TRANSFIGURING THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION (Part 6): THE PLOW OF PARTNERSHIP

“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” ~ Luke 9:62

The nation’s theological schools and seminaries find themselves facing an uncertain future. As enrollments decrease, financial debts mount, and skepticisms rise concerning the value of their degrees, institutions of higher theological education should consider seeking to successfully improve their situations by prudently inviting another school to merge their hands to the plow of partnership.

Theological schools and seminaries are fundamentally academies for/of God’s chosen vicars. Initially mentioned in the Old Testament Books of Samuel and Kings (1 Samuel 19:18–24; 2 Kings 2, 4:38–44), these “schools of the prophets” were the means for promoting the “righteousness which exalts a nation” (Proverbs14:34). Called into existence by the prophets Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, the students of these coteries were not encouraged to enter into a contemplative retreat from society. On the contrary, they were challenged to bring the Word of God to bear on their contemporary situation by forming partnerships that would help curb the deterioration of Israel’s religious life. In no small degree, the graduates of these brotherhoods aided in laying the foundation of the prosperity which distinguished the reigns of David and Solomon.

Today’s theological schools and seminaries stand in such a similar circumstance. There is a need for institutions of theological higher education to prepare religious leaders who are willing and capable of favorably influencing society through prophetic thought, word, and action. The skills needed to assume such a prophetic posture include the capacities of engaging in critical reflection, integrating material received from the various disciplines of theology and applying these theories within the context of Christian ministry. Consequently, the challenge to appropriately combine the priestly, prophetic, and pastoral aspects of religious leadership is as essential today as it was in the time of the Old Testament.

The previous five commentaries of this series entitled, Transfiguring Theological Education, have utilized various official publications of the Association of Theological Schools in America (ATS) to help the nation’s theological academies identify ways of overcoming the fiscal, administrative, and pedagogical challenges that currently threaten their survival. Apart from advocating the need to implement shared governance models, donor-centered development strategies, and competency-based pedagogical structures, this essay will continue this pattern by examining how partnership mergers may provide a viable strategy for institutions overwhelmed by resource scarcities associated with bloated budgets, high debt, and limited enrollments.

According to Transitions, the 2017 Annual Report of the ATS Commission on Accreditation, institutions of theological higher education in America “are in a time of transition . . . and ad­justing to new realities and the public religious sphere.” The Commission outlines the following ten forms of transition that are increasing among member schools:

  1. Staff leadership changes,
  2. Shifts in dominant educational models,
  3. Changes in the sequencing and location of theological education,
  4. Increased global engagements,
  5. Shifts in student demographics,
  6. Shift from peer-group study to grant-funded projects,
  7. Shift toward sustainable practices and programs,
  8. Increased movement toward mergers and collaborations among mem­ber schools,
  9. Redevelopment of the accrediting standards, and
  10. Change in leadership among 50% of member schools.

Research conducted by the In-Trust Center of Theological Schools supports the ATS findings. In fact, the Center’s 2017 Annual Report expands ATS’s eighth transition category by outlining a typology of educational partnership that includes six arrangements: (1) consolidations, (2) true mergers, (3) conglomerates, (4) consortiums, (5) asset transfers, and (6) affiliations. While a consolidation is described by the Report as an arrangement wherein two or more institutions are collapsed into one new institution, usually with a different name, mission, and scale of operation (A + B = C), a true merger occurs when one institution is blended (merged) into a dominant institution with that institution serving as the exclusive legal successor (A > B = B+).

A conglomerate, on the other hand, occurs when two or more institutions enter a joint venture to address redundancies without losing their respective identities. A consortium describes a collegial collaboration for common resource-sharing agreements (cross-registrations, joint libraries, shared facilities, common technologies, shared operations, etc.). Finally, while asset transfers describe a relationship wherein one institution transfers some or all of its assets to a second institution which provides for the continuation of the first institution’s programs, an affiliation is a joint venture, preserving identities and governance structures, but providing common academic programming or operational services.

