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What if seminaries took full advantage of a student’s current ministry?

While many seminaries try to “integrate theory and practice” in their classrooms, in my experience those efforts still result in talking about something versus doing it. As seminaries, we relegate the “ministry practice” requirements of a degree to “field education,” “internship,” and “mentored ministry” programs which are specific programs or courses. Some seminaries will have a mentor program or a formation group that is active throughout a student’s degree, which are a good step, but I think we can do more.

How about requiring all students to be actively engaged in ministry and then fully integrating that into our degree programs?
“Actively engaged” doesn’t mean being a full-time, paid member of a church staff. It means actively serving on mission. That could be volunteering at a local church, leading a parachurch organization and much more. Fully integrating this experience means we could decrease the cost of education while increasing the quality. Seminaries could develop frameworks which maintain academic integrity while simultaneously taking account of the fact that “class time” doesn’t always need to take place in a classroom. By developing such frameworks we are able to make seminary something that takes advantage of (versus disrupts) a student’s rhythm of life. Lexington Theological Seminary is doing some of this. I do not know enough about their program to know how well it could expand beyond involving students who are not in traditional local church ministry. Given the fact that many incoming students are not expecting to do local church ministry upon graduation, it would be important for such a program to include ministries that are not based in a local church. Other seminaries require participation in ministry throughout their MDiv programs, but the key is fully integrating (and giving credit for) the work and learning that is occurring.

What if seminaries aren’t the sole keepers of pedagogical truth?

Is it possible that a place other than a seminary could develop leaders who are continually transforming into the image or Christ? Is it possible that a seminary is not the only place to learn the concepts and best practices related to Christian community development? The answer to those questions (and many others) is a resounding yes. If more seminaries recognized this, we would see seminaries investing time and resources into developing partnerships with organizations that are doing great work. Seminaries can do some things better than anyone else. However, there are many things we can’t do as well. In his book What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis talks about the concept of doing what you do best and linking to the rest. This is similar to Jim Collins’ hedgehog concept in Good to Great. Basically, we often try to do everything rather than recognizing what we do best and then finding partners. Ruth Haley Barton’s Transforming Community is a great program for ministry leaders. Rather than trying to replicate it, Northern Seminary partnered with her. The result is better than either could have accomplished individually.

Partnerships of this nature still require the seminary to be held accountable for the courses and curriculum for which it is offering credit. However, programs and resources created by partner ministries are great sources of content and experiences for students in courses created by the seminary. By partnering, seminaries do not need to invest mounds of resources into creating resources which already exist. This could be hiring faculty, creating online courses, adding staff, and much more. Basically, we are reinventing the wheel all across theological education and that is very expensive. I am not asking seminaries to simply grant credit for experiences, and that is not what we have done at Northern. Instead, I am asking seminaries to look outside their walls for great teaching opportunities, communities of learning, and ministry training resources.

What if more money isn’t the answer?

Often times we think the answer to the struggles facing seminaries is more money. Our school is struggling financially so we say, “We need more students so that we can have more net tuition,” or “We need more donations to support our mission.” While it may be true that our organizations could use more students and/or more financial partners, those two things are not the answers to the issues we are seeing in schools across theological education. Pouring money into a broken system is not the way to fix it. More money will only amplify the inefficiencies and continue to mask the core issues. What are those core issues? Well, those vary by school, but I believe there are few that exist across the entire system.

For starters, our organizational structures are not conducive to something I call “nimbility,” which is basically the ability to be nimble. It is hard to keep pace with change if an institution takes multiple years to react to that change. In addition, these structures often inhibit collaboration and innovation. Finally, the structures do not seem to be financially sustainable.

I recently attended a conference for dean’s within ATS schools where Chris Meinzer, Senior Director of Administration and CFO at ATS, shared a staggering statistic. Only 33.5% of ATS schools ended their 2012 fiscal year with a financial surplus (when revenues are adjusted based on a 5% endowment draw). More than 50% of schools have a deficit of more than $250,000! Our model is broken and more money isn’t going to fix it. If a smaller percentage of schools were struggling with finances, it might be easier to argue that those schools simply need to increase their revenues. However, the reality is that nearly 70% of ATS schools are struggling. We can’t assume that simply adding more students is going to fix our issue.

