Our previous posts on theological education have covered recent difficulties that many traditional seminaries have experienced. We have also made some suggestions for dealing with these problems. In this post we look at Competence-Based Theological Education (CBTE), which is arguably the most promising among the emerging approaches. CBTE just might be the way the churches take back the seminaries. At the very least, CBTE will require churches and seminaries to get serious about working together for the kingdom of God.
The Competence-Based Education Movement
Competence-based education (CBE) has been around for a few decades and is now viewed as one of the the fastest growing educational trends in North America. CBE programs are sometimes described as direct assessment. CBE is being used all over the educational spectrum, irrespective of student age, academic level, curriculum, or career goals. Accrediting agencies are aware of CBE and are publishing guidelines and standards for this approach. The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the professional accrediting agency for seminaries, has published guidelines for CBTE.
CBE is all about assessing performance-based educational outcomes. It seems to me that CBE’s goals align with the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, a well-known hierarchical structure of assessable learning outcomes in adult education. Educators have been working with and revising this scheme since the early 1950’s. Bloom’s hierarchy of simple to complex cognitive (knowing) outcomes (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create) is well known, but Bloom’s affective (valuing) and psychomotor (doing) taxonomies also mesh with the goals of CBE. In the affective domain, outcomes begin with students accepting instruction, and progress to their responding to instruction, considering its values, and internalizing their own values. In the psychomotor domain, students begin with simple intuition or imitation and progress to following directions, improving precision, articulating a combination of skills, until ultimately their skills become second nature.
Traditional classroom-based seminary education is able to address cognitive outcomes but cannot directly assess whether students have internalized appropriate values and acquired appropriate skills for ministry. Internships and residencies help in these two areas, but there is often a degree of disconnect between the seminary and the residence site, leading to weak assessment of outcomes.
Traditional and online seminary programs can assess whether a student is smart enough but are hard-pressed to determine whether students are growing spiritually and ministering effectively. CBE provides a way of assessing competency as a spectrum that includes mastery of appropriate information and internalization of appropriate dispositions, leading to performance that is skilled and effective.
How CBTE Works
Traditional internships and residences produce mixed results for a variety of reasons. At times there is inadequate planning of outcomes and the means to achieve them. There may be poor communication between the seminary and the ministry mentor. The seminaries typically hold the power over the church or para-church ministry mentors, who may do only what the seminaries tell them to do. CBTE envisions a true, equal partnership between the seminary and the church or para-church ministry. Academicians and ministry leaders come together to provide courses that are tailored to the personal needs of individual students. Required academic competencies are overseen and facilitated by the seminary professor. Ministry leaders are equally involved in overseeing and facilitating the student’s progress. This involves not only the mastery of information (a strength of traditional seminaries), but also the implications of the information for spiritual formation and ministry engagement.
Key characteristics of reputable CBTE programs include:
- Academically sound. Qualified faculty assign appropriate content and oversee the intellectual development of students. CBTE programs can lead to degrees accredited by regional agencies and ATS.
- Professionally mentored. Ministry leaders work closely with students to integrate academic content with spiritual growth and ministry skills.
- Accessible. Students need not move across the country to a new place of residence and secure new employment. Often they can complete requirements in their home towns while while serving in their home churches.
- Flexible. Students are not required to complete 45 hours of seat-time to earn 3 credit hours toward a degree. Competency development is not time-based.
- Personal. Programs can be tailored to students’ individual strengths, weaknesses, and vocational goals. Students work at their own pace.
- Affordable. Moving costs are eliminated. Churches and para-church ministries often employ the student and/or assist in covering educational costs.
- Assessable. Outcomes are measured by academic and ministry leaders who work together to assess each student’s development of intellectual, spiritual, and performance competencies.
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into CBTE, Karen Stiller has written a helpful article that explains how CBTE works in general, along with a focus on developing programs at Grace Theological Seminary (Winona Lake IN, USA) and at Horizon Bible College and Seminary, Saskatoon Saskatchewan, CA). Northwest Seminary and College (Langley British Columbia, CA) offers the first accredited CBTE program in North America. I found their discussion of CBTE and description of their program (here) to be quite detailed and helpful. A simple google scholar search of CBTE yields many studies and applications of the approach.
Why CBTE Has Great Potential
When they consider current challenges, educational administrators sometimes speak of the iron triangle of costs, access, and quality. Maintaining (let alone improving) the quality of education while making it accessible to more students without incurring additional costs is a daunting task, perhaps an impossible dream. Educators constantly hear the call for the student body to be increased, the students’ experience to be improved, and the budget to be lowered. This is worse than an impossible dream. It’s a nightmare. Here’s how one study describes the iron triangle:
In the view of many college and university presidents, the three mainThe Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk about Costs, Access, and Quality (2008), p. 4. Emphasis added.
factors in higher education—cost, quality, and access—exist in what
we call an iron triangle. These factors are linked in an unbreakable
reciprocal relationship, such that any change in one will inevitably
impact the others. Most of the presidents believe that if one wants to
improve the quality of higher education, one must either put more
money in the system or be prepared to see higher education become
less accessible to students. Conversely, cutting costs in higher education
must eventually lead to cuts either in quality or access
Can CBTE solve the enigma of the iron triangle? Time will tell, but there are reasons for optimism. Regarding quality of education, CBTE programs combine oversight of the academic curriculum, with mentoring of spiritual formation and ministry performance. Outcomes in all three areas can be readily assessed. Regarding accessibility, CBTE programs allow students to study and minister in their own familiar contexts without uprooting their families and moving to a new city. Students can work at their own pace on a curriculum tailored to their own interests. Regarding costs, genuine partnerships between seminaries and churches will include financial matters. When the churches (or parachurch ministries) have direct involvement in the education of their own workers, finances should follow naturally.
I still have many questions about CBTE, chiefly regarding its alternative structures for theological curriculum and timing of student progress. It’s hard for an old dog prof like me to envision a new trick like a course based simply on acquiring specific competencies in a given subject area instead of weekly class sessions and a final exam at the end of the semester. Yet education for ministry is not about modalities, whether they’re traditional or a recent development. Education for the ministry is ultimately about results, assisting gifted servants of Christ to preach accurately, lead skillfully, and counsel compassionately in the power of the Holy Spirit. In this respect CBTE’s emphasis on assessable performance-based outcomes could be a huge plus.
The future of the seminaries is linked to the future of the churches, and there is little reason to be optimistic about the future of either apart from the promise of Jesus, I will build my church and all the powers of hell will not conquer it (Matt 16:18 NLT). CBTE is built on the foundation of authentic partnership between the seminary and the church. Professors with a heart for ministry teaming with pastors who value education is at the heart of CBTE, and is its greatest strength. CBTE just might be the way the churches take back the seminaries. At the very least, CBTE will require churches and seminaries to get serious about working together for the kingdom of God.
I thank my friend John Lillis for sharing his CBTE research, expertise, and experience with me. Go here for my video conversation with John on contemporary issues in theological education.
Please add your thoughts and questions to this conversation by using the reply section below!