A Problem With Theological Education

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from Theological Education: Principles and Practices of a Competency-Based Approach
by Kenton C. Anderson and Gregory J. Henson

There is a fresh movement of the Spirit sweeping through theological education. Competency-based theological education (CBTE) represents one of the most exciting and innovative expressions of our work in recent years. God is doing amazing things through the church for the life of the world, and theological education continues to be a vital aspect of that work. Stories of God’s provision, the work of the Spirit in the lives of people, and the redemptive love found in Jesus Christ abound throughout seminaries and theological schools around the world. Agencies like the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), and the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) bear witness to the global reach of our work for the good of people and to the glory of God. We are proud of our engagement with these groups and with the schools they represent. Our enthusiasm for our mutual achievement has not blinded us to a problem, however.

The problem to which we are referring is much deeper than the daily practices of an institution. It isn’t about enrollment, finances, staffing structures, faculty arrangements, or the various other aspects of institutional life. While each of those may be addressed in the pages of this book, they are not, in our opinion, the fundamental issue. Rather the issue, challenge, or problem is that, somehow, over time, the church and the academy have grown apart.

Nearly every institution of theological education can trace its roots to a time when it was founded “by the church and for the church.” That is to say, a group of people felt it was necessary to develop leaders for churches that were rooted in a particular theological tradition, ministry practice, or ministry context. To solve that real challenge, they formed a school that would be focused on that work. Over time, that deep connection or shared mission began to fade. Schools and churches began to see each other differently—one leaning toward pragmatism and one toward theological depth. As a result, both began to feel a responsibility to balance the other, thereby creating more and more space between them. Schools tended to assume the role of “prophet,” and their voice became profoundly shaped and formed by the traditions and practices of the academy more so than by the life and work of local communities of faith.

In this context, the church tended to assume the role of “leadership developer,” and the church’s voice became profoundly impacted by the traditions and practices of corporate America. While some might suggest that this focus on the practices and values of the business world was productive to some degree, the problem deepened as we let the corporate world dictate our measures for success. We began to value and pursue production-oriented leaders instead of stewarding followers of Jesus who in turn do the same.

In short, the values, organizational structures, approaches to human development, and academic designs utilized by seminaries and churches have become disconnected from the other’s and have more in common with the world around them than the kingdom of which they are a part. While this has taken place over centuries, the distance between the two has grown at an accelerating rate since the mid- 1960s. In the 1960s, a group of financial experts led by Warren Deem was commissioned by the ATS to analyze graduate theological education. His team discovered four primary challenges:

• Declining learner enrollment
• Reduction in learner to faculty ratio
• Small average size of seminaries
• Increasing costs per learner [1]

Many schools today express the same challenges. These stressors have only increased pressure on theological schools over the last several decades.

Dan Aleshire notes that schools in financial stress tend to make decisions by triage: we have focused on those things that are urgent more than those things that are important.[2] In the midst of challenge, the academy has tended to focus on survival—our mission has been to continue existing. Granted, that push toward survival is connected to a deeply felt impulse to maintain a prophetic voice in the body of Christ, to protect the integrity of the various academic disciplines, and to sustain the great tradition of the church. Unfortunately, in practice, survival has meant focusing squarely on increasing, or at least maintaining, enrollment and securing funding for steadily increasing budgets. In short, survival has meant trying to find new ways to sell a product.

While this was happening in seminaries, local churches were faced with very real challenges of their own. With a rapidly changing culture and generations of Christians pushing against the modernist tendencies of the academy and the institutional church, the decentering of the church’s voice in public discourse, and a dramatic demographic shift, churches have also tended to focus on survival. In a similar triage approach to crisis management, survival has meant increasing or at least maintaining membership, as well as securing funding for steadily increasing budgets. There is no small irony in that our response to financial stress leads to the need for even more funding. This is what happens when we look to production-oriented leaders: we create a system that always needs more money.

As a result, we believe that today there is a vast divide between the local church and the institutions that were founded to develop leaders for those very churches. In many ways, this divide has been the result of pragmatic responses to very real challenges. On one hand, the academy has been striving to maintain a particular place and voice in ecclesiological systems. On the other hand, the church has been wrestling with what it means to exist in post-Christendom. The schools are begging to be heard by the churches, who themselves are trying to be heard by the world. In both cases, we are preoccupied with questions of survival rather than mission. Instead of asking, “How do we develop servants who are faithful citizens of God’s kingdom?” we ask questions like, “How do we get more learners/members?” or, “How can we fund our budget?” Churches and schools are offering the same solutions to the same questions about the same problems, and, even then, we fail to hear each other. Preoccupied with our own concerns, the distance between the church and the academy has continued to grow.