The answer to this is not eliminating tenure or doing everything online. While those may be part of an answer in a specific context, I believe the answer requires individual institutions to completely rebuild their institutions from the ground up based on their context and mission. Some of that work could be related to building versus cutting a budget.

Organizational structures are an important factor, but a school cannot address its structure without also thinking about its program and delivery methods. Likewise, it is dangerous to think that new programs will fix our issues if we do not also address the systems and structures which support those programs. When it comes to programs, I would encourage us to think broadly about the needs of the Church, our institution’s role in God’s mission, and the mission of our school. Then, we need to think about revolutionary, not incremental, change. What would it take for us to cut the cost of tuition for an MDiv at our school by 50% or 75%? What does it mean to partner with ministry organizations in the preparation of ministry leaders by working together versus replicating work? How do we create programs that are accessible, affordable, and relevant?

I know this post has a lot of questions and not a lot of answers – that is intentional. The answers are going to be impacted by your context. I am simply asking three questions that I believe are important. How do you ask these questions at your institution? in your denomination? in your Church?

We need revolutionary change. What if you made that happen at your institution?

  1. Greg –

    I appreciate you words. Sometimes coming up with the right questions to ask is more difficult than answering them. I believe seminaries, mine included, have been working very hard to sustain a model that is not suited for the future needs of ministry. The unfortunate part is that our students are the ones who are hurt the most.

    Now that you are asking the questions, how does your school go about the work of seeking answers? These are no small changes you are mentioning, how have you worked to get your whole organization thinking in this way?

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Nate. I think your note that seminaries have been working very hard to sustain a model that is not suited for the future needs of ministry is right on target. Obviously, the extent to which that is true is impacted by one’s context and ecclesial family, but I think it is true throughout the system of theological education.

      To your questions about answers. You are correct in that these are no small changes. What’s more is that I think they are only the tip of the iceberg. Of the three questions I mention here, I think my seminary has gained the most ground on the partnership model of theological education. In the presentation our Dean of Academic Programs and I did at a recent ATS gathering, we talked about our partnership model.

      To get at the question regarding the concept of fully integrating one’s ministry we are pursuing the importance of outcomes-based learning. We are in the process of creating specific rubrics for syllabi and programs. The rubrics go beyond the standard, “A class must have this much seat-time, this much reading, and this much writing.” Instead we start by asking what specific learning outcomes the course/program is supposed to achieve. Our rubrics then allow a professor to reach those outcomes in any manner he or she sees fit. There is a seminary in Canada that is doing this as well (as well as others). The key, however, is including specific measurements for how time in ministry is accounted for in the credit given in a class. It is one thing to require a student to be in ministry while in school (some seminaries already do this) and something entirely different to have the “work” count as the “work” required for a course. We are in the beginning stages of this. Our rubrics are designed and we are testing some of our assumptions.

      The money question is always the hardest. It is always hard to get people over the “we need more money” hump. I wouldn’t say my seminary is quite there. We are willing to say that the “model” is broken and have invested a lot of time an energy into rebuilding it. For instance, over the past five years we have decreased our operating expenses by about 20% while more than doubling the number of programs we offer and increasing headcount. However, it is always easy to say, “We need another $500k in giving.” Even today I am heading into a meeting to talk about our current systems and processes.

      How did we get here? It would be a lie if I said we weren’t spurred on by the financial crisis in 2008. In addition to that, I believe the strong relationships among our leadership team as well as the relationships between the staff, faculty and board have enabled us to move quickly. Above all, we have looked closely at the data related to our institution, students, and programs. In addition we looked at data for ministry partners, the wider church, and the whole of ATS. For instance, one of our ministry partners has over 3,000 people in their training program…that seems like something worth looking into when you recognize that the largest ATS seminary only has 3,500 students and the second largest has less than 3,000.

      Our staff is great. That is probably the most important. Speaking of, I have met a few people at your seminary. If you’d like to talk, shoot me an email!

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