In 1858, a small group of church leaders in Rochester, New York, saw the need to develop followers of Jesus to serve their local communities. Nearly 170 years later, with the advent of partners and by the grace of God, that vision has grown into Kairos University – one of the largest and most diverse accredited systems of competency-based theological education in the world.
Innovation. Change. Creativity. Paradigmatic shift. New reality. Out of the box. Reimagined. Words and phrases like these have been used, over used, and perhaps abused for about the past decade in the world of education – particularly education rooted in the Christian tradition. 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 education.
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 order to create a new paradigm, one must embrace the fact that the current paradigm is, in fact, fatally flawed.
Between 2008 and 2013, unbeknownst to each other, a few schools became painfully aware of how deeply each needed to begin operating within a new paradigm. 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 schools try to “reimagine education” or be “innovative” they try to put new content or different delivery models or different people into the exact same system. The problem is that the structures and financial models required to support them (and assumptions undergirding 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 the schools within Kairos University had a high sense of urgency or maybe because we got lucky, we have been able to design, develop, implement, and live into a new paradigm. It hasn’t been without struggle. It has, however, been a journey of faith, discernment, and surprise.
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 God 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 in order to follow God on mission.
With that as a guiding thought, we began to take seriously the need to operate differently. Being an organization that is attentive to God’s leading is only possible if the organization is nimble – and the ability to be nimble is directly related to how willing the school is to change.
In practice, this meant we weren’t beholden to the idea that a school must look a certain way. 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 extracting value from those we serve simply to sustain our broken systems and instead empower participants. And we were able to see collaboration and partnership as something of great value rather than something to fear because of competition.
Now that we are more than a decade into this new paradigm, We are amazed to see the ways in which God has and continues to work in and through this university. In no way do we have everything figured out and we are sure something will change tomorrow. We are grateful, however, for the fact that God brought together a group of schools to create something new – to consider what it might look like if schools rooted in the Christian tradition were first and foremost focused on discipleship. Praise be to God!
To read more about the schools that compose Kairos University, click here.
Kairos University has redefined theological education. Join us in mission.