[ditty_news_ticker id="27897"] TRANSFIGURING THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION (10 PART SERIES) - Orthodox Christian Laity



Source: OINOS Educational Consulting

TOWN OR GOWN? (Part 1)

Fr Frank Marangos

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

“The height of the mountain top is measured by the dismal drudgery of the valley, but it is in the valley that we have to live for the glory of God.” ~ Oswald Chambers

America’s theological schools and seminaries are in need of transfiguration. Facing a myriad of significant challenges ranging from financial instability, decreasing enrollment, student debt, and accusations of postmodern irrelevancy, institutions of Christian higher learning are compelled to replace older models of delivery with structures that engage society and support the student of the 21st century. Apart from developing realistic strategic plans that include the implementation of timely financial dashboards, enrollment-retention scorecards, market segmentation research, honest faculty-curriculum reviews, and specialized development-communications protocols, a solid biblical paradigm will be an invaluable safeguard for leaders who seek to prudently guide their schools through this period of educational transition.

The scriptural narrative of Jesus’ epiphanous Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-9; Mark 9: 2-8; Luke 9: 28-36) provides inestimable counsel to contemporary theological schools interested in navigating the difficult challenges before them. Observed in various forms since the 9th century, the message conveyed in the commemoration of Jesus’ mountaintop “illumination,” annually celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches on August 6th, can inspire leaders to creatively transfigure old and sacred traditions of theological education to do new and exciting things.

An icon of the Transfiguration, which reflects a unique theological contribution towards the revitalization of the nation’s theological schools, hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, the main museum of Russian national art. Known as the Theophanes Icon of the Transfiguration, the early 15th century religious painting includes two diminutive, yet highly significant, scenes. Introduced by Theophanes, the Constantinople-born iconographer, these smaller sections guide the icon’s “readers” to ponder the Transfiguration from both the ascent and descent perspectives of Jesus and his three disciples. Unsurprisingly, Theophanes depicts Christ paying more attention to the disciples’ decent than to their upward climb.

The primary message of the Theophanes Icon is clear. To truly honor the Transfigured Christ, one must leave behind the “tabernacles” and “booths” of religious comfort zones and return in service to a suffering humanity. There can be no extended reveling or permanent mountaintop luxuriating . . . no booths, tabernacles, or triumphalist memorials.  While it is understandable that the disciples would be tempted to erect religious booths that would allow them to bask in the presence of their transfigured teacher, whose face and garment “shone white as the light” (Matthew 17:2), Jesus encouraged them to alternatively climb back down the mountain and minister to an “unbelieving and perverse generation” epitomized by the demon-possessed body (tabernacle) of a young boy (Matthew 17:14-21).

Like the three disciples that experienced the Transfigured Glory of Jesus, contemporary seminaries and theological schools have a responsibility to help future religious leaders increase their desire and abilities to transfigure society’s “towns” and to avoid the temptation of reveling in the glory of their speculative “gowns.” They must instill in them the wisdom to understand that the culmination of their theological education is not reaching the “summit” of some perceived luminous mystical knowledge. On the contrary, while foundational to spiritual discernment, the primary goal of their students’ theological education must be the desire to descend in service to others.  The focus should therefore never be on the glory of their “gown” . . . but on the tabernacle of humanity’s “town.”

Town and gown are two distinct hamlets of a university. While “town” refers to the non-academic population, “gown” pertains to an academy’s scholastic community. Coined during the Middle Ages, when students admitted to European universities donned garb similar to that worn by the clergy, the long black robe, hood and graduation cap became the social symbols of the educated. By their distinctive clothing, students were set apart and distinguished from the “un-lettered” citizens of the town.

Since that time, relationships between universities and local communities have been either non-existent or unconstructive. As a result of dissimilar philosophies and strict religious practices, many institutions of higher Christian education in the past literally walled themselves off from their host communities. As a result, local populations often viewed seminaries and colleges as supercilious, complaining about their tax-exempt status, physical encroachment, and arrogant students.

A tragic example of such town-gown acrimony is the Saint Scholastica’s Day Riot which took place in 1355 in Oxford England. According to historical accounts, a number of students drinking at the Swindlestock Tavern complained about the quality of the wine. Responding to the indecorous response of John of Barford, the tavern’s landlord and Mayor of Oxford, a student is alleged to have thrown a quart of beer at him. Before cooler heads could prevail, the bell of the City Church summoned the townsmen to arms. The University retaliated by rousing its students to the fray by ringing the bell of the University Church. During the three-day skirmish that ensued, 63 Oxford students and 30 town citizens were killed.

If the nation’s seminaries and theological schools wish to successfully overcome the challenges that confront them, they must first rededicate themselves to their primary mission of serving the “towns” of humanity. If presidents and trustees of our nation’s faith-based institutions of higher learning honestly desire to honor the Transfigured Lord, they must courageously ring the bells of their respective universities and encourage an engagement of service rather than isolation and/or confrontation with society.

Theological Schools must strive to teach their graduates to engage rather than isolate themselves and their future pastoral appointments from society’s privations. While they should not discount the value of diligently striving to acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to earn a graduate’s gown, leaders of seminaries and theological schools must simultaneously guard against unintentionally promoting the notion that in and of themselves such gowns confer an elite holiness of life. Like His inner circle of disciples, graduates need to understand that the glory of Jesus must be integrated with His incarnational suffering. The 21st Century seminary and theological school must, consequently, follow Jesus where ever He leads, even if they know that the challenges ahead will be painful and difficult.

Recognizing the vital role that education must play in responding to societal issues, the Roman Catholic Pope and Saint, John Paul II, encouraged institutions of higher learning in America to “reengage the culture and communicate effectively the great synthesis of the Christian intellectual tradition that unites both faith and reason” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990). Speaking at the Catholic University of America in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI underscored his predecessor’s sentiments, by insisting that God’s revelation should “motivate each generation of Christian educators to ensure that the power of God’s truth permeates every dimension of the institutions and the communities they serve.” Far from being just a communication of “factual data (informative) the loving truth of the Gospel,” said the Pontiff Emeritus, “should remain creative and life-changing (performative).”

Intent on responding to the challenges facing theological education throughout the world, in 2016 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, hosted 30 theologians, scholars, and teachers from the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia at a Scholars Meeting at the Phanar in Istanbul, Turkey (formerly Constantinople). “Orthodoxy is characterized by a profound sense of continuity with the times and teachings of the Apostolic Church and the Church of the Fathers,” insisted Bartholomew, “but it is also a Church that draws from its rich heritage in order to respond to modern challenges and dilemmas.”

Similar to his Catholic counterparts, the Patriarch exhorted the educational leaders to effectively respond to their role in the public square, where there are so many competing opinions. “Our faith should not be regarded as stagnant or even obsolete,” stated the primus inter pares (first among equals) of the Eastern Orthodox Church. “It must not be conveyed as verbose or perhaps artificial. And it cannot be dismissed as merely cerebral or uninspired. It must be renewed and renewing, reviving and refreshing.” The Patriarch, consequently exhorted the global conclave of educators to “translate the fundamental principles of faith in response to the vital challenges of our time.”

In 2015, seminary presidents were invited (TGC) to discuss what they considered “the greatest challenges” that theological schools and seminaries in North America would face over the next 20 years. Apart from demographic forces, financial constraints, changing delivery models, distance learning, and gender issues, the presidents all agreed with Patriarch Bartholomew’s exhortation that theological schools should “establish strategic community alliances to effectively respond to current cultural and social issues.”

While mission to their respective faith denomination should remain paramount, the presidents additionally agreed with the need to produce graduates who could “actually lead . . . rather than just articulate theological ideas.” Amid cultural, technological, and economic changes, they insisted that theological schools and seminaries have entered a new era of “town-gown” relations for which future religious leaders must be appropriately equipped to “proactively serve society in true partnership.”

Despite the history of “walled universities” and turbulent incidents like the Saint Scholastica’s Day Riot, the last three decades have witnessed the creation of numerous innovative “town-gown” partnerships by American institutions of higher learning. This year, in fact, marks the 30thAnniversary of Campus Compact (https://compact.org/), a national coalition of over 950 college and university presidents that was established to promote community service, civic engagement, and service-learning.

Campus Compact was founded in 1985 by the presidents of Brown, Georgetown, and Stanford Universities. These noted educational leaders shared a common concern about the ongoing health and strength of democracy in the United States and the belief that higher education could be a more effective contributor of more robust support structures for community engagement. As a result, Campus Compact has contributed to and been a beneficiary of a dramatic thawing of town-gown relations.

In recognition of its 30th anniversary (2015-16), the Board of Directors of Campus Compact has invited the presidents of America’s college and university to join in signing a declaration of Commitments for the public purposes of higher education. The declaration includes the following five pledges:

  • Empower students, faculty, staff, and community partners to co-create mutually respectful partnerships in pursuit of a just, equitable, and sustainable future for communities beyond the campus—nearby and around the world.
  • Prepare students for lives of engaged citizenship, with the motivation and capacity to deliberate, act, and lead in pursuit of the public good.
  • Contribute to the health and strength of local communities—economically, socially, environmentally, educationally, and politically.
  • Harness institutional capacities—through research, teaching, partnerships, and institutional practice—to challenge the prevailing social and economic inequalities that threaten the democratic future.
  • Foster an environment that consistently affirms the centrality of the public purposes of higher education by setting high expectations for members of the campus community to contribute to their achievement.

Like Campus Compact, the International Orthodox Theological Association (https://iota-web.org/), a recently formed community of scholars and professionals dedicated to the worldwide exchange of knowledge within the context of the Orthodox Christian tradition, advocates the promotion of “town-gown” relationship. According to the vision statement of IOTA’s Theological Institutions Group, “theological institutions, once “walled off” from society (especially ecclesiastical seminaries), have been for decades open institutions of spiritual and theological growth and questioning. While book learning is still fundamental, engagement with society constitutes a key element of theological education.” Due to the varied challenges confronting the contemporary seminary and theological school, the IOTA’s Institutions Group suggests that the emphasis in these schools and institutes “cannot simply be on preserving the faith, but must include evangelism, apologetics, encountering, engaging with, and challenging the world.”

According to the Clergy Into Action Study: From Seminary to Ministry (2010-13) (http://into-action.net/), a national study of recently ordained clergy, seminaries are “good at forming ministers who have the basic traditional (and expected) skills in preaching, pastoral care, and sacramental ministry,” but not at shaping leaders who can be “agents of transformational change.” Similar to the more secular-focused Commitments of Campus Compact, the recommendations (2015) of the Lilly Endowment–funded Clergy Into Action analysis of theological schools across North America include the need to “develop programs and partnerships that model for students a Christian community of engagement that provide opportunities for deeper leadership development.”

In a 2005 article published in The Innovation Journal(https://www.innovation.cc/volumes-issues/vol10-no2.htm), Lawrence L. Martin, Hayden Smith and Wende Philips survey the literature on university and community partnerships. The authors provide examples of how the Clergy Into Action and the Campus Compact’s town-gown Commitments may be advanced:

  • Service learning, where students volunteer in a community as part of academic credit.
  • Service provision, where faculty and staff conduct long-term service projects in a community.
  • Faculty involvement, where faculty become part of local initiatives in a coordinated way.
  • Student volunteerism, where students volunteer their time but do not receive academic credit.
  • Community in the classroom, where courses seek to enhance community building.
  • Applied research, where faculty and staff use their research skills to address local problems.

Since 1938, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) in America has maintained a list of General Standards for the accreditation of its member institutions. The Standards both define minimal requirements for accreditation and identify qualities associated with good institutional practice. These vitalities articulate the shared understandings and accrued wisdom of the seminary and theological school community in America regarding normative institutional performance.

In 2015, the ATS Commission on Accreditation adopted Standards of Accreditation composed of three complementary parts: (1) General, (2) Educational, and (3) Degree Program Standards. These standards seek to describe excellence in theological education in the context of the different purposes and constituencies of accredited schools. They provide the basis for ongoing institutional and educational improvement as well as descriptions of minimal expectations.

While they may be interpreted in slightly varying ways as a function of each respective school’s structure and educational mission, ATS recommends that Christian institutions of theological higher learning in America adhere to eight General Standards (2015): (1) purpose, planning, and evaluation, (2) identity, (3) curriculum, learning, teaching, and research, (4) library and information resources, (5) faculty, (6) student recruitment, admission, service, and placement, (7) authority and governance, and (8) institutional resources.

The 1st General Standard (2012) by which the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools assess the vitality of member institutions is the school’s reliance on ongoing evaluation. According to the Standard, “theological schools are communities of faith and learning guided by a theological vision.” Honest ongoing evaluation of its mission, leadership, governance, financial resources, administrative structures, and educational programs is the only way that schools can “continue the heritage of theological scholarship, attend to the religious constituencies served, and respond to the global context of religious service and theological education.”

The town-gown thrust of the Association’s initial criterion is expanded in the Commission’s 3rdGeneral Standard that emphasizes the need for theological schools and seminaries to “collaborate and communicate beyond the theological school’s immediate environment to relate it to the wider community of the church, the academy, and the society.” According to ATS, “theological scholarship is enhanced by active engagement with the diversity and global extent of those wider publics, and it requires a consciousness of racial, ethnic, gender, and global diversities.” Consequently, the 3rd General Standard, encourages theological schools to demonstrate “practices of teaching, learning, and research (theological scholarship) that encourage global awareness and responsiveness.”

In his article, Five Principles for Change in Theological Schools” (2017), Frank Yamada, the current executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, indicates that theological education in America is at the crossroads of major shifts both in higher education and in the church. In order to effectively navigate this new world, Yamada recommends that theological schools embrace “a bifocal vision, a sightline that embraces both our legacy and the need for change in our schools.” Yamada offers five principles for advancing such a concomitant vision: (1) conduct a sober assessment, (2) engage the right people in the right positions, (3) change from the margins, not the center, (4) acknowledge that change is difficult, (5) be collaborative.

Yamada’s 3rd principle, namely, the need to advance institutional change “from the margins rather the center,” deserves serious consideration as it is firmly centered on healthy town-gown partnerships advocated by ATS’ General Standards. Traditionally, new programs in most of institutions of higher education, begin at the core with the faculty and the curriculum. Corroborating the research conclusions of the Clergy into Action project, the Commitmentsof the Campus Compact, and Patriarch Bartholomew’s Scholars Conclave, Yamada encourages theological schools to avoid such inclinations by seeking to harness the creative energy for new programs through a synergy between town and gown. In this fashion, Yamada insists, “the creative process would start outward and move inward.”

Except for the most naïve, America’s seminary and theological school leaders all agree that their institutions are experiencing extraordinary challenges that threaten their very survival. The adoption of a solid scriptural paradigm such as the Transfiguration of Jesus may help navigate the numerous complications that are often associated with these difficulties. Only in this way can our nation’s academies of theological inquiry avoid the temptations of denominational elitism and/or institutional sequestration.

Pope Benedict XVI once wrote “no one lives on Mt. Tabor while on earth. We must not remain in isolation from the world and its contradictions, as Peter would have wanted on Mount Tabor” exhorted the Pontiff. “Rather, the Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from Him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love.”

America’s theological schools and seminaries are in need of adopting such a paradigm of transfiguration. Mountaintops are indeed valuable, but they do not provide a suitable environment for expansion.  On the contrary, summits are frequently covered with hard clay, rock, and low creeping vines. As one climbs higher, the air becomes thin and the plants scarce. To experience robust growth, one has to climb down into the valleys where there is an abundance of water, sunshine, and lush rich colors.

This then, is the primary mission of America’s seminaries and theological schools – to engage the world through the transfiguring grace of Jesus Christ. To do so, however, leaders of these institutions of Christian learning must, like Peter, James, and John, faithfully respond to the invitation of God to climb down off their respective educational peaks and serve the town rather than build tabernacles in honor of their gown.

(This and several upcoming issues of Frankly Speaking will discuss how the eight General Standards of the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools can be used to revitalize theological education in America.)


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

“Let the seven holy youths, equal in number to the pillars of the wisdom of God, be praised, for with their words they crushed the ungodly teaching of the tyrants as with stones.”  – Feast of Seven Youths of Ephesus

The wisdom of God is sleeping in many of our nation’s seminaries and theological schools. While economic volatility, global aggression, terrorism, utilitarianism, and relational dysfunction grips contemporary society, the priceless insights of Christian spirituality are often missing from the marketplace of ideas. All that is required to invigorate the spiritual malaise are mature religious leaders, imbued with the “wisdom from above” (James 3:17), who are able and willing to courageously steward God’s elegant Truths in their respective contexts.

Part Two of Transfiguring Theological Educationwill examine the first General Standard of the Commission on Accreditation of the Association of Theological Schools, namely, Purpose, Planning and Evaluation. In particular, this essay will discuss how the process of institutional evaluation can be employed by educational leaders who, undaunted by fiscal, administrative, and pedagogical challenges, are also interested in discerning effective ways to “wake” the quiescent wisdom slumbering in the suppositional repositories of their institutions of higher theological education.

On August 4th, two days before the liturgical commemoration of our Lord’s Holy Transfiguration, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches celebrate the memory of the Seven Youths of Ephesus, a legendary group of young persecuted Christians who were sealed inside a cave in Asia Minor in the third century A.D. emerging years later following a miraculous slumber.  According to Christian accounts, in order to escape the persecution of Emperor Decius (249-251), seven young soldiers or “Sleepers,” as they are referred to in Islamic tradition, hid themselves in a cave near Ephesus.  Learning where the men were hiding, the emperor ordered the entrance of the hollow secured with heavy boulders.