Like ATS, and In-Trust, the 2018 special report of Inside Higher Education, entitled, The Growing Role of Mergers in Higher Ed, states that demographic realities and financial strains are leaving more colleges struggling to attract large enough applicant pools. “In this environment,” the publication concludes, “more institutions than in the past are considering joining forces.”

In his 2016 Washington Post article, The Coming Era of Consolidation Among Colleges and Universities, author and former top editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Selingo, indicates that of the 4,700 degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States, more than 800 campuses exhibit a range of risk factors putting them in jeopardy of closing. Those risk factors include (a) enrollments under 1,000 students, (b) discounts that reduce tuition by more than 35 percent, and (c) high debt payments for campus improvements that have been made in recent years. According to Selingo, “nearly all of the 72 colleges that have closed their doors in the last decade had enrollments of less than 1,000 students.”

While increasing among secular as well as Faith-based institutions of higher learning in America, mergers and partnerships are, unfortunately, still interpreted in negative terms. Concerned about preserving their identity, dealing with faculty members, pleasing alumni, and annulling administrative cultures that habitually conceal problems, institutions with a fierce dedication to their unique mission often consider the possibility of pursuing a partnership an insurmountable challenge. Having hidden their administrative heads in the sands of wishful thinking, others are now compelled to consider partnerships as a last-ditch effort of survival. While a partnership merger may not be the most appropriate strategy for every institution to execute, an exploratory process would, nonetheless, provide leaders the data and projections for making intelligent decisions for addressing the serious institutional challenges of their institutions.

The Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), recommends that institutions that are considering a partnership with another school utilize the exploratory process outlined in their Guideline, Petition for Change of Ownership or Governing Control. Published in response to the growing number of mergers, which, since the 2008 recession, have averaged almost one every four months, the Guideline focuses on such areas as mission, constituencies, educational effectiveness, financial and physical resources, and federal funding.

From what has been discussed thus far, it is evident that there is no shortage of valuable articles, study reports, and books that can be cited to describe the need and strategic value of partnerships. While much of the literature unfortunately trends toward pragmatic, fiscal, and administrative tactics, a brief review is, nonetheless, beneficial.

In his article, Ten Elements in Successful Collaboration, Dr. Robert Cooley, former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, outlines ten valuable characteristics of institutions interested in establishing viable educational partnerships.

  1. Effective collaboration is built on a foundation of trust, openness and mutual reciprocity.
  2. Effective collaboration focuses on the what and why (outcomes) rather than on the how (structure and technical detail).
  3. Effective collaboration is board and leadership-driven.
  4. Effective collaboration requires complementary mission statements and a shared vision.
  5. Effective collaboration depends on a phased process—one that begins with achievable programs or operations, and then expands as strength directs.
  6. Effective collaboration concentrates on common bonds, such as mission, vision and values, while acknowledging differences.
  7. Effective collaboration depends on having one well-resourced, lead institution around which to design a legal partnership.
  8. Effective collaboration entails a study process that carefully delineates the major stakeholders: governing board, faculty, students, alumni, donors, and ecclesial and professional bodies and relationships.
  9. Effective collaboration provides the stakeholders with a deep sense of participation and ownership in the study and negotiating process.
  10. Effective collaboration generates frequent communication with stakeholders and invites them to join the process through prayer and conversation.

In their guidebook, Partnerships: Framework for Working Together (2010), the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF), administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, outlines the following ten fundamental principles and standards for advancing a successful partnership strategy:

  1. Need for Partnership
  2. Clarity of Leadership
  3. Clarity of Understanding
  4. Different cultures/practices
  5. Clear Purpose
  6. High Commitment Levels
  7. Trust
  8. Clear Working Arrangements
  9. Performance Management Systems
  10. Learning/Exchanges of Good Practices

Apart from describing the characteristics of a healthy partnership, the CCF Guidebook delineates fifteen barriers that impede the development of successful partnerships. Leaders of theological schools and seminaries would do well to utilize the following list to evaluate their respective institutional cultures before ambitiously embarking on any partnership strategy.

