Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh, PA

"The Future Has Arrived: Changing Theological Education in a Changed World"

The theme of the 2010 Biennial Meeting of the ATS (which will be held later this month in Montreal) makes no bones about the need to firm up the foundations of theological education in the shifting socio-religious sands of our contemporary culture.

Leading up to the meeting, ATS Executive Director Daniel Aleshire called on seminary presidents to exert wise leadership in this uncertain climate. Turbulent times, he says, often call for deep, fundamental, "adaptive" change (to use Ronald Heiftz's term).  To face this reality, theological schools must learn how to learn about the new normal of American and Canadian religiosity.

It's been 20 years now since Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline popularized the notion of a "learning organization." Yet many theological schools that are rooted in decades -- even centuries -- of theological, ecclesiastical, and educational tradition and are still not focused on how they learn and advance as organizations. Gregory Jones at Duke Divinity School lamented recently that while many top for-profit corporations have internalized an organizational learning ethos with positions such as "chief learning officers," most Christian institutions -- seminaries included -- have yet to embrace or institutionalize this core value of organizational development. 


In a little article titled "Teaching Smart People How to Learn," management researcher Chris Argyeris suggests that successful professionals -- such as professors, board members, and educational administrators -- have relied on their own wiles and abilities to get them to where they are. They have rarely faced embarrassment or defeat in their professional lives, and they organize their work to minimize the risk of such.  

Organizational change, however, requires people to examine themselves and to consider how individual patterns and actions may be contributing to an institution's problems. To engage in organizational learning requires an individual act of humility and self-awareness, and a commitment to personal change and transformation. This can be embarrassing for some, and ego-threatening for others.

But if theological schools are to rise to Aleshire's challenge to engage in deep institutional change, they must begin with deep individual awareness on the part of their leaders. The Christian tradition is well equipped for this sort of self-reflection, and presidents must lead their faculties and staffs into a culture of self-awareness, reflection, and transformation. The future of theological education depends on it.


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