Apple coreThe Alban Institute recently posted a must-read essay about congregational leadership titled "When the Mission Changes." In it, author Dan Hotchkiss reflects on the critical times in a congregation's history where the mission of the community needs radical reconsideration. This involves more than reworking the verbiage in the mission statement, he says. "[W]hat if times change so much that the original mission starts to look like a mistake?"

Can a theological school find itself in a similar position? Of course. And more than a few schools are already taking the radical steps of rethinking and redefining their missions for the 21st century. For example:

  • The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology changed its name this fall from Mars Hill Graduate School, partly to distinguish itself from a church with a similar name but dissimilar theological positions. But in the major rebranding process, the school has focused its identity on progressive evangelicalism and zeroed in on what it does best: theology and psychology.
  • Lexington Theological Seminary and Meadville Lombard Theological School, among other schools, have been revising curriculum, faculty, administration, and more to focus on contextual education -- online education combined with practical ministry and periodic on-campus intensive classes. In doing so, they've put aside not only the traditional residential educational model, but the commuter student model too.  
  • The most recent edition of Colloquy, the periodical from the Association of Theological Schools, focuses on Christian seminaries that have embraced multifaith education, in one way or another, as core parts of their institutional mission in a religiously diverse world.

When a school is reconsidering its mission, what does it throw away and what does it keep? The business classic Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companiesby Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, may offer some guidance. The authors write about the need for organizations to preserve the core while embarking on revitalization. An organization must be willing to change everything about itself to adapt to the times, they say -- except for its core beliefs and commitments. They give some great examples of core commitments and non-core practices:

  • Walmart's core commitment is to "exceed customer expectations." Front-door greeters are a non-core practice.
  • Boeing is devoted to "innovation in aviation," but building jumbo jets is a non-core practice.
  • Nordstrom is famously committed to customer service above all else; piano players in the lobby are a non-core practice.

So in thinking about your theolgical school, what are the core, non-negotiable values on which your school is built? Why does it exist?  Is its core purpose to provide accredited degrees, or to educate students (whoever and wherever they may be)? Is it to produce theological scholarship for the academic guilds? Or to pass along religious knowledge to a new generation?

The current climate is begging seminaries to rethink the ways they deliver on their core commitments. But seminary leaders and their boards must be clear and creative about what those commitments are. For some schools, it may be the only way to survive.