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We are facing unprecedented change in theological education. Enrollment is declining, financial models are being challenged, and longtime assumptions are no longer true. Students, accreditors, the federal government, and local ministries are all demanding more from seminaries and the system of theological education.

What are we to do? I say it is time to learn quickly and move often.

Traditional Change Management

Much has been written about change management and what makes organizations “great.” Jim Collins’ well-known book challenged organizations to find what they could do better than anyone else and then to optimize that specific area of work. Traditionally, when organizations are faced with new challenges, they undergo large-scale change initiatives. Such initiatives often take place over one or more years and many fail. The process involves a very long process of gathering data, moving people through the process, launching the initiative, and hoping it works. This is basically how traditional project management works as well. Yes, I know both of these are generalizations. The general premise is that change management and project management have historically been long processes which involve very high stakes because it requires one large “launch” after a long lead time.

Built to Change

In 2006, Lawler and Woley published book called Built to Change. They called it a sequel to Collins’ Built to Last. The premise of the book is simply that organizations must be built to change on a consistent basis. Warner Burke echoes this in his book Organization Change when he writes that the change leader needs to be, “clear and deliberate about disturbing the system with new initiatives so that equilibrium does not take over.” Finally, in March of this year, Rita Gunther McGrath published a book called, The End of Competitive Advantage. In it, she talks about the need for organizations to move toward a system of constant change because demands and competition shift so quickly that it is impossible to find and sustain a competitive advantage. Again, these are quick generalizations, but the bottom line is simply that the speed of change is so rapid that organizations must change on a consistent basis.

Learn Quickly, Move Often

I believe the primary focus for seminaries across ATS could be to learn quickly and move often. Rather than looking at the current challenges and saying, “How do we create new programs to meet current needs?” we should ask, “How do we create a system which can foster experimentation and ongoing change?”

Learn Quickly
First, we need to focus on learning quickly. It is important for us to recognize the need to learn. We must gather information, involve everyone within our organizations, and ensure multiple voices are heard. In addition, we must create mechanisms which feed information back to us in a timely fashion. In the past it was okay to wait until the end of a school year to gather data and reflect on the year. Today, we need to be learning much more quickly. For instance, I have developed an enrollment tracking system here are Northern which tells me exactly where we are relative to the exact same week the year before regarding official and unofficial registrations, admits, inquires, etc.  Doing so allows us to learn from our activities on a weekly (versus quarterly) basis. We have created the same type of tracking system for financial aid and federal loans. This is not to say we have it all figured out (trust me, we don’t). It is simply an example of speeding up the learning process. Why learn quickly?

Move Often
We need to learn quickly so that we can move often. In my opinion, the times when we could take a few months to make a decision and then take a few more to implement changes are gone. They have been replaced by a virtuous circle of experimentation, adaptation, and iteration. We create, we implement, we learn, we integrate what we have learned and move again…and then we repeat.

A Broken System
When faced with enormous challenges like those facing theological education, we are tempted to say, “the model is broken, let’s find the new model that works.” You will get no argument from me about the brokenness of the model. A system in which nearly 70% of ATS schools operate with a deficit and 20% operate with a deficit of more than $1 million dollars is obviously not working. Dramatic change is needed.  However, I don’t think there is one answer, especially not one that will work for all institutions.

Instead, we need to learn quickly and move often. We may find that our “new model” is great, but what happens if five years from now it needs to change again? Did we build our system so that it settled on a new model or did we build something that was flexible and could change again?  Yes, change is needed.  I believe we can bring about that change, but we must not replace once “locked-in” model for a new “locked-in” model.

The key, I believe, is for leaders to foster a unified commitment to change by identifying core values and then building flexible systems around those values. The flexible systems must include mechanisms which provide continuous feedback. It is impossible to have all the answers before we embark on a change initiative. The world moves too fast. Think about it. If you graduated from seminary in May or early June of 2007, the iPhone didn’t exist yet.  How many five-year strategic plans that were approved at June board meetings took account for the impact Apple would have on technology over the next five years?  My guess would be very few.  Instead of assuming we have all the information, we must have rock solid core values and a willingness to learn quickly and move often!

What did I miss? Am I overstating anything? Is it too dangerous to move often?

  1. Great perspective, Greg. Big change is needed in the way we look at seminary education. Leaders must learn to adapt quickly and to think creatively. Thanks for sharing!

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