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ACQUIRE THE FIRE! TRANSFIGURING THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION (Part 7)

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Fr Frank Marangos

Source: Oinos Educational Consulting

by Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D., FCEP

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ~ William Butler Yeats

The sole survivor of a storm-battered shipwreck prayed feverishly for rescue from the prison of his uninhabited South Pacific Island. After days of scanning the vacant horizon, the hopeless man eventually built a small driftwood hut for protection from the elements. To make matters worse, one day after scavenging for food, he returned in the evening to find his makeshift shanty in flames.  With smoke rolling up into the, otherwise, cloudless sky, the frustrated survivor raised his fist to God in defiance: “Why did you do this to me?”

At daybreak, the loud blast of a ship-horn turned the castaway’s displeasure into jubilation. In minutes, attentive rescuers were providing him with food, encouragement, and medical attention. “How did you find me?” asked the grateful man. “We saw your smoke signal in the sky,” the medic replied. “You’re very lucky . . . without it, we would have sailed right past your remote location!”

Scripture is replete with stories that illustrate the life-rescuing capacity of adversity wherein misfortune’s disruptive flames often guided the faithful on a journey of growth, discovery, and liberation. While some were left discouraged and bitter, most Biblical personalities overcame the shipwrecks of personal and national difficulties by recognizing that the disruptive flames of their lives had led to life-changing daybreaks. Such discerning men and women sought to acquire, rather than retire, from the fire of adversity.

The previous six parts of the commentary entitled Transfiguring Theological Education have utilized the General Standards of Accreditation (2017)published by the Association of Theological Schools in America (ATS) to help the nation’s theological schools and seminaries identify ways of overcoming the fiscal, administrative, and pedagogical challenges that currently threaten their survival. More specifically, these institutions of theological higher learning have been accused of being “overly theoretical” rather than “practical” in preparing graduates for effective ministry. This essay will, therefore, examine how Competency-Based Education (CBE) may be the disruptive innovation that can afford the nation’s theological schools and seminaries an opportunity to acquire a fresh fire of pedagogical distinction.

According to ATS’s General Standards of Accreditation (2017), “learning in a theological school should foster the capacity to understand and assess one’s tradition and identity and to integrate materials from various theological disciplines.” Instructional engagement, insists the 3rd Standard on Learning, Teaching, and Research should, therefore, be employed to “enhance ministry and cultivate emotional and spiritual maturity.” In addition, ATS emphasizes the need for institutions to “demonstrate ongoing efforts to ensure the quality of learning within the context of its purpose and ecclesial communities.”

The disruptive fires commonly associated with the myriad of technological innovations that currently challenge secular as well as faith-based institutions of higher learning should be embraced rather than shunned. By facing them head-on, creative modes of pedagogical excellence may emerge that can assist schools and students “gain the particular knowledge, appreciation, and openness needed to live and practice ministry effectively in diverse settings” (2ndGeneral Standard on Institutional Integrity). Like Moses, who faithfully obeyed a “fire bush” (Ex. 3:6), and was subsequently, safely guided by a “pillar of fire” across the Sinai Desert (Ex. 13:21), leaders of the nation’s institutions of theological higher education should seek to discern God’s directives that may be emanating from the disruptive fires that appear to threaten their respective institutional routines. Rather than flee or avoid the fiscal, administrative, and pedagogical “intrusions” that challenge status-quo thinking, disruptions should be courageously confronted and, with the power of the Holy Spirit, employed to manifest the replenishing Favor of God (John 9:3).

Before embracing any innovation, however, care should be taken to understand its assumptions and determine if its re-alignments advance an institution’s mission. What, then, is Competency-Based Education (CBE), and does it afford the nation’s schools of higher theological education an opportunity to more effectively serve their students, society and their respective ecclesial constituencies?

The Office of Innovation and Improvement of the US Department of Education, describes Competency-Based Education as a model that “provides flexibility and personalized learning opportunities.” CBE strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others. According to the Office, these types of learning “lead to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. They also lead to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.”

