October 9, 2017
Over the past few weeks, we have shared a lot about partnerships. When I give presentations and talk about partnerships, one of the questions I am often asked is, “If your seminary is so invested in partnerships, how does it control the level of quality for its academic programs?” This is especially true when I talk about “external” partnerships. That is to say, the greater the perceived distance (geographic, relational, denominational, etc.) a partner is from Sioux Falls Seminary, the more concerned people are about controlling academic quality.
In one sense, that is understandable. By definition, the more distance between people the less likely they are to know each other well. The same is true for organizations and seminaries. In another sense, the concept of “control” is a misnomer given the ubiquitous form of traditional theological education. Let us look at how we ensure academic quality (note the fact I did not say control), and how control is something schools lost many years ago (and how that is not a bad thing).
Perhaps it would make more sense to begin by talking about control. Schools have a responsibility for ensuring that their graduates are in fact achieving the stated goals or outcomes for their respective degrees. For example, if graduates from a degree program are supposed to be able to speak a particular language fluently then the school has the responsibility for ensuring that occurs.
Over many years, that sense of responsibility digressed into a sense of power and control. Schools tended to default to the idea that only its faculty could teach the students, craft the learning experiences, or assess progress. Again, this made a little bit of sense when information was rather inaccessible and the number of people with specialized skills and knowledge was quite small. Now, however, in a world where content and information is relatively accessible (obviously, that varies by culture and context) and the number of people with specialized skills and knowledge is exponentially larger, it no longer makes sense for schools to assume they have the corner on pedagogical truth. The reality is that even if schools try to control the educational process by determining every minute detail about a program, that sense of control is an illusion.
Since theological education arrived in its current “traditional” form, participants have been shaped as much, if not more, by culture, their specific contexts, and the information they imbibe on a daily basis. Therein lies the illusion of control. Therefore, rather than seeking to control a process, I believe schools will do well to focus on the outcomes of learning rather than the process or source of content.
This concept serves as a key component of the Kairos Project. Do not get me wrong, content matters, sources of content matter, and the ability to curate content matters; it is just that we need to recognize that we cannot control every aspect of content and should not try. Instead, we have worked diligently to identify particular learning outcomes or statements of Christian maturity that should be true about each of our graduates. Then, we did the hard work of determining how we might assess a student’s progress toward and achievement of those outcomes. Finally, we recognized that people outside the walls of the seminary could play a pivotal role in assessing students’ progress toward learning outcomes.
With methods for ensuring the quality of the educational journey in place (that is the outcomes and a process for assessment of those outcomes), schools are free to work with partners without needing to control or approve every aspect of the partner’s content or method of delivery. Rather, students are empowered to work with partners as they progress toward the program goals for a specific degree.
The simple fact is that seminaries are not the keepers of pedagogical truth when it comes to developing people for participation in the kingdom mission. Again, do not get me wrong. Seminaries and their faculty members have a very important and unique role to play. That role, however, is not one of sitting atop an educational system, wielding power, and controlling who or what is worthy. Rather it is the role of servant in which faculty and seminaries bring their immense resources, reach, breath of knowledge, and depth of understanding to the community of faith and say, “Let us support you as you walk through your journey.”
When we take that posture, partnership and collaboration, regardless of “distance,” are natural expressions of kingdom-minded ministry.