The Future of Theological Education

“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound words, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (II Timothy 1:13-14)

 What is the future of theological education in America? How should seminary presidents and trustees of our nation’s institutions of higher religious learning adequately prepare their graduates to grapple with the uncertainties of modernity and ever-expanding secularization? Should educational leaders continue to focus their attention on diminishing financial resources, over-tenured faculty, campus renovation, debt, and dwindling enrollment, or might their deliberations be better served by also assessing the pedagogical frameworks that currently parturite the curricula of their endangered institutions?

Apart from demonstrating expertise in dealing with pastoral and theological issues, our nation’s future spiritual leaders will require confidence and competence with religious entrepreneurism. Through the careful integration of appropriate management models, creative thinking skills, and Apostolic theological insights, seminaries and other schools of religious study should, therefore, choose to provide their students with the indispensable vision and pastoral skills for effectively engaging the ever-problematic societal context. By nurturing requisite entrepreneurial sympathy, capacity, and expertise, institutions of theological education would, in turn, be helping local Christian communities spawn solutions to society’s future difficulties. In this fashion, theological schools and seminaries would truly accept Christ’s admonition to be “salt” and “light” to the world (Matthew 5:13-16), remain relevant, and thereby ensure their future survival.

In a previous commentary of Frankly Speaking (March 10, 2014), metaphors culled from Walt Disney’s award-winning animated film Frozen were identified and used to discuss several distinctive fundraising principles for religious entities.  As promised, this essay expands the aforementioned observations by suggesting how the film’s story line also provides entrepreneurial insights that may be used to design innovative curricula for the spiritual, pastoral, and administrative effectiveness of our nation’s future religious leaders.

Frozen’s inaugural scene includes a choreographed pastiche of skillful ice-workers, gleefully discharging their respective responsibilities. The film’s musical overture suggests a kingdom supported by an “economy” of entrepreneurial collaboration – a societal stewardship of focused service (liturgia). Alternatively, the inability of Queen Elsa, the Kingdom of Arendelle’s newly coronated monarch, to control her enchanted abilities and “release” the intrinsic resources of her citizenry, results in the swift immobilization of the entire realm’s economic and environmental pageantry.

Liberation from the dark detention of Arendelle’s deep freeze is brilliantly conveyed in the film’s concluding entrepreneurial imagery wherein Anna, the queen’s younger sister, presents the film’s chief protagonist with a sparkling new ice-sleigh. As an additional reward for sacrificing his original cart to save Anna’s life, and thereby advance the “thaw” of their nation’s imprisonment, Elsa appoints Kristoff the kingdom’s official Ice Master and Deliverer. The message is clear. Authentic leadership is not verified by position, power, or prestige but by the liberating influence of entrepreneurial service that seeks to identify, nurture, and sacrificially release creative capacity for the benefit of others. This is the fundamental moral of Frozen – a theological insight that cannot be overstated!

Future leaders would greatly benefit from educational experiences that nurture a similar understanding of ministry in terms of religious entrepreneurship. Like Elsa, they too would profit from an understanding of leadership as a stewardship of spiritual influence whose primary goals include much more than status-quo liturgical guardianship, member satisfaction, and the collective increase of financial subsidies.  Authentic religious entrepreneurism is founded on the stewardship of sacrificial love whose calculus seeks to solve societal as well as personal spiritual problems through the creative design, multiplication and effective deployment of God-given resources.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy (12/6/07) results of an extensive study conducted by the Bank of America (2007) reveal that entrepreneurs are among the most generous donors to education groups, religious organizations, foundations, and donor-advised causes. Entrepreneurs gave 25% more on average to charitable causes than other wealthy people. Significant to this commentary is the conclusion that more than 80% of those surveyed volunteered in some capacity. In fact, high-frequency volunteers (more than 200 hours/year) contribute 17% more than other wealthy donors.

