Reflecting on a New Paradigm, Part 2

August 13, 2018

Last week, in part one of this series, we talked about how words like innovation, change, reimagine, and creativity have been over used and abused in theological education over the last several years.  We shared how the need to make a paradigm shift is essential to bringing about true change and innovation.  We left off by sharing that schools must embrace the fact that the current paradigm under which they operated is 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, assumptions undergirding those structures, 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.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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 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.  In this post, I want to reflect on a few things that helped make this shift possible in our context.

It began by recognizing that if we are to be a people led by the Spirit, then we must be a people willing to embrace ongoing change.  If the Spirit is not stationary, then we as a people of God cannot be content to stay in one place or to assume we have everything figured out.  Instead, we must constantly be attentive to what must change and adapt in order to follow God on mission.

With that as a guiding thought, we began to take seriously the need to operate efficiently.  Being a Spirit-led organization is only possible if the organization is nimble and the ability to be nimble is directly related to how efficiently the school operates. While most equate efficiency with only financial management, we noticed that efficiency is also correlated to how well the gifts and abilities of staff and faculty are aligned with the tasks that each individual does on a given day.  To put it another way, being efficient is not only about how one manages money but it is also an exercise of connecting abilities and tasks (rather than people and positions).

In practice, this meant we weren’t beholden to the idea that a seminary must have certain roles or positions.  Our focus was on defining the tasks that needed to be done and then empowering people whose gifts best fit those tasks.

Finally, we looked at every aspect of the seminary and asked, “Why do we do that in that way?”  Doing this allowed us to turn challenges into opportunities to build something new.  As a result, we were able to stop doing several tasks and shift that energy toward creative activities that gave life to the seminary (as opposed to tasks that simply sustained the old paradigm).

As we enter into the fifth year of this new paradigm, I am amazed to see the ways in which God has and continues to work in and through this seminary.  In no way do we have everything figured out.  I guarantee something will change tomorrow.  But I know that we have built a foundation for the future of the seminary that enables us to be led by the Spirit, to respond to God’s call, and to focus energy exactly where it needs to be most: helping students in their walk with Christ!

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