministry setting – a setting that could range from being the lead pastor of a church to a member of a ministry team which practices submissive leadership to a baker at a local grocery store who wants his or her life to be a ministry to others. Does our current model truly allow for such variety? Can we say with confidence that all students in our programs will display a high level of knowledge, character, and competency? The answers to those questions should drive us to change.

Integrated into Life and Ministry

At the same time we need to consider the fact that the “part-time-ization” of theological education is a reality we have not fully embraced. Our measurements often come back to things like FTE and our programs often work best for full-time students. Offering courses in the evening or that meet only one-time per week is not the answer to serving part-time students in the same way putting courses online is not the answer to the need for innovation. We need to fundamentally rethink what it means to be a student engaged in theological education and therefore reimagine how seminaries, churches, denominations, ministry organizations, nonprofits, parachurch ministries, and ministry leaders can come together to create a system of theological education that is truly integrated into the life and ministry of a student.

Fully integrating life, ministry, and theological education will require us to reimagine how we view education. It will require us to focus more on the essence of theological education and less on the form. Once again it comes back to question, what are we trying to accomplish in the lives of our students and how might we best achieve that goal?

Don’t Forget

Developing in students the knowledge, character, and competency required for them to be successful in their unique calling is the primary driver for change. However, we should not forget that the fundamental model of theological education is prohibitively expensive, often based on content instead of outcomes, and remains inaccessible to the majority of people. When creating new models, please remember to address these issues. I find it works best if the conversations about developing students (relevance) happen at the same time and in the same room as the conversations about affordability and accessibility.

One Possible Example

In my first six months as President of Sioux Falls Seminary, we have devoted significant amounts of time to wrestling with these issues. Our board, faculty, staff, ministry partners, denominational leaders, and more have all played a part in one conversation or another. In response, we have redeveloped the outcomes for each of our masters degree programs (MDiv, MACL, MABT, and MACO) and decided to launch a research project focused on the idea that knowledge, character, and competency should drive our development of students. The title of the project is, The Kairos Project: Shifiting the Focus of Theological Education, and our goal is to develop an educational model in which the focus is on student learning versus time spent in class. Yes, the students still accumulate credit hours and complete courses, but the model is focused on the student versus the institution.

Keeping You Posted

I will keep you posted on what we learn from this initiative. It fits nicely within a few research projects I am leading at the moment and it will no doubt bring some interesting things about which to write.

Feb 062014 0 Responses

A Few Possible Ways Forward?

I believe many, if not all, of the surface-level issues we see in theological education stem from one deep-rooted cause. We (myself included) often single out challenges like the fact that theological education is prohibitively expensive or that the curriculum is not connected to local contexts as much as it could be. Recently, many have pointed to post-christendom as the primary challenge facing seminaries because they believe seminaries were built to serve the church in a different era. Others will say that the shrinking the local church or the lack of completely online degrees within ATS is the issue (NOTE: some ATS schools now have such degrees). We could continue expanding this list, but if we dig a little deeper we will find one issue may rest below all of these very real challenges. Dis-integration may prove to be the single biggest issue in theological education, and overcoming it the greatest challenge we face as seminaries.

In a previous post, I commented on my desire to focus on the immense task of integrated innovation. I have since led a workshop at the CFOS Conference (hosted by ATS) on the topic, and I enjoyed the conversations! Integration is an important task and it covers everything we do as seminaries. I have heard some people refer to it as the need to overcome the fragmentation that exists within our schools.

Over time, I will address various components of integration and its connection to the surface level issues we so often discuss. This topic relates to organizational and staffing structures, curriculum design, course delivery, relationships between local ministries and seminaries, and our understanding of ministry. As I address these components, I hope to hear your thoughts so please share them! Let’s begin by looking at what I mean by “dis-integration.”

What is Dis-integration?

In this instance, it does not mean crumbling or fragmentation in the since that things are falling apart. Rather, it refers to a lack of integration or “un-integration” which is inherent in the way we tend to form and operate seminaries. It is evident in how we develop educational programs.

The Dis-integrated Degree Model

Ministry (regardless of the type) is a generalist endeavor; but we have a system of theological education focused on the consumption of highly specialized content. It seems our educational programs are often designed using mutually exclusive building blocks rather than using integrated approaches focused on outcomes.

A student is granted a degree or certificate if he or she adequately participates in a set of courses designed to cover a broad range of topics. A degree becomes a formula comprised of Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, Church History and Ethics courses which are supported by a cadre of individual courses focused on various aspects of ministry. A course on pastoral care, another on youth ministry, and another on preaching become additional blocks in the degree pyramid. Finally, students are asked to participate in a field ministry experience – again, often as a mutually exclusive building block. In some cases, the student doesn’t even receive credit for the field ministry program.