Nearly two centuries later (184 years), construction workers unsealed the grotto’s opening and discovered the un-decayed bodies of the sleeping soldiers. Once awakened, the spiritual witness of these young companions confirmed the doctrine of the resurrection which was, at the time, being assailed by heretics. An Orthodox Christian hymn sung during the commemoration of the event describes the Seven Youths as “equal in number to the pillars of God’s Wisdom.”  By “their words,” the Canticle exhorts, the youths should be praised “for crushing the ungodly teaching of the tyrants as with stones.”

What are the “seven pillars of Wisdom” that sleep in many of our nation’s seminaries and theological schools? And, what are the barriers that prevent this deposit from effectively reaching contemporary contexts? While the “boulders” of financial, administrative, and andragogical challenges are passionately debated, school leaders should also resolve the preeminent ways of advancing the mission of their indispensable enterprise, namely, the formation of religious leaders that posses the intellectual precision and exhibit the wisdom-based vitalities required to transfigure society. In order to do so, however, theological schools and seminaries must evaluate if their foundational capacities are firmly established on Wisdom’s sure footings.

As communities of faith and learning, guided by a theological vision, theological schools are encouraged by the Commission on Accreditation for the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) “to conduct ongoing institutional planning and evaluation of outcomes to assure faithful implementation of the school’s purpose, priorities, and denominational and theological commitments.”  According to ATS, the overarching goal of its member schools “is the development of theological understanding, that is, aptitude for theological reflection and wisdom pertaining to a responsible life in faith.”

Effective theological schools are, therefore, distinguished for fostering a culture that encourages ongoing evaluation of their denominational commitments and theological aptitudes of reflection, understanding, and wisdom. Only by honestly assessing these vitalities can educational institutions reliably determine if, in fact, the propensity for wisdom is effectively being formed in their graduates. A such, ATS recommends comprehensive evaluation as the primary method that an institution of theological higher learning can use to determine the extent to which it is achieving its primary purpose, priorities, and goals.

In their book, Educational Assessment of Students(2018), Anthony Nitko and Susan Brookhart define institutional school assessment as “a process for obtaining information that is used for making decisions about students, curricula, programs, and educational policy.” Since excellent schools make decisions that are informed by constant and consistent assessment, Nitko and Brookhart encourage educational leaders and teachers to evaluate student results and design classroom assessment activities that provide the information necessary to make best decisions for their institutions.

The Standards of Accreditation, published by the Association of Theological Schools, adhere to Nitko and Brookhart’s definition by both outlining the minimal requirements for accreditation and identify qualities associated with good institutional practice. According to ATS, evaluation includes: (1) the identification of desired goals or outcomes for an educational program, or institutional service, or personnel performance, (2) a system of gathering quantitative or qualitative information related to the desired goals, (3) the assessment of the performance of the program, service, or person based on this information, and (4) the establishment of revised goals or activities based on the assessment.

According to first General Standard, “the scope of institutional evaluation includes, (1) the ability to fulfill the school’s mission, (2) the ability to provide the resources necessary to sustain and improve the school, and (3) the ability of governance and administrative structures, personnel, and procedures to exercise leadership adequately on behalf of the school’s purpose and to operate the school with integrity.” Unfortunately, the approach to theological education by the nation’s theological schools and seminaries is too often overly conceptual, cognitive, individualistic, competitive, and isolated from the Church and the local communities they were originally intended to serve. Studies have identified widespread tendencies of division between theory, practice and various theological disciplines.  As a result, while impersonal intellectual precision may exist, the aptitude of pastoral wisdom sleeps.

If institutions of Christian theological education are interested in adhering to ATS’s overarching goal of forming graduates with “an aptitude for theological reflection and wisdom pertaining to a responsible life in faith,” a viable solution might include identifying “the wisdom from above” as the primary criteria for their respective institutional self-study and evaluations (James 3.15).  In so doing, they will be able to more effectively develop and advance strategies that nurture an institutional “ethos” capable of integrating both contemplative and practical wisdom. Integration is not an attempt to maintain a balance between the academic, the spiritual, and the practical, as though things were done one at a time. Integration means bringing these aspects together into a whole and doing them at the same time. Rather than separating the disciplines of worship, academics, training, and experience, a wisdom-based praxis of formation could integrate them all. But, what exactly are the qualities of a wisdom-based praxis of formation?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “wisdom” as “understanding of what is true, right, or lasting; common sense; good judgment; learning.” The word that is used for “wisdom” in both the Old and New Testaments carries with it the meaning of having a “skill in living, following God’s design and avoiding moral pitfalls.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary defines wisdom as “being skilled in godly living.”

Wisdom is a powerful quality and a theme occurring 41 times in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. “Wisdom,” insists King Solomon, “is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Proverbs 8:11). Emphasizing that the pursuit of wisdom is not simply speculative but involves the entire human person (mind, body and soul), Solomon, suggests that “Wisdom’s house is built on seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1). The Old Testament King’s proverbial description is much more than a personification of God nature. On the contrary, subsequent biblical writers suggest that Solomon’s “seven pillars” refer to a list of spiritual vitalities, generally classified as (1) truth, (2) knowledge, (3) reverence, (4) counsel, (5) prudence, (6) justice, and (7) virtue.

Apart from Solomon’s seven “pillars” (Proverbs 7-8), an equal number of wisdom qualities are notably described by the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 11), the Apostle James (James 3:17), and Saint Peter (2 Peter 1:5-9) who seem to suggest that there are quantifiable components to the virtues that comprise wisdom-based praxis of spiritual formation. A purposeful order and relationship is evident in each catalogue of the qualities listed below.

The Epistle of James the Apostle is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” who suffer “manifold trials” in their pilgrimage to “the kingdom of God” (James 1:1-5). As the prophet Isaiah warns, “those who are wise in their own eyes” (Isa. 5:21), James urges the faithful to alternatively pursue a higher wisdom . . . the wisdom that comes from God. For this reason, the Apostle suggests that all are in need of “heavenly wisdom” that unfolds in two forms: (1) contemplative and (2) practical (James 3:15-17).

Contemporary theological schools and seminaries would be well served to understand how to distinguish and integrate the transformative formation of both aspects of wisdom in the hearts, minds, and bodies of their students. Saint James describes contemplative wisdom as the spiritual capacity for discerning the right course of action between the inauguration and consummation of God’s eternal kingdom. The development of wisdom is a life-long process that edifies the faithful how to integrate inner mystical experiences with natural world contexts. Practical wisdom, on the other hand, is the social architecture for community formation. Accordingly, the Church should be noted as expressing the “meekness of wisdom” in patterns of speech and action that are “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere” (James 3.1-4.12).

The integration of contemplative and practical wisdom entails the exercise of various forms of Christian ministry. For the Apostle James, these include teaching (James 3.1), singing songs of praise (James 5.13), prayers for forgiveness and healing among the elders (James 5.13-15), the mutual confession of sins (James 5.16), and the restoration of sinners (James 5.19-20). In so doing, practical wisdom realizes the same end as contemplative wisdom, namely, the development of the individual and community into the image and likeness of God.

Apart from the Scriptural heritage, numerous patristic writings provide valuable insights to an understanding of the qualities of wisdom-based spiritual formation. An early prayer of Saint Augustine, a 4th Christian theologian and Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity, reflects this realization that humans follow a similar path of spiritual maturity that begins in darkness and moves toward wisdom.  He explains, that “when we turn away from the changeless light of Wisdom, life is full of folly and wretchedness.”

Life’s fulfillment, Augustine insists, “consists in its turning to the changeless light of Wisdom.” As an early Christian hierarch, Augustine’s priority was ministry. His writings, therefore, are a direct result of his pastoral provision. Augustine, consequently, directs pastoral leaders to pursue wisdom through a seven-step praxis of formation: (1) fear; (2) piety, (3) knowledge, (4) resolution, (5) counsel, (6) purification of heart, and (7) wisdom. The process is cyclical and life-long. While each stage of Wisdom’s formation builds on the previous, the seventh quality leads back to the first.

The spiritual formation of theological students has been a major theme of discussion for theological educators in many parts of the world for many decades. For example, a 1989 World Council of Churches (WCC) publication defines spiritual formation as “the intentional processes by which the marks of an authentic Christian spirituality are formed and integrated . . . always God-centered and earth-based.” The Standards of the Association for Christian Theological Education in Africa ACTE include a similar recommendation. According to the ACTE, seminary and theological school educators must take “an active part in the life and worship of the institution, and a visible personal interest in the students and their welfare.” As such, their educational plans “must embrace a concern for the students’ spiritual as well as academic development.”

Like the WCC and ACTE, the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) exhorts theological schools and seminaries to “balance academic and nonacademic concerns.” Theological education, recommends the ICETE, should “combine spiritual and practical with academic objectives in one holistic integrated educational approach . . . to attend to the growth and equipping of the whole man of God by deliberately fostering the spiritual formation of the student.”

Recognizing the heavy emphasis on cognitive learning and answering the anti-intellectual suspicion toward the contemporary theological academy, the Association of Theological Schools has emphasized the need for member schools to advance strategies of personal and spiritual formation. In 2017, the ATS Educational Models and Practices in Theological Education project hosted a peer group forum in of more than 200 theological educators from 110 schools. Student “formation” for religious leadership was among the ten important issues addressed. The peer group agreed that together with intellectual and ministerial learning, more attention should be given to the personal and spiritual formation of students.

Sensitive to the contemporary critique of theological education, ATS sponsored the Readiness for Ministry Project (RfM) for the purpose of developing criteria for evaluating ministry preparation. Profiles of Ministry (PoM), was additionally added by ATS to help schools of theological learning evaluate not only the skills and competencies required for the beginning cleric, but also qualities of formation.

In a feature article published in their online periodical, Insights into Religion, ATS outlines 10 essential skills that will be required of the next generation of religious leaders in America. While some skills are time-tested, such as listening and collaborating, tomorrow’s religious leaders will also need to be entrepreneurial and communicate in new ways. The following table compares the PoM taxonomy of formation characteristics with the Association’s proposed list of 10 essential skills that future religious leaders will need to exhibit.

A careful review of the aforementioned list of readiness competencies reveals striking similarities with the scriptural/patristic audit of Wisdom’s seven pillars. Apart from the implementation of timely financial dashboards, enrollment/retention scorecards, market segmentation research, honest faculty/curriculum reviews, and specialized development/communications protocols, theological schools and seminaries would be wise to respectively include the vitalities of Wisdom in their institutional evaluations. Only in this way will educational leaders determine if their graduates are adequately “awake” to engage a postmodern society.

In his first medical best-seller, Awakenings (1990), author Oliver Sacks, dramatizes the remarkable “awakening” of Leonard Lowe, virtually a lifelong victim of a baffling 1920’s Encephalitis sleeping disease, later understood as a form of Parkinsonianism. In a semi-catatonic state since the age of eleven, Leonard is awakened by Doctor Malcolm Sayer, a young neurologist who refuses to accept the status quo of his now 41-year old patient and successfully treats him with L-dopa, an experimental drug-therapy.

While “awake,” Leonard has a lot to say to the “healthy,” especially on the topic of cherishing the ordinary life that most merely assume as normal and inevitable.  “I feel saved,” Leonard remarks, “resurrected, re-born.  I feel a sense of health amounting to Grace . . . I have been hungry and yearning all my life . . . and now I am full.  Appeased.  Satisfied.  I want nothing more.”

One can only imagine the emotions that the Seven Youths of Ephesus experienced when, like Leonard, they discovered that they had been asleep for a long time. Unlike the hospital patient, however, the nearly 200-year awakening of the seven young companions from a cave of resurrection gave them the opportunity to help an entire society, wandering around in their own kind of stupor, adjust their thinking, more fully engage life, and enjoy words of wisdom that can satisfy their spiritual hunger!

“Wisdom from above” has the intrinsic power to transfigure theological learners and the society into which they will one day be sent to serve. More importantly, it has the vitality to transfigure the very educational institutions that seek to nurture its formation in the hearts and minds of its students. The campus of a seminary or theological school can either be a cave or a castle . . . a tomb or a womb.  A cave is customarily a place of darkness. A lonely place. A confining place. A dead place. And yet, because of our Lord’s Resurrection, the cave of theological inquiry and formation can provide a new anointing, a new vision, and a new sense of purpose . . . a holy place of transformation and rebirth!

The writer of Ecclesiastes is correct, “wisdom makes one wise and more powerful than ten rulers in a city” (Ecclesiastes 7:19). I can think of no greater evidence of spiritual awakenings, than to learn that the graduates of our nation’s seminary and theological school can so influence our current age.


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

“Because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, many Jews read the inscription on his cross. It was written in Hebrew, Roman, and Greek.”
John 19:20

Schools of theological education rest at the crossroads of society. Like the raised “bema” of the ancient Greek philosophers and the “platform step” of the Jewish synagogue (Neh. 8:4), the educational pulpit of the nation’s institutions of theological higher learning were originally established to engage the intersection of church, culture, and commerce. To continue to effectively do so, however, contemporary theological schools and seminaries must overcome a myriad of challenges in order to advance their mission of fastidiously forming skilled Christian communicators.For centuries, central destinations have claimed the cosmopolitan sobriquet of “crossroad of the world.” Whether self-adorned or awarded by historians, harbors, palaces, and religious landmarks all alleged the coveted moniker. A dispassionate assessment, however, leads one to identify Golgotha, the hill-top location of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, as the most influential of historical cloverleafs.

During His lifetime, Jesus used a variety of cultural pulpits from which to communicate His message. He employed Peter’s boat, Jacob’s well, Jerusalem streets, Bethesda porticos, and Galilean hills. The most majestic pulpit of all, however, was the crossbeams upon which the blood-stained missive of His Passion was inscribed in Hebrew, Roman, and Greek – the languages of the three major cultural groups of that era (John 19:20).

The Cross is then the pulpit, the “bema,” of the New Testament. It is the towering dais from which the primary dispatch of God’s love and forgiveness is eternally transmitted on outstretched arms. As one of its primary interlocuteurs, theological schools and seminaries must, therefore, not allow current challenges to sideline their institutions from effectively advancing their primary mission, namely, the communication of God’s truths from the crossroads of society.

According to the 3rd General Standard of Accreditation of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), “communication should extend beyond a theological school’s immediate environment to relate it to the wider community of the church, the academy, and the society.”  Apart from its classroom and chapel, a theological school’s institutional culture has a major impact on the educational experience of their students. Consequently, apart from being a distinctive characteristic of its graduates, communication should also be considered a vital expression of a theological school’s institutional culture.

If contemporary religious schools of higher learning are interested in adhering to ATS’s 3rd general Standard, they must, therefore, evaluate the degree to which their (1) institutional communications are theologically-based, and (2) educational delivery systems form graduates who are skilled and competent communicators.

Theology of Communications

The American nation needs religious leaders with the knowledge, skills, and sensitivities to engage and effectively challenge its secular post-Christian culture. If theological schools and seminaries desire to effectively develop such competent religious leaders, their academy’s communications should faithfully emulate the elements of a sound pastoral theology. Fortunately, the 52-year repository of Papal Messages, prepared for the Catholic Church’s annual celebration of World Communications Day, as well as official Patriarchal statements of the Greek Orthodox Church, provide valuable material for the development of such a substantive framework.

World Communications Day was established by Pope Paul VI in 1967 as an annual celebration to reflect and discuss the opportunities and challenges of social communications. The celebration was created in response to the 2nd Vatican Council (1962–65), whose opening statement on The Church in the Modern World, exhorted the Catholic Church in particular to resist the escapist urge and more fully engage contemporary culture.

Since the inception of World Communication Day, Papal successors have employed Christian theological principles to consistently examine the opportunities and threats that communication technologies afford the enriching of human lives “with the values of truth, beauty and goodness.” In his first of twelve World Communications Day messages (1967-1978), Pope Paul referred to communications as a “noble service.” The Pontiff exhorted the Church to, therefore, “make her own contribution to the orderly development of the world of social communications: a contribution of inspiration, encouragement, exhortation, guidance and cooperation.”

During his tenure on the Vatican Throne, John Paul II, subsequently described communications as “a platform of exchange and dialogue (1987),” and “the first Areopagus of the modern age, unifying humanity and turning it into what is known as a global village (2002).” Unlike his predecessors, however, Pope John Benedict XVI focused his missives on communication’s more dangerous features that actually “place humanity at a crossroads (2008).” On the occasion of the 42nd celebration of World Communications Day, Benedict, therefore, suggested the creation of “info-ethics” that, like bioethics, would help “guard against communication’s negative influences.” Only in this fashion, the Pontiff claimed, could the “authentic witnesses to the truth realize the highest vocation of social communication,” namely “seeking and presenting the truth about humanity.”

For discussion of communications issues and recommendations that are relevant to every level of pastoral ministry, see Pastoral Instruction on Social Communications (Aetatis Nova, 1992).

