Principles of CBTE: Unified Systems

February 28, 2021

by Greg Henson, President

As we have been developing the Kairos Project over the better part of the past decade, a significant number of organizations, denominations, schools, and others across the landscape of theological education have asked us questions about the various principles of competency-based theological education or CBTE (e.g., customized proficiency, team-based mentoring, etc.). Very few have asked about the organizational practices. In my experience, that is because we tend to shy away from the most pressing issue within theological education – “dis-integration.”

I contend that the vast majority of the challenges we see within theological education are symptoms of this deeper, more systemic and deep-seated issue. That is to say that the structures, systems, ways of being that have been shaped and formed by centuries of modern higher education tend to be segmented, siloed, and “departmentalized.”

Today, as we continue our conversation about the organizational practices that support CBTE, we turn our attention to the practice of unified systems. As an organizational practice that requires us to let go of not only power but also our perceptions of clarity, unified systems invite schools to consider how our modern systems, structures, departments, and policies have a deformational (i.e., negative) impact on learning and discipleship.

Think about it. No matter how automated or integrated we try to make things, the reality is that the bedrock of conventional education was formed by a commitment to siloed disciplines, separate departments, shared (rather than collaborative) governance, and segmented operational practices. Arguments can be (and have been) made that suggest theological education’s propensity to be prohibitively expensive, inaccessible, and often perceived as irrelevant stem from organizational structures and educational philosophies that encourage independence, competitive mindsets, and power struggles.

It is important to point out that over this same period of time there have been benefits of and changes to the way we have been doing things. Obviously, great work has been done by seminaries to address these challenges and many of those attempts should be studied because much can be learned. At the same time, however, our experience has shown that CBTE unlocks the potential for high levels of integration in ways conventional education will struggle to reproduce.

To start, we must recognize that each aspect of an educational system is dependent upon and impacted by every other aspect.  Nothing happens in a vacuum.  Therefore, decisions cannot be made without thinking about the entire system. CBTE more fully embraces this reality. To function well as an educational philosophy, CBTE invites us to remove departmental lines, distribute innovation, and integrate disciplines.

Remove Departmental Lines
Creating an organization that embraces the concept of integration is no simple task because it invites us to blur departmental lines that have shaped and formed our way of being as seminaries sense the mid-1800s. Departments, functional areas, and governance categories have defined how we go about our work – often more so than the discipleship task at hand. In short, our work is designed as it is, at least in part, because of the segmented structures of our organizations.

Here again, CBTE opens doors to new ways of thinking, or at least creates space for deep examination of our departmental way of being. A student engaged in a CBTE program will, by necessity, have fluid interaction with several different aspects of a seminary. She may work with faculty, mentors, administrators, alumni, financial supporters, board members, and other students on a single project or assignment. Staff members may find themselves in conversations about program design and faculty may end up in conversations about financial operations.

It is for this reason that we refrain from defining meeting attendance based on “title or “role.” Meetings, even board meetings, are open to anyone and all who come are invited to fully participate in the conversation. The key is moving away from meetings defined by role or title and toward meetings and conversations that take into account the entire enterprise.

Because CBTE fosters conversations, interactions, and educational modalities that intentionally stretch across disciplinary and departmental lines, it challenges long-held assumptions about the value of such departments and disciplines. It is not that the specific types of study associated with a particular discipline or tasks that are connected to certain departments are no longer valuable. It is that CBTE calls attention to the fact that their value is best stewarded when that study and those tasks are part of an integrated whole. Rather than working to create ever more definition to our disciplines or departments, we should be looking for ways to remove such boundaries.

Departmental lines tend to create power struggles, divisive policies, and systems of engagement that are not student-centered. Removing them simply means developing an organizational culture or way of being that sees the entire educational enterprise as one integrated system. We call this the Enterprise Model, and it is what connects the powerful educational philosophy of CBTE to the revolutionary paradigm shift that it can be.

In Kairos, students are part of a mutual learning environment; one in which the student, her mentors, and her vocational context are working, learning, and developing together. As a result, relationships, trust, hard conversations, and emotional investment become hallmarks of one’s participation in a CBTE program. It should not be surprising to learn, therefore, that these relationships begin to cross conventional boundaries within institutional life.