Like the US Department of Education, the Competency-Based Education Network, comprised of representatives from 30 colleges and universities in Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, and Wisconsin, defines CBE as “a pedagogy that combines an intentional and transparent approach to curricular design with an academic model in which the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies, but learning expectations are held constant.”  Accordingly, “students acquire and demonstrate their knowledge and skills by engaging in learning exercises, activities, and experiences, which align to clearly defined program-level outcomes, and do so with proactive guidance and support from faculty members and staff.” Learners earn credentials, asserts the Education Network, “by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace.”

In her article, A ‘Disruptive’ Look at Competency-Based Education: How the Innovative Use of Technology Will Transform the College Experience(2102), Louis Soares further delineates Competency-Based Education (CBE) as an outcomes-based approach to education that emphasizes “what graduates need to know and do to be successful—rather than what may be outlined in a curriculum.” Competencies may, consequently, be understood as attributes deemed essential for a person to be successful in a given occupation. They encompass “the body of knowledge a person should have and be able to draw on, the values they hold and exemplify, and the skills they are able to perform.” In other words, competencies define “who a graduate is, what they know, and what they can do.”

In their 2002 Report, Defining and Assessing Learning: Exploring Competency Based Initiatives, the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative of the National Center on Education Statistics, defines competency-based education as “a combination of skills, abilities and knowledge needed to perform a task in a specific context.” Like Soares, and the Education Network, the Cooperative also stresses the need for CBE programs to “embed assessment in every step of the learning process in order to provide students with guidance and support toward mastery.”

According to the National Cooperative, Competency-Based Education includes four progressive levels of learning: (1) traits and characteristic that depict the innate makeup of individuals upon which further experiences can be built, (2) skills, abilities, and knowledge developed through learning experiences broadly defined to include formal education, work, and participation in community affairs, (3) integrated learning experiences, in which skills, abilities, and knowledge are focused on the performance of a task, and (4) demonstrations and results from the application of competencies. Like Soares, the Cooperative recommends that “assessment be deeply embedded at all stages of any CBE learning process.”

The Degree Qualifications Profile (2011), supported by the Lumina Foundation for Education, relies on the CBE model to provide a framework for illustrating what students should be expected to know and be able to do once they earn their postsecondary degrees. The tool benchmarks specific learning outcomes for associate, bachelor, and/or master degree programs awarded by U.S. colleges and universities regardless of field of specialization. Like the National Cooperative, the Profile proposes specific learning dimensions and competencies that graduates need for work, citizenship, global participation, and life:

  1. Applied Learning: Used by students to demonstrate what they can do with what they know.
  2. Intellectual Skills: Used by students to think critically and analytically about what they learn.
  3. Specialized Knowledge: The knowledge students are required to demonstrate about their individual fields of study.
  4. Broad Knowledge: Encompasses all learning in broad areas through multiple degree levels.
  5. Civic Learning: Enables students to respond to social, environmental, and economic challenges at local, national, and global levels.
 Bridget Burns, executive director for the University Innovation Alliance (http://www.theuia.org), a coalition of eleven public research universities committed to improving graduation rates and sharing best practices in the higher education sector identifies seven current Competency-Based Learning innovations. A review of the following descriptors provides valuable insights for leaders and faculty members of theological schools and seminaries interested in examining potential synergies.
  1. Micro-Credentialing: Building a stack of certificates and micro-credentials that then would enable students to move into the labor market, to move on to further higher education.
  2. Rule of 10: Students should be able to pay for higher education with savings generated from 10 percent of their discretionary income, over 10 years, and working no more than 10 hours a week while attending college.
  3. Technology-Enhanced Immersive Learning: (both on-campus and online), massive-scale learning environments that allow people to learn at scales and in ways that have previously been not possible.
  4. Adaptive Personalized Instruction: As students interact with adaptive technology, the system collects large amounts of data, models those data, and then makes predictions about each student based on their interactions, she explained.
  5. Meta Majors: Broad categories like STEM, business or education that allow students to explore a field before committing to something more specific.
  6. Cyberlearning Ecosystems: 21st-century learning culture for all students across a campus. At the core of that ecosystem is digital content, delivered via university-supplied iPads.
  7. Critical/Problem Solving Thinking Skills: Developing the skills to think and work through problems and not only the mastery of subject-matter material.
According to Clayton M. Christensen, the Kim Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, a “disruptive innovation” is a business theory that considers how technology can change an organization, sector, or industry. Christensen distinguishes between a sustaining innovation and a disruptive innovation. While a sustaining technological innovation “makes it easier to deploy people and processes to better serve existing customers,” disruption occurs “when technology is applied in a way that creates a simpler, more affordable product for a new group of customers who, in most cases, were not buying (or succeeding in) the traditional offering.” According to Christensen, disruptive innovation must include the following four interrelated elements:
  1. Technology Enabler: There must be a technology that transforms a business process that once required deep training, expertise, iteration, and intuition into a rules-based process that can be performed by computer software.
  2. Business Model Change: The new process or solution must be able to fit into a business that can be profitable while delivering customers a more affordable and convenient product or service.
  3. New Value Network: The solution and business must be able to connect with other businesses that offer complementary services and whose revenue models are also complementary.
  4. Standards: Since the technology enabler, business model, and value network create entirely new ways of doing business and organizing resources, disruptive innovation requires a rethinking of industry standards for quality, safety, and interoperability that define how the industry operates and typically support traditional products, services, and financing.