Like his immediate forerunner, Pope Francis warned that the world of communications “can either help to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings” (2014). Although Francis referred to communications as a “gift from God,” the current global leader of the Catholic Church also urged that the “power of the digital environment” be employed through expressions of “neighborliness.” In order to do so, the Pontiff’s recommends that leaders employ “the image of the Good Samaritan who tended to the wounds of the injured man by pouring oil and wine as their inspiration.  “Let our communication,” Francis exhorts, “be a balm that relieves pain, and a fine wine which gladdens hearts” (2014).Communications, according to Francis, has the power “to build bridges, to enable encounter and inclusion, and thus to enrich society.” “The digital world is a public square,” he suggests, “an agora . . . a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks.” Finally on the Jubilee celebration of World Communications Day (2016), Francis invites “all people of good will to rediscover the power of mercy” and through “communication and reconciliation, heal ancient wounds, lingering resentments, wounded relationships and restore peace and harmony to families and communities.”

Included in his subsequent pastoral encyclical, The Gift of Priestly Formation (2016), Francis encourages religious leaders to “boldly become citizens of the digital world . . . concerned for and present in the world of communication, in order to dialogue with people today and to help them encounter Christ.  The revolution taking place in communications media and in information technologies,” insists the Pontiff, “represents a great and thrilling challenge” that the Church should respond to “with fresh energy and imagination as we seek to share with others the beauty of God.”

The Greek Orthodox Church has often joined Roman Catholic leaders in describing the positive and negative aspects of communication technologies. In a joint 2006 statement with Pope John Paul II, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, underscored the Church’s responsibility to appropriate social media because “communication and the Gospel go hand-in-hand.”  As “our common vision is that the world we inhabit must be based on Christian values, where government, civil society and religion are partners and not rivals,” the Patriarch and Pope pledged their united efforts to “harness the power of technology, especially the Internet, to spread Christ’s message to all peoples (2006).”

During the 2015 KAICIID Athens Conference onReligion, Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East, Bartholomew issued a personal warning. While the “ever-growing dominance of social media is bringing religion back into the daily lives of people,” he insisted, it is simultaneously “challenging religions to revise notions of communication.”

In his 2018 Vatican address, A Common Christian Agenda for the Common Good, Patriarch Bartholomew enlarged his warning by stating that due to the “rapid progression of science and technology . . . technology is no longer man’s servant, but instead is his primary driving force, which requires complete obedience, as well as imposes its own principles on all aspects of life.”  While many “worship technology and its highest symbol—the computer—as our god, expecting to receive all our benefits, joy, communication, progress, information, jobs, etc, from it,” Bartholomew warned that “science is a great power, but it is not almighty.”

Most recently, the 2nd International Conference onDigital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care took place on June 17-20 in Kolympari, Crete under the aegis of His All-Holiness Bartholomew.   Apart from the negative aspects threatening the human person, the need for proper preparation, spiritual provision and pastoral responsibility by Church leaders was discussed. Like Pope Benedict’s exhortation for the development of “info-ethics,” the Conference recommended the creation of a “framework of education which would help promote discernment and the healthy and genuinely productive use of digital media.”

A review of the aforementioned Papal/Patriarchal Church documents provides a number of vital theological keystones of a robust theology of Christian communications, whose foundational structure begins with the gift of the Triune God’s Self-Communication.  By means of His self-revelation as the “Living Word” (Hebrews 4:12), God disclosed His communicative identity. The foundational assumption of Scripture is not simply that God exists, but that he has communicated through the prophets and apostles, and most decisively through the personal revelation of his incarnate Son. As a result of its encounter with Jesus Christ, humanity recognizes its respective identity as a community of communicating persons, communication with one another and with the Triune God. For most Christians, this encounter is most personally fulfilled in the Eucharistic Presence.

The words “community,” “communion,” and “communicate” are derived from the same New Testament Greek word “koinonia” (Galatian 6:6). Since community without communication is a contradiction, early Christians developed and maintained strong links between their geographically separate communities. In so doing, they displayed the theological understanding that love, peace, and unity require constant and authentic communication.

The practical applications of such a theology of communication are numerous and rich. Theological schools and seminaries will certainly maximize their fundraising efforts if they execute a theologically-based communications strategy that emphasizes mission and includes a coherent inspirational narrative.  Unfortunately, many institutions of religious higher education do not take the time to communicate such a consistent message. Sloppy and inauthentic messaging will disenchant major donors and constrain an institution’s overall ability to raise adequate funds. Failure to appropriately align the theological school’s primary narrative with the school’s communications efforts will severely damage an institution’s brand, its fundraising efforts, future enrollment, and its overall survival.

As all fundraising efforts must be done in the context of how a theological school or seminary has decided to engage and present itself to the public, development communications strategies should always be consistent, present clear and honest depictions of strategic aspirations and start with the institution’s overall communications plan. Failure to appropriately align the theological school’s primary narrative with the school’s development efforts will only result in severe damage to the institution’s brand, its fundraising efforts, future enrollment, and its overall survival.

Apart from enhancing institutional fundraising and the formation of effective religious leaders, theologically-based communications, formulated and advanced in an interdisciplinary manner, will assist schools of theological education to more effectively dialogue with the mediated cultures of the world today. Such an institutional culture of communication will enrich the technological use of media by guarding it within moral and ethical parameters. In so doing, the nation’s theological schools and seminars will be given the opportunity to (1) communicate a message of healing, reconciliation, and mutual respect, and (2) simultaneously advance their educational mission in a more consequential fashion.

Theological schools and seminaries would be well served to audit their existing institutional culture of communication in order to determine the degree to which they align with the theological principles outlined in the Orthodox Church’s Patriarch exhortations and the Vatican’s exhaustive repository of World Communications Day Messages.

Student Communications Competencies

If the nations theological schools and seminaries desire to remain at society’s crossroads, they must develop religious leaders who are relevant and proficient communicators. Apart from nurturing a theologically-based institutional culture of communications, they must also strive to effectively form graduates who are sincere, enthusiastic, refrain from over-talking, and have the genuine desire to be relevant and to fairly hear the opinion of others. If unable or unwilling to provide such education and training, religious institutions of higher learning will continue to be nudged to the sideline of irrelevancy. In fact, the graduation of sloppy, inarticulate, and inattentive communicators will only lead to decreasing enrollment, debt, and, finally, more school closures.

Research conducted by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) has unfortunately concluded that seminary and theological school degree programs do not devote sufficient time in their curriculum to the development of effective communicators.  Unfortunately, many member schools require students to complete only one preaching course.  As a result, ATS has concluded that too many graduates are poor writers, uninspiring speakers, have only the basic skills of teaching, and uncomfortable with using a variety of social media technologies.

In his book, Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church (2015), Alan Roxburgh, corroborates the ATS assessment and highlights the poor job that seminaries and theological schools are doing in preparing future religious leaders. “There is a disconnect between the kind of leader seminaries are producing,” he observes, “and the growing sense of the kinds of leaders now needed.” Consequently, there is a “heightening of anxiety across church systems,” claims Roxburgh, “that what seminaries are producing is simply out of step with what is needed.”

In his chapter, Insights from Communication, Network, and Change Theories, Roxburgh, discusses the implications of communications theory, the networking of global cultures, and the information age on church structures. According to the author, theological schools must do a better job at forming graduates with the skills and capacities required to negotiate such radical, discontinuous, and adaptive change. But what competencies will future religious leaders need to effectively transmit Christianity’s core narratives?

The Forbes Communications Council identifies seven major trends that will affect future society: (1) artificial intelligence and process augmentation, (2) improved storytelling, (3) content creators, (4) AI-powered devices, (5) video communications, (6) trust in companies over data use, and (7) digital innovation leading to increased authenticity. According to the American Management Association (AMA), in order to effectively deal with these trends, 21st-century leaders will need to have the following competencies: (1) critical thinking, (2) creativity, (3) collaboration, and (4) communication.

Like Forbes and AMA, the Alban Institute of Duke Divinity School recommends that in order to effectively deal with the fast-paced, constantly changing world, the effective 21st-century religious leader will need to develop the following twelve competencies, of which ten are based on the ability to effectively communicate.

  1. The ability to maintain personal, professional, and spiritual balance.
  2. The ability to guide a transformational faith experience (conversion).
  3. The ability to motivate and develop a congregation to reclaim their role in reaching new believers.
  4. The ability to develop and communicate a compelling vision.
  5. The ability to interpret and lead change.
  6. The ability to promote and lead spiritual formation for church members.
  7. The ability to provide leadership for high-quality, relevant worship experiences.
  8. The ability to identify, develop, and support lay leaders.
  9. The ability to build, inspire, and lead a team of both staff and volunteers.
  10. The ability to manage conflict.
  11. The ability to navigate successfully the world of technology.
  12. The ability to be a lifelong learner.

Whether bringing together different points of view, managing conflict, leading change, and relaying information without losing clarity or focus, religious leaders will need to develop self-awareness and listening techniques, speaking and presentation skills, organized, logical and persuasive writing, conflict management, and meaningful messaging skills.Transition-into-Ministry (TiM) is a Lilly Endowment program that provides leadership development resources for pastors during their first two years of ministry. Like Lovett, TiM’s Clergy into Action Study, has concluded that communication skills “are absolutely vital” to the effective leadership of religious and other non-profit volunteer organizations and communities. According to the study, “the loftiest theological ideals, the best ministry aims, the clearest decisions and goals, the most innovative or adaptive approaches for discipleship, ministry, and mission will all come to nothing if they are not clearly and effectively communicated.”

While recent theological school graduates show an appreciation for the need to use a multi-leveled approach to communication, results published in a study entitled, Toward a Higher Quality of Christian Ministry: A Study of Church Leadership (2004), indicate that most theological school curriculums lack an emphasis on developing communication capacities. The study supports Lovett, TiM and Alban Institute research data, indicating that as a result of poor formation, theological school graduates have a difficulty dealing with future leadership difficulties.  Lacking appropriate communication skills, graduates admit frustration when faced with “financial disarray, conflict and latent hostility, organizational malaise, absence of evangelism, detachment from surrounding neighborhoods and communities, deteriorating buildings, weak lay support of ministries.”

Apart from research studies, management reports, and consulting company advice, Pope Benedict’s 2010 World Communications Day message, The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word, provides a number of valuable observations.  Coinciding with the Catholic Church’s celebration of the 2010 Year for Priests, Benedict’s document focuses on what he calls, “the important and sensitive pastoral area of digital communications, in which priests can discover new possibilities for carrying out their ministry to and for the Word of God.”

According to Benedict, the Church “is called to exercise a “diaconia of culture” on today’s “digital continent.” The Pontiff insists that this aim can “best be achieved if they (leaders) learn, from the time of their formation, how to use these technologies in a competent and appropriate way, shaped by sound theological insights and reflecting a strong priestly spirituality grounded in constant dialogue with the Lord.” The nation’s theological schools and seminaries would do well to consider his amplifications when considering the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they would like to impart to their students.

The Elevation of the Holy Cross (also known as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) is one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Annually celebrated on the 14th day of September, the religious festival commemorates the discovery of the actual Cross upon which Jesus was crucified. According to historical accounts, the invaluable religious artifact was unearthed by Saint Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, on September 14, 325 AD. in the vicinity of Golgotha, where it lay buried and undetected for centuries.The Catholic Church commemorates the universal significance of the discovery of the Holy Cross by picturing it with a world globe. The Orthodox Church, conversely provides a more elaborate liturgical expression. According to Christian tradition, along with the nails and the inscription of Jesus’ crucifixion written in Hebrew, Greek and Roman, a total of three crosses were excavated by the beloved Empress of the Roman-Byzantine empire. In order to determine which was the authentic cross of Christ, the body of a dead man was placed on all three. When the dead corpse came into contact with the true Cross, it was immediately restored to life. In response to the miracle, the Holy Cross was lifted high in the four directions of the empire for all its citizens to see and venerate. This ancient liturgical rubric is still enacted during current Orthodox Church celebrations of the Elevation of the Holy Cross.

Contemporary theological schools and seminaries must advance beyond a pragmatic view of communication and embrace a theologically-based framework that, like the Feast of the Holy Cross, elevates the primary message of Christianity on high for all to appreciate. Communication is not just an instrument, technique, or technology, but constitutes the most vital of human activities. Used properly, it can resuscitate a culture ailing from the deleterious consequences of virtualization, privatization, and trans-humanization. Such an understanding is, indeed, a valuable gift – a salve – that theological schools and seminaries can offer contemporary society. It is an important shift in thinking from a predominantly instrumental to an integral approach to communication, whereby communication is the defining factor in the creation of culture and construction of meanings.

The nation’s theological schools and seminaries belong at the crossroads of three domains of church, commerce, and culture. In order for their mission and message to remain relevant, however, they must strategically communicate the essentials of their identity. Only by adhering to the 3rd General Standard of Accreditation of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) will they be able to appropriately engage the digital ecosystem to successfully communicate beyond their respective academy’s immediate environment and, thereby, resist the aggressive forces pushing them to the margins.


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

“It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” ~ I Corinthians 4:2

Looking through binoculars while on expedition to a hard-to-reach location in the Alps, a group of botanists discovered a rare flower growing out of the side of a deep ravine. To successfully reach the exotic blossom, however, someone would have to carefully descend into the gorge. Noticing a local youngster standing nearby, the botanists asked if he would allow himself to be lowered with a rope along the side of the dangerous canyon. Excited, yet apprehensive about the venture, the boy peered thoughtfully into the chasm. “Wait,” he said, “I’ll be right back.”  True to his word, the youngster returned accompanied by a much older man. “I’ll go over the cliff now,” said the lad, “but only if this man holds the rope. You see,” said the boy, “he’s the only one I trust . . . he’s my father!”Trust is the rope of shared governance. It is the firm administrative cord that helps trustees of theological schools and seminaries judiciously extend their respective reach. Shared governance, however, is a critical value of collaborative leadership that requires continued hard work, open communication, respect, and above all, trust. In fact, the stronger the confidence level of and for an institution’s board of trustees before a crisis, the better the chance that effective strategies will be wisely developed and prudently implemented.

The previous three 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. This essay will continue this pattern by examining how the implementation of shared governance can help nurture environments of institutional trust in which more effective and sustainable solutions can be advanced.

According to the Standard on Authority and Governance of the Association of Theological Schools in America (ATS), governance is an “institutional stewardship . . . and the responsibility of all, not just the governing board.” It is based on a “bond of trust among boards, administration, faculty, students, and ecclesial bodies.” As such, ATS recommends that each of its member institutions articulate “its own theologically informed understanding of how this bond of trust becomes operational as a form of shared governance.”

Governance has been a hallmark of colleges and universities in the United States since the early twentieth century. Governance is the means by which the nation’s institutions of higher education are formally organized, managed, and operated. While fundamental differences concerning the definition, structure, and application of governance among ecclesial educational institutions exist, research indicates, that when properly implemented, the shared governance model fosters the most favorable atmosphere for trustful relationships to develop.

Shared governance is a model of trusteeship in higher education that is based on the principle of distributed authority that links inclusiveness, creativity, and honest conversations. In a time of serious challenges, shared governance can be an essential institutional asset that can help trustees shift their thinking from parochial interests to more creative approaches for addressing tomorrow’s realities. But what are the characteristics of shared governance? And how can the nation’s institutions of higher theological education implement its valuable essentials?

The concept of shared governance first appeared in the 1960s when an often-cited document on the subject, Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, was issued jointly by the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Shared governance promised to increase collaboration, create useful links between constituencies, and build needed partnerships. It was a system that would guard against adopting models of governance that only emphasized fiduciary and utilitarian efforts.

Shared governance supports the collegial nature of theological education. In order for such a culture of trust to emerge, however, the ATS Commission on Accreditation specifically recommends that the unique and overlapping roles and responsibilities of the governing board, faculty, administrators, students, and other delegated authorities “be defined in a way that allows all partners to exercise their mandated or delegated leadership.” Furthermore, as governance is the ordered exercise of power that allows an institution to accomplish its’s mission and purpose, the Commission identifies three elements that are necessary for this power to be exercised in an orderly and trust-nurturing fashion: (1) authority, (2) structure, and (3) process.

Authority is defined by the 7th General Standard as “the exercise of rights, responsibilities, and powers accorded to a theological school by its charter, articles of incorporation and bylaws, and ecclesiastical and civil authorizations.” Structureon the other hand, involves the various entities responsible for governing decisions, usually including the governing board, the administration, the faculty, and often student groups. Finally, effective governance requires a process by which the structure is ordered and implemented. Structure is effectively implemented only through carefully defined procedures that identify which group does what kind of work and how each group’s activity is coordinated with that of other groups.

In his article, Governance and the Future of Theological Education (2009), Daniel Aleshire, former executive director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), reasons that governance “is a necessary, complex, and varying component of a theological school.” Aleshire warns, however, that healthy governance is jeopardized “when schools are stressed and when substantive decisions are necessary to move a school’s mission into an uncertain future.” Unfortunately, many of the nation’s theological schools and seminaries currently find themselves in just such a precarious impasse.

The Council for Aid to Education recently reported that public colleges and universities raised $43.6 billion in 2017. This is the largest fundraising total ever recorded by the annual survey since it began in 1957. Charitable contributions to colleges and universities in 2017 increased by 6.3 percent. Unfortunately, less than one percent of the nation’s colleges raised more than 28 percent of the record-breaking total.

Like most of their non-religious counterparts, contributions have severely declined, and enrollment at many of the nation’s theological schools and seminaries has fallen by nearly 25% over the past decade. According to the 2017 Moody Investor Service Report, the main contributors of this injurious situation are: (1) decreasing denominational support, (2) tuition discounts, and (3) declining enrollment. As a result, some of the oldest and most celebrated theological institutions of theological higher education in America are on the brink of financial collapse.

