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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.

  1. When I think of platforms, I think of theatre, and specifically what it means to be on center stage. I like your thinking Greg, and appreciate how it has an ultimate purpose: to keep Christ on center stage in the lives of servants preparing for ministry during their season of training and education. Well done. I like this thinking. To me it won’t hurt professors like myself but help us because the model will enable us to train more, not just those with significant funds to afford the old way of doing it.

  2. I like the concept of Theological Education As A Platform and want to learn more. It seems akin to the notion of the church as a living and interactive mobile temple of worship-as opposed to a general fixed/one-size-fits-all destination. I do, however, have one concern at this time, i.e., that the platform may be so specialization-oriented (based on current context) that the student has limited flexibility in the event of a change of context.
    Malcolm Barksdale
    M.Div. -2014

    1. Thanks for reading, Malcolm! Indeed, the concept is meant to make theological education something that is “mobile and interactive.” When building on this concept at Sioux Falls Seminary we have been very intentional about allowing as much flexibility as possible so that students are not locked into a context. Rather, that idea is that students have options and the ability to adjust their paths as needed.

  3. In the Spring of 2014 I had preliminary discussions with our Dean on this same idea specifically in the context of how the IT Organizations in the 11 Episcopal Seminaries could share knowledge and best practices and possible collaboration.

    1. That sounds like a conversation of which I would enjoy being a part! I am glad you see how this concept can extend beyond academic programs and into the very fabric of how institutions are structured, how they operate, and how they can collaborate with each other.

  4. Hello Greg – Interesting idea. A couple of key questions:
    – Where do you charge $’s for services rendered in this model?
    – How do people recognize value for the charge and do they value the service significantly so that the platform breaks even (at worst)?

    Ron – AMBS VP for Advancement & Administration

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Ron. These are good questions. In my experience platforms work well when various components derive value from their portion of the platform. To go back to the Apple illustration, Apple receives money because users are buying the iOS platform. The app developers receive money because the people who purchase the iOS platform purchase apps. The users come for the apps and the apps come because there are users. It is a mutually reinforcing system of value creation. If seminaries are able to build platforms to which other programs and services can be connected then both sides will receive monetary benefit.

      In one example from a previous role, we were able to build a model that resulted in a 55% increase in enrollment, a 25% decrease in cost for the student, but a 50% increase in net tuition. The partners we worked with saw increases in the number of participants in their programs, as wll. Again, it was mutually reinforcing.

      The economics of platforms are different that the economics of legacy systems because value is created in alternative ways. Some of the resources listed in the blog post help to paint a picture of the economics. If you have more questions, feel free to let me know! I hope things are going well at AMBS.

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