Last week, I attended the 2012 DIAP Conference hosted by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). It was a great event. (full-disclosure: I served as the Chair for the Steering Committee, so my judgment regarding the quality of the event might be a little skewed!)

I was encouraged by a number of things, but what was most encouraging were the conversations I kept hearing around the topic of integration. While the event is focused on development and advancement within theological schools, the conversation was about the future of theological education and how institutions must be more integrated if they are to thrive and, more importantly, serve the church effectively.

Integration is a topic about which I am more than passionate. I believe an integrated approach to theological education could be very helpful and is very possible. Technology not only makes this possible, but it is also giving new generations of people the influence and tools to demand a more integrated approach to what we do.

Impact on Theological Education

A relevant and church-impacting system of theological education involves more than the content provided to students. The content of the education is but one important piece of the system. For a very long time, we have looked at theological education as a collection of separate parts. Some of us focus on the content of the education. Others talk about the burden of student debt and tuition. Still others talk about faculty payment structures (tenure or no tenure). The list could go on and on. The problem is that we need to integrate our thinking. This was extremely evident at the DIAP conference. The conversations there revealed the hunger for integration.

Hopefully, that hunger will begin to produce results. If we are to create a system of theological education that is relevant to the needs of the Church, affordable for participants, and accessible to all who need it, we cannot limit our thinking or think independently. We must think about more than simply our “area” or “department” or even our own institution. We need to think about how a system is a group of interacting or interrelated components which are intentionally designed to create a unified whole. Each component impacts the other in profound ways and we need to move past recognizing this and toward truly implementing it.

Where do we start?

I always try to give a few examples of how you could do something today at your organization. In my presentation at DIAP entitled “A New Generation of Giving,” I encouraged everyone to begin with what I call a Communications Audit (CA). In my experience, I have found that a CA provides great insight into the many ways we communicate with different people connected to our institutions.

The goal of a CA is to find out WHO communicates WHAT to WHOM and WHEN is it communicated. This needs to be an exhaustive list which encompasses the entire organization. When completed, it will reveal ways in which different departments are communicating to various subgroups of your constituency base. When I completed this at Northern Seminary in 2008, the information I received was staggering. We used the data to find ways we could integrate the planning and implementation of various communication materials. We have saved money, created a better brand message, increased traffic to our website, and much more. While I don’t believe we are perfect (far from it), I think we have taken giant leaps forward.

Just the Beginning

The Communications Audit is just the beginning. I believe it is a good place to start because it is one of the best ways to begin seeing how things are already over-lapping in our institutions. In order to continue toward true integration, it is important that you see the CA as the first step on a new journey. Where else can you look for overlap? Job responsibilities? Department responsibilities? Do you need a Doctor of Ministry Office that operates as a separate entity? Are your Enrollment and Advancement departments truly working together when it comes to Alumni or Church relations? Are there better ways to integrate those functions?

What am I missing?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Is integration necessary? Can it even be done in large institutions? If you do agree with what I am saying, what are your plans for your institution? What is your first step going to be?