 In her article, Why Online Competency-Based Education is the Disruptive Innovation for Higher Education (2014), Michelle Weise utilizes Christensen’s four interrelated elements of innovation to discuss the disruptive value of CBE for the nation’s colleges and universities. Weise underscores the assessment of the US Office of Innovation and Improvement, by stating that online Competency-Based Education “stands out as the innovation most likely to disrupt higher education . . . and has the potential to bridge the widening gap between traditional postsecondary education and the workforce.” For Weise, it is the “critical convergence of multiple vectors: (1) the right learning model, (2) the right technologies, (3) the right customers, and (4) the right business model,” that makes online CBE a valuable pathway of agility and adaptability to the changing educational marketplace.”

From what has been briefly examined, Competency-Based Education is not a new idea, and more importantly, provides an opportunity to the nation’s theological schools and seminaries. According to the 2016 edition of In-Trust, a quarterly magazine for seminary governing boards and others who bear responsibility for institutions of theological education, “nearly 600 colleges and universities, including public, private nonprofit, and two-year and four-year for-profit institutions, are planning, building, implementing, and scaling competency-based programs, which are offered in fields like business, nursing, engineering, technology, and liberal studies.” Like their secular counterparts, “practical” pedagogical strategies (field education, pastoral training, ministry practicum) have been included in the curricula of theological schools for years. What is new, is the number of institutions of theological higher education that are currently granting degrees and certificates based on robust technology-enabled CBTE competencies rather than a menu of completed semester hours.

Four educational theological paradigms have commonly been identified since the inception of the Church. These include the catechetical, monastic, scholastic, and the seminary models of training.  According to In-Trust, more theological schools and seminaries should consider supplementing their current operating models with Competency-Based Education programs in order to: (1) reach new enrollment markets, (2) incorporate the assessment of previous learning into their curriculum designs, (3) reduce instructional costs through reduction of repetitive content, and standardization and consolidation of content into a few universally applied learning modules, (4) reduce tuition by building programs to scale, (5) more effectively prepare students for the environment in which they will actually minister, and (6) customize degree offerings, based on a modular platform, so that students may enroll in modules needed to help them develop competencies and demonstrate mastery.

In their article, An Integrated Competency-Based Training Model for Theological Training (2011), South African-based educators James Mwangi and Ben de Klerk, briefly critique a list of current innovative models of theological instruction such as internship, practicum, apprenticeship, mastery learning, Bible training on location, and theological education by extension. After identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each, they outline the following nine “starting points” that the authors contend could be used as guidelines for developing a CBE model that more effectively results in “harmonization of theological training with biblical principles and the needs of practical ministry.”

  1. The recovery of the church-in-mission as the ultimate goal and purpose of the theological education.
  2. A call for flexible content and course structure adjusted according to the developing needs of the student and the issues in the church and community.
  3. The call for flexibility must include an integration of the traditional model and alternative models of theological training.
  4. The lecturers are to be viewed as facilitators and models to guide in the learning process.
  5. Need for a strong experiential learning component whereby the student is to be actively involved in church and community ministry.
  6. A call for student evaluation to be based more on demonstrated competence in ministry rather than upon the grade point average (GPA).
  7. A call for eclectic instructional methods. Less emphasis on the transmission mode and more emphasis on discovery, discussion and problem-centered projects.
  8. The need for close, personal relationships between students and faculty.
  9. A call to develop an approach that takes seriously the need for ordered learning among adults within churches.

