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Theological education in North America: Crises and faithful creativity, part 3

Dr. Philip E. Thompson

June 18, 2019

I began this series of brief articles noting the poet Scott Cairns has defined repentance as “turning toward,” and summarized the crises facing theological education as being ones of relevance and cost. I introduced Sioux Falls Seminary’s Kairos Project as one example of turning toward new approaches to theological education. Last month, I focused on our turn toward a contextual, theologically-informed outcomes-based educational philosophy in response to the first crisis. It is, without question, an innovative turn, yet not without precedent. It extends and modifies innovations over the last several decades in the area of competency-based education.

This month I will introduce the more revolutionary turn, one to a new financial model. A key tenet of Kairos is integrated organizational development. The Kairos Project is built on overlapping, indeed interlocking, philosophies of education and organizational design. In many ways, one cannot fully be embraced without the other. While the extent of connection cannot be conveyed adequately in an article of this length, the two cannot be separated.

I have shared some of the ways in which God has been active within students’ contexts to enable flourishing life, what Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun have called “the mode of the true life under the conditions of the false.”[i] It would hardly be fitting were the seminary in which they study not to seek equally to contribute to and promote flourishing. An important part of the story of Sioux Falls Seminary’s Kairos Project is its own commitment to faithful stewardship in the fulfillment of its institutional vocation for the sake of cultivating flourishing in ministry.

One of the factors contributing to women and men leaving ministry is the often heavy cost of theological education leading to the assumption of considerable debt. Despite declining enrollment, the amount of tuition received by schools has risen sharply since 2001, at a rate nearly two to three times the rate of inflation. The debt load this creates is alarming.[ii] That students have done so has led to an endemic problem of financial inefficiency in many schools. The average cost to educate a student (one “Head Count”) in ATS schools is $40,500. During this same timeframe, while the US Consumer Price Index increased 55%, the US Higher Education Price Index increased 80%. It is little wonder that nearly one third of freestanding ATS schools operate on an annual deficit greater than $250,000.[iii]

Without question, numerous seminaries have made changes that are in some ways drastic. Yet even these drastic changes tend to leave the school at the center of the model of theological education. This school-centered model almost always remains intact and unquestioned.[iv] As Daniel Aleshire has noted, “School-based theological learning is deeply influenced by the nature of a school. . . .”[v] As such, they are not inclined to think differently, or to challenge the assumptions that undergird the system. In a Lilly-funded research project on student debt undertaken by Sioux Falls Seminary, we found that changes implemented at several schools over the course of ten years resulted in nothing more than a 2% change to any aspect of institutional budgets.[vi] It seemed to us that the questioning of the model must be deeper and more thorough than previous efforts. The Kairos Project is predicated on the conviction that with challenges come unique opportunities to shift not only conceptual paradigms (like curriculum), but structural paradigms as well.

Kairos utilizes a theologically-informed outcome-based educational philosophy, with degrees having six (MA) or nine (MDiv) outcomes, all oriented to the standards of ATS. While credit hours are granted within the degree, they do not serve as the primary means by which student progress or tuition is determined. One might say the credit hour does not function as the “coin of the realm” for us. Rather, students must demonstrate mastery of an outcome in order to fulfill that outcome and therefore make progress in a degree.  Courses and their assignments are intended to form and cultivate competency, but completion of them does not automatically guarantee it. Participants in Kairos, therefore, do not pay for courses on the basis of credit hours, but a subscription fee of $300 for each month they are in the program. Students then have available to them all courses, all Kairos curriculum assignments, resources of partner programs and institutions, and opportunities to adapt assignments in light of their context, all as tools by which they work toward competency.

This subscription pricing means that if a student earns a Master of Divinity degree in three years, the cost is $10,800 USD. This is 75% lower than the average price for a three-year M.Div across ATS schools.[vii] Four years for the same degree is $14,400. For an MDiv through Kairos to reach the average cost of an SFS MDiv prior to Kairos, the student would need to be in the program for eleven years. Even then the cost is distributed evenly throughout.

That no aspect of the financial model is based on credit hours calls for a thoroughgoing rethinking of every aspect of our operation. Faculty workload calculations do not use credit hours to determine what constitutes “full time.” Financial forecasts and budgets do not use tuition based on numbers of credit hours sold. By using this model and extending the philosophy throughout the operations of the institution, the Kairos Project has enabled Sioux Falls Seminary to drop its cost to educate a student by over 30%. As or more significantly, it has decreased cumulative student debt by 90% while realizing a considerable increase in enrollment. Despite the dramatic decrease in the price of tuition, the seminary maintains an operational surplus of at least 10% each year. One reason for the financial model’s effectiveness is that it builds on the flexibility present within the educational philosophy.

While the enrollment of Sioux Falls Seminary has shown significant growth since the implementation of Kairos, we did not adopt it as a strategy to grow. Rather it comes from our sense of a need for new approaches to the formation of Christians to cultivate flourishing life as signs and anticipations of what Wendell Berry has called the “Great Economy,” the Kingdom of God.[viii] Still, as our alumnus, Walter Rauschenbusch, wrote in Christianity and the Social Crisis, “the kingdom of God is always but coming.”[ix] We dare not think we have done, or ever will do, all that we need. The success to date of the Kairos model has required ongoing, overlapping processes of assessment, evaluation, and re-iteration of outcomes, assignments, structures and processes, and we have not reached the end of the questions.

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] Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019), 79–80.

[ii] Since 1996, the number of students graduating from theological schools with debt incurred during theological education in excess of $30,000.00 has increased nearly 300%. In 2013, the transitional year to the current administration, the student body of Sioux Falls Seminary, which was slightly beneath the 50th percentile in ATS student body size, borrowed in excess of one million dollars. For further data, see

[iii] “ATS State of the Industry Webinar 2015” (Association of Theological Schools, September 18, 2015),; ATS, ATS State of the Industry Webinar 2017, 2017,

[iv] For example, while Russell H. Dilday, Jr. “Theological Education at the Edge of a New Century,” Theological Education 36, no. 2 (2000): 38, touted the freedom of the new Cooperative Baptist Fellowship schools to experiment, he showed a few pages later, 43, an assumption that the seminary remains the central factor in education. “The focus is on taking learning where the students are. This may be distance learning from the main campus to another city or state, but it can also mean connections from the classroom to the dorm room or the apartment.” The seminary finds new ways to deliver educational content to students, but remains the content provider. Of course, this would be a rather natural assumption to make, given the history of theological education.

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

[vi] See, especially “But We Have Changed!” To give a generic example, if 70% of a given school’s budget came from tuition, the changes implemented resulted in no more than a 2% change in this figure. There has thus been small effect from significant effort.

[vii] “ATS State of the Industry Webinar 2015”; ATS, ATS State of the Industry Webinar 2017.

[viii] Wendell Berry, “Two Economies,” Review & Expositor 81, no. 2 (1984): 209–23.

[ix] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York, NY: The  Macmillan Company, 1911), 309.

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