Faced with acute institutional stress, trustees of many of the nation’s theological schools and seminaries are considering conventional strategies for reversing negative trends. Tactical interventions being considered include increasing tuition, emphasizing alumni fundraising, monetization, partnerships, borrowing, downsizing, and/or adding degree programs. If leaders of theological institutions of higher learning aspire to strategically overcome their current set of major difficulties, however, they would be better served to heed Aleshire’s counsel. Rather than quickly implement defensive short-term mediations, a rigorous honest assessment of their respective governance structures would prove to be a more prudent first step. Such an evaluation, however, would undoubtedly require a courageous reach towards the exotic blossom of adjustment. In the end, only by cultivating structures of shared governance will trustees identify entrepreneurial ways to sustain and effectively advance the mission of their respective institutions for years to come.

In his article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, Exactly What Is ‘Shared Governance’? (2009), Gary Olson, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University, advocates that authentic shared governance balances maximum participation in decision making with clear accountability. “Genuine shared governance,” writes Olson, “gives voice to concerns common to all constituencies as well as to issues unique to specific groups. The key to genuine shared governance,” insists Olson, “is broad and unending communication.” Only when various groups of people are kept in the loop, understand what developments are occurring within the university, and are invited to participate as true partners can institutions of higher education prosper.

The Faculty Council Task Force on Shared Faculty Governance of Emory University has developed a set of Essential Elements of Shared Governance that advance Olson’s observations. Governance of the University is shared among the Board of Trustees, the administration, faculty, staff, and students in an indispensable interdependence. Effective shared faculty governance requires striking a balance between broad consultation and timely decision making. The following eleven principles underlie and guide the development of all structures of shared faculty governance at Emory: (1) interdependence, (2) inclusiveness, (3) transparency and communication, (4) accountability, (5) democracy, (6) deliberativeness, (7) consistency, (8) collegiality, (9) fairness, (10) recognition, and (11) plurality.

In his article, The 10 Habits of Highly Effective Boards (2014), Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), stresses the need for leaders of higher educational institutions to cultivate a culture of shared governance. Apart from upholding basic fiduciary principles, academic quality, accountability, and promoting healthy relationships with the president, Legon, like Olson, emphasizes the need to select and continually renew trustees who have a commitment to shared governance.

The In-Trust Center for Theological Schools recently released a revised and expanded edition of its guidebook of best practices for theological school governing boards. The new edition of the Wise Stewards Guide (2018) includes an updated section on the changing context of theological education. According to the Guide, wise governance includes six essentials: (1) respect for the past and the future, (2) commitment to board development and growth, (3) responsibility for effective institutional leadership, (4) vigilance for mission and economic vitality, and (5) Implementation of planning and assessment at all levels. Significantly, the Wise Stewards Guideemphasizes the cultivation of a sixth vitality, namely, commitment to shared governance.

In consultation with the In-Trust Center for Theological Schools, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), recently sponsored a nine-month project to examine governance challenges. Throughout the 2016-17 academic year, 21 theological schools committed teams to work together with the guidance of a peer coach drawn from the ranks of veteran seminary leaders. The collective insights of the schools serve to both affirm established notions of good governance and challenge the status quo with emerging ideas. Apart from honest personal relations, frequent communications, far-sightedness, and mission focus, trust was identified as one of the 10 critical characteristics of shared governance listed in the study’s benchmark recommendations.

Trust is the highest form of human motivation. According to the vast majority of management and organizational experts, trust is one of the most important characteristics of an effective leader. In his book The Speed of Trust (2006), Stephen M. Covey suggests that the power of trust “lies in its ability to ease worry and create opportunities.” According to Covey, low levels of trust – of confidence – create an unseen danger in life and business. A lack of trust generates hidden agendas and guarded communication, thereby slowing or paralyzing leaders from effective decision-making. A lack of trust, argues Covey, “stymies innovation and productivity.”

Theological schools and seminaries are in need of directorial sentinels that embody In-Trust and Covey’s descriptions of trust-affirming leaders who are honest, engender confidence, and inspire creativity. Composed of business, faculty, and administrative constituencies, boards that function according to the collaborative principles of shared governance fuel trust, teamwork, and timely results. Such trusteeship, however, requires high levels of maturity, authenticity, and competence. Trust is valuable only if it is directed to one deserving of confidence. Many of the nation’s theological schools and seminaries, however, have experienced more than their share of misinformation, misplaced loyalties, and broken trusts. Consequently, many have learned the hard way, that only by appointing expert, honest, and trust-inspiring individuals to a system of shared governance can their schools experience unfaltering guardianship.

Like ATS and In-Trust, the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) of Universities and Colleges has challenged the nation’s leaders of colleges and universities to implement structures that foster shared, collaborative, or integral governance. Recently, in a publication called The Top 10 Strategic Issues for Boards (2013–2014), AGB insisted that, in order to accomplish their goals, “many governing boards have moved to a model of integral leadership—collaborative but decisive leadership – that can energize and link . . . president, faculty, and board in a well-functioning partnership purposefully devoted to a well-defined, broadly affirmed institutional vision.”

In Restructuring Shared Governance in Higher Education (New Directions for Higher Education,2004), William Tierney and Vincente Lechuga postulate that the shape and practice of leadership is always influenced by an organization’s understanding of God’s authority, power, mercy, justice, and love. In times of challenge this question is particularly important. “When pressures arise,” insist the authors, “the spotlight shines directly on governance, since governance is ultimately about thorny issues like power, authority, personnel decisions, and the stewardship of resources, mission, relationships, strategy, and leadership.” A theological school’s model of governance should, therefore, be based on a firm scriptural foundation.

The Hebrew and Greek words for “trust” in the Bible literally mean a bold, confident and/or sure security. While trust is not exactly the same as faith, it is believing in the “promises of God,” and in leaders in whom God “entrusts His authority.” According to Solomon, while “a wicked messenger falls into trouble, a trustworthy envoy brings healing (Proverbs 13:17). “The Lord,” insists the wise King, “delights in people who are trustworthy” (Proverbs 12:22). As such, Moses is instructed to “appoint guardians . . . who are reverent, honest, incorruptible and trustworthy leaders” (Exodus 18:21). Finally, it is to those who are “trustworthy with small matters,” writes Saint Luke, that God will delegate “even more authority” (Luke 19:17).

The 7th Standard of ATS’ Commission on Accreditation is correct. A scripturally-based theology of authority and governance matters! If the nation’s theological schools and seminaries want to honestly adhere to ATS’s recommendation, they must take the time and effort to develop robust theological underpinnings for their respective governance structures that are biblically based and reflect God’s triune image. Leadership that echoes God’s Trinitarian life will strive to model partnerships of many kinds, accepting all relationships in their differences, as having vitality and equal value. Only in this fashion can trusteeship manifest a stewardship of shared relational trust.

Since the governance of a theological school functions as the servant of the institution’s communal mission, it should be firmly anchored in a theological understanding of faithful stewardship. Unity is not to be equated with the denial or reduction of differences, but emphasize mutual intercommunion. Instead of defining its authority, structure, and process in secular images of power and control, the governance of theological schools and seminaries should be noted as cultures founded on what ATS’sStandard of Governance and Authority underscores as “the bond of trust.”

OINOS Consulting provides a model of trusteeship called R.O.P.E. for seminaries and institutions of higher theological education who, like ATS and AGB, are interested in selecting trust-affirming individuals with the knowledge, temperament, and skill-sets for their respective governing boards. Based on the vitalities of shared governance, R.O.P.E trustees are selected according to: (1) reverence, (2) organization, (c) philanthropic, and (4) entrepreneurial potentials.  Boards of Trustees whose membership is characterized by these vitalities are capable of effectively manifesting a culture of shared governance in their respective Christian theological schools and seminaries.

Reverence refers to a potential trustee’s awareness of and commitment to a theological school’s Christian identity and ecclesiology. Reverent trustees regularly participate in the Sacraments, recognize the value of worship and prayer, favor the application of Biblical and theological truths, and respect official denominational documents. Ordered trustees are, subsequently, reverent overseers that favor the application of tested business and finance principles, recognize value of dashboard and scorecard data, value strategic plans and systems, encourage regular communications and are consistently prepared for intelligent board meeting discussions.

Apart from being reverent and ordered, R.O.P.E. classified trustees are characterized as philanthropic.  Philanthropic trustees are generous, servant-centered stewards who are willing to identify and solicit donors, are interested in extending educational services to the greater community, and dislike institutional insularity. Unfortunately, according to an Auburn Study, fewer than one in five theological trustees (18 percent) report that the theological school they serve is their highest priority in giving. Most worrisome, only 32 percent have made provision for the school in their will. Despite the fact that full board participation in giving is universally acknowledged to be a cornerstone of a successful fundraising program, most theological schools fail the test. Only 15 percent of the nation’s theological schools report that all their trustees made a contribution in the previous year.

R.O.P.E trustees are, finally, differentiated from their more parochial counterparts by being entrepreneurial thought leaders.  They are interested in leveraging education and cultural trends, favor high-impact initiatives, cultivating cultures that promote idea incubation, and are not risk-averse. As sectors of society will one day be served by theological graduates, they should also “share” in the school’s decisions. Entrepreneurial trustees help form such valuable partnerships with communities, industries, and other entities outside the actual academic institution.

Trustees are an integral part of a theological school community. They represent a vital Church vocation of theological higher education and should, therefore, be challenged to provide more than guaranteed votes of patronage to hierarchical-style leaders. On the contrary, it is incumbent upon the nation’s theological schools and seminaries to appoint trustees who have a perception of the Church and its schools of higher learning that coincides with the mission, policies, and purposes of their founders. In the final analysis, a trustee of a theological school and/or seminary is a servant of Christ and His Church in one of the greatest and most sacred of endeavors. In this task the Church needs Godly men and women with the reverence, organization, philanthropic and entrepreneurial dedication to faithfully advance this vital work.

A story is told about two mountain climbers who wanted to scale the Matterhorn. They hired three guides and began their ascent by roping themselves together, guide-traveler, guide-traveler, guide. During their ascent, the last man lost his footing. He was held up temporarily by the other four, because each had a toehold in the niches they had cut in the ice. But then the next man slipped, and he pulled down the two above him. The only one to stand firm was the first guide, who had driven a spike deep into the ice. Because he held his ground, all the men beneath him regained their footing.

The anecdote illustrates a valuable theological principle of shared governance. Like the climbers who slipped, trustees of theological schools and seminaries who are firmly bound together in authentic partnership are able to survive the slippery slopes of financial, administrative, and educational challenges.  Apart from being secured to tested organizational principles, philanthropy, and entrepreneurial methods, their institutions of higher theological learning will never perish because their rope is reverently tethered to Christ and His Church.

Trust is the sine qua non of shared governance. Together with time, talent, and treasure, trust is the 4th “T” of a trustee’s effective stewardship of shared governance that is firmly anchored in confidence in God.  Only by faithfully amplifying their shared testimony of service through reverence, organizational excellence, philanthropic zeal, and entrepreneurial creativity can the trustees of the nation’s theological schools and seminaries hope to overcome their current challenges. This will only be accomplished by first strengthening the most vital aspect of their respective institutional identity, namely, the rope of trust.


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

“By doing good with his money, a man, as it were, stamps the image of God upon it, and makes it pass, current for the merchandise of heaven.” ~ John Rutledge

The rare British Guiana 1c magenta is considered the most valuable stamp in the world. Cut in the shape of an octagon, the stamp is the only one of its kind known to exist. Issued in limited numbers in 1856, the rare impress was discovered in 1873 by a 12-year-old Scottish schoolboy among his uncle’s letters. Since its initial rescue, the stamp has broken the previous world auction price four times, most recently selling in 2014 to shoe designer Stuart Weitzman for $9.5 million in only two minutes.

Before the advent of stamps, the addressee, and not the sender paid for the missive’s delivery. The introduction of the postage stamp by Great Britain in 1840 exempted the recipient of any responsibility. As the anglicized term “philately” is derived from a compound of two Greek words meaning “an affinity” and “exempt from tariff,” famous philanthropists and collectors of rare stamps like Buffet, Carnegie, DuPont, Steinway, and Weitzman, gradually became known as philatelists.

Planned giving is the strategic stamp of philanthropic philatelists. It is the prized postmark that can help theological schools and seminaries overcome their recurring financial challenges. While most educational institutions rightly place an equal emphasis on annual giving, major gifts, and capital campaigns, expert development officers require an additional focus to assure the future sustainability of their respective schools. Rather than inducing donor fatigue through frequent fundraising appeals, these leaders better serve their institutions of theological learning by cultivating long-term strategic-minded donors. By encouraging such potential planned givers to judiciously invest the altruistic stamp of their resources today, they are, in fact, helping entrepreneurial philatelists dispatch their impactful legacies to future recipients, free from any latent tariff.

The previous four parts of the commentary entitledTransfiguring 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. This essay will continue this pattern by examining how planned giving strategies can help institutions of theological higher education meet their long-term goals and help provide for responsible and effective financial management.

According to the 8th General Standard onInstitutional Resources, “an institutional advancement program should be planned, organized, and implemented in ways congruent with the principles of the school.” Apart from annual and capital giving initiatives, the Institutional Development and Advancement subsection of the 8th General Standard recommends that development efforts should include “planned giving conducted in patterns consistent with relationships and agreements with the school’s supporting constituencies.”   But what exactly is planned giving and how can the nation’s theological schools and seminaries harness the valuable postmark of the strategy’s fundraising potential?

Planned giving is a strategic comportment within a comprehensive moves management cultivation process. In their journal article entitled, Planned Giving: The Future of Fund Raising (1991), Joan Edwards and Alden Tueller describe planned giving as a process that generally seeks “large contributions of accumulated assets, real estate, stocks, bonds, trusts, and paid-up insurance policies that require the oversight of a contributor’s financial advisors.” Planned giving should, consequently, not be understood as an add-on fundraising contrivance, amateurishly posted on a website menu of giving options. It is not a simple development tactic concerned with balancing the immediate budget, but an intricate, proactive, donor-centric, and long-term institutional advancement strategy.

In his monograph, Philanthropy and Fundraising in American Higher Education (2011), Noah Drezner, founder and editor of Philanthropy & Education, describes planned giving as a “strategic and long-term approach that has produced the nation’s largest gifts in higher education.” Frequently referred to as “legacy,” “bequest,” or “endowment gifting,” planned giving seeks to cultivate the promise of deferred resource(s) that are often (1) final and nonrecurring, (2) based on donor values, (3) include a reduction of gift taxes, and (4) transformational. Apart from providing philanthropic alignment and a path toward sustainability, Drezner agrees with Edwards and Tueller that planned giving fundamentally seeks to align a donor’s legacy aspirations with the assurance of significant mission impact.

The origin of planned giving can be traced to the classic Greek and Roman civilizations where perpetual family foundations allowed 1st Century citizens to leave and receive bequests. Later, throughout the medieval period, many social services were performed using the proceeds from land rents held in charitable trusts, and by the remainders from gift annuities funded for the benefit of the Church. During the Reformation, however, statutes were enacted that stipulated, that after a maximum of 20 years, the lands held by the Church were to return to the donor. More recently, America’s early educational, cultural, religious, and social service agencies were established and funded by philanthropists like Ben Franklin, John Harvard, John Carroll, Francis Alison, Leland Stanford, and others whose generous planned gifts created charitable trusts, foundations, and endowments that continue to exist today.

As costs associated with theological higher education in America continued to rise, planned gifts and bequests increased in importance. In addition to alumni, annual, and corporate giving programs, planned giving became critical to an institution’s financial security and sustainability.  Planned giving is currently a way to support and enable philanthropic-minded individuals to make larger gifts than they could make from ordinary income.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) defines a planned gift as a “voluntary and, often, major gift that involves integrating personal, financial and estate planning concepts with a donor’s plan for lifetime or testamentary giving.” Apart from the possibility of significant estate tax benefits, a planned gift provides a way to give beyond the use of current assets. While annual donations are made from a donor’s discretionary income, planned gifts are frequently made at death as part of a donor’s overall financial and/or estate planning. Planned gifts, consequently, require the assistance of qualified professional consultants, legal, and/or financial advisors to provide the needed expertise and confidentiality to appropriately complete and execute. So how and to what philanthropic philatelists should theological schools pilot their planned giving strategy?

In their 2012 Southeast Regional Conference presentation entitled, Effective Ways to Have the Planned Giving Conversation with Donors, the United Way suggests a four-phase approach to planned giving: (1) relating (romance), (2) discovery (research), (3) advocating (request), and (4) supporting (recognition). During the relating (romance) phase, development officers are encouraged to determine the trust and confidence levels that a prospective planned donor has to the institution he/she represents.  While the second phase focuses on discovering a nonprofit’s legitimate need(s), the advocating stage seeks to determine whether or not the “perceived need(s)” aligns with the donor’s. The final supporting phase, tests the degree to which a potential planned giver would be satisfied with “investing” in such a partnership.

Marti Heil and Sandra Bate of the Indiana University Foundation advocate a similar cultivation approach. In their chapter, High-Net-Worth Donors, published in the 3rd Edition of Achieving Excellence in Fundraising (2011), the authors outline a six-step process that includes: (1) exploration, (2) evaluation, (3) enlightenment, (4) engagement, (5) encouragement, and (6) endowment. Like the United Way, Heil and Bates encourage institutional advancement officers to remain “disciplined” in working with high-net-worth donors. They promise that the “rewards” of personalized and fully engaged donors, enlightened with the organization’s mission, will be “truly transformational.”