This model served us well for many years and it has many wonderful qualities. It may be time to revisit its underlying assumptions. Can one really study theology without considering scripture, the story of Christ’s church, his or her personal ministry context and the relationships involved therein? Can theological education make any assumptions about the level of spiritual formation taking place in local churches? While the building block model has been adjusted over the years with an effort to create “golden threads” that run throughout a degree, I believe we can do better.

A Few Possible Ways Forward

I do not claim to have all the answers or a secret model of theological education that will solve all our “integration” problems when it comes to designing and delivering academic programs. If I did, I would share those answers with as many people as possible in an effort to build the kingdom (versus building my own kingdom). However, I believe I have a few questions as well as a few ideas that might help us think more integratively. Be sure to let me know what you think.

Continuous and Concurrent Ministry Context

It seems that one way forward would be for students to be engaged in a ministry context from the moment they begin their program through to the end rather than relegating field ministry to one specific part of the program. Some schools are doing this, but often the method simply requires the student to be engaged in ministry. This means the ministry context is not truly integrated into the degree and I think we need to do more. The context of ministry is an important teacher and it needs to be more fully integrated. Some schools are beginning to do this well. The question is not “should students be involved in a continuous and concurrent ministry context,” but rather “how can we fully account for and integrate the continuous and concurrent ministry contexts of our students?” It is important for me to note that I use the phrase “local ministry context” to refer to the broad range of reasons students enroll in seminary.

Integrated Courses

Is it possible to design courses that integrate multiple “disciplines” rather than creating degrees using mutually exclusive building blocks? Over the years, many schools have created courses that are “team-taught” in that various professors cover different portions of the course. Some of those courses are more integrated than others. A friend of mine once said, “I don’t think its possible to talk about church history without also talking about theology and vice versa.” If that is the case (and I tend to agree), then why does nearly every institution divide them into mutually exclusive courses? It seems that an integrated system of theological education would build on the natural synergies that exist between the study and practice of ministry as well as those that exist between and across disciplines.

Incarnational Educational Paradigm

Much has been made of the missional church movement, and I resonate with the themes of that movement. What would an educational paradigm look like if it took seriously the incarnational and spirit-guided nature of Jesus’ mission? Would it ask students to continually disengage from their local contexts? I believe it may bring theological study and ministry training into the rhythm of one’s life rather than asking a student to wholly disrupt his or her life in order to engage in education. I am not saying theological study should be easy or fail to be rigorous. Instead, hear me ask the question, “Is there a way to deliver theological education in a way that it encourages a life of incarnational ministry which is guided by the Spirit? Students entering seminary have jobs, families, church or ministry activities, and hobbies which bring joy. We ask them to add an additional 40 to 60 hours per week of school if they want to be fulltime students. Is that a sustainable rhythm of life that allows for “working from rest” and being present in one’s local ministry context? I don’t believe it is, but I do believe an incarnational model of theological education would bring us closer to where we need to be.

Your thoughts?

I know I have asked a lot of questions and opened the doors to many different conversations. My goal is to continue a conversation that has been started by many others. As I begin my new role at Sioux Falls Seminary, I have been blessed by the conversations I have had thus far. There is a strong hunger for new models of theological education. I believe we can create something new if we continue to ask the right questions.

What are your answers to some of these questions? What does an integrated system of theological education look like to you?

Nov 152013 Tagged with , , , 0 Responses

How 80% = 41%

If your school retains 80% of its Master of Divinity students from one academic year to the next, that means your graduation rate may somewhere around 41% – which isn’t a great graduation rate. At the ATS CFOS Conference this week, we learned that according to ATS estimations the average MDiv student in an ATS school takes about 5 years to complete the degree (not surprising). We also learned that the estimated average retention rate was 80% (percentage of students retained from one year to the next). When those two numbers are put together, we can create the estimated graduation rate of 41%. Think about it, if 100 students enroll in your school in the fall and then you retain 80% of them each year (which means you lose 20% each year), 41 will still be standing at graduation. See image below.

Here is some more information that might be helpful. Over the past decade, the number of new students in MDiv programs at seminaries across ATS has outpaced the number of graduates. The number of new students has been anywhere between 120% and 135% of graduates. However, total enrollment at ATS schools has been declining each year since 2004. So, if we are enrolling more students than we are graduating and enrollment is declining, that can only mean we are failing to retain a LARGE number of students. This is supported by the estimated graduation rate I calculated above.

Student retention is a huge issue. I believe it is a good example of a symptom of “dis-integration,” the topic of my last blog post.

When we create new programs or courses within theological education, we tend to do so without thinking about the broader system required to truly support a sustainable model of theological education. When creating new programs, we must also be thinking about the financial models for those programs, the student retention models, the support systems, and much more.

