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Theological education needs a reset!

Over the past decade and a half, ATS has engaged a number of projects to address key issues in theological schools: “Globalization,” “Theological Schools and the Church,” “Faculty Vocation and Governance,” “Christian Hospitality and Pastoral Practices in a Multifaith Society,” and “Economic Equilibrium and Theological Schools.” The findings of these projects, when combined with analysis of data and learning from leadership education programming and the processes of accreditation, point to a need for a comprehensive review and re-assessment of theological education in ATS schools. Each project contributed new knowledge and helped to clarify the challenges and opportunities for theological schools in the 21st century. Each also pointed to larger issues within the “industry” of theological education that demanded more comprehensive and sustained attention.

A decade of overall enrollment decline, periods of extreme financial stress, and the rapidly changing landscape of theological education have created an unprecedented urgency to find more efficient and effective ways of doing theological education.

Increasingly financially stressed schools are providing an ever wider range of educational programs in an ever increasing range of formats for a slowly declining number of students.

Two fundamental questions face ATS schools:

  1. Do the Association and the Commission on Accrediting need to reimagine the work of theological education leading to, among other adjustments, a redevelopment of the Standards of Accreditation to accommodate new realities? Is it time for a “re-set?”
  2. And if so (and I’m convinced that it is so), how best can this Association of schools identify, address, and find workable solutions to the range of issues and questions currently confronting theological schools?

Those fundamental questions led to another set of “What ifs.”

What if we could survey the membership to gather data about what the schools are doing in addition to their degree program offerings?

What if we could bring together theological educators from many of those schools to talk about their work, explore together how they are doing it, learn together about their processes of institutional transformation, be supported in deeper investigations, and then report their findings to the broader community of schools for the benefit of other schools and other constituencies?

And what if those efforts were part of a larger project to explore, assess, and affirm a variety of new and familiar educational models and practices that could help position theological schools to fulfill their missions (and, for some, maybe adjust their missions), so that leaders would be educated and formed to serve the church, communities of faith of many kinds, for other ministries (broadly defined), for societies around the world.

And what if we could convince Lilly Endowment to provide extremely generous funding to make it all happen?

Well, we did and they did, and last year ATS launched the Educational Models and Practices (EMP) project!

The EMP is guided by “Big” Questions addressed through four areas of study.

Big Question(s) #1

We know what the schools are doing in developing degree programs, online programs, and extension sites, for example, through annual reporting. But what are the schools doing in addition to these efforts? What are the schools doing that doesn’t show up in the annual reports? Why have they launched these efforts, and how effective have they been? The response was a comprehensive study of educational program developments in ATS schools. The study included a multi-stage “mapping” survey to gather information about what schools are doing, to explore ways of collaboration to study these efforts, and to develop a process of sharing all that is learned across the membership.

  • 230 Academic deans described in broad terms what the schools are doing.
  • Program directors explained why the schools implemented the model or practice, reflected on the effectiveness of an array of models and practices, named impediments in the way of implementation, and described benefits that have accrued through the model or practice.
  • Interviews with 30 deans or program directors will explore in more depth selected models or practices that are particularly innovative or that promise to provide important information for the broader community of schools.

The comprehensive study also included formation of peer groups of schools to study particular models and practices. Each of these 16 peer groups will report its learning to the wider membership.

Big Question #2

Are the challenges being faced by theological schools unique to them, or are other graduate professional educational programs facing similar challenges, and what are they learning?

A comprehensive study of legal education completed about a year ago, for example, identified many challenges very similar to those facing theological schools. Other professions are wrestling with similar issues, and we can learn much from their efforts. A study group will explore other graduate professional education to find out what they are learning and how that learning might inform theological schools.

Big Question #3

Where are graduates of our schools serving? Were they well trained by theological schools for those positions?

The project will survey member schools about the employment of their graduates, the classes of 2012 and 2015. A follow up survey and focus groups will gather additional information from those graduates about their places of employment, the employer’s educational expectations, and other employment opportunities in their institutions.

Big Question #4

How might financial support assist the schools in their development of innovative models and practices and development of faculty to support those models and practices?

The program will issue a request for proposals from member schools in late 2016 and early 2017 for two types of grants: “innovation grants” of up to $50,000 to develop and expand innovative models, and faculty development grants of up to $15,000 to assist schools to help their faculty members re-tool to engage new educational models and practices.

Ultimately, all of the learning from the project will inform a process of redevelopment of the Standards of Accreditation to affirm and incorporate as appropriate effective and sustainable educational models and practices.

This blog will be a forum for project updates, emerging issues, and feedback. Stay tuned!

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