The church knows that it needs leaders, but it is looking past the academy. Today, the majority of leaders in a local church have not engaged in conventional, accredited theological education. In fact, Justo Gonzalez notes that “in the entire picture of theological education in North America, ATS-style theological education is no longer normative.”[3] Whether real or merely perceived, there is widespread belief that theological education is disconnected from the life and ministry of local churches. That has been the case for decades and has led many to see the conversations happening in seminaries to be “an utter irrelevance to the life, worship, and mission of the church.”[4] While it is true that people once thought it was necessary to attend seminary in order to be a leader in a vocational ministry setting, those times are past. “People doubt the value of a liberal arts or seminary education.”[5]

Of course, we have all heard this refrain many times. There is nothing new to this critique. This is a problem much deeper than curriculum or pedagogy. We are dealing with a broken relationship—the blame for which can be shared equally. Just as churches have ignored the academy, the academy has looked past the church.

In our efforts to maintain our institutions, we in the academy have developed a mission of our own. That mission, while fully rooted in an honest desire to support the work of the church, has not been fully integrated into the life and ministry of local expressions of faith. Instead, we chase degree programs that we think have a market for enrollment. Rather than responding to the body of Christ, we respond to the things we think will bring in the most learners and money. As institutions, we have largely overlooked the church’s call for disciples who can lead others on mission. We have instead assumed a posture of certitude, in which we proclaim that we know what “they need” and work hard to provide programs that deliver those outcomes. It should not surprise anyone that our results have been poor.

Our point is that theological education is part of the Great Commission to make disciples. In almost every case, our schools were formed to help the body of Christ pursue that mission. More than servants of the church, we are part of the work of the church. Theological education flows from the life and work of the body of Christ. In our attempts to sustain local churches, build schools, and survive cultural and institutional crises, we have failed to foster a deep and collaborative relationship. We have failed to listen to one another in our mutual desire to “succeed.”

We would be careful to say that competency-based theological education is not the only solution to the problems we describe. There are many who are providing other creative and meaningful ways of addressing these concerns. We celebrate all of it. We also believe that CBTE is particularly well suited to offer something meaningful in response to these challenges.

A significant problem with theological education is that it is often separated from the local church. The time has come for that to change. We want to rebuild the relationship between the academy and the church. We believe competency-based theological education offers a powerful way forward because it helps bring focus back to our mutual mission, which is stewarding followers of Christ who flourish in their vocations for the sake of the world.

[1] Chris A. Meinzer, “Sustainability and Strategic Thinking in Theological Education,” In Trust Magazine, Autumn 2019, https://www.intrust.org/Magazine/Issues/Autumn-2019/Sustainability-and-strategic-thinking-in-theological-education.

[2] Daniel O. Aleshire, Earthen Vessels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 89.

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, The History of Theological Education (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 137.

[4] Alister E. McGrath, The Renewal of Anglicanism (London: SPCK, 1994), 152.

[5] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Learning Christ: Theological Education for Theological Discipleship” (paper, Karam Forum, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL, 2017), 1.

This post is adapted from Theological Education: Principles and Practices of a Competency-Based Approach by Kenton C. Anderson and Gregory J. Henson. This title is set to be released on March 19, 2024. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Discover the beauty of theological institutions and churches working with and for one another,

Theological Education demonstrates how churches and seminaries can cooperate through a competency-based learning approach to ministry preparation–that is, competency-based theological education (CBTE). CBTE focuses on the mutual mission of the church and theological education: developing followers of Christ who flourish in their vocations.

This first book-length treatment of CBTE lays the groundwork for expansion and refinement as theological schools and churches move together in partnership, exploring:

  • principles that ground successful CBTE cooperation, such as collaborative mission, contextualized discipleship, and holistic assessment; and
  • practices that a CBTE approach requires, such as affordable programs, flexible technology, and continuous improvement.

Using the CBTE model means seminaries can provide practical ministry training together with churches who invest in the theological education of those who minister among them.


About Author

Kenton C. Anderson (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is President of Providence University College and Theological Seminary and the author of Integrative Preaching and Choosing to Preach. He is also the creative founder of Immerse, the first fully competency-based master’s degree accredited by The Association of Theological Schools. Gregory J. Henson (DMin, Sioux Falls Seminary; MBA Benedictine University) serves as President of Kairos University. His work on innovation, theological education, organizational transformation, and governance has been used by seminaries, universities, churches, and nonprofits on six continents. Greg's most recent book, The Council, offers an alternative view on organizational governance.

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