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The Indispensable Church Leadership Project

Fuller Theological Seminary’s three-year Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative is called “Indispensable Church Leadership Project. It empowers pastors through indispensable training that is: (1) responsive because it is empathetic to both a diverse church and an ever-changing world; (2) holistic because it is both informational and formational; and (3) sustainable because it is both cost-effective for the seminary and affordable for students. The project focuses on business-model innovation engaging publics and contexts; spiritual direction and student formation; student affordability and resourcing; and upskilling pastoral and ministerial leaders.

Dr. Scott Cormode is Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. Karen Stiller interviewed Cormode about Fuller’s Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative project.

Briefly describe the project.

Our project, “The Indispensable Church Leadership,” derives its name from Mark Labberton, our president at the time. The word “indispensable,” which I coined, emphasizes the importance of our seminary to graduate students who will possess the skills that are indispensable for the Church today

We pursued two paths for the grant: the first through our graduate programs, focusing on how we will change our courses and teaching methods; the second through Fuller Equip, an online platform designed for those who are not yet ready for graduate education but interested in learning more. We refer to them as “learners” rather than students.

Often, the learners are lay people interested in learning more, but not currently considering seminary. However, some might take classes and consider further education. We have practicing pastors, who are ordained, but may not have a degree yet want to improve. For example, I teach an M.Div. class on leadership, which includes a week on conflict and conflict resolution. To address this need, we created a Fuller Equip course on conflict resolution as a stand-alone class. This course can be taken by laypeople, those considering ministry, or practicing pastors. We’re trying to make the seminary resources accessible to a broader audience.

What have you learned so far?

At the graduate course level, our faculty identified eight characteristics we want our courses to embody. The first element is informative and formative. While one goal of a class is to transfer knowledge, it is equally important to shape and improve individuals.

Our courses are meant to be both unified and diverse. Each class should have a central theme containing a diversity of voices within that theme. We liken this to a choir, where many voices represent many perspectives while creating the same music. Additionally, classes are indispensable and interdisciplinary. They must be useful to the churches hiring our graduates and draw from multiple disciplines to provide the best learning experience.

Classes are large and intimate. To create an intimate online course, it needs to be small, while larger classes require a personal connection with the professor.

As a faculty, we realized the importance of incorporating all eight of those characteristics, which is a significant challenge. We encouraged our professors to apply for a quarter off from teaching to develop model courses embodying these characteristics. We created ten such courses of which eight were very successful, becoming the standard approach for those professors.

With the Fuller Equip courses, our goal was to create 40, but we have successfully created 60, with many more in the pipeline. We consider this a very successful step.

We are fortunate to have great people who are making a difference. We could not accomplish this without their dedication and effort.

What has surprised you along the way? 

The best surprise has been how the excitement of our partners. It is not uncommon for a Fuller Equip course in partnership with organizations, such as a Pentecostal denomination, that doesn’t require an M.Div., but want to create resources for their pastors. We’ve experienced a lot of enthusiastic partnerships, which has been wonderful. Additionally, the economy of scale allows us to provide access to these resources to other groups once we developed the courses for one.

What have been a few of your successes?

We began by listening. We organized a series of table discussions and asked the chairs of our Ethnic Centers to convene a series of listening sessions, which greatly influenced our work. Our goal was for 40 per cent of our 40 new courses to be authored by persons of color. We are on track to have 70 per cent of our subject matter experts be leaders of color.

The purpose of listening is to transform the listener. It’s easy for those in charge to assume they know what they’re doing simply because of their position, but that assumption is wrong.

We aim to serve a very diverse population, which requires us to listen to a diversity of voices to understand their needs. This concept of racialization suggests that everyone of a similar race shares similar interests and needs, which is a fallacy. When listening to our representatives from the Asian-American world, for example, we must not treat them all the same, but instead listen to a variety of perspectives within that community. It is crucial for us to move beyond stereotypes, which is deeply important to us.

What aspects of the project are you hopeful about?

I am very hopeful about the future of these projects because they have worked as intended. They are providing opportunities for learners and reaching a diversity of voices and audiences that we would not otherwise hear. Additionally, they are opening doors to pedagogical possibilities for our faculty, which we had hoped for.

This is the first step in a long journey. The idea of creating a process where learners become equipped students is very important to us, and we see this pathway as deeply important. Our efforts are opening many opportunities along this pathway.

What are you learning that could help other schools?

Our goal is to inspire transformation for the listener, which requires us to listen intentionally to anticipate change.

According to Kara Powell, a co-director of this project, “People support what they help create.” Engaging the faculty has been essential to creating model courses and Fuller Equip programs. Additionally, we should be prepared for unexpected developments. It’s inevitable that unexpected events will occur, underscoring the importance of agility.

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