The fact is CBTE requires us to recognize the importance of cohesive and integrated approaches to relationship development. The program itself becomes the mechanism by which we can build, cultivate, and steward relationships. If done correctly, we will see that fundraising, relationship development, marketing, operations, financial structures, program design, teaching, communication, etc. flow seamlessly throughout the CBTE paradigm. To do this effectively, we must be formed in a new way of being – one that sees us begin to think more broadly about our roles and our relationship to the comprehensive work of the school.

This doesn’t mean development officers become professors and professors become enrollment managers. It does, however, mean that development officers may be better able to do their work if they serve on a few mentor teams and that faculty may be better mentors if they spend time engaged in conversations about how mentor teams impact enrollment management.

As we practice this blurring of departmental (even organizational) lines, we begin to create tangible expressions of the new power dynamics present within CBTE. If we remove departmental lines, we are, by definition, raising voices that have not traditionally been welcome at the table. Perhaps where this is most visible is in the task of innovation.

Distribute Innovation
Innovation in theological education has been an interesting thing to watch over the past number of years. While much time and energy has been put toward the development of new educational models, this work still suffers from the dis-integration I described earlier. As a result, the conversations or action related to innovation tends to be limited to a particular group or department within a school. Even in cases where schools have developed task forces related to innovation, which may include people from various departments within a school (e.g., faculty, admin, board, students, etc.), these teams still function under the auspices of a particular department or segment of the governance structure. In practice this means that even with an “integrated” team of people, the real choices or decisions around innovation often rest in the hands of “dis-integrated” structures. As a result, effective innovation or innovation that has the potential to bring lasting change rarely occurs.

As schools embrace CBTE, more and more people within the organization begin to have access to more information. What was once hidden in a classroom or in unreadable (or inaccessible) assessment reports is now on display for mentors, staff, and ministry partners to experience in real time. Because of the fluid interaction with several aspects of the institution, people who were once not part of conversations about innovation may now have more information than those who once governed the innovation process.

The simple point is that CBTE, through the practice of unified systems, invites, perhaps requires, innovation to originate from anywhere within an organization. This is a good thing, but is perhaps the most recognizable shift in power – which means it is often easier said than done.

Because CBTE does not conform to semesters, credit hours, departments, or modalities and it distributes information within an organization, we should expect the power of innovation to be distributed across the organization, as well. It means fully embracing the fact that, for example, a staff member might be the one to develop an innovative approach to learning while a faculty member might create new opportunities related to finance. A board member might have an innovation connected to daily operations and an office manager may provide insight related to board governance.

Integrate Disciplines
The last aspect of unified systems comes through the fact that CBTE invites us to take advantage of the reality that learning is non-linear. It encourages proficiency of integration, not disciplines. To fully embrace the cross-disciplinary nature of theological education, the organization’s processes and practices need to be unified and mutually reinforcing.

As students in Kairos progress through their journey of discipleship, they are empowered to leverage moments in time that naturally encourage integrated learning. As one would expect, when we engage in, respond to, and reflect on real life situations, we discover that life is not neatly divided into discrete disciplines. In the crucible of life, we find that proclaiming the Gospel is as much about biblical study as it is leadership and that leadership is as much about formation as it is strategy.

Unified systems support this type of learning because they help us remove boundaries that used to reinforce discipline-specific activities. In conventional approaches to education, we tended to have the “biblical studies department” be responsible for certain aspects of learning while the “theology department” paid attention to others. “Program directors” did the work of administering learning activities while the “business office” thought about how to manage access through pricing. The “dean’s office” would then be responsible for trying to bring all of it together. As a result, things like developing programs, building budgets, hiring faculty, envisioning course schedules, and assessing student learning tended to happen with specific disciplines or departments in mind. In a CBTE approach, opportunities for guided learning need to be available when and how students need/desire to access them. The “just-in-time” learning that occurs within CBTE pushes against our historic tendency to segment not only learning activities by discipline (e.g., through discrete courses) but also organizational activities like meetings, communication, strategic planning, and budgeting.

That type of segmentation unintentionally creates friction in a student’s educational journey because they bump into lines of demarcation that make it difficult to leverage those real-life, integrated moments in time that are key to learning, growth, and formation. In those moments, students and mentors need the freedom to access and engage with any collection of disciplines, learning activities, and personnel that will be most helpful in that moment. The practice of unified systems removes this friction and thereby supports CBTE in extraordinary ways.

Thanks for taking the time to engage with this topic. Next week, we will look at the practice of flexible technology.

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