For too long 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 or the price of tuition. Still others talk about faculty payment structures (tenure or no tenure). Church leaders talk about the needs of the church. Accrediting bodies talk about the need for assessment. The reality is that all of those topics of conversation (along with others) create the system of theological education.

Answers.com defines a system as a “group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole.” Theological education is a part of the church, and the church is a part of theological education. If we are going to offer professional degrees, then the system is impacted by accrediting bodies (yes, I know that is a topic of discussion in and of itself). Faculty and staff payment structures deeply impact, content, delivery methods, and tuition. Theological education is a made up of a “group of interdependent elements forming a complex whole.”

Interdependent no Interlocking

It is important that we understand the concept of a system. The components are interdependent versus simply interlocking. Theological education is not a puzzle made up many pieces. While this metaphor may work to an extent, it is not quite good enough. For instance, if a piece is missing from a puzzle, it is true that the puzzle isn’t complete. However, it is still a puzzle. A puzzle is created by cutting a “whole” into separate parts.

I prefer to think of this system as a molecule. If a piece of the molecule disappears or is intentionally removed, the molecule actually becomes something else entirely and will exhibit different molecular traits. It will literally be something different. Hydrogen Peroxide (h2o2), is very different than water (h2o), yet the only “difference” is that one oxygen atom is missing. Think about it. If one piece of the molecular system is removed, the molecule goes from something you can’t drink to something that sustains life. Obviously, the reverse is true. If you start with water and then add one atom of oxygen, it transforms from something that sustains life to something you can’t drink. Our system of theological education is a molecule made up of interdependent components. We cannot adjust one component without impacting or considering all the other components.  This is true for the “macro” system of theological education as well as the “micro” systems of each school.

The Great Divide

Unfortunately, we often continue to operate as if we can fix individual components without addressing the entire system. One of the biggest divides is between conversations related to the content or delivery of theological education and the processes or structures that support theological education. A lot of effort has been put into conversations about the future of theological education, but the conversations are often one-sided. We talk about online education, partnerships with churches, residency, and assessing student learning, while often ignoring the structures and processes of the institutions that provide the learning. Hence the great divide. I hear people talk about the content of theological education as if we can adjust the content without adjusting the way we structure our institutions or the way we operate within the global system of theological education. In order to have a relevant, affordable, and accessible system of theological education, I believe we need to think about it as a system.

Designing a System

We need to be much more strategic in our approach to the design of theological education. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, describes design thinking very well. In an article he wrote for Harvard Business Review, he briefly describes it as, “A methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. By this I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.”  Obviously, this must be considered alongside the mission to which God has called us.

Innovative solutions to the challenges facing theological education will not come by merely adjusting the content provided by seminaries, local churches, or megachurch systems. They will not evolve through incremental change over the course of time. The Church needs skilled leaders who are first and foremost disciples serving the mission of God. Theological education is the system that develops, supports, and resources those leaders. That system involves everything connected to the way, “particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.”

Driving Factors

You will often hear me say that we need a “relevant, accessible, and affordable system of theological education.” I believe those three words should be the driving force behind the re-imagining of a system of theological education.

Relevant
The system must be relevant to the needs of the church. This means relevant content and training is provided in relevant ways. The system must provide ways in which participants’ learnings are contextualized and immediately applicable to their ministry setting. Participants should be given a wider perspective than their individual context can provide, but they should also be given relevant training and education which is very contextualized.

Accessible
The system must present accessible opportunities for participants of all skill and academic levels. The church is comprised of people with PhDs, master’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, third-grade educations, and everything in between (thumbs up for John Perkins). We need a system which is accessible to all of them. This does not mean we have to give master’s degrees to everyone, simply that we need to make content and training accessible to everyone.

Location is also tied to accessibility. The system must ensure participants are able to engage in theological education regardless of their location. I am not saying everything must be online, but I am saying we must find ways to offer high-quality education which is accessible from anywhere. There are many ways to achieve this. Currently, many seminaries are trying to solve the problem through online education. While I think online education can be a great thing if done well, I do not think we have been creative enough in our efforts to make theological education accessible.

Affordable
The system must be affordable. It must not strain participants because any strain placed on participants is a strain placed on the Church. In order for the church to thrive, we need to find ways to set it free from such burdens. Of all the three driving factors I am discussing here, I think affordability is the one receiving the smallest amount of creative attention. There seems to be an assumption that high-quality theological education will always be expensive. I refuse to believe that statement. If we are going to have a relevant and accessible system, it will, by nature, be affordable. Yes, I hear many people tell me that affordability is a relative concept. What is affordable to me may not be affordable to my next-door neighbor. However, we must not use that as an excuse for refusing to solve the problem.

The Call for Integrated Thinking

In order for such a system to be created, we must stop approaching solutions in isolation. We need to think about it in a much more integrated fashion. When we are talking about developing relevant content we must also be talking about how that content will be paid for, supported, delivered, and consumed. The price we pay to develop and deliver the content will impact its affordability. What good is highly-relevant content if no one can afford it?

Solutions must include ideas for how we will staff the system, how we will support students, how we will develop new content, and much more. Some good work has been done regarding the future of theological education, but I do not believe it has yet been integrated into a wider view of the system. This video by 3DM reveals the need for a re-imagination. Much of the emphasis is put on the content and delivery method. My question remains, how is it supported? Who teaches? How are staff and faculty compensated? How much does it cost? The concepts behind the content are good, but if we push toward those ideas without thinking about the rest of the system, we may simply create another unsustainable system (full-disclosure: Northern has a partnership program with 3DM, and I think they are doing amazing work that fills a need. I also think the video is a great start for the conversation).

Fuller’s “Seminary of the Future” study has some great discussion points and a good amount of content written about the subject. There is good commentary on technology, the concept of vocation, generations, and changing paradigms, but we are missing the commentary on how we design the system to be relevant, affordable, and accessible.

The Answer may not be within theological education

I believe we need to look much broader than theological education in order to find solutions and creative ideas. Very creative things are happening all over the world. If we try to “re-imagine” how to build a seminary, we are doomed from the start. We must think about re-imagining theological education. We cannot get stuck trying to rebuild an academic institution. We must rebuild a system which enables participants to achieve any academic goals they may have, but not be driven by specific models.

We can do and be more than we are at this time. If we want to be truly creative, we have to stop trying to fix individual pieces and start looking at the whole system. To get the creative juices flowing we we may need to look at other industries. What are technology startups doing in relation to staffing organization? How are corporations eliminating structures which are slow to adapt? We have a history which may have good thoughts within it as well. However, in addition to what we read and hear about in higher education, we need to move outside that realm to truly expand our thinking.

Where do we start?

Let’s start with questions. Let’s start by thinking about the system. If you had $2 million, and could build anything you wanted, what would it look like? Where would you begin? Would you hire faculty before hiring anyone else? Hire staff? Rent a building? Would you take a competitive or collaborative posture?

Share your thoughts! What are your thoughts on theological education as a system? Do you see ways in which the system could be improved? Are you doing innovative things at your institution? What are you doing to build a sustainable system?