Reflecting on a New Paradigm, Part 1

August 6, 2018

Innovation. Change. Creativity. Paradigmatic shift. New reality. Out of the box. Reimagine. Words and phrases like these have been used, over used, and perhaps abused for about the past decade in the world of theological education.  Over that period of time, schools, denominations, churches, ministries, and accrediting organizations have spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to build new “models” of theological education.

But Why?
While there are many reasons, a few that stand out are the fact that 10 years ago, enrollment was declining in seminaries all over North America.  The majority of seminaries in the Association of Theological Schools were enduring annual operating deficits.  The perceived value of theological education was beginning to diminish and students were incurring an ever-increasing amount of educational debt while in seminary.  Indeed, there were many challenges to address and schools, out of a deep desire to pursue their missions, began working diligently to develop creative ways to provide theological degrees.  It is difficult to overstate the exponential increase in “creative” activity among seminaries over the past 10 to 15 years.  This can even be tracked by reviewing the substantial increase in applications for exceptions or exemptions received by the Association of Theological Schools.

In October 2013, Sioux Falls Seminary became painfully aware of how deeply it needed to begin operating within a new paradigm as well.  The challenge, however, was not simply recognizing the need to change, but rather grasping the depth and interconnected nature of the change that needed to take place.

You see, words like change, innovation, reimagine, and so on sound great, but they often fail to truly capture the comprehensive nature of the work that needs to be done. In order to create a new paradigm, one must embrace the fact that the current paradigm is, in fact, fatally flawed.

Too often, when seminaries try to “reimagine theological education” or be “innovative” we try to put new content or different delivery models or different people into the exact same system.  For example, we devote significant time to creating new courses, rewriting syllabi, hiring new staff, having current staff switch roles, building new semester-based online courses, etc.  The problem is that the structures (and assumptions undergirding them) and financial models required to support them are never truly examined.  As a result, despite herculean efforts to build something new, the old somehow continues to rule the day.

Perhaps because we had no other choice or maybe because we got lucky, Sioux Falls Seminary has been able to design, develop, implement, and live into a new paradigm.  It hasn’t been without struggle and has been a journey of faith, discernment, and surprise.  Nonetheless, it has occurred.  We can talk more about this fresh expression of what it means to be a seminary at some other point.  Next week, in part two of this series, we will reflect on a few things that helped make this shift possible in our context.

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