  1. Limited vision/failure to inspire
  2. One partner manipulates or dominates, or partners compete for the lead
  3. Lack of clear purpose and inconsistent level of understanding purpose
  4. Lack of understanding roles/responsibilities
  5. Lack of support from partner organizations with ultimate decision-making power
  6. Differences of philosophies and manners of working
  7. Lack of commitment; unwilling participants
  8. Unequal and/or unacceptable balance of power and control
  9. Key interests and/or people missing from the partnership
  10. Hidden agendas
  11. Failure to communicate
  12. Lack of evaluation or monitoring systems
  13. Failure to learn
  14. Financial and time commitments outweigh potential benefits
  15. Too little time for effective consultation

In their 2017 monograph, Mergers in Higher Education: A Proactive Strategy to a Better Future, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) insists that the higher education sector is facing “unprecedented challenges, driven by rapid growth in mobility, communication, technology, and demands for skills and credentials—all fostering disruption of the higher education marketplace.” Although circumstances may vary, like the research of ATS, In-Trust, Selingo, and Colley, the Association recommends that educational institutions consider merging and/or partnering as a way of “ensuring continued growth and impact, greater efficiency, greater economies of scale, better value (to both consumers/clients and share-holders), improved competitiveness, and in some cases, improved chances of long-term survival.”

TIAA outlines seven factors that predict a successful strategic partnership. These include: (1) a compelling unifying vision and set of common values; (2) a committed and understanding governing body; (3) the right leadership; (4) an appropriate sense of urgency; (5) a strong project management system; (6) a robust and redundant communication plan; and (7) sufficient dedicated resources. Like the barriers outlined in CCF’s Guidebook, TIAA cautions that mergers should not be considered only in extremis, when (1) few resources and assets remain, (2) political goodwill, (3) staff morale, and energy are low, and (4) negotiating positions are weakest.

While a plethora of excellent resources exist that describe the characteristics and strategic value of institutional partnerships, before proceeding to establish a collaborative merger, theological schools and seminaries should refine these strategies by incorporating appropriate theological principles. What would a theologically-based partnership look like? How is it formed and what fundamental scriptural truths would inspire its relational arrangements?

According to Holy Scripture, authentic partnerships entail vertical and horizontal dimensions.  This is significant in that the doctrine of “perichoresis” – the Triune synergetic interrelationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Godhead –  provides a perfect model of partnership (Gen. 2:7; John 1:4; 10:10; Acts 17:28; Gal. 2:20).  Scripture discloses that this Triune God invites all of creation into a multifaceted partnership with Him, that includes a vertical and numerous horizontal, human-to-human dimensions.

The application of the aforementioned theological doctrine of “perichoresis” is great for institutions of higher theological education who are interested in establishing genuine partnerships. Emphasizing this truth, Jesus once insisted that he/she who “puts a hand to the plow and looks back, is not fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). The message is clear. If, like a plowman, a servant of God desires to faithfully be in relationship with Him, he/she must maintain a forward concentration. Otherwise, by looking back, the horizontal plow line may become crooked, the vertical relationship strained, and the eternal harvest jeopardized.

When Jesus made this agricultural-based statement, His audience unquestionably knew that He was referring to the Old Testament story of the prophet Elijah who found his protégé Elisha “plowing a field with twelve-yoke of oxen” (I Kings 19:19). The scriptural passage indicates that Elisha immediately “let go” of his physical plow and faithfully placed his hands to the spiritual plow of partnership with Elijah . . . never looking back but taking time only to dispose of his worldly possessions (1 Kings 19:19-21). As a result, Elisha became Elijah’s successor, renowned for asking and receiving a “double portion” (2 Kings 2:9) of his partner’s God-given grace.

This is the type of “perichoric” relationship that should characterize theological schools and seminaries who are interested in establishing prophetic partnerships. Such institutions must be ready to “let go” of transitory mattocks and place complete trust on the plow-heads of Trinity-centered collaborations. They should trust, balance and complete each other’s strengths and resources, and, in the end, strive to humbly compound the ability to service the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of society.

In his article, A Missionary Paradigm of Partnerships Between the North and the South (2009), Samuel Cueva suggested that, in addition to sharing in a common mission, values, and resources, a biblically-based theology of partnership should also include sharing in suffering. This is an interesting insight and one that should be considered by institutions of theological higher education currently suffering the agonies of organizational challenges.