Religious institutions and local communities would greatly benefit from strategies that similarly seek to develop the volunteer and entrepreneurial capacity of its membership.  One can only imagine the impact that Christian entities would have on the local context if and when their leaders and members sought to develop and advance innovative solutions to a myriad of social problems and ethical concerns.

Survey data obtained form religious leaders, current pastors, and constituencies overwhelmingly support the need for such inspired engagement.  Consequently, apart from the traditional cadre of liturgical, dogmatic, biblical, and historical proficiencies, theological schools and seminaries should also include entrepreneurial competencies in their overall curricula objectives. Tragically, such innovative voices are often silenced in favor of more risk-averse warnings of “theological liberalism” and worldly “over-entanglement.” At best, the results of such capitulation are “frozen” institutions, replicating annual programs, sermons, and pre-packaged dispatches. At worst, such equivocations depreciate resources, dwindle memberships, and plunge once thriving religious organizations to the nadirs of irrelevancy and extinction.

Whatever the case, our nation’s religious leaders will most certainly be challenged to differentiate themselves from such laxity by appropriately applying the pastoral, liturgical, and economic “portfolios” of their respective parishes and institutions towards the unraveling of future marginalization caused by unprecedented societal complexities. The ability to discern, develop, and deploy the latent resources, skills, and talents of their constituents in service to humanity and the environment will be critical to the effective application of these undertakings.

In a most passionate exhortation to his young protégé, Saint Paul urges Timothy to “guard the deposit entrusted to him” (II Timothy 1:15). While many biblical publications render the focus of Paul’s counsel as “sound teachings,” a more precise literal translation of the Greek phrase would be “the pattern of sound words” (II Timothy 1:13).

Religious entrepreneurism should be grounded on solid scriptural understandings – an Apostolic pattern of Holy Tradition – whose foundational principles encompass much more than administrative skill and/or managerial expertise. The advance of such entrepreneurial creativity must not be solely envisioned according to temporal resources but in and through the “energies” of the Holy Spirit. While such guardianship can only be sustained through “charismatic” facilitation (II Timothy 1:14), the “sound words” and “pattern” to which Saint Paul refers must be firmly rooted in the robust exhortation voiced by the Incarnate Word Himself, to “wash feet” soiled by society’s difficult pathways!

Colleges, universities, and philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation are increasingly turning their attention to “idea incubators” and “impact accelerators,” to provide mentorship, network partnerships, resources, and scaling capabilities to students, and non-profit venture groups interested in learning how to discern, develop, and deploy practical solutions to social problems. According to a recent report by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs and Village Capital, while their primary goals may not all be similar, more than 40 impact accelerator programs have been established in the last half decade all with the intent of helping entrepreneurs further innovative societal solutions.

University idea incubators are similar to their business sector equivalents, although their primary intent is to nurture creative thinking for the benefit of the public good and not, necessarily, for economic profit. While many philanthropic organizations succeed in delivering solutions to societal problems, few if any seminaries and schools of theology provide a strategic process for the initial incitement and refinement of creative ideas from students who may one day lead the implementation of faith-based approaches.

Impact accelerators, on the other hand, quicken the speed of idea incubation from genesis to viability. Accelerators provided by cutting-edge institutions of higher learning unite select students with promising aspirations, with social venture capital investors. Apart from supplying seed-money, such programs also provide structured educational experiences and extensive mentorships that culminate in “demo days” to philanthropic organizations.

An exemplar of such a learning experience is Babson College’s John E. and Alice L. Butler Venture Accelerator Program that supports and advances a wide variety of entrepreneurial endeavors– from ideation to exit.  Another example is the non-profit venture group Praxis that focuses on equipping and resourcing a growing portfolio of faith-motivated entrepreneurs who have committed their lives to cultural and social impact. Conceived in 2010 by Dave Blanchard, then a Principal Designer at IDEO, and Josh Kwan, the Director of International Giving for the David Weekley Family Foundation, Praxis was developed in collaboration with Q, a learning community that mobilizes Christians to advance the common good in society. Praxis currently provides two annual fellowship programs providing world-class mentorship, a shared-faith peer community, access to capital sources, and significant hands-on support from a core recognized social entrepreneurs.