In his article, Primary Donor Motivation: The Subtle Difference Between “Giving With” and “Giving Because” (2011), Eddie Thompson, president of Thompson and Associates, a charitable estate planning firm, classifies donors according to three motivations: (1) emotion, (2) habit, and (3) strategy. While three-fourths of all donors give from habit, Thompson suggests that others contribute resources as a result of emotional appeals. Strategic donors, he argues, “almost always pledge significant gifts and make giving decisions based on some strategic significance.”

Donor-centric methods of planned giving best align with the characteristics and motivational dispositions of strategic donors. Like the United Way and the Indiana University Foundation,Thompson and Associates provides a charitable estate planning process for strategic-minded donors that includes: (1) confidentiality, (2) value-based affinity, (3) net-worth estate appraisal, and (4) expert recommendations. Unlike the more transactional approaches that emphasize tax reduction and wealth-transfer strategies, Thompson’s values-based estate planning approach seeks to align a donor’s (1) financial and relational needs/concerns for their spouse and heirs, (2) personal credo of life principles, (3) approximate net-worth, and (4) legacy aspirations. However, only when these issues are suitably clarified, should social-capital tax and wealth-transfer strategies, such as charitable gift annuities, pooled income funds, and charitable remainder unitrusts, be addressed. The result of such a thoughtful and deliberate process is the execution of planned gifts strategies that are far less likely to be revoked in the future.

Planned giving methods provide donors the ability to (1) make a gift, often larger than he or she thought possible, (2) enjoy the satisfaction of providing the means for an institution to fulfill its mission, (3) reduce gift/estate taxes, (4) reduce or avoid capital gains taxes, (5) pass assets on to family members at reduced tax costs, (6) increase income and effective rate of return, (7) possibly receive income for life, and (8) leave an impactful legacy without giving up assets. Like a stamped letter, mailed today and enjoyed by a recipient tomorrow, the pre-paid philanthropic postmark of a properly developed planned gift will sustain the mission and work of the nation’s theological schools and seminaries far into the future. Such altruistic gestures are often called “legacy gifts” because so many are created to endow future generations with formidable influence.

The Council for Aid to Education recently reported that public colleges and universities raised $43.6 billion in 2017. This is the largest fundraising total ever recorded by the annual survey since it began in 1957. Giving by bequest totaled an estimated $35.70 billion, increasing 2.3 percent from 2016. Unfortunately, less than one percent of the nation’s colleges raised more than 28 percent of the record-breaking totals. Like most of their non-religious counterparts, contributions have severely declined, and enrollment at many of the nation’s theological schools and seminaries has fallen by nearly 25% over the past decade. According to the 2017 Moody Investor Service Report, the main contributors of this injurious situation are: (1) decreasing denominational support, (2) tuition discounts, and (3) declining enrollment. As a result, some of the oldest and most celebrated theological institutions of theological higher education in America are on the brink of financial collapse.

Fortunately, according to a recent article (Oct. 16, 2017) in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, an estimated $30 trillion will be inherited by the next generation in the United States from the prosperous Baby Boomers in the next 20 years. Considered the largest reassignment of financial resources in human history, the Great Wealth Transfer, may be the single greatest planned giving opportunity for theological schools and seminaries in the modern era. In order for these institutions to take advantage of this massive reassignment of capital, however, sophisticated planned giving strategies are required.

The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary offers valuable guidance to institutions of higher theological learning willing to refine their advancement efforts in order to leverage this historic transfer of wealth. According to their publication, Great Expectations: Fund-Raising Prospects for Theological Schools, apart from setting realistic goals, and requiring the participation of their institution’s president, schools of higher education should implement planned giving methods that include a variety of financial instruments adapted to donor values and value-centered legacy aspirations. While planned giving programs will not solve their immediate financial needs, the monogram ensures that academies disposed to doing so, will be “investing in their future’s financial well-being.” To effectively advance such development strategies, however, theological schools and seminaries will be required to contend against the negative influence of the Matthew Effect.

The Matthew Effect, or Principle of Accumulated Advantage, may be summarized by the adages “fortune smiles on the fortunate,” and “nothing succeeds like success.” While the concept is often used to explain positions of fame and status, it may also be applied to describe the cumulative advantage of economic capital. First proposed by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1968, the theory’s name was coined from a parabolic phrase attributed to Jesus cited twice in the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “To everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12; 25:29).

A 2011 fundraising study conducted by the Higher Educational Institutions (HEI) identified the existence of the Matthew Effect in 27 countries within the European Union. Despite the presence of significant untapped philanthropic potential, it was determined that not all universities were equally endowed with the same fundraising capacities. Privilege, concluded the study, begets privilege when it comes to successful fundraising among universities.

Like the HEI Study, a 2017 Fundraising Report of the Council for Aid to Education also concluded that the most prestigious educational institutions in America tend to raise the largest amounts of money from private sources. Unfortunately, existing positions of prosperity and institutional privilege do, in fact, serve to perpetuate an ongoing cycle of accumulative advantage in American colleges and universities, a trend that is especially pronounced in the nation’s institutions of theological higher education.

Since strategic cultivation increases an organization’s image, reputation, and priority with both current and future planned giving donors, OINOS Consulting has developed a Strategic Cultivation Method that is based on the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-12). If employed in tandem with more specialized value-based estate planning processes like the Thompson and United Way models, the general strategy can help the nation’s institutions of theological higher education counteract the Matthew Effect. Like the British Magenta octagonal stamp, the OINOS cultivation process includes the following eight interrelated steps.

  1. Servant: Classification of donors
  2. Soil: Clarification of donor’s credo of personal values and aspirations
  3. Situation: Alignment of personal credo with mission/vision of school
  4. Seed: Calculation of resources
  5. Scheme: Identification of most appropriate philanthropic tools/instruments
  6. Start: Execution of strategy
  7. Salutation: Celebration of philanthropic impact
  8. Supervise: Monitoring of on-going donor/institution relationship

The Parable of the Sower, upon which the OINOS Cultivation Method is based, is a story about the awesome investment that God has imparted to humanity. According to Christian sacramental theology, each individual is unique, beloved, “stamped” at baptism with God’s saving Grace . . . the “talent” to which the Parable of the Sower refers. God expects the faithful to utilize their respective charism to extend His Message, not to play it safe . . . or to hoard His Grace by burying wealth, time, and talents in the napkins of self-absorption, negligence, and/or timidity. On the contrary, by courageously advancing effective planned giving strategies, the nation’s institutions of theological higher education can ensure that future seminarians and students will enjoy a “return” on the inheritance that the Lord has bequeathed to his current Church.

In September 2014, a Brooklyn mailman named Joseph Brucato admitted intentionally hoarding nearly a ton (40,000 pieces) of mail over a 10-year period. The postal worker was arrested after his supervisor noticed that the mail carrier’s personal car was stuffed with undelivered envelopes. It took law enforcement agencies five hours to remove the stash of stolen letters they additionally found in Brucato’s apartment. While severe criminal charges were dropped against the then 68-year old postal worker due to his advanced age and poor psychological condition, one can only imagine the reaction of the recipients who finally took delivery of the messages he hoarded from them ten years prior.

Humanity is an interconnected mailroom of aspirational legacies, envisioned by strategic donors who wisely examine the past for relevant precedent, scan the present context for opportunities, and selflessly dispatch their impactful altruism far in to the future. By adhering the prepaid stamp of their respective talents on today’s challenges, philanthropic philatelists can insure that the priceless missives that the nation’s theological schools and seminaries have inherited will not be hoarded in the attic of languid complacency, but rather, faithfully transferred and multiplied in the soil of educational excellence.


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

“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Luke 9:62

The nation’s theological schools and seminaries find themselves facing an uncertain future. As enrollments decrease, financial debts mount, and skepticisms rise concerning the value of their degrees, institutions of higher theological education should consider seeking to successfully improve their situations by prudently inviting another school to merge their hands to the plow of partnership.

Theological schools and seminaries are fundamentally academies for/of God’s chosen vicars. Initially mentioned in the Old Testament Books of Samuel and Kings (1 Samuel 19:18–24; 2 Kings 2, 4:38–44), these “schools of the prophets” were the means for promoting the “righteousness which exalts a nation” (Proverbs14:34). Called into existence by the prophets Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, the students of these coteries were not encouraged to enter into a contemplative retreat from society. On the contrary, they were challenged to bring the Word of God to bear on their contemporary situation by forming partnerships that would help curb the deterioration of Israel’s religious life. In no small degree, the graduates of these brotherhoods aided in laying the foundation of the prosperity which distinguished the reigns of David and Solomon.

Today’s theological schools and seminaries stand in such a similar circumstance. There is a need for institutions of theological higher education to prepare religious leaders who are willing and capable of favorably influencing society through prophetic thought, word, and action. The skills needed to assume such a prophetic posture include the capacities of engaging in critical reflection, integrating material received from the various disciplines of theology and applying these theories within the context of Christian ministry. Consequently, the challenge to appropriately combine the priestly, prophetic, and pastoral aspects of religious leadership is as essential today as it was in the time of the Old Testament.

The previous five commentaries of this series entitled, Transfiguring Theological Education, have utilized various official publications of the Association of Theological Schools in America (ATS) to help the nation’s theological academies identify ways of overcoming the fiscal, administrative, and pedagogical challenges that currently threaten their survival. Apart from advocating the need to implement shared governance models, donor-centered development strategies, and competency-based pedagogical structures, this essay will continue this pattern by examining how partnership mergers may provide a viable strategy for institutions overwhelmed by resource scarcities associated with bloated budgets, high debt, and limited enrollments.

According to Transitions, the 2017 Annual Report of the ATS Commission on Accreditation, institutions of theological higher education in America “are in a time of transition . . . and ad­justing to new realities and the public religious sphere.” The Commission outlines the following ten forms of transition that are increasing among member schools:

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Research conducted by the In-Trust Center of Theological Schools supports the ATS findings. In fact, the Center’s 2017 Annual Report expands ATS’s eighth transition category by outlining a typology of educational partnership that includes six arrangements: (1) consolidations, (2) true mergers, (3) conglomerates, (4) consortiums, (5) asset transfers, and (6) affiliations. While a consolidation is described by the Report as an arrangement wherein two or more institutions are collapsed into one new institution, usually with a different name, mission, and scale of operation (A + B = C), a true merger occurs when one institution is blended (merged) into a dominant institution with that institution serving as the exclusive legal successor (A > B = B+).

A conglomerate, on the other hand, occurs when two or more institutions enter a joint venture to address redundancies without losing their respective identities. A consortium describes a collegial collaboration for common resource-sharing agreements (cross-registrations, joint libraries, shared facilities, common technologies, shared operations, etc.). Finally, while asset transfers describe a relationship wherein one institution transfers some or all of its assets to a second institution which provides for the continuation of the first institution’s programs, an affiliation is a joint venture, preserving identities and governance structures, but providing common academic programming or operational services.

Like ATS, and In-Trust, the 2018 special report of Inside Higher Education, entitled, The Growing Role of Mergers in Higher Ed, states that demographic realities and financial strains are leaving more colleges struggling to attract large enough applicant pools. “In this environment,” the publication concludes, “more institutions than in the past are considering joining forces.”

In his 2016 Washington Post article, The Coming Era of Consolidation Among Colleges and Universities, author and former top editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Selingo, indicates that of the 4,700 degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States, more than 800 campuses exhibit a range of risk factors putting them in jeopardy of closing. Those risk factors include (a) enrollments under 1,000 students, (b) discounts that reduce tuition by more than 35 percent, and (c) high debt payments for campus improvements that have been made in recent years. According to Selingo, “nearly all of the 72 colleges that have closed their doors in the last decade had enrollments of less than 1,000 students.”

While increasing among secular as well as Faith-based institutions of higher learning in America, mergers and partnerships are, unfortunately, still interpreted in negative terms. Concerned about preserving their identity, dealing with faculty members, pleasing alumni, and annulling administrative cultures that habitually conceal problems, institutions with a fierce dedication to their unique mission often consider the possibility of pursuing a partnership an insurmountable challenge. Having hidden their administrative heads in the sands of wishful thinking, others are now compelled to consider partnerships as a last-ditch effort of survival. While a partnership merger may not be the most appropriate strategy for every institution to execute, an exploratory process would, nonetheless, provide leaders the data and projections for making intelligent decisions for addressing the serious institutional challenges of their institutions.

The Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), recommends that institutions that are considering a partnership with another school utilize the exploratory process outlined in their Guideline, Petition for Change of Ownership or Governing Control. Published in response to the growing number of mergers, which, since the 2008 recession, have averaged almost one every four months, the Guideline focuses on such areas as mission, constituencies, educational effectiveness, financial and physical resources, and federal funding.

From what has been discussed thus far, it is evident that there is no shortage of valuable articles, study reports, and books that can be cited to describe the need and strategic value of partnerships. While much of the literature unfortunately trends toward pragmatic, fiscal, and administrative tactics, a brief review is, nonetheless, beneficial.

In his article, Ten Elements in Successful Collaboration, Dr. Robert Cooley, former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, outlines ten valuable characteristics of institutions interested in establishing viable educational partnerships.

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In their guidebook, Partnerships: Framework for Working Together (2010), the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF), administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, outlines the following ten fundamental principles and standards for advancing a successful partnership strategy:

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Apart from describing the characteristics of a healthy partnership, the CCF Guidebook delineates fifteen barriers that impede the development of successful partnerships. Leaders of theological schools and seminaries would do well to utilize the following list to evaluate their respective institutional cultures before ambitiously embarking on any partnership strategy.

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In their 2017 monograph, Mergers in Higher Education: A Proactive Strategy to a Better Future, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) insists that the higher education sector is facing “unprecedented challenges, driven by rapid growth in mobility, communication, technology, and demands for skills and credentials—all fostering disruption of the higher education marketplace.” Although circumstances may vary, like the research of ATS, In-Trust, Selingo, and Colley, the Association recommends that educational institutions consider merging and/or partnering as a way of “ensuring continued growth and impact, greater efficiency, greater economies of scale, better value (to both consumers/clients and share-holders), improved competitiveness, and in some cases, improved chances of long-term survival.”

TIAA outlines seven factors that predict a successful strategic partnership. These include: (1) a compelling unifying vision and set of common values; (2) a committed and understanding governing body; (3) the right leadership; (4) an appropriate sense of urgency; (5) a strong project management system; (6) a robust and redundant communication plan; and (7) sufficient dedicated resources. Like the barriers outlined in CCF’s Guidebook, TIAA cautions that mergers should not be considered only in extremis, when (1) few resources and assets remain, (2) political goodwill, (3) staff morale, and energy are low, and (4) negotiating positions are weakest.

While a plethora of excellent resources exist that describe the characteristics and strategic value of institutional partnerships, before proceeding to establish a collaborative merger, theological schools and seminaries should refine these strategies by incorporating appropriate theological principles. What would a theologically-based partnership look like? How is it formed and what fundamental scriptural truths would inspire its relational arrangements?

According to Holy Scripture, authentic partnerships entail vertical and horizontal dimensions.  This is significant in that the doctrine of “perichoresis” – the Triune synergetic interrelationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Godhead –  provides a perfect model of partnership (Gen. 2:7; John 1:4; 10:10; Acts 17:28; Gal. 2:20).  Scripture discloses that this Triune God invites all of creation into a multifaceted partnership with Him, that includes a vertical and numerous horizontal, human-to-human dimensions.

The application of the aforementioned theological doctrine of “perichoresis” is great for institutions of higher theological education who are interested in establishing genuine partnerships. Emphasizing this truth, Jesus once insisted that he/she who “puts a hand to the plow and looks back, is not fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). The message is clear. If, like a plowman, a servant of God desires to faithfully be in relationship with Him, he/she must maintain a forward concentration. Otherwise, by looking back, the horizontal plow line may become crooked, the vertical relationship strained, and the eternal harvest jeopardized.

When Jesus made this agricultural-based statement, His audience unquestionably knew that He was referring to the Old Testament story of the prophet Elijah who found his protégé Elisha “plowing a field with twelve-yoke of oxen” (I Kings 19:19). The scriptural passage indicates that Elisha immediately “let go” of his physical plow and faithfully placed his hands to the spiritual plow of partnership with Elijah . . . never looking back but taking time only to dispose of his worldly possessions (1 Kings 19:19-21). As a result, Elisha became Elijah’s successor, renowned for asking and receiving a “double portion” (2 Kings 2:9) of his partner’s God-given grace.

This is the type of “perichoric” relationship that should characterize theological schools and seminaries who are interested in establishing prophetic partnerships. Such institutions must be ready to “let go” of transitory mattocks and place complete trust on the plow-heads of Trinity-centered collaborations. They should trust, balance and complete each other’s strengths and resources, and, in the end, strive to humbly compound the ability to service the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of society.

In his article, A Missionary Paradigm of Partnerships Between the North and the South(2009), Samuel Cueva suggested that, in addition to sharing in a common mission, values, and resources, a biblically-based theology of partnership should also include sharing in suffering. This is an interesting insight and one that should be considered by institutions of theological higher education currently suffering the agonies of organizational challenges.

The Old Testament outlines five great examples of partnerships: (1) Abraham and Lot (Genesis 14:14-16), (2) Moses and Aaron (Ex. 7:1-2), (3) David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:1-3), (4) Naomi and Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17), and (5) Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2:2). While all provide general relational insights, four specific principles can be gleaned from a careful review of the synergetic partnership of the prophets Elijah and Elisha: (1) shared commitment, (2) authenticity, (3) catalytic solidarity, and (4) servanthood.

