Theological education in North America:
Crises and faithful creativity, part 2

Dr. Philip E. Thompson

May 13, 2019

Last month, I offered a broad survey of the crises facing theological education in North America, crises of relevance and cost. I concluded noting that a few schools have begun to move beyond the level of different forms of content delivery and have begun to re-envision theological education in a more thoroughgoing manner. One of these schools is Sioux Falls Seminary, with its Kairos Project.

In the spring of 2014, the faculty, staff, and board of Sioux Falls Seminary embraced a new vision of theological education as the way in which it would go forward. While the school’s own experience of acute financial crisis no doubt contributed to the unanimous willingness to take a new path, the decision did not arise from a sense that it was a way to assure institutional survival. Rather, the guiding conviction was missional. The faculty and staff had for over a decade been wrestling with some of the ideas embodied in Kairos, but had not been able to implement new models of education or institutional operation. The catalyst was the vision and leadership of Greg Henson, who had become president one year prior.

Henson, a lifelong American Baptist, whose mother and wife are both ABC ministers, had been developing the ideas embodied in Kairos since 2007, when he began service as a vice president at Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, IL. In the course of analyzing Association of Theological Schools (ATS) data concerning the matters discussed in the previous article, and holding conversations with churches, pastors, students, denominational leaders, and administrators at other theological schools, he came to a focused sense of how present challenges could be addressed. Seminaries and divinity schools, he concluded, need to think in different ways about the affordability, accessibility, and relevance of theological education. While these needed to be addressed in new ways, they had to remain faithful to Scripture, tradition, and to the formational aspects of theological education.

Kairos is a multifaceted, comprehensive philosophy of theological education, some aspects of which are innovative, and other aspects of which are revolutionary. This month, we will focus on the model of education. Even with this specific focus, a full description is beyond the scope of this brief article. Still, certain basic tenets may serve to convey the primary convictions.

Put simply, Kairos is a theologically-informed outcomes-based educational philosophy. Learning outcomes, or markers of intellectual, character, and practical Christian maturity, provide the primary focus. These learning outcomes are by nature integrative, thus the entire educational paradigm changes dramatically.[i] Daniel Aleshire has noted that the oft-repeated refrain that seminaries do not teach some needed lessons stems from the fact that the disciplines tend to be too “neatly” divided.[ii] We strive to overcome this division.

Second, each student in Kairos works with a three-person Mentor Team, comprised of a Faculty mentor; a Ministry mentor, often from the same ministry context as the student; and a Personal mentor, a “spiritual friend” not necessarily located within the student’s context. While the seminary assigns the Faculty Mentor, the student identifies, recruits, and nominates the other two members of the team. The seminary then vets and approves both Ministry and Personal Mentors. As a team, the mentors assess learning, help to tailor the journey around the specific needs and interests of the student, and encourage the student along the way. While Faculty Mentors have a lead role, each mentor has equal voice, allowing to bring her/his knowledge, and knowledge of and experience with the student, into on ongoing discussion and comprehensive assessment of that student’s knowledge, character, and ability. This multi-faceted view of each student brings into the light what could remain hidden from view in a more traditional model.

The third tenet is the developmental journey. The holistic development of students forms the bedrock for the institution’s approach to the journey of theological education, and requires all involved to think differently about theological formation. Elizabeth Newman has rightly noted, “This fact, that our knowing cannot be entirely abstracted from our being, is where I think any discussion about Christian identity and the intellectual life needs to begin.”[iii] With this in mind, Kairos takes the shape of a journey of shared discipleship. It is in this way deeply resonant with historic Baptist understandings of Christian life as discipleship shared in community.  “Understanding,” observes Kevin Vanhoozer, “is a kind of following.” As such, we may think of theological understanding as a form of discipleship, and discipleship as a form of theological interpretation of life.[iv]

The discipleship of students in the Kairos Project centrally includes the interpretation of holy texts and sacred tradition in particular contexts and cultures. Thus, theological interpretation is indeed a form of life, not merely of knowledge. The goal is wisdom. Certainly, wisdom as a goal of theological education is not in any way unique to Sioux Falls Seminary. It is likely a value sought and embraced by the vast majority of ATS schools.[v] Yet the pursuit of wisdom as the end (telos) of formation is the “signature pedagogy” of Sioux Falls Seminary. The mentor team within Kairos enables a new dynamic because of the program’s contextual nature, one that enables students to be “faithful witness(es) who know how to bear witness to reality – to what God is doing in Christ – and to do so by living out his life, in their own time, places, languages, and concepts – and who can train others to do the same.”[vi] This journey may eventuate in a master’s or doctoral degree. Yet a degree is not necessarily the primary goal. A greater depth of formation in Christian wisdom is the primary focus.

To be enrolled in Kairos, students must have a specific ministry context in which to work while enrolled. This context, which may or may not be ecclesial, informs, shapes, challenges, and receives a student’s development. Herein lies a significant change between past approaches to “field experience” or “supervised ministry.” The Kairos Project requires students actively to integrate their context into the entirety of the degree program and allows the Ministry Mentor to ensure the student’s learning is being applied and does not remain merely theoretical. Because students are engaged in a ministry context throughout the program, their “schoolwork” proceeds within, and is integrated into that context. In this way, the context “receives” the student’s development.

Henson and Hitchcock have observed that Competency-Based Education must be teleological methodologically. That is, integration must be central, not an afterthought, something that follows the cultivation of the competencies.[vii] Assignments that once happened in the classroom now take place and are assessed within a student’s ministry context. Real breakthroughs have come when students begin to integrate biblical study, theological formation, or church history in their contexts. For instances from my own experience, one of my mentees whose context is a newly planted congregation is integrating his study of church history by drawing on the wisdom of monastic and pastoral rules of antiquity. Ordering their life together through a church covenant, the non-denominational congregation places emphasis on life in Christian community as a “vowed” life. In particular, they emphasize the virtue of stabilitas loci (stability of place). The church is cultivating an ethos of ministry in their small South Dakota town, resisting the lure of churches with more programs and resources nearby in Sioux Falls. Another who pastors a Latinx Baptist community in California, examining memory biblically and theologically, has led his church to weekly Eucharistic celebration. He shared that this has enabled a growing awareness in the congregation that their life together, their joys and sorrows, trials and triumphs, are part of the story of God’s ongoing redemption of the world.

Elizabeth Newman has observed, “Because the finite is capable of bearing the infinite, human places always contain the possibility of being epistemologically revelatory.”[viii] It is regularly so among students of Sioux Falls Seminary as they find themselves in the fullness of God’s time.

Dr. Philip Thompson is professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Heritage at Sioux Falls Seminary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] See Greg Henson and Nathan Hitchcock, “Competency-based education has a history: and its history illuminates it limitations,” In Trust (January 2017): 15-17. Available at:

[ii] Daniel O. Aleshire, Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans, 2008), 54-59.

[iii] Elizabeth Newman, “Who’s Home Cooking? Hospitality, Christian Identity and Higher Education,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 26, no. 1 (1999): 9. Emphasis original.

[iv] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Learning Christ: Theological Education for Theological Discipleship” (Karam Forum, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL, 2017), 9, 10. Emphasis original.

[v] See Aleshire, Earthen Vessels, 65.

[vi] Vanhoozer, “Learning Christ: Theological Education for Theological Discipleship,” 22. The formation of such persons, Vanhoozer contends, is the purpose of theological education.

[vii] Henson and Hitchcock, p. 17.

[viii] Newman, “Who’s Home Cooking?,” 15.

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