The Old Testament outlines five great examples of partnerships: (1) Abraham and Lot (Genesis 14:14-16), (2) Moses and Aaron (Ex. 7:1-2), (3) David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:1-3), (4) Naomi and Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17), and (5) Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2:2). While all provide general relational insights, four specific principles can be gleaned from a careful review of the synergetic partnership of the prophets Elijah and Elisha: (1) shared commitment, (2) authenticity, (3) catalytic solidarity, and (4) servanthood.

Shared Commitment. The first foundational principal of the Elijah-Elisha partnership was their shared commitment to God’s Will. Because of this faithfulness, Elisha was willing to sever his ties to the past, his family, and agricultural occupation and set out in faith with Elijah into an unknown vocational future. If theological schools and seminaries are serious in establishing a successful partnership with another school, then such an alignment of mission, values, and vision is fundamental.

Authenticity. The second foundational principal of the Elijah-Elisha partnership was their reliance on the synergy of authenticity and unwavering patronage. If institutions of higher theological education seriously desire to overcome their current fiscal and administrative challenges they too must strive to authentically support and encourage their partner school to refine and fulfill their respective charism(s).

During three difficult circumstances, Elijah advised Elisha to “stay behind.” Each time, however, his faithful partner relentlessly refused to leave his side. “As surely as the LORD lives and you yourself live,” replied Elisha, “I will never leave you” (2 Kings 2:6-7). As successful mergers are rooted in a divinely appointed relationship, like Elijah and Elisha, partnered theological schools should always “go on together,” synergistically sharing their respective identities, while striving towards a common destiny. Only in such a dynamic environment can prophetic partners hope to share a “double portion” of collective success.

Catalytic Solidarity. The third foundational principal of the Elijah-Elisha exceptional partnerships was their catalytic relationship, characterized by their desire to promote creativity and nurture the innovative abilities of their partner. Like Elijah-Elisha, partnered theological schools and/or seminaries are not fixated on rigidly preserving the past but centered on the forward-focused plow of flexibility and innovation. It is essential that such partnerships be grounded in an unwavering belief in the integrity and authenticity of the other where members feel reassured in a safe environment of solidarity.

Servanthood. Successful partnerships are, finally, based in service, not self-serving agendas. Throughout their entire ministry, Elijah and Elisha demonstrated that they were willing to sacrifice their own needs in service to others. Every time different people in his community asked them for help, they were never disgruntled or disinclined but willing to accomplish their God-given prophetic mission by diligently providing solutions. Theological schools and seminaries will not be able to accomplish their mission if they are self-absorbed, inconsistent or not committed to their horizontal responsibilities. This principle cannot be overstated, because without a servanthood mentality, the unique prophetic mission that differentiates theological studies from other educational institutions will ultimately be stymied.

The prophetic partnership of Elijah to Elisha provides a valuable rhythm of collaboration for contemporary theological schools and seminaries that are interested in merging their respective educational institutions. As such, the leadership of these institutions should consider emphasizing the four-fold foundational principals of shared commitment, authenticity, catalytic solidarity, and the diligence of prophetic servanthood into their collaborative relationships. Only by adopting a shared commitment to societal engagement will partner schools hope to successfully advance their God-given missions, and thereby, assure long-term survival.

Joint ventures frequently fail because of lack of trust, inauthentic leadership, and incompatible value systems. “Two cannot walk together,” insists the prophet Amos, “except they are agreed” (Amos 3:3). Consequently, while a robust engagement of stakeholders and enhanced financial efficiencies are essential, successful partnerships are ultimately characterized by an ethos of self-sacrificial collaboration wherein individual destinies are woven into the very fabric of the other.

The synergetic partnership of Elijah and Elisha inaugurated a powerful transformation. The heaven-ward chariot translation of Elijah transferred a double-portioned of God’s Grace to Elisha (2 Kings 2:11). This is what can happen to theological schools and seminaries if/when they choose to join hands to the plow of educational partnership. In the final analysis, this is what precipitated the compound anointing, a greater glory then any one single person can exhibit on their own.

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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