Shared Commitment. The first foundational principal of the Elijah-Elisha partnership was their shared commitment to God’s Will. Because of this faithfulness, Elisha was willing to sever his ties to the past, his family, and agricultural occupation and set out in faith with Elijah into an unknown vocational future. If theological schools and seminaries are serious in establishing a successful partnership with another school, then such an alignment of mission, values, and vision is fundamental.

Authenticity. The second foundational principal of the Elijah-Elisha partnership was their reliance on the synergy of authenticity and unwavering patronage. If institutions of higher theological education seriously desire to overcome their current fiscal and administrative challenges they too must strive to authentically support and encourage their partner school to refine and fulfill their respective charism(s).

During three difficult circumstances, Elijah advised Elisha to “stay behind.” Each time, however, his faithful partner relentlessly refused to leave his side. “As surely as the LORD lives and you yourself live,” replied Elisha, “I will never leave you” (2 Kings 2:6-7). As successful mergers are rooted in a divinely appointed relationship, like Elijah and Elisha, partnered theological schools should always “go on together,” synergistically sharing their respective identities, while striving towards a common destiny. Only in such a dynamic environment can prophetic partners hope to share a “double portion” of collective success.

Catalytic Solidarity. The third foundational principal of the Elijah-Elisha exceptional partnerships was their catalytic relationship, characterized by their desire to promote creativity and nurture the innovative abilities of their partner. Like Elijah-Elisha, partnered theological schools and/or seminaries are not fixated on rigidly preserving the past but centered on the forward-focused plow of flexibility and innovation. It is essential that such partnerships be grounded in an unwavering belief in the integrity and authenticity of the other where members feel reassured in a safe environment of solidarity.

Servanthood. Successful partnerships are, finally, based in service, not self-serving agendas. Throughout their entire ministry, Elijah and Elisha demonstrated that they were willing to sacrifice their own needs in service to others. Every time different people in his community asked them for help, they were never disgruntled or disinclined but willing to accomplish their God-given prophetic mission by diligently providing solutions. Theological schools and seminaries will not be able to accomplish their mission if they are self-absorbed, inconsistent or not committed to their horizontal responsibilities. This principle cannot be overstated, because without a servanthood mentality, the unique prophetic mission that differentiates theological studies from other educational institutions will ultimately be stymied.

The prophetic partnership of Elijah to Elisha provides a valuable rhythm of collaboration for contemporary theological schools and seminaries that are interested in merging their respective educational institutions. As such, the leadership of these institutions should consider emphasizing the four-fold foundational principals of shared commitment, authenticity, catalytic solidarity, and the diligence of prophetic servanthood into their collaborative relationships. Only by adopting a shared commitment to societal engagement will partner schools hope to successfully advance their God-given missions, and thereby, assure long-term survival.

Joint ventures frequently fail because of lack of trust, inauthentic leadership, and incompatible value systems. “Two cannot walk together,” insists the prophet Amos, “except they are agreed” (Amos 3:3). Consequently, while a robust engagement of stakeholders and enhanced financial efficiencies are essential, successful partnerships are ultimately characterized by an ethos of self-sacrificial collaboration wherein individual destinies are woven into the very fabric of the other.

The synergetic partnership of Elijah and Elisha inaugurated a powerful transformation. The heaven-ward chariot translation of Elijah transferred a double-portioned of God’s Grace to Elisha (2 Kings 2:11). This is what can happen to theological schools and seminaries if/when they choose to join hands to the plow of educational partnership. In the final analysis, this is what precipitated the compound anointing, a greater glory then any one single person can exhibit on their own.


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.


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

“Let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”  ~ Amos 5:24Pitcairn is a South Pacific island that was made famous by a group of mutineers that landed on its volcanic shores in the late 18th century. On April 28, 1789, twenty crew members of the British warship HMS Bounty rebelled and set their commander, William Bligh, adrift in a lifeboat. The account has been told many times and glamourized by the 1962 film The Mutiny on the Bounty that chronicles the subsequent life of the maritime fugitives.

Debarked on Pitcairn, the mutineers set fire to the Bounty and settled on what seemed like Paradise. Unfortunately, social unrest soon followed when the unprincipled sailors increasingly mistreated the island’s Polynesian inhabitants. Alcoholism, jealousy, sexual abuse, theft, and murder finally led the indigenous population to revolt. As a result, within four years of the crew’s arrival, all but one, John Adams, was killed. Ostracized and living alone, the lone mutineer discovered and began studying a Bible that had been fortuitously salvaged from the Bounty. Accepting its life-saving words, Adams used the tattered text to gradually teach the island’s inhabitants how to read, write, and treat each other with love and respect.

In 1808, the unassuming colony of Pitcairn was discovered by the USS Topaz whose landing crew was amazed to discover thirty-five English-speaking Polynesians governed by an orderly civic lifestyle.  While historians continue to debate the cause, it seems that the major factor was the conversion of the Pitcairns by Adams to the servant-centered principles of the Bible. The result was by no means perfect, but the community was, nonetheless, characterized by a scriptural praxis of social justice.

Unlike the remote South Pacific island of Pitcairn, the 4th Century city of Antioch was noted for its powerful emperors and wealthy patrons who donated money to build extravagant dwellings, paint colorful frescoes, and chisel epic marble statues. The cosmopolitan city flaunted its power and wealth by plating their walls and rooftops with gold. Even the city’s domed Christian cathedral was called the “Golden House.” Yet amid this self-adorning philosophy, a charismatic hierarch who would later become Archbishop of Constantinople, earned the moniker “Chrysostom” (“Golden-Mouthed”), not for his wealth, but for his passionate homilies and teachings that, like Adams, convincingly inspired the city’s inhabitants to adopt a scriptural praxis of social justice.

Unlike his political counterparts, Bishop John warned that the “withholding of wealth from the poor was theft.” As Chrysostom believed that all Christians were “self-ordained priests to the poor,” he taught that all that were so charitably inclined, “entered into the greater Holy of Holies, offering sacrifices on a greater altar, built by God himself, composed of human souls.” As a result of his courageous servant-centered leadership, Chrysostom inspired the inhabitants of Antioch to use their Churches as hostels for travelers and the homeless, to establish hospitals for those with incurable illnesses, and to create a registry of support services for the poor and widowed.

While contextually distinctive, the social justice legacies of Chrysostom and Adams should inspire the nation’s theological schools and seminaries to develop teachers and future religious leaders who may, in turn, become society’s “golden voices” of scriptural conscience. Today’s poor, homeless, mistreated, and marginalized still need “golden-mouth” defenders. Contemporary schools of higher theological education should, therefore, nurture graduates who are willing and able to inspire their respective “Pitcairns” to appropriately emulate Christ’s examples of love, charity, and servanthood.

The previous seven commentaries of the series entitled, Transfiguring Theological Education, have utilized various official publications of the Association of Theological Schools in America (ATS) to help the nation’s theological academies identify ways of overcoming the fiscal, administrative, and pedagogical challenges that currently threaten their survival. This essay will continue this pattern by examining how theological schools and seminaries can intentionally integrate the leadership praxis of social justice into their degree programs, curricula, and field education requirements.

The General Standards (2015) of ATS recommends that Christian institutions of theological higher learning in America adhere to an administrative typology of eight benchmarks: (1) purpose, planning, and evaluation, (2) identity, (3) curriculum, learning, teaching, and research, (4) library and information resources, (5) faculty, (6) student recruitment, admission, service, and placement, (7) authority and governance, and (8) institutional resources. TheThird General Standard specifically encourages theological schools to demonstrate “practices of teaching, learning, and research (theological scholarship) that encourage global awareness and responsiveness.” The Third Standard recommends the development of initiatives that “enhance the ways institutions participate in the ecumenical, dialogical, evangelistic, and,” most specifically, “social justice efforts of the church.”

There is a need for today’s seminaries and institutions of theological higher education to do a better job at equipping the nation’s future teachers and religious leaders with the knowledge, skills, and disposition to appropriately advance “the social justice efforts of the church.” According to numerous recent studies, church affiliation is declining in the United States. While membership is in decay, however, passion for social justice is significantly increasing. Research data confirms that one of the primary rallying cries of young adults is the desire to serve society’s disadvantaged.  The nation’s theological schools would be wise to leverage the heart-string of this stirring!

The knowledge, skills, and disposition required to advance such a servant-centered leadership posture will include the capacities of critical reflection, integration of theological disciplines, contextual scanning, and the application of a scripture-based understanding of social justice.  The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) has, consequently, suggested that its member schools provide classes, programs, and degrees on social justice issues. Before such curricula can be developed, however, several questions require clarification. What is social justice? Should local religious communities make it a priority? And how can the nation’s seminaries and institutions of theological higher education contribute to its advancement?

Current Situation

According to recent data released by the Pew Research Center, most Americans continue to view organized religion “as a force for good in American society.” Nearly nine-in-ten adults say churches and other religious institutions “strengthen community bonds” and play “an important role in helping the poor and needy.” Unfortunately, a number of religious surveys also indicate that young adult respondents are “not satisfied” with the degree of this engagement.

Apart from promoting “mutual support and help among parishioners,” a significant conclusion of theParish Life Study (2018) conducted by Alexei Krindatch for the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America, is that young adults are especially attracted to parishes that offer a menu of social justice ministry opportunities. Unfortunately, while social justice is the vitality that is most attractive to young adults, it is, simultaneously, an area of engagement that is absent in most (80%) of the nation’s Orthodox Christian parishes.  In fact, nearly every religious denomination in the country is plagued with the same deficiency.

Research data compiled by the Barna Group supports the findings of the Parish Life Study. According to the Barna Faith that Lasts Project (2013), nearly six in ten (59%) Gen-X and Gen-Y (Millennials) who grew up in Christian churches “end up walking away from either their faith or from the institutional church at some point in their first decade of adult life.” In addition, ethnographic research indicates the emergence of a new “social justice generation.” Generation Z (mid-1990s to mid-2000s) is a technologically savvy, online connected cohort that has an endless quest for authenticity and is highly committed to social justice issues.

According to a recent study by Entrepreneur Magazine, Gen-Z is “highly focused on social justice . . . with 60% of them wanting to have an impact on the world.” Unfortunately, while the majority (95%) of the nation’s young adult population agree that “care for the poor is mandated by the Gospel,” local Christian communities are characterized by survey respondents as “not sufficiently providing such opportunities.”

Gallup, Pew Forum, and Lifeway Research data all support the conclusions of the Barna and Krindatch studies. Young Christians in North America “are increasingly interested in justice related issues such as poverty, human trafficking, refugees, and the homeless.” Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant (evangelical and mainline) Christian respondents all confess that their “weekly church attendance rises when their local churches are actively engaged with social justice issues.” Significantly, young adults indicate that they “are more likely to retain membership” in churches that provide opportunities “to directly engage and care for the poor” in their local communities.

If the nation’s religious communities seek to retain and/or draw back the X, Y, and Z Generations, theological schools and seminaries will have to train their graduates how to identify, develop, and provide appropriate scripture-based opportunities for social justice engagement in their future vocational contexts. In so doing, they may additionally increase their enrollment with students from these cohorts. Before embarking on such an undertaking, however, an appropriate theological framework of social justice leadership should be defined and differentiated from more secular activist methodologies.

Scripture-Based Social Justice

The Greek word for “justice” (δικαιοσύνην), is a term that refers to personal righteousness. Social justice generally implies the right and reasonable conduct of such “righteous” treatment to all individuals in a given society. Aside from its more political and utilitarian expressions, theology also articulates a view of social justice and how it is appropriately manifested. Three major perspectives of social justice may consequently be identified: (1) philosophical, (2) socio/political, and (3) religious.

Five philosophical theories of social justice are generally highlighted: (1) utilitarianism, (2) self-perfectionism, (3) Marxism, (4) existentialism, and (5) libertarianism. Social movements, on the other hand, are advanced by (1) liberationist, (2) ecologist/environmentalist, and (3) human rights advocates. While “social justice” is often a buzzword phrase that carries connotations of socio/political activism, Christians have, nonetheless, long recognized that Holy Scripture exhorts the Church to defend and uphold the dignity and well-being of all persons, especially the poor, infirmed, mistreated, and marginalized. Unfortunately, while robust theologies of religious social justice are espoused by most of the world’s major religions, the influence of these inspired principles and values have not been adequately leveraged.

The Center for Economic and Social Justice, a non-profit organization located in Washington, D.C., defines social justice as “the virtue which guides in creating institutions, that when justly organized, provide access to what is good for the person, both individually and in associations with others. Social justice also imposes personal responsibility to work with others to design and continually perfect institutions as tools for personal and social development.”

Alternatively, the North American Association of Christians in Social Work (NACSW) describes social justice as “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.” While activist and governmental organizations have traditionally promoted the fair distribution of economic goods as the primary means to promote a social justice, recent scholars argue that social justice should also be concerned with issues of self-worth, dignity and other “spiritual goods.”

The Roman Catholic Church has long expounded upon the “spiritual goods” of social justice to include scripture-based concerns. The social justice teachings of the Catholic Church are rooted in biblical principles and delineated most particularly in the encyclicals of the modern popes beginning with Leo XIII (1878-1903), continuing with Pius XI (1922-1939), John XXIII (1958-1963), Paul VI (1963-1978), John Paul II (1978-2005), Benedict XVI (2005-2013) and through to Pope Francis (2013- ). The Vatican, in fact, has put together a very useful Compendium of the following seven primary social justice teachings of the Catholic Church.

  1. Life and Dignity of the Human Person
  2. Call to Family, Community, and Participation
  3. Rights and Responsibilities
  4. Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
  5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
  6. Solidarity
  7. Care for God’s Creation

According to the Compendium, a scriptural-based understanding of justice “is particularly important in the present-day context where the individual value of the person, his dignity and his rights — despite proclaimed intentions — are seriously threatened by the widespread tendency to make exclusive use of criteria of utility and ownership. Justice,” insists the Compendium, “is not merely a simple human convention, because what is “just” is not first determined by the law, but by the profound identity of the human being.”Like the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Christian tradition develops its understanding of social justice from a theological conception of the Holy Trinity. Scripture is therefore used to describe God as the “Great Philanthropos,” Jesus as the “Great Physician,” and the Holy Spirit as the “Great Comforter” (Paraclete), the One “called to the side of another.” Early Church leaders like Ignatius of Antioch, Basil the Great, and the “Golden-Mouthed” Chrysostom intertwined these three theological ideas with the notion of “diakonia” (ministry, service, comfort) that emphasized the sacramental ministries of healing, teaching, and serving the needs of the sick and the poor. In fact, apart from being “the teacher, moral guide, liturgical and spiritual guide of the community,” Chrysostom distinguished the priest as the “administrator of a system of charity for the care of strangers, support of widows, orphans and the poor.”

Modeled in such a fashion after the Holy Trinity, the scripture-based understanding of social justice, uniquely characterized by its inter-personal dimensions of Christian love, of “standing by the side of another,” became the pastoral framework that helped 4th Century Christian leaders establish schools, hospitals, hospices, and other philanthropic institutions.

In 2016, the island of Crete hosted a Pan-Orthodox Council of Eastern Orthodox churches officially referred to as the Holy and Great Council. The gathering of 14 autocephalous Orthodox leaders/delegates was presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. In his article, Pondering the Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World: A Protestant Missiological Reflection of Peace and Justice (2017), Pavol Bargar, research fellow at Charles University in Prague and secretary of the Central and Eastern European Association for Mission Studies (CEEAMS), asserts that this Pan-Orthodox Council provided an invaluable contribution to the ecumenical dialogue on scripture-based understandings of mission, evangelism, and social justice.

In particular, the Pan-Orthodox Council’s document on The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World (MOCT) expands upon the Orthodox Trinitarian-based understanding of social justice by providing relevant information on: (1) dignity of the human person, (2) freedom and responsibility, (3) peace and justice, (4) peace and the aversion of war, (5) the attitude of the church toward discrimination, and (6) the mission of the Orthodox Church as a witness of love through service.  “Scripture,” according to MOCT, “describes the gospel of Christ . . . the restoration of all things in Him . . . of peace, freedom, and social justice, as well as the flourishing of Christian love among people from various cultures.”

MOCT insists that the Church exists to serve people in need and should, therefore, enable cooperation with manifold social institutions. However, while the Church “must minister in the public space, including the task of feed the hungry,” the document warns, that such “diakonia” should be based on a scriptural perspective (James 2:14-18), that is “not only material but first and foremost a spiritual matter.” As such, the Great Council concluded with an appeal for the Church to practice and proclaim “the word of the cross and the love of the crucified Lord who alone has the power to give life to the world and who is the way toward peace, justice, freedom, and love.”

Theological Models

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) serves as the collective voice of U.S. Catholic higher education. Like ATS, the Association strengthens and promotes the Catholic identity and mission of its member institutions so that all associated with Catholic higher education can contribute to the greater good of the world and the Church. Quoting a passage from Pope John Paul II’sEx Corde Ecclesiae (1990), the ACCU insists that the Catholic university “is called to become an ever more effective instrument of cultural progress for individuals as well as for society . . . the dignity of human life, the promotion of justice for all, the quality of personal and family life, the protection of nature, the search for peace and political stability, a more just sharing in the world’s resources, and a new economic and political order that will better serve the human community.” According to Ex Corde, “if need be, a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.”

