The closing of Borders bookstores has drawn responses from a variety of sectors. One seminary professor even wrote a theological reflection on the news. Without a doubt, Borders was an American fixture for nearly two decades, and its downfall has important lessons for organizations in the midst of large-scale shifts in their markets. A few observations are noteworthy:
- One news report suggests that the fall of Borders is an opportunity for small independent stores, which can focus on special niches or cater to particular communities. The lesson is simple: a one-size-fits-all approach may, in fact, serve no organization very well.
- One college dean suggests Borders failed because it was not distinctive enough and did not align its core competencies to a changing marketplace. He fears many middle-of-the-road private colleges are headed down this same path.
- Another observer offers three concise lessons: (1) The middle is a bad place to be. (2) Technology is not always the answer. (3) Disruption can be rapid.
Theological schools can learn a thing or two from the Borders story. For theological schools, the shifts in the "marketplace" have been well documented, and generative solutions -- and even a few success stories -- are starting to emerge.
One key for struggling, middle-of-the-road theological schools may be -- like the small independent bookseller -- to find a well defined niche and do it very well. Some schools will excel at online education. A few will thrive on monastic residential models. Others will focus on certain practices of ministerial education or particular philosophies of ministry.
But the key for a successful way forward is finding where a theological school's core competencies line up with the real, contemporary needs of church and society. Others will probably go the way of Borders. Unfortunately, many schools suffer from an assumption that to be a good seminary they must be all things to all constituencies.
More about this in Part 2.