For (what seems to be) the first time in a long time, there is a lot of change occurring within schools across ATS. In a recent conversation with an individual from ATS I learned that number of applications for changes that have been submitted to the Board of Commissioners has increased quite significantly. More schools are asking permission to do more things. This is good. It shows a willingness to change.
Unfortunately, many of the conversations I hear are focused on how we need more students or more money or more types of programs/degrees. I would like to challenge that reasoning. Yes, more students would be great, but the enrollment decline we are seeing in our “industry” is related to the quality of our product. Therefore, our case for change should rest primarily on the fact that we need graduates who are uniquely and fully developed for their specific calling – something many current ministry leaders would say seminaries are failing to do. Secondarily, our case for change should rest on the fact that theological education is rarely integrated into the life and ministry of our students. We shouldn’t change because new programs will bring more students and more tuition. We should change because we are not achieving our missions to the best of our abilities.
Good Work is Being Done
Let me begin by saying that good work is being done when it comes to change within theological education. Some schools are developing innovative ways in which students can complete a certificate or degree. Other schools are testing ways in which theological education can be more fully integrated into one’s ministry. Good work is being done.
This post is not a critique of the work being done. It is a challenge issued to those of us who are leading the charge when it comes to change. I want us to look closely at why we are pushing for change. If we are starting with the idea that we need “more” of something, then we are starting in the wrong place.
Developing Students for Their Unique Calling
If you have read any of my other posts, you will know that the majority of students entering seminary do not plan to pursue congregational ministry when they graduate. How then shall we develop students? That question should call us to consider change that may be needed. Does our system of theological education produce students or graduates who are knowledgeable, competent, and display Christ-like character? Many current models of theological education focus on knowledge and others focus on competency. Few have adequately addressed all three.
Students come to us expressing various calls on their lives. Our system of theological education should help them develop the knowledge, character, and competency that will serve them in their unique ministry setting – a setting that could range from being the lead pastor of a church to a member of a ministry team which practices submissive leadership to a baker at a local grocery store who wants his or her life to be a ministry to others. Does our current model truly allow for such variety? Can we say with confidence that all students in our programs will display a high level of knowledge, character, and competency? The answers to those questions should drive us to change.
Integrated into Life and Ministry
At the same time we need to consider the fact that the “part-time-ization” of theological education is a reality we have not fully embraced. Our measurements often come back to things like FTE and our programs often work best for full-time students. Offering courses in the evening or that meet only one-time per week is not the answer to serving part-time students in the same way putting courses online is not the answer to the need for innovation. We need to fundamentally rethink what it means to be a student engaged in theological education and therefore reimagine how seminaries, churches, denominations, ministry organizations, nonprofits, parachurch ministries, and ministry leaders can come together to create a system of theological education that is truly integrated into the life and ministry of a student.
Fully integrating life, ministry, and theological education will require us to reimagine how we view education. It will require us to focus more on the essence of theological education and less on the form. Once again it comes back to question, what are we trying to accomplish in the lives of our students and how might we best achieve that goal?
Developing in students the knowledge, character, and competency required for them to be successful in their unique calling is the primary driver for change. However, we should not forget that the fundamental model of theological education is prohibitively expensive, often based on content instead of outcomes, and remains inaccessible to the majority of people. When creating new models, please remember to address these issues. I find it works best if the conversations about developing students (relevance) happen at the same time and in the same room as the conversations about affordability and accessibility.
One Possible Example
In my first six months as President of Sioux Falls Seminary, we have devoted significant amounts of time to wrestling with these issues. Our board, faculty, staff, ministry partners, denominational leaders, and more have all played a part in one conversation or another. In response, we have redeveloped the outcomes for each of our masters degree programs (MDiv, MACL, MABT, and MACO) and decided to launch a research project focused on the idea that knowledge, character, and competency should drive our development of students. The title of the project is, The Kairos Project: Shifiting the Focus of Theological Education, and our goal is to develop an educational model in which the focus is on student learning versus time spent in class. Yes, the students still accumulate credit hours and complete courses, but the model is focused on the student versus the institution.
Keeping You Posted
I will keep you posted on what we learn from this initiative. It fits nicely within a few research projects I am leading at the moment and it will no doubt bring some interesting things about which to write.