March 27, 2023
by Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University; President, Sioux Falls Seminary and Anthony Blair, President of Evangelical Seminary and Professor of Leadership and Historical Studies
Last week we started a series on following the Spirit in theological education. We noted that the first step is simply letting go of our desire for control… and that this is hard to do. However, we also said that if we define quality in terms of followership and engagement in Kingdom mission, it becomes easier to trust the Spirit for the discipleship journeys of others.
Our focus today is on the characteristics an organization like ours—one engaged in theological education—should exhibit if it is following the Spirit. Before we explore these characteristics, however, let’s talk about why we’re using the word “organization” here, instead of, say, “school,” or “institution,” or “seminary.” We’ve used those other words in the past, of course, but they can carry the connotation of an unmoving, inflexible entity. Since the Industrial Revolution, in fact, many people have come to think unconsciously of education as a factory system, turning the “raw material” of incoming students into the “finished product” of graduates.But to be engaged in theological education is not to run a factory; it is to disciple! And such discipling work is always messy and organic, precisely because people are human. We are not automated machines, human resources, or manufactured products. Therefore, to avoid factory connotations, we instead suggest “organization” or even “movement,” as these descriptors help us imagine something more dynamic and life-giving, which is exactly the kind of organization we want to be. We have further observed that Spirit-led organizations or movements consistently exhibit three core characteristics.
Characteristic #1: Faithfulness
As a community of people who call Jesus Lord, following the guidance of the Spirit means we need to remain faithful to the One who has called us into being and who defines us. And that, then, allows us to have a clearer understanding of the direction in which God is calling us.
At Kairos, we articulate these understandings in our statements of “kingdom calling” and “strategic direction.” Together, they express what we have discerned together about our organizational purpose, the direction we’re headed, and the ways we’ve been invited to get there. When supported by our stated values and practices, these statements articulate a clear and shared understanding of how God is inviting us to participate in the Mission Dei (the mission of God in the world). As a result, our organization has a tangible expression of what it means to be faithful to the one we serve.
Characteristic #2: Discernment
Yet we cannot speak meaningfully of the direction of the Spirit without the ability and commitment to discern what the Spirit is saying to us. And to discern well means to listen well. And to listen well means to remain humble and open. We must never assume we have it all figured out. Instead, we need to articulate and act on what we have already discerned but then also continue listening and learning for how the Spirit may lead us differently in the future.
In other words, we are not just an organization that helps other people learn; we are a learning organization ourselves, using the description of theorist Peter Senge. Theological education is neither a monolithic nor monocultural endeavor; it is not set in stone or bound to the way it has been done in the past. Careful discernment opens up possibilities for Spirit-led organizations to be as creative as our Creator, provided we are willing to keep listening.
Characteristic #3: Adaptability
Those organizations that are truly committed to following the wild goose of the Spirit will thus find themselves needing to continually adapt. This means more than a mere grudging reluctance to inevitable change, but actual expectation, embrace, and appreciation of any change prompted by the Spirit. Spirit-led change, of course, is not “change for change’s sake,” but change for the sake of ongoing mission as we follow Jesus, who himself followed the prompts of the Spirit. Each day thus presents a new opportunity to consider what God is doing, how we are being invited to participate in that, and what may need to change in us in order for us to respond with courageous faithfulness.
This adaptability is not merely the kind of agility that is prized by the business world wherein we pivot to reach new markets or develop new competitive advantages to outperform others in our industry. Adaptive organizations committed to a posture of discernment that fosters faithfulness are willing and able to make extraordinary changes that may make little sense, outside of the economy of God. This doesn’t mean we aim to be reckless or poor stewards of what God has given to us, but it does mean we must hold our plans, visions, and aspirations lightly, and be willing, when called, to go walk boldly into the future.
Organizational Practice: Integration
So why do so many good organizations not exhibit these characteristics? Because most, even those with the best intentions, are “dis-integrated.” That is, they are built on or around systems that do not foster what David Williams and Greg Henson have described as “an ever-deepening embodiment of the organization’s values.” If faithfulness, discernment, and adaptability remain mere aspirations or window dressing, we will never address the more foundational, substantive need to develop a fully integrative system for organizational life.
An integrative system not only helps an organization collaborate creatively and non-competitively with others but also fosters collaboration and engagement among its own people. An integrated system invites the voices of everyone in the community, creates space for conversations about what we are hearing and imagining together, and then reconfigures organizational structures and processes to replace isolated silos with trust-based collaborative structures. That is exactly the kind of organizational system we are cultivating within Kairos.
In summary, following the Spirit in the enterprise of theological education requires us to be an “organization in motion.” We need to be clear about where we are headed, committed to ongoing discernment, open to change, and insistent upon integration. This fosters a more dynamic way of being in the world – for both the organization and the people that comprise it. And, to foster this type of organizational life, the community of people needs to be distributed, empowered, and connected. Let’s dive into that next week.