Oct 192014 Tagged with , , , , , , , 1 Response

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.

expense small

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.

Oct 062014 Tagged with , , , , , , 0 Responses

Rethinking the Full-time Student

As we move into a new paradigm of theological education, it may be time for us to reconsider a number of things.  Today we focus on the traditional definition of a full-time student.  Over the next few weeks we will look at cost structures, systems, and faculty.

While the definition of a full-time student can vary from school to school, each school creates the definition based on the number of credit hours a student completes in a given term.  The number tends to move between 9 and 15 credits, depending on the school, and is traditionally connected to the number of hours a student spends in a classroom.

When added to the myriad of things clamoring for an individual’s time, the life of a traditional full-time student is hectic, draining, and truly difficult to maintain without becoming burned out.*  The disintegrated nature of theological education has developed a system where seminary is something that is added on rather than integrated into a student’s life and ministry.  Given this reality, it is not surprising that the M.Div. graduation rate for the “industry” could be around 41%.  Is there a better way for students to graduate in a reasonable period of time without learning how to burnout of ministry?

Every student in the Kairos Project at Sioux Falls Seminary is a full-time student.  However, they are not full-time students in the traditional sense.  Again, a traditional full-time student spends 12-15 hours per week in a classroom and then participates in ministry, work, and life outside of seminary.  In the Kairos Project model, a student’s personal development process is fully integrated into his or her life and ministry.  Class simply functions differently in this new paradigm.  The student is required to have a concurrent and continual ministry context while earning their degree.  That context is intentionally integrated into his or her progression toward the specific outcomes of a program.  Rather than seminary being added onto the life of a student, the journey of theological education is woven throughout the experiences of the individual’s life and ministry.

In this new track, made possible through the Kairos Project, students complete the same amount of coursework as students pursuing their degree in the traditional format.  However, because the course work is more fully integrated into ministry, it is not intended to be a separate experience.  As a student progresses through the year in their ministry context, he or she is also progressing through assessments, outcomes, and courses for the degree program.  A mentor team, including a member of our faculty, guides the learning experience.

Biblical study, ministry reflection, practical application, and spiritual formation should be a part of every day in the life of a minister of the gospel.  The Kairos Project simply provides a framework to guide and develop students while they are participating in the Mission of God.  Because it is not built around the chronological progression through courses, the Kairos Project allows students the opportunity to dive deeply into topics, discussions, learning experiences, and biblical reading that are relevant to their current challenges in ministry.

As our first cohort of students progress through the Kairos Project, we will likely learn more about how to integrate life, ministry, and theological education.  For me, it starts with reconsidering the definition of a full-time student.  What do you think?


*Data from ATS indicates that 81% of incoming M.Div. students work while attending seminary.  In fact, 64% of full-time M.Div. students work more than 10 hours per week.  Fully, 44% of incoming full-time M.Div. students work more than 15 hours per week.

Full-time M.Div. students spend 36 hours per week on coursework (assuming a 12 credit-hour course load) and more than 10 hours on a job.  44% of full-time M.Div. students are working more than 15 hours a week.  For the majority of full-time M.Div. students, the total number of hours between work and school now ranges between 46- 51.  In addition, student’s devote time to ministry, family, hobbies, reflection with God, travel time (two-thirds of incoming students commute), and other general aspects of being a student.

The majority of students are actively engaged in ministry while they are in seminary, and half of them are married.  25% expect to be bi-vocational.  When all these time commitments are taken into account, it is not surprising to see a decline in the number of traditional full-time students at many seminaries.

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


Aug 182014 Tagged with , , , , , , , 1 Response

From Chronos to Kairos

There are two words for time in Greek. The first, chronos, refers to chronological time – seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, etc. The second, kairos, refers to a specific moment in time or a specific time in which an activity or incident occurs.

For many years, the primary method of theological education has been based on the “chronos” understanding of time. Students progress chronologically through a specific set of courses over a certain number of years and, provided they pass the courses, receive a degree at the end.

Unfortunately, this model has, in many instances, developed a system of theological education that is prohibitively expensive, lacks integration, and is built around content instead of outcomes. Chronological time spent in class and the grades received in that class have been used as the primary measurement of student learning.

It may serve us well to a create a system of theological education that shifts the focus from chronos to kairos. In this system, students would be fully engaged, and learning would more effective because it would be built around moments in time that naturally encourage integrated learning. In addition, students would be held accountable to specific outcomes rather than to the chronological progression through a set of courses. As students engage in learning, life, and ministry, a team of mentors would walk alongside them, providing encouragement and assistance.

We are launching just such a program at this fall at Sioux Falls Seminary. It is for students with stories like these…

Doug Kempton
Doug’s story winds through college, becoming a founder of Kinko’s, the launch of a nonprofit to serve inner-city kids, and a three-year discipleship journey that brought him to his role as interim Lead Pastor at Grace Community Church in Detroit, Michigan. Doug writes, “It’s taken me a long time to reconcile my heart’s desire and God’s calling on my life, but I am there now.” He has a strong desire to serve God to the best of his ability and believes that theological education should be an important aspect of his development. However, his commitments as a husband, father, executive director, and lead pastor did not mesh well with the traditional model of theological education.

