Shakespeare and Company bookstore

Read Part 1 of this post.

The bankrupt Borders stores tried to be a one-stop shop for books, magazines, music, movies, and related paraphernalia -- remember the "Itty-Bitty Book Light"? But in an increasingly digital age, consumers can compare prices instantly on their smart phones and select the brightness of their books' pages on their Kindle or iPad.

Unfortunately, many theological schools assume that they're falling short of their mission if they don't try to provide a Borders-like experience: a comprehensive approach to theological and ministerial education that provides everything to everyone.

But North American theological education diverges from the Borders example in at least one significant way: its mission is to serve -- not profit from -- church and society. Theological schools exist not for their own sake but rather in service to a larger mission. Our schools are all playing on the same team, striving toward a broad and common goal of educating effective ministers, lay leaders, counselors, educators, and scholars.

With this shared direction, the strength of theological education is in its breadth. Taken as a whole, the variety of theological schools -- religiously, ethnically, geographically, and even technologically -- is critical to meeting the needs of the contemporary church in all its iterations. No single school can shoulder this burden on its own. Theological education needs schools that specialize in different aspects of ministry, but doubling down on a particular niche is a difficult decision process for a school, and one that requires the board's full attention and full buy-in.

For schools on the financial bubble, deciding on a niche is especially critical, but it's not something that can be done either in an ad hoc fashion or by fiat. It requires strategic planning that includes answering these as well as many other questions:

  • What can my school do that no other school can do as well?
  • What advantage can my school offer future ministers that other schools don't offer?
  • What pet projects and funding opportunities must we say "no" to in order to carve out that niche?

Many theological schools may need to start thinking like independent bookshops that have new opportunities after Borders. And the niche you carve out -- what your school chooses not do -- leaves opportunity for other schools who are working toward the same goal. Indeed, the strength of theological education is that we want what's best for one another. 

For more on strategic planning and the questions boards and presidents must ask as they chart a course for their schools, read "Is Strategic Planning a Waste of Time?" in the Summer 2011 issue of In Trust.


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