For about a year, I have been talking with different people about the need for an organization which not only serves institutions where they are, but also helps them to see where they could be. In addition, I think there is a need for someone to help the industry see where it could be, to help push the boundaries of what is considered to be possible. We need a catalyst for innovation.

On, February 16, In Trust published a news release which included the following statement:

In Trust will explore becoming a larger, interactive hub to share information, to provide direct connections to networks of collaborative learning, and to disseminate resources of value for the tasks of providing ministerial preparation. Our purpose will be to encourage institutions to develop their own creative responses to challenges and to assist them as they discover and pursue promising new paths to greater effectiveness.

(Read full news release.)

I am excited about what this could produce and how it could benefit the system of theological education. Especially exciting to me is the idea of encouraging institutions “to develop their own creative responses to challenges.” We are in need of creative responses to the challenges we currently face. It would be encouraging to have an organization like In Trust take up the challenge of working with institutions of all types to overcome challenges by implementing innovative responses which take advantage of the system of theological education. In my opinion, no such organization currently exits; it is a missing component within the system of theological education (the system). It is great that different parts of the system are providing some of what is required. Failing to recognize their efforts would be inappropriate. The Auburn Center, ATS, the Wabash Center, and others have done great work. I think more can be done. There is a missing component, a missing link if you will. It is exactly that missing link which I have talked about with others who see the same need. There is a void that needs to be filled.

Why is there a void?

Most institutions do not have the resources for an R&D division…
Churches, seminaries, denominations, and ministry organizations of all types do not have the resources to do research and development. Yes, from time to time there is some good data provided by various organizations, but no one has the resources to assimilate this information and then provide recommendations based on an industry-wide perspective. It would be great if an organization could be a catalyst for innovation across the industry. For example, such an organization could not only provide great information, but it could also provide practical ways in which institutions could take action based on that information. Finally, it could also provide high-quality consultative services to institutions, which leads me to my next point.

Institutions do not have the time to be creative when so much energy is consumed by maintenance…
The system of theological education is bogged down by the fact that simply maintaining the system consumes an immense amount of resources. The “weight” of the system keeps many from having the time or energy to be creative. Whether true or false, maintaining the status quo is often viewed as a necessity if an organization is to survive, which means being creative or implementing innovative initiatives becomes a luxury. What if there was an organization that could come alongside institutions and reduce the amount of time and energy needed to implement creative initiatives. I think this goes beyond the traditional consultant relationship. It becomes a longer term relationship that helps with everything from ideation to implementation to evaluation. Such a relationship is possible if the “consultant” has developed a model based on it. If we simply stop at providing ideas based on research, we have not helped move institutions to the next step. Institutions often need help with the implementation, and they need help which goes beyond coaching or follow up conference calls. They need help because they are consumed by maintenance. They need help because it can sometimes be difficult to see beyond a current reality. Institutions are capable of being creative; it would be great if we could turn their creativity into action.

Creativity exists within the system and someone needs to draw it out…
Yes, I believe all institutions are capable of being creative. Many people within the system are creative, innovative, and full of ideas. Unfortunately, such creativity is often unable to be utilized. Often times this is related to the point above about maintenance, but it is also related to the fact that creativity can come from anywhere, even unexpected places. How can we draw out the creativity that already exists within the system? To borrow TED’s tagline, how can we promote “idea’s worth spreading?” The ATS Leadership Education Conferences do a good job of this, but much more could be done. While “Leadership” and “Quality and Improvement” are values of ATS, they are values based on developing skills, capacities, and ongoing improvement. The ATS programs meet schools where they are and provide a valuable service. We need such programs, and they can add immense value. However, we also need an organization that can help move schools to where they could be. We need an organization that can help spread creativity, foster innovation, and lift up the creativity within the system. We need someone who gets the integrated nature of theological education and leverages that understanding.

Consulting services are usually focused on one aspect of an institution…
Consultants provide a valuable service. I have been blessed by many consultants and have even served as a consultant on a number of occasions. Because of the way the business is structured, many consultants focus on one area of expertise. They may help with strategic planning, fundraising, communication, business processes, or academic programming. We need an organization that, by nature, uses an integrated approach. When helping institutions see where they could be, we will be required to think globally about the institution and yet have the ability to have conversations about the detail. Imagine a “consultant” who could work with an organization on “big picture” strategies based on an understanding of how financial modeling impacts program development which then impacts staffing structures which then impacts technology decisions and so on. In addition, the “consultant” would have the knowledge and skill to sit down with an institution’s data entry personnel to examine the day-to-day details of data entry and its impact on the overall institution. We need an organization that can provide services beyond the “single focus” services provided by many consulting firms. We need an organization that can speak to the strategic goals of an institution while understanding the way details impact strategy.

High-quality consulting services are out of reach for most institutions due to a lack of financial resources…
Currently, however, high-quality consulting services are out of reach for many institutions. Of course, many institutions also do not desire consulting services based on the stigma related to them. Either way, we need an organization that can overcome these issues. Could there be an organization which is able to serve even small seminaries, churches, or ministry organizations in the same way it serves large organizations with big budgets? Could there be an organization whose services are sought after because of the value they provide? At the same time, it could become a significant thought leader.

There is no industry thought leader…
Currently, thought leaders within the system of theological education are dispersed and often go unnoticed which by default means there isn’t an industry thought leader. Dan Aleshire provides great insights, but most of those insights are heard at an ATS gathering which means many people never hear them. Voices from ministry organizations or churches are often not seen as thought leaders on the topic of theological education. Many have ideas, which are often good, but they are not viewed as thought leaders. The Auburn Center, the Wabash Center, and others provide good data and research, but do not lead in quite the same way as a thought leader. Could there be an organization which becomes a thought leader in a complementary fashion? Such a voice could speak to the needs of the system while also providing support, innovative thoughts, and practical/actionable ideas for implementation? Such a voice would be a catalyst for innovation, especially if it came from a respected source.

In Trust?

All the aforementioned ideas are simply thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for a little over a year. They are a result of both my experience as a member of the DIAP Conference Steering Committee where I have the privilege of engaging with multiple seminaries, and my experience at Northern. In Trust may or may not be thinking along these lines, but the mere fact that they are considering such a move is encouraging. I am excited to see what they do.

I believe In Trust is well-positioned to fill this void. It is a well-respected institution within the system and could build a wonderful, collaborative relationship with other significant institutions. It could have the connections, respect, and history needed to make this happen. With these connections, it may have the ability to pull resources from many different places which could then be used to serve the system. Finally, because they are at the beginning stages of this initiative, they have the opportunity to develop a model that is financially sustainable and capable of being a catalyst for innovation.

The Next Step

The news release mentions In Trust will, “engage with constituents and leaders in the field to develop options for reformulating its own work.” I believe that is a great next step. Obviously, the hiring of the next President of In Trust is also important.

Admittedly, I do not know any more about In Trust’s initiative than what I read in the news release. I was simply excited by the fact that someone was considering such an initiative. If executed well, I think an organization of this type could profoundly impact the Church. That is why I am excited. The Church matters. The system of theological education can help or hinder the advancement of the Church. I believe an initiative like the one In Trust is considering could help the system of theological education take giant leaps forward.