Theological Education: Mentor Development

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

If CBTE is going to work, we are going to need great mentors. The quality of our programs in competency-based theological education rests fully on the character and capacity of those who guide and assess the learners. Perfect systems are no match for poor mentors.

One way to think about CBTE is to imagine it as a system of replication. The model is designed to develop learners in the form of those who mentor them. So, if we want to have proficient graduates, we need to have productive mentors who see the value of reproducing the best of themselves in others who will follow and sustain a sense of mutual mission.

None of this is going to happen by accident. Mentors, like graduates, need to be developed. Early in the formation of a CBTE program, there might be a handful of potential mentors who emerge. The uniqueness of this program often attracts creative, early-adopting mentors who are excited by the potential for something new and promising. But as the program grows, a system of mentor development is required. Developing an effective mentor-training process is one of the ways a CBTE program can be sustained.

The best way to train mentors for competency-based programs is by using competency-based methods. Of course, that will not be so obvious to those of us who default toward seminars, workshops, and courses. It ought to be self-evident that the strongest mentors will be graduates of your program. One of our most delightful experiences is working with second-generation situations, where a graduate offers to mentor someone else. Having been through the program, they understand how to optimize the process for those they lead. This also gives the next-generation learner a sense of confidence that the goal can be reached and that the process is sound.

This is also a fine method of mentor generation. Graduates who have profited from the experience are often hungry to pay it forward. Therefore, the CBTE system becomes self-generating, creating a potentially exponential result for the mission. As each graduate mentors one or more emerging learners, the entire system swells with motivated people.

It is true, nonetheless, that some of the mentors will inevitably lack experience. We have found that it is wise to put these first-experience mentors on teams with experienced mentors. It always goes more smoothly when a new mentor can learn alongside other mentors who have worked within the system previously. This kind of learning-by-doing is faithful to and consistent with the competency-based approach, again allowing the system to self-replicate.

These organic approaches to mentor recruitment are important, though some intentional mentor recruitment might be necessary, particularly with respect to academic or faculty mentors. In our experience there are plenty of people, in most communities, who have the academic background necessary to qualify them to mentor at the appropriate level. Many of these folks will be pleased to collaborate, in part because they are looking for a way to fulfill their sense of gifting for teaching but also because they are intrigued or enthused about the competency-based approach. Others will be motivated by the learner in question, especially if they have a preexisting relationship with the learner.

We have seldom found it difficult to find the vocational mentors, or those who will serve the learner in context. It is rare, in our experience, to find a learner who qualifies for this kind of program who does not have an experienced and qualified mentor in the field that they can look to. Most vocational mentors come with an innate understanding that mentoring the next generation of leaders is part of their calling. The only challenge with folks like these is making sure that they appreciate and understand the specific form of mentoring that they are called to offer.

We have said that our preferred form of mentor training is organic, using the same contextual development approach that we use with the learners themselves. However, that doesn’t mean that we should not put together some kind of formalized, front-end means of making mentors aware of the expectations to which they will be accountable.

Typically, this kind of training is done through personal one-on-one instruction and guidance when the program is smaller or just getting started. As the program grows and the school gains experience, more sophisticated training can be developed. Schools would be wise to offer this kind of mentor training on the same online platform that they will be using with their learners. Whether using the Pathwright platform that we recommend below or some other tool, getting mentors trained on the same system that they will use with their learners gives them an advantage as they grow to understand what will be expected of them. In our experience, mentor training is best facilitated by others who are engaged in the work of mentoring learners. Often, the training process will include content that describes the educational philosophy, an opportunity to reflect on that content, and then a series of experiences focused on helping new mentors engage in an action-reflection process wherein they work with a learner under the guidance and support of another more experienced mentor. The driving force behind all of the training is a set of outcomes and indicators that describe effective mentors.

The biggest concern is whether mentors can embrace and embody the values of the school’s program and of CBTE in general as well as deepen their understanding of topics like collaborative mission, contextual discipleship, integration of outcomes, customized proficiency, value of teamwork, and holistic assessment.

One of the more surprising aspects of mentor training for CBTE is the challenge of untraining them from the assumptions and presuppositions that they will be bringing with them into the process. Our experience is that even people who come from outside the world of academics have a deeply ingrained sense of wha education or curriculum is supposed to look like. It will take some time and effort to break mentors free from the strongholds of the semester system and the credit-hour currency. Many mentors will be attracted to this brave new world of academic assessment, but they will still struggle not to default back to old ways of operating.

One of those strongholds is the influence of time on the educational process. It takes some persistence to help mentors appreciate that some learners will be able to satisfy some outcomes quickly due to previous, proven competency, while others are going to have to take longer durations of time to show sustained and not temporary proficiency.

The integrative approach is another tough mental nut for mentors to crack. The academic enterprise has been siloed for so long that it is hard for mentors to consider how to effectively combine biblical study, theological understanding, practical capacity, and character development. The best-trained mentors will understand the system and will be able to look for proficiency across all aspects of the outcome.

Speaking with one voice is an essential aspect of the mentor team experience, regardless of the various roles played by members of the mentor team. This will require mentors to learn to be in conversation with each other about their assessment of the learner.

The best mentors will know the program and system so well that they will be able to take advantage of all of the options to the benefit of the learner and ministry context. Mentors need to know the specifics of the program they are serving as it relates to things like dealing with learner failure, the grading approach, assignment customization, and recognition of prior learning and proficiency. They are not going to get all of that right from the start but, as they participate in the mentoring process alongside proven and experienced mentors, they will learn to work the system to the benefit of the learner and their context, like a well-trained musician.

One of the main interests that we need to build into mentors is to help them appreciate the importance of timely portfolio input. Learners prove their development of proficiency through the submission of their materials into their online portfolio. Good mentoring involves timely responses so that the learner is not left hanging, wondering whether the work they have submitted is thoughtful and acceptable. Mentoring needs to be in the moment, taking advantage of learning experiences as they happen. Good mentors will keep up with their learners, informing them if there is a reason they have to step back for a period of time (vacations, for example).

In the end, mentoring is about the relationship between the learner and the guide. When building CBTE programs, it is important to put sufficient effort into preparing those who will oversee learners.

Mentoring can become an intimate relationship. It is difficult to train someone toward trustworthiness and the willingness to be vulnerable. But the same qualities we want to see in our mentors are the qualities we want to develop in our learners. The best way to get there is through time and intention—the essence of mentoring.

To read more, pick up a copy of Theological Education: Principles and Practices of a Competency-Based Approach — out today!

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 was 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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