Mentoring is the best way to learn anything. It’s how we learned to use our computers. It’s how we learned to drive a car. You might remember, like we do, white-knuckling the back roads while your father or mother tried to patiently explain the nuances of operating the family car. It’s not common to think of one’s parents as mentors, but that’s exactly what the good ones do.
It is through mentoring, if we are wise, that we learn how to be parents ourselves, how to be married, and how to be disciples in Christ. We learn these things through patient observation, gentle correction, timely insight, and occasional rebuke. Sure, there are technical pieces we can learn through studying the manual, memorizing patterns, or passing tests, but we will learn better and more profoundly through the guidance, example, and encouragement of an experienced hand who cares enough to show us the ropes.
If this is true of mundane things like cooking and cleaning, it is definitely true of things like ministry leadership. The best way to learn how to lead a ministry is to walk with a ministry leader who has proven leadership capacity and who will be generous enough to share what they have learned for the benefit of others.
Best practice in competency-based theological education is to think more as mentors than as instructors. We need to think of ourselves more as encouragers than as assessors. Our work is more curating and customizing than it is informing and policing. By these means, learners can be led toward proficiency in ways that inspire and compel. When learning is formed in relationship, the lessons stick and the proficiency will last. Mentoring is relational learning, which is always going to be the most profound and effective means of deepening the understanding and capacity that we are looking for. It is always worth the investment it requires.
When we think about our own educational journeys, we remember the people who taught us more than the lectures they offered. We were far more deeply affected by the presence and character of those we sat with than the wisdom of their words. Often the most meaningful encounters occurred in the professor’s office after hours, sitting together in the cafeteria, or in some other life encounter. Some of those people are still in our lives and continue to help us grow into the people they imagine for us.
Mentoring is about providing direction more than it is about providing information. Historically, theological schools have understood their role as providing expert content. Professors are those sages hired to provide wisdom by means of instruction. The lecture has been the gold-standard means of delivery, which is why infrastructure like classes, credits, courses, and semesters have made sense. But this is not the best way to lead a learner to proficiency of an integrated set of outcomes. It might not even be the best way to organize a school. If our schools are focused on the delivery of content, we are fishing in what could be called the “red ocean,” a place of cutthroat competition. Good luck with that.
If we can learn to structure our schools so that we maximize our mentoring, we will be able to shape our offerings around the distinctive wisdom that only wise and experienced hands can bring. Mentors don’t have to compete by showing that they know more or better than anyone else. By emphasizing mentoring, we are able to play to our strengths—the unique aspects of our lives and personalities that will truly set us apart. Mentors swim in the “blue ocean,” a place of wide-open opportunity and possibility.
Not every professor will be good at this. Frankly, some teachers have never learned beyond the raw information of their subject. Some of our professors would have done well to have been mentored by someone trustworthy somewhere along the way. We will do well to choose mentors who get it, and who can show themselves to be effective in guiding their learners rather than simply instructing them.
CBTE allows mentors to imagine themselves as curators. In competency-based systems, mentors are not expected to be the world’s leading expert on every subject. They are trusted, rather, to marshal their experience, their networks, and their critical thinking skills in ways that will be of best use to the particular needs of their learner.
Curation is contextual work. You would not expect to see the same exhibits at the Vancouver Art Gallery that you would find at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. If I am in Amsterdam, I expect to see the work of the Dutch artists. If I am in Vancouver, I expect to see West Coast aboriginal work—not exclusively, of course, but sufficient to reflect the specific interests of the region I am visiting. CBTE mentors curate the best, most useful resources and learning opportunities available to learners in their context, making use of the peculiarities of their place and learning from the specific challenges that their context offers.
The COVID-19 crisis offers an example. A pandemic is a context, and it has been fascinating to help our learners learn from the unique challenges presented by this time of isolation. CBTE mentors make use of what the context gives them, be it a pandemic, a party, or a chance to preach. While the curriculum might offer a “standard set” array of assignments and expectations, mentors know how to take those materials and shape them uniquely for the learner. Perhaps a book should be swapped out for another reading that is going to be more productive for a specific learner. Perhaps a lesson would be better learned by another means. Mentors have the capacity to make those kinds of adjustments.
The best way to mentor is to work in teams. We have built all of our CBTE programs around the concept of multi-person teams, often consisting of a faculty mentor, an on-the-ground practitioner or vocational mentor, and a personal mentor—a third, big-picture person who may represent the broader network, denomination, or grouping that we serve or meet a personal need of the learner. Together, speaking with one voice, these teams work to direct, challenge, assess, and love the learner toward proficiency.
Each teammate brings something essential that none of them could offer entirely on their own. Mentor teams acknowledge that no one person can catch all the issues and bring all of the perspective necessary. Sure, the faculty mentor may focus primarily on academics and the vocational mentor on what the learner is doing in the ministry context, but that does not mean that they are uninterested in other things. Vocational mentors have a lot to offer in academic reflection, and most good academics will have some useful observations about application. By working in teams, we are able to broaden our coverage and lead the learner conversationally in a way that models the kind of relational ministry we would hope they could embody.
This is very different than the old internship model many of us have known. In the conventional approach to “field education,” a faculty member oversees a learner’s contextual engagement under the direction of a pastoral mentor in the field. Typically, that pastor is expected to send reports to the faculty member, who is very much in charge of the final assessment. In the end, it is the professor who gives the grade, even though they probably have had zero opportunity to actually observe the learner’s work in context. The pastoral mentor, who has been there to observe, often “mails it in” (pun intended). The report they send offers marginal investment because she or he has very little stake in the academic grade. Do we need to point out how broken that system is?
By working together as teams, mentors have the ability to ensure a broader range of concern. The vocational mentor, present to the learner on an almost daily basis, is able to ensure that the learner has truly “got it.” This mentor can observe how people respond to the learner’s work and ministry and is available to see the display of the learner’s character.
The faculty mentor is able to see these same things, although with a broader perspective. The faculty mentor can ensure that the learner is exposed to a world of experience beyond the confines of the context. Together, the team can ensure that the learner is fully and holistically prepared.
For this to work, the faculty mentor is going to have to embrace his or her role more as an integrationist than as a specialist. That is, their ability to integrate disciplines, to integrate theory and practice, and to integrate content, character, and craft will become their expertise. Traditionally, faculty increase in prominence by displaying competency as specialists within an academic discipline. In contrast, the CBTE system will value their contribution less for this specialized knowledge and more for their ability to lead learners to an appropriate level of critical thinking. We tell our faculty that we value them more for the fact that they have learned how to achieve specialization than for the content of their specialty. They are useful in the process because they have proven that they know how to think well. The challenge for them will be to help their learners gain the same capacity across the board. As curators of the learning experience, they can call in whatever disciplinary expertise might be needed for the benefit of the learner; they don’t have to bear that expertise themselves. Their expertise lies in knowing how to recognize the needed knowledge and knowing where to find it. Faculty mentors are helping learners foster the ability to discern, develop, and demonstrate proficiency.
Read more when Theological Education is released on March 19, 2024!
 “Red Ocean versus Blue Ocean Strategy,” Blue Ocean, accessed June 13, 2023, https://www.blueoceanstrategy.com/tools/red-ocean-vs-blue-ocean-strategy.
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.