Emily Thompson
It was during college that Emily first felt a call from God to walk alongside others in their spiritual journeys. As others began to recognize this call on her life, Emily began to develop an understanding of how God might use her gifts and abilities. She writes, “Seminary was an impossible, lost dream due to motherhood, finances, my full-time job, and a long list of other responsibilities.” Emily is thankful for and committed to her calling as a mother, wife, and employee, and is searching for a way to integrate theological education into those roles versus being separated from them.

Tom Henderson
As the founder of and lead communicator for Restoration Generation, Tom speaks at music festivals, schools, camps, retreats, and conferences. His first book, Heart Not Hype, was published in 2013 and provides a seven-day discipleship journey for new believers. Throughout Tom’s 17 years of service in ministry, he has been encouraged to attend seminary and has often considered it. However, the traditional model would not allow him to continue ministering around the country. The prohibitive cost of theological education added another barrier.

The stories of these students are diverse, yet similar and they echo the stories I hear everyday from people who feel called by God. Each feels called to serve the mission of God but has felt as though the traditional model of theological education would not serve him or her well. Doug, Emily, Tom, and many others have desired a system that would involve a holistic journey, one that would more fully develop them for their unique callings.

My hope is that we learn from the Kairos Project. At this point, it is more of a research initiative than a new program. It will include 10 to 15 students who will participate in and critique this concept. Over the next few months I will share a few of the thoughts behind the Kairos Project. I value your feedback as well.

We will look at the concept of theological education as a platform versus a product, the cost structures of theological education, faculty-directed learning and academic oversight in an outcome-based model, and the concept of being a “full-time” student. Be sure to correct me where you think I may be wrong or ask questions for clarification. My desire is to spark a conversation for the good of the Kingdom.

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

Aug 042014 Tagged with , , , 0 Responses

Moving Beyond “Teaching” or “Equipping”

A quick review of taglines for seminaries across North America will reveal a smattering of phrases that use terms like equipping, training, teaching, educating, or transforming.  For instance, we see taglines that look something like this, “ABC Seminary: Equipping leaders for service in the Church.”  Sioux Falls Seminary is no different.  Our current “mission statement” states that we “equip servant leaders who engage the mission of Jesus Christ.”  For many years, the purpose of theological education has been viewed through the lens of traditional higher education with a little flavor of the church.  We create professional degree programs that reflect teaching, training, or equipping.

I would like us to consider the reality that theological education is about a lot more than equipping, training, teaching, or educating.  It is about developing people for their unique calling.  Let me first focus on the word developing and then look at the phrase unique callings.


The well-known adage about fishing goes as follows: Give a person a fish; feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish; feed them for a lifetime.  I would like us to add a third statement, which goes as follows: Develop a fisherman in partnership; feed a village for generations.  You see, the process of personal development goes beyond teaching.  It is about more than acquiring knowledge or a specific set of skills.  Developing someone is a formational process that includes teaching, equipping, training, educating, action, and reflection as parts of a holistic journey.

I grew up on the Mississippi River.  While fishing has never been something I enjoy (I know, that sounds blasphemous), it is something I know how to do.  I can pick a spot to fish, bait a hook, cast a line, and catch a fish, but that doesn’t make me a fisherman.  Sammy Hoag, a friend of mine, is a fisherman.  He has the ability to walk alongside others and teach them how to fish.  He knows how to create within people a passion for fishing.  Sammy knows how to distill multiple sources of information regarding fishing into succinct, useful, and actionable data.  Sammy can read a river much like someone else might read a book.  He can see where fish might be, what time fish might be there, and how best to practice the art of fishing in that specific river.  Sammy is a fisherman who can develop others in that manner.  I have simply been taught how to fish.

Unique Calling

For over 100 years, theological education has focused on teaching people for ministry.  It may be time for us to devote an immense amount of time to creating systems of theological education that develop people for their unique callings.  The paradigm of equipping leaders or training leaders narrows our focus to the acquisition of skill and knowledge.  Neither skill nor knowledge is helpful unless a person integrates that skill and knowledge into his or her rhythm of life and ministry.  In order to create that rhythm, students must walk through an intentional development process with multiple mentors facilitating that process.

It is in that process of personal and holistic development that an individual comes to understand his or her unique call.  God has gifted each of us in unique ways in order that we might participate in his redemptive mission.  Theological education should help students understand, articulate, and grow in their unique calling without being removed from their context.

The uniqueness of a student’s calling can be diminished in a model of theological education based on completing a specific set of courses.  The student planning to do social work is required to do the same assignments as the student planning to be a pastor.  We often hear the reason for this is that students benefit from getting outside their typical area of work.  Unfortunately, that reason is often given to students seeking to do ministry outside the traditional role of pastor.  Because traditional theological education has been designed with congregational ministry in mind, the student planning to do congregational ministry is rarely asked to do assignments that would normally be completed by someone planning to do social work.

Developing People for Their Unique Callings

Please hear me when I say that developing pastoral leaders for service in local churches is one of the primary roles of theological education and something I believe we find in Scripture.  However, it is important to recognize that many students do not plan to serve through congregational ministry when they graduate.  That’s why we believe our system of theological education should develop people for their unique callings.  Doing so enables us to develop people who see and understand their unique role in God’s mission.  That process will enable us to “feed” the church for generations to come.

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

1 2 3 7