Mwangi and Klerk propose an Integrated Competency-Based Training Model (ICBT) that offers a creative approach to theological training, designed to aid in the development of the whole person while at the same time advancing the competence of pastors in their ministerial roles. The authors emphasize that the process of theological education should not be considered complete upon graduation. Theological schools and seminaries should therefore continually provide learning opportunities such as self-directed learning, self-responsible learning, self-active learning and lifelong education to graduates, alumni, and the greater community. Whatever CBE innovation is adopted, Mwangi and Klerk caution that it will require residential-based theological schools and seminaries to sanction some radical changes to their existing structures.

In 2011, Northwest Baptist Seminary (NBS) became the first seminary in North America to begin experimenting with Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE). Since NBS’s initial experiment, Competency-Based Masters of Divinity programs are currently offered by three ATS-accredited schools: (1) Northwest Baptist Seminary’s Immerse program, (2) Sioux Falls Seminary’s Kairos program, and (3) Grace College and Seminary’s Deploy program.  Instead of merely attending and passing a list of prescribed classroom objectives, students and mentees are guided by educators, content experts, and field-based mentors to demonstrate mastery of carefully defined competencies according to a set of rubrics. According to NBS, most CBTE programs contain seven core commitments.

  1. Contextual Learning: Developing students for ministry necessitates that students are involved in ministry.
  2. Partnered Investment: Having students immersed in a ministry environment transforms the program from being primarily a service contract between the students and the seminary to being a partnership in developing leaders between the seminary, church, and network.
  3. Team-Based Mentoring: Diverse mentor teams are engaged in order to holistically develop students. Mentor teams often include an academic, network leadership, and practitioner mentor.
  4. Integrated Outcomes: To ensure holistic development, the program is designed with integrated outcomes that aim to develop students in all areas of their life.
  5. Timely Instruction: By the end of a CBTE program, all graduates will have demonstrated achievement of the same set of standardized outcomes. However, the order in which those outcomes are achieved is highly individualized. Under the direction of their mentor teams, students can tailor their learning pathway to the specific needs they face in ministry.
  6. Recognition of Prior Learning: Credits are awarded for demonstrated competency, not completed courses. Students who bring extensive life experience, personal study or ministry service to a program have opportunity for advanced placement.
  7. Rigorous and Adaptive Assessment: The rigor of a CBTE program rests on its ability to effectively assess students. Standardized outcomes and indicators are clearly defined and provided to mentors and students. Mentor teams use these rubrics to evaluate a student’s strengths and prior learning on program entry so they can focus energy on maximizing strengths and shoring up weaknesses. Continual assessment throughout the program ensures that students graduate only when they have demonstrated mastery in each competency, and are fully-equipped to serve their ministry context.
 In 2015, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) launched an Educational Models and Practices Peer Group project that contained a major focus on CBTE. As a result, in 2016 the Association of Theological Schools hosted a New Educational Models and Practices Peer Group Forum in which more than 200 participants from 80 seminaries and theological schools came together to discuss innovative ways to provide theological education. Most recently, in November 2018 Northwest hosted the first International Conference on Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE) in Vancouver, Canada. Apart from focusing on current CBE-based innovations in higher education that may prove valuable for theological schools and seminaries, the Conference provided information for the Final Report (2018) of the Educational Models and Practices Peer Group. According to the Final Report, Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE):
  1. Is grounded in the theological and ecclesiastical values, practices, and competencies required by institutions and organizations that will be served by graduates;
  2. Allows students to progress at their own paces to achieve mastery of identified competencies;
  3. May be based on credit equivalencies or utilize direct assessment; and
  4. Is facilitated by regular and substantive interaction with faculty as well as mentors and others involved in the educational process, including the robust community of learners.
The Educational Models and Practices Peer Group concludes that CBTE “has the potential to revitalize a seminary’s connection with its constituencies, create an educational pathway that is more affordable for students and less expensive to operate, and touch on a felt need within the church.” In order to fully realize this potential, however, the Final Report outlines the following five recommendations:
  1. The School-Network Connection: The need to see theological education as something that flows out of the church and/or context rather than something that simply serves the church or context. A school that implements CBTE must work hand-in-hand with ministry practitioners and local contexts to plan, prepare, and assess education. This creates a need to ensure that church-based mentors fully understand and appreciate the importance of accreditation standards.
  2. Content as Subservient to Outcomes: While content is important and education without content is formless, it cannot be allowed to govern measurements of success. Outcomes become the primary focus of the educational journey and replace content as the orienting purpose of a degree.
  3. Data Pool Expansion: The value of predictive analytics could soar if schools were to pool the data that their learning management systems collect. CBTE has the capability to foster collaboration among theological schools on issues as broad as collective licensing of learning systems, shared faculty development, and assessment practices.
  4. Global Expansion: Many schools have significant foreign enrollment; others have extension campuses off shore. How well CBTE might serve persons from other cultures is undetermined. This deserves further examination.
  5. Educational Effectiveness. The most important “unknown” is how CBTE’s educational effectiveness stacks up against more traditional education models over the long haul. Any attempts to report percentages related to graduation, placement, and long-term success in the field are premature. However, Northwest Baptist Seminary—with the longest CBTE track record of any ATS school—graduated 14 students in 2017, and its retention rate is higher than the norm. Sioux Falls Seminary has graduated six in its CBTE program and has decreased student debt by 67 percent in three years. CBTE enrollment is growing and CBTE programs are earning high marks from relevant constituents. Extensive data collection will confirm the educational effectiveness of CBTE and also will help fine-tune existing programs as well as meet ATS requirements.