Retention is connected to program formats, tuition structures, advising systems, mentoring systems, staffing structures, program requirements, faculty interaction, course location, marketing strategies, fundraising initiatives, and enrollment management philosophies. We see schools developing new degree programs because they believe the MDiv is no longer the “gold standard” degree. While that may or may not be true (always depends on who you talk to), I want to make sure we consider the fact that we must be thinking about the entire model, not simply the degree. If we don’t, the retention and graduation issues we see now may simply be repeated.

Do you know the retention rate at your school? How do you define retention? How would retention impact your enrollment? Do you know the cost to recruit a student versus the cost to retain a student? If your retention rate is 80%, how might you move it to 90%? Is there a way to shorten your time to completion without requiring the “traditional” form of full-time education?

Share your thoughts! I would love to hear them.

Nov 042013 Tagged with , 11 Responses

What Does Integration Look Like

On February 3, 2014, I will begin serving as the 12th President of Sioux Falls Seminary, an evangelical seminary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota which was founded by the North American Baptist denomination in 1858.  Sioux Falls Seminary made an announcement about my appointment this morning, and Northern’s announcement followed soon after. I look forward to what God is going to do in and through the work of the Sioux Falls Seminary.

Anyone who reads what I post on this blog will not be surprised that I am excited about the work of integrated innovation. I think the future of theological education can be very bright if we commit ourselves to a process of integrated innovation focused on outcomes. Theological education plays an important role in the Church and I believe we have the opportunity to build the kingdom by serving, forming, and developing those whom God calls. In the world of theological education, there has been a tendency to define the “call” to ministry as one which focuses primarily on full time ministry as the pastor of a church. Data shows that assumption needs to be revisited. We are training pastors.  We are also training and equipping many who never expect to do full time ministry.  Now, we have the challenge of reimagining theological education and I am excited about that possibility.

Over my next few posts, I will focus on how “dis-integration” is a root cause for many of the issues we are seeing in theological education (rising costs, the declining status of seminaries, student debt, etc.). This post, however, will get us started by talking briefly about what I believe integration looks like. An affordable, accessible, and relevant system of theological education will require new levels of innovation and integration combined with missional approaches to ministry training. So what does integration look like?

I think integration means simultaneously creating academic programs, financial models, support systems, and administrative structures rather than developing them independently and trying to fit them together later. It means creating a system which cares as much about outcomes as it does about content. It means envisioning new types of faculty, staff, and organizational structures while holding true to the mission and values which have served theological education well for many years. Integration requires having a broad view of ministry training and an expansive view of how people can be trained for ministry. Dan Aleshire, Executive Director of ATS, has talked about how he believes the future of theological education will have “multiple definitions of good.” I believe integration will make that possible. Finally, a wholly integrated system of theological education will use that expansive view of ministry training to find unique ways to fully incorporate the various ministry contexts in which our future (and current) students find themselves.

My hope for the future of theological education, is that we find a way to create an affordable, accessible, and relevant system that fully integrates contextual ministry, outcomes, content, and organizational structures. The result should be a seamless process of spiritual formation, discipleship, academic rigor and hands-on service to the mission of God.

Oct 242013 Tagged with , , , , , 2 Responses

Marketing is Everything

I know, my job title identifies me as a “marketer” so the phrase, “marketing is everything” can seem like I am trying to push my own bias and agenda. The phrase is a cliche that many people dismiss as “marketing speak.” However, most of the time, people relegate marketing to only one of the traditional “4 Ps” of marketing. If we take a larger view of marketing and include a few things related or organizational development, I think we will see why marketing really is everything.

The 4 Ps of Marketing

The traditional 4 Ps of marketing are Product (What are we going to offer), Place (Where are we going to offer it), Price (What are we going to charge for it), and promotion (How are we going to make sure people know about it and encourage to buy it). Most of the time, people relegate marketing to the 4th P, Promotion. We view marketing as websites, advertising, content creation, fundraising, print design, etc. Unfortunately, that viewpoint can set us up for failure.

What is Upstream

The reality is that the other three Ps are “upstream” from promotion. All four Ps are interconnected, but they are more of an interconnected and interdependent circle than anything else. Product often defines place which defines price which ultimately impacts promotion. Then, market research enables us to see what kind of “promotions” people might respond to which brings us back to products, then place, then price, etc. Rinse and repeat.
When we view marketing simply as promotion, we fail to understand the immense impact every other “P” has on it. Really, once the product is defined, the other three Ps are pretty much set. What you offer determines where you are going to offer it and how much it is going to cost. Once those are decided, you have basically set the limit on promotion. Product, Place, and Price basically determine the market we can expect to have or reach. We often say “we need more students” or “we need more gifts” without understanding that our Product, Place, and Price may have already defined what is possible with promotion.

