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My wife graduated from Northern Seminary on June 3, 2007. Think back, if you can, to that date and time. Here are few facts to help you.

The iPhone didn’t exist yet (granted it would come later that month)

Facebook had less than 60 million users (it now has 1.15 billion)

Facebook didn’t have an iPhone app, obviously, since the iPhone didn’t exist (it now has 819 million mobile users)

The “App Store” didn’t exist (the “app” economy is now a $10 billion industry)

Netflix’s unlimited streaming service didn’t exist (Netflix now accounts for one-third of peak internet traffic in North America)

I could easily add more statistics like this, but I think you may get the point. A lot has changed over just a few years. During the past few weeks I have been doing a lot of thinking related to the future of theological education and building a system that is accessible, affordable and relevant. I have hovered around the idea that organizations need to think creatively about what it means to be successful today. Historically, strategic planning, programmatic development, and innovation within seminaries have been built on a belief that the future is predictable and success is based on standard or expected outcomes. It seems we may need to adjust our thinking.

The rate of change is ever-increasing and it is not going to slow down. We need to embrace the level and speed of change rather than dismiss it or fight it. A mindset of change needs to permeate our organizations. This can be difficult and can take time, but change is afoot. We can either thrive on it or let it force us into bad decisions at a later date.

Sustainable Competitive Advantages Do not Exist

In 2009, I wrote a document as part of a strategic planning process here at Northern Seminary. In it, I used the term “nimbility” to mean, “the ability to be nimble.” We were just beginning our partnership model of theological education and one of the values of that model was that we could move quickly based upon data we received when evaluating external circumstances. Therefore new programs and partnerships could be started and stopped quickly with minimal infrastructure or investment. Such a model enabled us to change quickly – our nimbility quotient was high. In her book, The End of the Competitive Advantage, Rita Gunther McGrath, a leading expert in strategic planning, challenges the way most organizations go about the strategic planning process. Her general premise is that there is no such thing as a competitive advantage and that organizations need to be focused on the “transient competitive advantage.” As leaders we need to be cognizant of the fact that the world moves fast and we need to be constantly evaluating our context and looking for new ways to move forward. Institutions need to think about the impact that has on both institutional and programmatic planning.

A Different Time

The current model of theological education was formulated using the traditional higher education model. It was built around the idea that the future was predictable and we needed pastors to serve in specific denominational settings. It made sense because that model seemed to work well at the time. Obviously, much has changed since then, and schools have made attempts at adjusting the model of theological education. However, even today the structure remains largely the same. We have adjusted a few courses, added some specializations, created a few new degrees, but we are still using a mindset that expects the future to look somewhat similar to the present. If the statistics above do one thing, it is show how quickly things are changing. Might it be time to consider creating an integrated model of theological education that is inherently affordable, accessible, relevant, and flexible?

Stay Tuned

If you are reading this, I am probably “preaching to the choir” and you would like me to offer some suggestions for what to do. I agree with you. It is time to simply recognize the fact that the world has changed and begin to do something about it. I think we have made a few great strides here at Northern. Over the past five years, our new model has decreased our average tuition for our doctor of ministry program by over 25% while simultaneously increasing net tuition by 55% per student. I could point to a few other seminaries that are headed down the right path as well. However, a lot more can and should be done. We need educational programs, organizational structures, and technological systems that are truly integrated. It will edify the wider Church, and lift the financial burden weighing down our students. Stay tuned for a few examples of what I believe might be possible.

Of course, all of this needs to be placed within the context of a specific institution. I am simply challenging us to consider the fact that our ability to thrive in the future is intimately connected to our ability to think differently and integratively. The world is changing quickly. Are we?

What do you think? How do you think we should go about integrated innovation? What can you do bring such a process into the way you lead?

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