The nation’s institutions of higher theological education have both the responsibility and the opportunity to nurture this understanding in the minds, hearts, and souls of their respective graduates. As a result, a number of institutions have already begun to offer bifurcated degree programs by partnering with local colleges/universities that currently provide a variety of social work designations. Students attend both institutions concurrently and graduate with degrees from each. Such collaborations allow students to integrate a faith perspective to their social work interests thereby providing future religious leaders pastoral as well as nonprofit sector versatility.  But what framework is best suited for training future religious leaders?

The most common typologies used for teaching Social Justice include: (1) Distributive/Economic, (2) Non-Profit/Social Services, (3) Activist Theory, (4) Scriptural Theology, (5) Social Contract, (6) Liberation Theology, (7) Ecological, (8) Peace/Ethics, (9) Faith-Based Model, (10) Human Rights, (11) Anthropological, (12) Eucharistic/Sacramental Model, and (13 Transformative.

In his article, Orthodox Theological Education in the 3rd Millennium (2000), Petros Vassiliadis, president of the World Conference of Associations and Theological Institutions (WOCATI), encourages theological schools to employ the Eucharistic/Sacramental model of social justice.  “Theological education,” insists Vassiliadis, “can no longer be conducted in abstracto, as if its object, God, was a solitary ultimate being. It should always refer to a Triune God, the perfect expression of communion, and a direct result of the eucharistic eschatological experience; an experience which is directed toward the vision of the Kingdom, and which is centered around the communion (koinonia), thus resulting in justice, peace, abundance of life and respect to the created world.” Such “a Eucharistic vision,” continues Vassiliadis, can help theological schools “develop . . . and articulate a new paradigm to equip the whole people of God . . . an innovative, experimental, people-centered approach to knowledge and education . . . that will ensure that the processes of formation be relevant and renewing to individuals and communities of faith.”

Reminiscent of Vassiliadis, Aeiredus Rievallensis provides a number of insightful theological statements concerning a Eucharistic/Sacramental approach to social justice in his article, When is Social Justice Catholic – and When is it Not?  “Social justice,” insists the pen-named anonymous Catholic essayist, “can be truly transformational only if it is sacramental.” In support of the Orthodox Christian view, Rievallensis differentiates the ecclesiological from the more secular, activist, and “de-sacralized” views of justice. “Alleviation from external oppression,” he insists, “if not supported by inner transformation of mind, leads only to a new kind of slavery. Merely to lift a man out of poverty, so that he can engage in the “good life” of selfish material acquisition, is to make him more of a slave than he was before. A secularized theory of social justice,” insists Rievallensis, “leaves no room for the transformative element, for the spiritual regeneration that the works of mercy can effect in both the worker and the object of the work.”

CLICK HERE to access the full article with examples of other emerging theological degree programs.At its core, scripture-based social justice is eucharistic and transformative, and as such, an indispensable sympathy that must be nurtured in all future teachers and religious leaders. While important, social justice should not be reduced to political/activist frameworks of tolerance, interest-group morality, and/or economic utopianism. Since authentic justice can only be transformational when it retains its sacramental nature, antinomian attitudes that falsely dichotomize the secular from the spiritual dimensions of social “diakonia” must not be advanced.  On the contrary, theological education has the unique duty to wed the two. In so doing, such schools may one day find their names listed among the noteworthy Seminaries that Change the World.

In 1957, the sunken remains of the HMS Bounty were discovered in the cove of Pitcairn Island where the famous ship was burned. In fact, the Bounty’s rudder was retrieved and is now tastefully displayed in the Fiji Museum. Rather than a memorial of mutiny, however, the weather-beaten rudder serves as a testament to the redemptive power of God’s Word.

The nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological education have an obligation to be such rudders of scriptural transformation, strong guides that liberate pastoral creativity rather than weighty anchors that tolerate the lethargic drag of societal injustice.  The message of the Gospel must, therefore, have contemporary application. Like Chrysostom’s Antioch, the sacramental altar must not be separated from today’s hospital operatory. The chalice and bread of the angels must be joined to the plastic plates of the hunger pantry. In the end, the local sanctuary must once again become the shelter for the nation’s marginalized and homeless. Only in this fashion can humanity – creation’s original mutineers – enjoy the Pitcairn of authentic social justice.


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

“Seminarians should become accustomed to training their character. This will make them a living reflection of the humanity of Jesus, and a bridge that unites people with God.” ~ Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis

On December 8, 2016 the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Clergy published The Gift of the Priestly Formation (Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis) which examines the topic of the formation of future religious leaders. According to the document, the purpose of formation is to assist seminarians in becoming “a living reflection of the humanity of Jesus . . . individuals of integrity with the personality necessary for ministry in the Church.” The Congregation consequently urges seminaries and institutions of theological education to help “form” the nation’s future religious leaders “to be bridges for, not obstacles to, the spread of the Gospel.”

In his Preliminary Report of the Educational Models and Practices in Theological Education Project (2017), Stephen R. Graham, underscores the need for the Association of Theological Schools in America to do a better job at such bridge-building. “Seminaries,” insists Graham, “have never been able to do all that is needed to prepare persons for lifelong religious leadership.” He therefore underscores the need to more effectively addressed the formation of religious leaders in the Association’s Standards of Accreditation. His Preliminary Report also emphasizes the need for the nation’s seminaries and theological schools to appropriately train and equip faculty to effectively facilitate the formation methodology of their respective institutions. As ATS’ Senior Director of Programs and Services, Graham is in a position to encourage the Association’s member schools “to strive to define what formation means in their particular traditions and contexts, to find the most effective ways to form students, and to demonstrate effectiveness in formation.”

But what exactly entails the formation of future religious leaders? What are its epistemological underpinnings? Who should be responsible for its ongoing implementation? And, more importantly, what methods should be developed by the nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological learning to advance and evaluate if such “bridge-building” is actually occurring?

As symbols of passage and transition, bridges have often been the poetic focus of art, music, and historic legend. The Bridge of Arta, for example, that crosses the Arachthos River near the city of Arta in Epirus, Greece, is one such stone extension that has been memorialized in an eponymous Greek folk ballad that bears its name. Historical research indicates that the narrative may be based on an event that actually occurred during the Turkish war-time occupation of the area. According to the lyric poem, every day 45 craftsmen and 60 apprentices tried to build a bridge. Each evening, however, the outcome of their previous day’s effort would collapse. After months of delays, the 450′ long stone bridge with four arches was finally able to remain standing when the master mason was forced to sacrifice his wife’s life in the cement pilings.

Since ancient times, challenging projects were understood to require great sacrifice. Legends and epic poems, like that of The Bridge of Arta, frequently described the need for some form of personal reparation, the most intense being that of martyrdom, for an important project to be completed. A master builder being forced to sacrifice his wife is a recurring plot element in folk songs where grand aspirations are dogged by failures and repeated delays. In fact, the theme of the “walled-up wife,” is encountered throughout Eastern Europe where female skeletal remains have actually been found in the walls of old structures.

At its core, the formation of religious leaders, like the Bridge of Arta, is established on the masonry of personal sacrifice. Formation is an organic, life-long, holistic process of servanthood expressed in the context of community life. It is not simply a personal or individualistic project. Like the apostles, aspirants are invited to be “with Him” (Jesus) for a period of time (John 2:2), to acquire the dispositions that would make them selfless conduits – bridges to God. They were actually, invited by their Teacher “to take up their cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). Becoming such a spiritual “bridge,” however requires fabricating the sacrificial scaffold of prayerfulness, obedience, humility, and servanthood. As such, while numerous dominance-driven definitions are proposed by secular management authors, religious leadership formation can be summarized as a process (1) of being conformed to the image of Christ, (2) on behalf of others, and (3) for the purpose of advancing the mission of the Church.

In his classic work, Essays in Seminary Education (1967), John Tracy Ellis has classified the history of religious leadership formation into eight primary periods, each with their respective model: (1) Gospel, (2) Early Christianity, (3) Patristic, (4) Monastic, (5) Middle-Ages, (6) Council of Trent, (7) Post-Reformation Europe, (8) Early American Experience, and (9) America Church Today. While it is not within the scope of this commentary to provide a comprehensive review of Ellis’ arrangements, a brief examination of the current status of formation in contemporary seminaries and theological schools of higher education would prove valuable.

In the spring of 2018, the Association of Theological Schools in America conducted a survey of formation among its member schools. The survey focused on if/how seminaries and institutions of theological higher education understood the terms “personal” and “spiritual formation” in ATS’ current Standards of Accreditations (2014-17). In her subsequent report, Five Things We’ve Learned About Assessing Personal and Spiritual Formation, Jo Ann Deasy, concludes that only 59% of responding schools have a formal definition of formation. As the ATS Director of Institutional Initiatives and Student Research, Deasy is able to authoritatively testify that formation among member schools ranges, “from a broad understanding that embraces the whole of theological education, to a narrow emphasis on spiritual disciplines or vocational discernment.” She further states that definitions of formation also range from “denominationally affiliated to interreligious, from evangelical to Roman Catholic, from ministry focused to academically focused, and combinations of all of the above.”

Long before Deasy’s report, Paul Pettit observed that, while religious leadership formation means different things to different groups, two guiding principles are consistent. In his book Foundations of Spiritual Formation: A Community Approach to Becoming Like Christ, (2008), Pettit states that spiritual formation is: (1) “a holistic work of God in a believer’s life whereby systematic change renders the individual continually closer to the image and actions of Jesus Christ,” and (2) “the change or transformation that occurs happens best in the context of authentic, Christian community and is entirely oriented as service towards God and others.”

According to Stephen Graham, more than other forms of study, theological education must attend to the development of the person. In his Mid-point Reflections (2016) on ATS’ Educational Models Project, like Pettit, Graham insists that, in addition to intellectual and academic formation and the development of practical ministry skills, “theological students must be formed as persons of integrity and spiritually to give leadership to communities of faith and other contexts.” In order to do so, he suggests that member schools might consider utilizing the “four pillars of formation” (intellectual, ministry, human, and spiritual) that were first described by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), to undergird the fundamentals of their respective formation programs. In fact, the four-pillar paradigm is currently being used by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops in the fifth edition of their Program of Priestly Formation.

Pope John Paul II insists that, without priests, “the Church would not be able to live out the fundamental obedience which is at the very heart of her existence and her mission in the world.” Realizing that future religious leaders would face a myriad of novel challenges, the Pope emphasized the need for the Church “to propose to each new generation the vocational call, and give care to the formation of candidates for priesthood.” According to the Pontiff, Catholic priestly formation must consider four principal pillars: (1) human, (2) spiritual, (3) intellectual, and (4) pastoral.  Each foundational area, while distinct in itself, is naturally linked to the others providing a comprehensive structure of formation that guides the development of the candidate towards religious leadership. However, while the spiritual pillar is of great importance, Pope John Paul considered the human dimension of priestly formation as the basis of the other three. “The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation,” insists the Pontiff, “if it lacked a suitable human formation.”

The purpose of the human dimension of formation, writes Pope Paul, is to assist students in the task of becoming individuals of integrity with the personality necessary for ministry in the Church. The spiritual domain of formation, on the other hand, seeks to develop the student’s relationship with Christ through prayer and contemplation. Intellectual formation strives to deepen faith through the study of philosophy and theology so that students may be able to authentically proclaim Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life to the faith communities they will one day serve. Finally, pastoral formation is nurtured by requiring students to participate in supervised field education assignments that include parishes, schools, and social service agencies. Apart from formal seminary and/or theological school formation, Pasoral Dabo Vobis also emphasizes the need for ongoing formation for bishops, clergy, and lay leaders.

In December 2016, the Vatican published a set of guidelines for the formation of seminarians entitled The Gift of the Priestly Vocation. The parameters set forth in Pasoral Dabo Vobis were used by the Council of Bishops to develop its Program of Priestly Formation which, according to the Bishops, should be divided into two primary life-cycle periods: (1) initial, and (2) ongoing. While initial formation formally begins when a candidate enters a theological school or seminary, the ongoing period begins at graduation/ordination and continues throughout a religious leader’s entire life.

According to the design of the Bishops, initial formation entails four stages: (1) Propaedeutic (preparatory period), (2) Discipleship (period of philosophical studies), (3) Configuration (period of theological studies), and (4) Pastoral (period of vocational synthesis). During the initial propaedeutic stage, aspiring religious leaders are provided opportunities to familiarize themselves with Christian doctrine. Discipleship, on the other hand, is a stage during which special attention should be given to the human dimension of formation, emphasizing systematic work on the personality of the future religious leader.

Configuration is the third stage of formation characterized by a focus on helping students “enter profoundly into the contemplation of the person of Jesus Christ, making the relationship with Christ more intimate and personal.” During this time, aspirants are encouraged to “gradually mature into the likeness of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep, gives his life for them, and seeks out the ones that have wandered from the fold.” Finally, during the Pastoral Stage which begins with the ordination to the Diaconate, seminarians leave the seminary and begin their life of pastoral service. Normally experienced for a significant period of time outside of the seminary, during this stage, “the candidate is asked to declare freely, consciously and definitively his intention to be a priest, having received diaconal ordination.”

Ongoing formation, according to the Program of Priestly Formation, is intended to ensure fidelity to the priestly ministry in a “continuing journey of conversion, in order to rekindle the gift received at ordination.” While the priest himself is primarily responsible for his own ongoing formation, it is the bishop’s responsibility, however, to ensure that clergy are not immersed in excessively burdensome or delicate situations. As such, the document recommends that a “system of personal accompaniment for novice priests be established to promote and maintain the quality of their ministry and to help them meet their first pastoral challenges with joy and enthusiasm.”

The need to form religious leaders as bridge builders is not limited to Papal exemplars of the Catholic Church. According to Dr. John Silber, President Emeritus of Boston University, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is a contemporary “Bridge Builder.” Spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians throughout the globe, Bartholomew’s entire life has been characterized by a number of ecumenical bridge building efforts.

In his article, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – A Passion for Peace (2014), Silber describes the first of these bridges as “one that reaches out to the various Orthodox churches.” While the second bridge “is one which reaches out to Europe, a bridge which has been created from the Patriarch’s vigorous pleas for the extension of the European Union to the East and the Southeast of Europe,” the third bridge is “one that will facilitate the dialogue between all the Christian churches.” For his inspiring efforts on behalf of religious freedom and human rights, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was officially heralded as a “Bridge Builder and Peacemaker” and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the U.S. Congress in 1997.

In 1972 the Executive Committee of the American Association of Theological Schools published an important Task Force Report entitled Voyage-Vision-Venture. According to the Report’s opening sentence, “a priority issue of major dimensions is that of the spiritual development of persons preparing for ministry.” Not much has changed since ATS’ initial conviction. The formation of the nation’s future religious “bridge-builders” requires seminaries and institutions of higher theological education to more effectively focus their attention on more than merely the intellectual capacities of their students.  “There is a deep hunger for spirituality today,” insists Bartholomew, “a great need to demonstrate to anxious people all over the world the healing power of compassion and goodwill. There has never been a greater need for spiritual leaders to engage themselves in the affairs of the world.”  Such bridge-builders are, indeed, desperately needed today.

When the bridge across Niagara Falls was initially contemplated, engineers were faced with the daunting task of envisioning how to span the river with heavy suspension cables. The problem was solved when a young boy named Homan Walsh successfully flew a simple kite across the wide expanse. Increasingly larger ropes, small chains, and finally heavy cables strong enough to support a train, were all stretched across because of the kite’s initial small twine. When asked, 80 years later, to describe his life’s greatest exploit, Walsh confessed that it was the day he successfully flew a kite across Niagara Falls.

Like Arta and Niagara, bridges are images of strength, solidity, and tenacity. They convey a sense of structural durability. Religious leaders who are bridge-builders are, therefore, willing and able to unite various groups of people and their understandings in such a fashion. They understand the need to manage polarity and tension between people, issues, and factions.  They also see their role as being strong spiritual cables of faith that support systems and resources in ways that serve the marginalized and connect the isolated. They understand that they must mediate between tradition, the status quo, vision, and creative innovation. Finally, they accept the challenge of helping humanity humbly span the gaps between its fallen nature and its Creator Savior.

The nation desperately needs religious leaders who possess the knowledge, skills, and, above all, the spiritual maturity to sacrificially serve a society that, in the words of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “hungers for spirituality.” Seminaries and institutions of theological higher learning must therefore heed ATS’ recommendations and advance robust systems that can help aspirants successfully fly their respective kite-strings of initial formation across society’s ever-widening expanses. Under the proper leadership, these schools can provide the necessary education, training, and formation to adequately prepare such “bridge-builders” for the challenges they will inevitably encounter as religious leaders.


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

“Put out into deeper water, and let down the nets for a catch.” ~ Luke 5:4

A massive tapestry entitled The Miraculous Draught of Fish (Luke, 5:3–11; John 21:1–17) woven by Pieter van Aelst from sketches drawn by the famous Renaissance artist Raphael Sanzio prominently hangs in the Vatican Museum (Link). Commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, the artwork is part of a series of ten exquisite silk draperies that once lined the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel.According to the biblical account that provides the basis of the famous embroidery, Simon Peter, his father, and their two partners had been fishing all night without success. Approached in the morning act of “mending their nets,” Jesus asks Peter to “put out a little from the dock” and allow him to address a crowd of onlookers from his boat. When finished, Jesus instructed Peter to re-launch and cast the nets of his fishing trawler into the “deeper waters” of lake Gennesaret (Luke 5:4). At first reluctant, Peter is subsequently stunned when he discovers that his net is bursting with fish. As a result of the miraculous catch, Peter and his fishing partners, James and John, astonishingly leave their valuable bounty behind to follow Jesus as his initial disciples.

