Theological Education as a Platform

October 20, 2014


I love technology. I am that guy that loves talking about new technology, new apps, or things that only exist in technology research laboratories. One could argue that the evolution of the software platform has significantly impacted the trajectory of technological development. As Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do, writes, “The most successful enterprises today are networks . . . and the platforms on which those networks are built.”

So what would happen if we progressed from thinking about a seminary as “place” or “institution” to considering its role as a platform for theological education? What would a platform for theological education mean in light of the fact that theological education is (and should be) a system?

I could spend a lot of time trying to explain the nuances of a software platform. Instead, let me share a brief explanation from Ryan Sarver. He explains why Apple’s creation of the iOS platform, the software that runs the iPhone and iPad, created such a stir.

By becoming a platform, they enabled developers to build applications that would make their device more valuable to users, thus selling more devices. As more devices were sold, it created more revenue potential for app developers, thus drawing more developers to iOS. This created a very powerful network effect that drove growth on both sides of the business (developers and users) where growth on one side directly benefited the other.

In essence, a platform enables everyone in the network to progress toward stated goals relevant to his or her context.

Imagine with me, then, a system of theological education in which the seminary serves as a platform. Rather than a place where students must go and from which they must be sent, the seminary would serve as a connector between students and their callings, ministries and their needs, and ministry training programs and their participants.

In their traditional form, seminaries across the Association of Theological Schools extract students from ministry and act as the sole provider of all resources and learning. As a platform, seminaries would create value for students by allowing them to plug into a learning process in a way that serves them and their callings. At the same time, a seminary could find partners who could walk alongside students. As a result, we may see more individuals engage in a process of theological education because they are able to connect to something that matters to them. Likewise, we may see ministry training programs that currently operate apart from seminaries begin to partner with seminaries in transformational ways because they see how they might reach more students or participants.

A platform builds value for every part of the network. That is to say that “all ships rise” when the tide of the network rises. At times, we as seminaries have tended to extract rather than to add value for others within the system of theological education. Our models of theological education tend to assume a certain level of competition, a certain “rightness” to how we do things, and a certain separateness nature of theological education. While our work as seminaries is valuable, one could argue that the value doesn’t extend very far into the network.

If we design new models of theological education that encourage students, partners, resource providers, faculty, authors, and more to build new experiences for students and participants, I think we will see significant transformation.

For instance, the Kairos Project at Sioux Falls Seminary encourages students to engage in learning experiences and resources that exist outside the “walls” of the seminary. One student may participate in a spiritual direction program offered by another institution. Another student might take courses from another seminary. Still others may participate in a leadership program offered by their churches. Our faculty then guide, direct, and mentor students alongside a team of two “outside” mentors. The goal is for the seminary to be the connector between multiple points within the network of theological education.

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