God’s Kingdom, Our Winebrenner: Re-organizing for Educational Programs & Course Development

When thinking about various aspects of theological education we can generalize and identify many of the inherited structures, designs, and delivery methods, as “traditional” approaches. To illustrate, every few years many program and schools evaluate the overall academic program and determine something like “tuition is too high” so they may either hold tuition prices or even lower the credit limits of particular academic programs. Sometimes evaluation results show that “program requirements are too restrictive” and the conversation shifts to creative use of electives which allows students more flexibility in meeting course requirements. Or, often the response of “we just need more students” is the drum-beat to conversations about finances and curricular redesign.

All of these approaches, while perhaps providing short-term gain, are inadequate responses over the long-term. My contention is that this “traditional” model of educational review perpetuates a broken and unsustainable cycle and system (a topic which will be the focus of upcoming posts). Simply modifying curriculum without fundamentally redesigning the “operating system” of the entire seminary will reveal itself to be insufficient.

If the “traditional” system is broken, what should be implemented in its place?

At Winebrenner, we are working to develop a different “operating system” that fundamentally reconfigures and reorganizes how we think about and deliver theological education.

As a starting point, our emerging system must be based upon low fixed costs for physical space and full-time personnel. Holding down costs allows Winebrenner to be more creative in delivering education. “More students” is only a solution in a structure which requires a certain number of students to meet the financial needs of a fixed number of personnel and facilities. It is possible to build a scalable structure which has variable expenses as student numbers rise and fall. This, in part, is driven by the belief that a portion of a student’s educational experience (as acceptable by accreditation standards) can be completed “in context” through a creative rethinking of a faculty member’s role in the life of a student. Yes, faculty will continue to teach courses for which students sign up, complete assignments, and receive a grade. However, there are additional alternatives to the traditional conception of full and part-time faculty.

Related to this latter point is the second element of our emerging “Operating System”: creative curriculum that fits within the rhythm of life and ministry. Recently I heard someone reflecting upon comments by Dr. Leonard Sweet in which he said we need to begin thinking about the 22nd Century and what that will look like for life and ministry. We need to move toward an approach that more fully integrates life, ministry, and theological education.  There’s no way around the fact that this is forcing us to reimagining how we view education in the context of the Academy and the Church. There are questions that this raises…Have we truly thought about our assumptions related to the cycles of life and ministry?  Have we honestly reconciled with the idea that the typical student no longer relocates to a seminary’s location because they are often already serving in ministry contexts?  Have we confronted those who still believe that in person education is a purer and better form of education? [Note – online and in-person are very different; my point is that one is not better than the other.]  How do we fully embrace the fact that many students are already in ministry contexts as opposed to often ignoring their lived reality when it comes to designing curriculum and programs?  Have we embraced the full value of “hands on” learning experiences in relation to classroom learning experiences?

The final element is a recurrent monthly payment model that allows students to join any month. As a recipient of federal CARES Act funds Winebrenner has the ability to pilot a recurrent $300/month payment plan.  The value of this approach has been evident in conversations with students and Winebrenner faculty and administration.  While a major part of this “Operating System” this is its own topic and needs to be laid out in a much larger context in a future post.

As a conclusion, rethinking and reorganizing is not a result of anyone doing anything wrong.  As evidenced by the rhythm of this series, I have been demonstrating that organizations need to organize and re-organize around mission and strategy.  I continue to affirm and simultaneously rethink a faculty member’s role within this emerging system of theological education.

– Dr. Brent Sleasman, President
– Image by Sarah McC. via Adobe Spark and Unsplash

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