By Philip E. Thompson, reprinted from the Oikonomia Network.
Previous articles on Sioux Falls Seminary have shared stories of how our innovative approach to theological education, Kairos, is enabling students to cultivate human flourishing in both ecclesial and non-traditional contexts of ministry. Since the Kairos model was launched in the fall of 2014, its success has required ongoing, overlapping processes of assessment, evaluation and re-iteration of outcomes, assignments, structures and procedures. With each iteration of the curriculum, reflection on vocation, work, money and economics has become more and more fully integrated throughout. Work and economic issues are studied biblically, historically and theologically, and as they intersect leadership, spiritual formation, administration and missions.
Students Carry the Mission to the Marketplace
Not surprisingly, the initial indicator that this integrated study was having a formative influence on students was when they began to see their places of work as theologically meaningful sites, where they could be missionally engaged. As Elizabeth Newman has observed: “Because the finite is capable of bearing the infinite, human places always contain the possibility of being epistemologically revelatory.”
Now in the fifth year of Kairos, we see a next step. At least two of our graduates have recently started businesses. They have adapted models of ministry to the workplace, integrating insight drawn from the range of reflection on faith and work, and whole-life discipleship, that they encountered in the course of their theological education. Diana has developed what has been described as a “pastor/mentor model of business/ministry,” opening a hair salon in which she mentors and offers spiritual direction for employees. She has also set up a small room for silence and meditation, which can be used by employees and clients alike. Jennifer embodies what she has learned in her clothing store for expecting and new mothers.
Moreover, students are actively extending the conversation. Joe, executive director of Justice For All, a ministry devoted to Christian Community Development in vulnerable communities, is in the process of writing a thesis on faith in the marketplace and how community values shape responses to persons in need.
Growing Challenges to the Business Model of Theological Education
These wonderful signs of God’s active redemption of the whole creation, unfolding before our eyes, would hardly be relevant if the seminary itself were not seeking to promote flourishing. A part of the Kairos story that is told less often is the school’s own commitment to faithful stewardship in the fulfillment of its institutional vocation, developing servants for participation in the Kingdom. Indeed, Kairos seeks not simply to be innovative, but through cultivation of institutional practices of stewardship to respond faithfully and creatively to largescale challenges in theological education.
Theological schools face a critical time, with challenges in both financial stability and enrollment. The two challenges are connected at many points, and are shared by schools across the spectrum of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Cumulative ATS enrollment fell 9.5% from 2006 to the fall of 2014, the semester in which Kairos was launched. Since 2014, enrollment across ATS has been generally flat.
Decline and instability continue to be the norm for most schools. While the professional M.A. and the D.Min. have shown growth, the M.Div. is growing only in schools that have approached theological education differently, usually with some form of distance education.
It is unsustainable for students, who may already have several tens of thousands of dollars in undergraduate student loans, to take on another $30-60,000 of debt for seminary, only to face the likelihood of being called to a congregation that cannot pay a salary commensurate with that debt. Pastors and churches alike are prevented from flourishing, as are schools.
Of tremendous importance in the decline across the theological spectrum is the factor of cost. Expenditures per FTE in ATS schools have increased about 130% since 1996. Today, the average cost to educate a student in an ATS school is $40,500. During this same timeframe, as the U.S. Consumer Price Index (i.e. inflation) increased 55%, the U.S. Higher Education Price Index increased 80%, and Full Time Equivalent (FTE) enrollment at theological schools declined 60%. It is little wonder that one in three freestanding ATS schools operate on an annual deficit greater than $250,000.
How We’re Responding
In response schools have pursued various initiatives, often perceived as drastic measures. Most, however, are attempts at tweaking an existing model while leaving it largely intact. Most schools are not inclined to think differently, nor to challenge the assumptions that undergird the system.
Yet with these challenges come unique opportunities to shift both conceptual paradigms and structural paradigms, embracing the work God is doing in the lives of those God calls to engage in theological education. It is a time that calls for imagination and creativity, while we remain faithful to the core tasks of theological education. Distance education alone is not the solution. Sioux Falls Seminary has taken a more systemic approach.
Theological schools currently cost too much to operate sustainably. Poor stewardship presses the price of theological education too high. Decreasing the price of education is only possible by integrating the operational and educational models, in particular allowing the context of life and ministry to inform and shape extensively students’ experiences of theological education.
Seeking to address these realities has formed the foundation for integrated organizational development at Sioux Falls Seminary, rooted in a markedly different educational philosophy. Kairos is an innovative curriculum, but also a revolutionary financial model.
Participants pay a subscription fee of $300 for each month they are in the program. Thus a 3-year Master of Divinity degree is priced at $10,800, 75% lower than the average price for schools in ATS. By using this model and extending the philosophy throughout the operations of the institution, Kairos has enabled Sioux Falls to drop its cost to educate a student by over 30% in four years, and has decreased student debt by 90% during the same period of time, even as enrollment has increased dramatically. Despite the dramatic decrease in the price of tuition, the seminary maintains an operational surplus of at least 10% each year.
Thus Sioux Falls Seminary seeks to be fully integrated, with a mind and heart for faithful stewardship in every aspect of its life, put into practice equally in our business model and in the content of the education we give our students.