The Educational Models and Practices Peer Group concludes that while CBTE is “not a silver bullet that dramatically increases enrollment, decreases costs, and solves all problems related to educating pastors in the twenty-first century,” schools that are willing to consider its potential may “know they need to change . . . but may be unwilling to change.”

Management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “in innovation there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge. But when it is said and done, what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work.” For CBTI to become the innovative pedagogical disruption that proposes to be, the nation’s institutions of theological higher education must, therefore, cultivate a culture of institutional resiliency characterized by “purposeful hard work” whose forces for change are greater in combination than the forces preserving the status quo. In the final analysis, the future of CBTE will rest on the nation’s institutions of theological higher education who have the requisite cultural capacity and leadership to realign their operating models based on its innovative disruptive possibilities.

In her insightful article, The 10 Barriers to Innovation in Higher Education (2017), Melissa Morriss-Olson, Provost of Bay Path University, outlines her research on the impediments to innovation in higher education in America. According to Olson, the top ten barriers to change are: (1) risk avoidance, (2) zero-sum thinking, (3) accreditation, (4) tradition and culture, (5) leadership, (6) internal systems, structures, and decision-making processes, (7) staffing and recruitment processes, (8) faculty governance, (9) organizational silos, and (10) success. Alternatively, Olson contends that that the future is bright for schools who have “the courage to take off the blinders and work hard to achieve a driving and distinguishing vision that differentiates them from peers and competitors.”

In his often-quoted article, Education and Leadership (1976), Jonathan Chao (1938-2004), the leading expert concerning Christian missionary work in China, wrote, “that it is not possible to improve theological education in isolation from its ministerial context. Rather, a complete, integrated approach to the development of indigenous leadership within the overall context of the church and her ministry must be undertaken.” Chao’s four-decade old insight is as timely now as it was the time first time he suggested it. “Any attempt to improve the present form of theological education is not enough,” insists Chao. “What is needed,” he insists, “is not renovation . . . but innovation.”

Context-Based Theological Education provides the nation’s theological schools and seminaries a valuable pedagogical innovation that has the potential to “transfigure” rather than merely “renovate” their current operating models. CBTE has the institutional aptitude to shift resident-based purveyors of accredited theological degrees and certifications to lifelong-learning centers for individuals of all ages and geographic locations in need of learning, cultivating, and continually refining prescribed competencies (skills, knowledge, abilities, and attitudes). In this writer’s opinion, the emergence of Context-Based Theological programs is not a matter of choice but of discernment, timing, and acuity. If adopted with adequate perspicacity, CBTE may, in fact, be one of several fires that can actually transfigure theological education in America.

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