An Expanded View of Product

Because the definition of your product has such great impact on everything else related to marketing, I think it is important to take an expanded view of what “product” means. In higher education, we tend to think of our products as various degree programs so when we define or create our product we do so in terms of which courses will be in a degree program and how we might deliver different aspects of that program. Those are good components to consider, but I want to challenge us to consider the impact organizational structure, financial modeling, and mindset have on our products.
Our product must be created in such a way that the entire system of support, delivery, and evaluation is built into the way we design the product. If we simply say, “Let’s create this new program and more students will enroll,” we have failed to grasp the integrated nature of our work.

Nearly 70% of schools within ATS are operating on a deficit. I think it is time to reimagine what marketing means. Marketing is everything. It touches each and every part of a seminary. When we think about creating new programs or ask our enrollment departments why we don’t have more students, I want us to consider what we are talking about. We are talking about developing something new and different that will require everyone in the organization to think differently and consider the way in which they will impact that future of the organization.

Simply relying on Promotion to fix your marketing “woes” will not help you. By the time a seminary gets to promotion, it has already put a limit on what is possible. We must ensure we are looking as deep as possible when we consider Product, Place, Price and Promotion.

Oct 072013 Tagged with , , , , , 0 Responses

Direct Net Tuition: What is it and why does it matter?

As we create new programs, new financial models, or innovative support systems for theological education, we may find that the traditional ways of measuring the financial impact of our programs are not as helpful as they once were. That is exactly what we have found at Northern Seminary. Today I want to look briefly at a new financial calculation I created for us to use at Northern. We have found it to be very helpful, so I am sharing it in case it is also helpful for you.

Tuition and Net Tuition

Many of us are very familiar with the concepts of tuition revenue and net tuition revenue. The image below shows the formula for each. Basically, tuition revenue is simply the number of credit hours taken multiplied by the tuition rate per credit hour. Net tuition is simply tuition revenue minus a discount. I am intentionally using the word discount because it is applicable across all schools. In this case, I am using the word discount to mean anything that reduces the tuition revenue paid by the student. It would include scholarships given by supporters, grants from the institution or a foundation, or simply a tuition discount.

Our problem at Northern was that these two numbers we not helping us explain certain types of positive financial growth. We had recently launched our partnership model of theological education and our financial strength was increasing quite dramatically. However, we noticed that the net tuition for some of these programs was lower than it was for many of our other programs. Was our new model actually having a negative financial impact on the seminary?

Direct Net Tuition

I decided to look deeper and ended up creating what I refer to as Direct Net Tuition; which is basically, net tuition minus direct instruction cost per student. The image below shows the formula. For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I am using a very straight-forward situation for this blog post. The model works for more complex situations, but those explanations work better in conversations! In this instance, I am looking at the direct net tuition for a course taught by an adjunct professor who is getting paid $3,000 to teach the course and has 8 students in his or her course. Based on my conversations with other seminaries, $3,000 is a pretty standard rate. The number of students is impacted by an institution’s average class size. I am using 8 because 8 is a pretty common average class size for schools across ATS (and the math is easy to understand!).

So how did this new calculation help us? To answer that, we first need to look at what was happening. In the image below, you will see that the net tuition for the new model (74%) is lower than net tuition for the previous traditional model (75%). This is exactly what was happening at our seminary. Our new system of theological education was producing less net tuition, but our overall finances were improving. Now, it would have been easy to point to a decrease in cost and say, “Aha! That is why!” Unfortunately, that method doesn’t help explain what is actually happening. We didn’t want to expand this model of theological education until we knew more.


Direct net tuition gave us the information we needed. In the image below, you are able to see that when direct instruction costs are accounted for, the new model provides a direct net tuition of 67% versus the traditional model’s direct net tuition of 48%. The new calculation opened doors to many different types of financial modeling and has continued to be very useful.


We first began using this calculation two years ago. It allowed us to be very innovative in the way we handled instruction costs, financial aid, and academic planning. Eventually, it allowed us to create a model where faculty could actually be paid more per course than adjunct professors in our traditional courses. Finally, because of the impact it had on our financial aid processes, not only is direct net tuition higher in our new educational models, but also net tuition is now higher as well.

Why Share This?

I am simply sharing thoughts and a financial calculation that has seemed to work for us. We are not perfect, and we have much on which to improve. However, I care deeply about the system of theological education so when something seems to work well, I like to share it with my peers; that is why I share my presentations on this site. Among other things, they show different ways we have increased student hours and how we created our partnership model. We are all serving the kingdom so hopefully some of this is helpful. I am not trying to hold this up as the example of what you should do. Instead, I hope to start a conversation about what’s possible.

Since I began using it, I have expanded this calculation to cover many different types of instruction formats and costs. I would love to hear your thoughts as well as your critiques. If you would like to hear more about how we have implemented this calculation here at Northern, feel free to contact me!

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