The future of our nation’s seminaries and theological schools may be supported by the development of similar programs for students who feel compelled to learn how to best express a stewardship of entrepreneurial leadership in their future assignments.  One may successfully suggest that as the first Christian entrepreneur, the mother of Jesus provides a stable theological “pattern” for the development of appropriate Incubator/Accelerator programs for aspiring religious entrepreneurs.

Ample evidence may be observed in the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Saint John (2:1-11) to advance the thesis of Mary’s entrepreneurial leadership. Having first scanned the environment and correctly discerned the impending social and legal catastrophes associated with a Jewish wedding reception on the cusp of running out of wine, Mary confidently solicits the assistance of Jesus and his newly appointed disciples to provide a viable solution.  The ensuing miracle at the Cana wedding (John 2) provides a wonderful theological “pattern” for educational leaders that are intrigued with the possibilities of religious entrepreneurism but who, nonetheless, require assurances against the dangers of liberalist drift, pastoral professionalism, and theological revision.

Six (6) proficiencies characterize the entrepreneurial synergy among Jesus, Mary, and His disciples.  A careful examination of their collaboration reveals the following fundamental competencies: (a) societal scanning, (b) divine mediation, (c) Apostolic creativity, (d) motivational mentorship, (e) strategic thinking, and (f) servant leadership. Following is a suggested model of Entrepreneurial Incubation and Acceleration that may provide a starting point for conversation among religious leaders interested in developing an experimental program in their schools.

The OINOS Model

Entrepreneurial Incubation & Acceleration

 

Proficiency

Reference

Description

  1. Societal Scanning
“And the mother of Jesus was there. When the wine failed . . .” (John 2:1-3)

 

–  Desire for incarnational experiences

–  Ability to effectively scan societal contexts

–  Skill to identify current & future problems

  1. Divine Mediation
“They have no wine.” (John 2:2) –  Desire to seek Divine mediation & council

–  Desire to collaborate with God

  1. Apostolic Creativity
“Six water pots of stone were set there after the Jewish manner of purification.” (John 2:6) –  Ability to develop innovative solutions

–  Desire to provide solutions that are based on Divine council & Apostolic parameters

  1. Motivational Mentorship
“His mother said to the servants, do whatever He says.” (John 2:5) –  Ability to effectively influence others

–  Ability to nurture creativity of others

–  Ability to motivate others

  1. Strategic Thinking
“Fill the water pots with water. And they filled them up to the brim.”

(John 2:7)

–  Ability to think strategically

–  Skill to develop detailed action plans

  1. Servant Leadership
“Draw some out, and bear unto the ruler of the feast.” (John 2:8) –  Willingness to serve others

–  Ability to be a steward of leadership

 

Innovative seminaries and/or theological schools may consider utilizing the aforementioned OINOS Model to design Religious Entrepreneurial Incubators and Accelerators for aspiring students. Similar to the six stone water-pots that were used by Jesus to provide an abundance of wine to the wedding couple and their guests, such programs could help “fill” the entrepreneurial “dowries” of our nation’s future leaders to the brim!

In his sermon on the 5th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Saint John Chrysostom insists that the Church has a responsibility to provide salt and light “to a world that has lost its savor, and decaying.” He insists that religious leaders must furnish “superintendence of the common good,” by striving to provide “good fountains that run over for the benefit of others.”

In the final analysis, our nation’s theological schools and seminaries are the incubators – the “good fountains” – of society’s conscience. The degree to which these institutions effectively prepare the religious leaders of tomorrow to provide appropriate “superintendence of the common good,” will be greatly influenced by the pedagogical models and curricula chosen for the noble task. May the selection be the result of a genuine dialogue concerning the Church’s responsibility to sacrificially serve and transform humanity – to effectively provide salt and light –in the Name of the Incarnate Lord!

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX).

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