Sanzio and van Aelst’s interpretation of Saint Luke’s miracle story depicts James and John towing a net of abundance into an overloaded boat while Simon Peter kneels in supplication before Jesus. Beyond the impressive detail of cranes and seagulls in the foreground consecutively representing vigilance and apostasy, the exquisite drapery alludes to the inauguration of the universal Christian Church symbolized by an overflowing net and the reflection of the partially constructed Basilica of Saint Peter shimmering on the lake’s surface.

Unlike the fishermen depicted in the Vatican’s masterful execution, the administrative tapestry of many of the nation’s theological schools and seminaries, unfortunately, depicts their respective enrollment nets hollow and in need of mending.  Contemporary admission officers lament that their vigorous efforts have not sufficiently yielded the enrollment numbers required to ensure the sustainability of their institutions. If this regretful situation is to change, a new approach is needed that will afford these “fishers of learners” the opportunity to drop their nets into “deeper waters” where the potential of larger harvests are possible.

According to the Research Center of the National Student Clearinghouse, the overall postsecondary enrollments for 2019 decreased by 1.7% from the previous year. Enrollments decreased among four-year for-profit institutions (19.7%), two-year public institutions (3.4%), and four-year public institutions (1%). As a result, while considered unthinkable just a few years ago, unsustainable discount tuition rates of 60% or more have become relatively common.

Statistics from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) unfortunately supports the Clearinghouse’s national data. According to ATS, enrollment at its member schools has been on a slow, steady decline for years. In fact, the median campus has lost about 8% of its enrollment since 2001. However, while head-counts at theological institutions (151-1,000 enrollees) fell from 74,253 in 2011 to 72,116 in 2015, data also show that schools with fewer than 75 students actually grew their market share in 2018. Significantly, while extension enrollment dipped by 26% over the past decade, online numbers more than doubled during the same period.

The 2017 report entitled Mergers in Higher Education: A Proactive Strategy to a Better Future? published by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA), concludes that since 2009, there have been nearly 100 private, nonprofit closures in higher education. Based on an analysis of these institutions conducted by Parthenon (Ernst & Young), TIAA identifies the following seven predictive risk factors: (1) weaknesses in institutional strength, including enrollment under 1,000, (2) not having a complete online program, (3) revenue generation, including annual tuition increases greater than 8%, (4) tuition discount rates greater than 35%, (5) tuition dependency greater than 85%, (6) financial structure, including a ratio of endowment to annual expenses less than 3:1, debt service greater than 10% of expenses, (7) expenses greater than revenues.

The interrelated fiscal challenges of limited resources, declining enrollment, and unsustainable discount tuition rates, usually mask broader institutional complications. Consequently, enrollment experts warn that colleges who are intent on stemming these systemic complications by simply providing scholarships and/or, increasing tuition discount rates are making critical mistakes.

According to Stephen Graham, the ATS Senior Director of Programs and Services, one of the top five impediments to achieving financial equilibrium in seminaries and theological schools involves enrollment issues. “With fewer prospective students being “called” and more students pursuing their education on a part-time basis or through nontraditional means,” Graham insists, “schools must work harder to attract and retain sufficient students to create a community of learning, generate necessary tuition revenues, and help assure appropriate salary expectations for graduating students” (ATS General Institutional Standards).

Enrollment continues to be a challenge with obvious implications for the economic well-being of the nation’s seminaries and theological schools. When asked in an interview by the Chief Financial Officer Society (2010) if there are any strategies that seem to offer particular promise for achieving financial equilibrium, Graham, recommends “looking beyond the usual three strategies of (1) raising tuition or enrollment, (2) building endowment, or (3) increasing annual giving . . . shifting from a simple admissions program to a Strategic Enrollment Management program aimed at both proactive recruitment and thoughtful retention, for instance, is a more holistic approach to ensuring a sustainably sized student body.”

In their Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management (2014), Don Hossler and Bob Bontrager agree with Graham and recommend that as an alternative to providing scholarship and tuition discounts, “schools would be better served to implement Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) systems that proactively link strategies and tactics across marketing, admissions, programs, and technology.” In so doing, argue the authors, SEM can help institutions of higher learning “increase their funnel of qualified students, improving retention rates, and, thereby, stabilize their revenues.”

In her Special Report, What Your Head Needs to Know about Enrollment Management (2017), Heather Hoerle, Executive Director of the Enrollment Management Association, explains how “demographic and economic shifts necessitated higher education’s move from a traditional admission model to a Strategic Enrollment Management model in order to achieve institutional goals.” Like Graham, Hossler, and Bontrager, Hoerle insists that if schools are to survive and thrive into the future, “admission offices must push beyond their conventional focus (acquisition of new students) and become more strategically focused on the marketplace and all the drivers that contribute to steady, long-term enrollment success.”

But what exactly is the Strategic Management of Enrollment? What are its primary components? How does it differ from existing admission strategies? And what impact would the implementation of SEM methodologies have on the nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological education?

According to the Education Encyclopedia (StateUniversity.com), an online resource for professional educators, Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) “refers to the ability of institutions of higher education to exert systematic influence over the number and characteristics of new students.” A primary goal of SEM is to also “influence the persistence of students to continue their enrollment from the time of their matriculation to their graduation.”

The general notion of Enrollment Management (EM) emerged on private college campuses in the 1970s. The Bridge Magazine of Boston College published an article by Jack Maguire in 1976 entitled, To the Organized, Go the Students. “Enrollment Management,” wrote the originator of the then-novel approach, “is a process that brings together often disparate functions having to do with marketing, recruiting, funding, tracking, retaining, and replacing students as they move toward, within and away from the University.” Although these various strategies were, to one degree or another, widespread in most colleges and universities at the time, Maguire informed his readers that Boston College was “on the leading edge of the growing movement to reduce fragmentation by systematizing and integrating these fields into one grand design.”

Like Maguire, Don Hossler and John Bean emphasize the integrative benefits of implementing a strategic approach to the management of enrollment. According to Hossler and Bean, Enrollment Management (EM) is “an organizational concept and a systematic set of activities designed to enable educational institutions to exert more influence over their student enrollments. Enrollment management activities are organized by strategic planning and supported by institutional research.” In their book, The Strategic Management of College Enrollments (1990), the authors further delineate Maguire’s institutional EM practices by suggesting that, when properly implementing, they will “analyze and guide the areas of new student recruitment and financial aid, student support services, curriculum development, and other academic areas that affect enrollments, student persistence, and student outcomes.”

Hossler and Bean identify four general Enrollment Management models: (1) Enrollment Management Committee, (2) Enrollment Management Coordinator, (3) Enrollment Management Matrix, and (4) Enrollment Management Division. Each classification has been further been delineated in Hosstler and Bontrager’s 2014 Handbook. With careful and realistic long-term planning to enhance recruitment and retention, the authors insist that EM “is not a panacea, but can assist independent schools in achieving their enrollment and revenue goals.”

According to Hossler, Bean, and Bontrager, the Enrollment Management Committee Model is usually “advisory in nature and simply an institutional committee that includes representatives from admissions, financial aid, student affairs, academic affairs, and institutional advancement.” Alternatively, the Enrollment Management Staff Coordinator is an administrative staff position model that coordinates activities that are related to the enrollment function and does not require a major change within the organizational chart.

The Enrollment Management Matrix is the authors’ third model classification that assigns responsibility and decision making to a senior-level administrator. While the Enrollment Matrix Model is comprised of services linked by a collaboration rather than by office leadership, the Enrollment Management Division is the most hierarchical of the four administrative structures that can be implemented to coordinate an institution’s enrollment efforts. Conventionally overseen by an executive/senior-level administrator, the Management Division “strategically superintends the related activities of recruitment, marketing, admissions, financial aid, academic and career advising, institutional research, orientation, retention, and student services and, thereby, becoming more effective.”

In their study entitled, Enrollment Management Strategies: Effectiveness and Usage at Member Institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (2011), Bethany J. Schuttinga concludes that, while one common structure cannot be identified, enrollment management systems over the past 30 years have yielded optimal enrollment results. Consequently, enrollment management at any institution, Schuttinga suggests, should be adapted and refined to complement each respective campus’ organizational climate, needs, and administrative skills.

As envisioned, Strategic Enrollment Management strives to nurture an institutional culture of strategic planning that is nimble and dynamic, allowing institutions of higher education to adjust and change as necessary. While admission is a critical component, it does not drive the entire process. Enrollment management focuses attention beyond the admission entry point to include strategies for attrition, retention, and financial aid. Such integrated enrollment strategies go beyond slick videos, open-houses, retreats and pep rallies, to become an institutional culture that involves the entire learning community. In the final analysis, the goal of Strategic Enrollment Management is the leveraging of the interconnectedness of enrollment with facility, staffing, and rich data for the purpose of financial stability.

Like Schuttinga, Christine Hailer Baker defines Enrollment Management as an “institutional response to the challenges and opportunities that recruiting and retaining the right student body present to a school’s financial health, image, and student quality. It is a research-based process that creates a synergy among recruitment, pricing and financial aid, academic affairs, student life, and constituent relations.” In her book, The NAIS Enrollment Management Handbook (2012), she outlines four key areas of effective enrollment management that are similar to those of Hossler and Bean: (1) admission, (2) retention, (3) research and analysis, and (4) marketing.

According to Ian Symmonds, admissions is generally understood as the active effort of creating a sustainable enrollment.  While a core administrative function, the term is limiting in that it only describes the process of entry rather than all the activities that are needed to create and maintain a school’s student body.  Alternatively, a strategic approach to enrollment is based on a larger and more proactive ecosystem approach.  In his book, Long Live Strategy (2014), Symmonds further apportions Baker’s key Enrollment Management areas into a seven-spoke platform model that integrates (1) recruitment, (2) retention, (3) research, (4) admission, (5) financial aid and net revenue, (6) information management, and (7) marketing communications.

Recruitment, says Symmonds, is a “demand generation function” that translates into the creation of inquiries, applications, and visits to campus.  Admissions, on the other hand, typically defined by the systematic gathering of information that contributes to a candidate’s portfolio for consideration, is literally the process of entry into a school or college.  A strategic management approach to enrollment integrates recruitment, admission, and retention in a collaborative effort across school divisions, requiring input and insight from academic leaders throughout the organization.

Financial aid is typically a method of utilizing funded or unfunded financial assistance to generate revenue, sustain enrollment, and create access to a school.  According to Symmonds, Strategic Enrollment Management sets systems priorities on the use of such financial aid and seeks to accomplish one of three objectives: (1) fill unused capacity to generate revenue, (2) shape programs/classes with specific types of students, and/or (3) provide access to underrepresented populations.

Strategic Enrollment Management emphasizes the systematic tracking of human behavior and the analysis of institutional activities so that school leaders can make wise choices. Such an enrollment approach requires a robust information management/tracking system. Symmonds argues that “rich input, throughput, and output data” is, therefore, the “backbone of an effective enrollment platform.”  On the other hand, the act of generating and sustaining interest and demand in the market requires effective marketing communications.  This is the area where the management of enrollment intersects with brand identity and strategic communication planning.

An effective enrollment management program, according to Symmonds, “requires collaboration across divisions, with shared responsibilities and roles in marketing communications and advancement areas.” At its most basic level, insists the SEM expert, “it is about removing unnecessary barriers and creating client-centered incentives toward persistence in the input, throughput, and output process.”

Like Hossler, Bean, Bontrager, Schuttinga, and Baker, EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit membership association created to support those who lead, manage, and use information technology to benefit higher education, recommends that Enrollment Management should engage students from when they first hear about the college to the day they graduate. In their Learning Initiative monogram, 7 Things You Should Know About Enrollment Management (2019), EDUCAUSE underscores that “models for enrollment management have evolved based on strategies derived from analysis of an institution’s mission, vision, and environment, enabling institutions to connect activities in student recruitment and marketing, admissions and enrollment, financial aid and scholarship administration, course registration, institutional planning and analytics, and student life and leadership.”

Alexander Kesler is an advocate of EDUCAUSE’s directives. In his eCampus Innovations in Higher Education article entitled, 5 Tips to Drive Applicants and Boost Enrollment (2017), Kesler outlines five steps for implementing an effective enrollment management strategy: (1) develop market personas, (2) audit existing content, (3) leverage storytelling/communications, (4) promote institutional research, and (5) create multi-media experiences. When implemented correctly, Kesler insists that educational institutions will penetrate and influence target audiences, address their questions, and generate excitement about enrolling.

In his article, Nine Strategies for Successful Enrollment Management in Today’s Higher Education Environment (2013), Peter Bryant encourages colleges and universities to quickly adapt to new enrollment trends, data, and best practices. Like Symmonds, Bryant insists that, if institutions of higher education want their enrollment strategies to be successful, “leaders should adopt a data-informed approach that addresses campus marketing, student recruitment, and student retention.” While every campus is different, Bryant outlines the following nine data-informed Enrollment Management strategies for (1) identifying, (2) cultivating, (3) recruiting, and (4) retaining students.

  1. Set realistic enrollment goals—not projections
  2. Identify and secure sufficient resources to meet enrollment objectives
  3. Develop 3-5-year strategic enrollment and revenue plan with annual marketing and recruitment goals
  4. Devote as much attention to student retention as to recruitment
  5. Build a recruitment database and inquiry pool by design, not by chance
  6. Track marketing and recruitment activities
  7. Qualify and precisely grade prospective students
  8. Implement a strategic communications flow
  9. Award financial aid so students get what they need and expect to enroll

Finally, in his 2009 Colloquy interview entitled, Reaching for The Stars: Four Strategies for Boosting Enrollment, David Worley, author and noted vice president of institutional advancement and enrollment at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, outlines the four enrollment management strategies that he and his enrollment team implemented to achieve stellar enrollment results in his School. Despite enrollment declines in theological education generally, at the end of the 2008–09 recruitment season, Iliff reported that inquiries were up 16%, campus visits up 79%, and applications up 46% over the prior year. In fact, the incoming class of September 2009 is the school’s largest since 1996 and new master’s degree students are up 36% over the prior year, making this the best year on record.In reflecting on Iliff’s recent successes, Worley strongly urges “boards and senior administrators of theological schools to pay close attention to both their lead enrollment officer and the whole enrollment staff. After all,” argues Worley, “growing and maintaining enrollment is one of the most important leadership initiatives facing seminaries today.” In his article, Measure and Mix (2014), Worley lists the following four key questions that boards, presidents, academic deans, and other senior administrators of institutions of higher education should ask their enrollment team.

  1. How well do we distinguish ourselves from other schools?
  2. How do our current enrollment metrics compare with prior years?
  3. Are we attending to student fit?
  4. Is the lead enrollment officer integrated into the institution’s leadership team?

Growing and maintaining enrollment is one of the most important leadership initiatives facing the nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological education. Demands on enrollment, however, will require a collective effort. Strategic Enrollment Management is a research-based process that can provide such an effective institutional response to the interrelated challenges of recruitment, pricing, financial aid, academics, student life, and constituent relations. While beyond the scope of this brief commentary, leaders of the nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological education would find great value in using Worley’s four questions to stimulate an honest and comprehensive conversation with their enrollment management staff.Scripture memorializes two different fish-netting miracles. While the Evangelist Luke (Luke, 5:3–11) focuses his attention on an extraordinary event that occurred during Jesus’ initial call of Simon Peter, John’s Gospel provides details concerning a similar but Post-Resurrection episode (John 21:1-17) in which a total of 153 fish are curiously tallied in the catch. The early Church biblical commentator, Saint Jerome, was the first to popularize the prevailing exegetical view that postulates that Saint John’s numeral figure refers to all the different “species” of fish known to exist in Lake Gennesaret at that time. The biblical message for Jerome and other Patristic writers was, therefore, clear. The evangelical mission of the Church is not limited to the Jewish people but is universal in nature. “The casting out of that net into the lake,” wrote Saint John Chrysostom, “is an icon of the Gospel. Our Savior wants to show us how the catching of the fish is an icon of the Church’s mission to the entire oecumene (civilization).”

There is a crucial need today for leaders of the nation’s seminaries and theological schools to accept the Lord’s invitation, and, like Simon Peter, drop their respective enrollment nets into the varied student markets of college-bound possibilities. Sanzio and van Aelst’s famous tapestry of Simon Peter’s miraculous catch of fish powerfully illustrate the value of venturing into the faith territories that such deeper waters will undoubtedly require. They must guard against the safety of wading in the shallows of established security by prudently launching their respective enrollment strategies into uncharted environments with an unyielding desire of serving the “oecumene.”

Yes, wading in the shallows offer the comfort zone characteristics of control, direction, and speed. Apart from always in touch with the bottom, land is always in sight, and safety – a mere step away.  Deep water, on the other hand, requires trust in one’s craft, compass, and captain.  In the shallows, leaders can depend on themselves. In the deep, they must rely on Him!

The survival of the nation’s seminaries and institutions of theological higher education will be determined by whether or not their leaders are content to remain in the ankle-deep shallows of convention or whether they are willing to place their creative trust in a Savior who beckons his followers to continuously deepen their relationship with him. Strategic Enrollment Management provides the requisites for doing just that . . . for prudently venturing away from the shallows and into the deeper waters of institutional possibilities.

“Duc in Altum!”


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