I couldn’t spell “eschatology” for the whole first semester of seminary. And I had no idea what the word meant either. I’ve now come to realize that eschatology might be one of the most valuable tools for any seminary leader — especially board members! That’s a big statement, so let me try to back it up.
My favorite short definition of the “E-word” came from an ethics professor: “God’s future breaking into the present.” And indeed, when we are surrounded by the fog of change, it’s hard to see ahead without that kind of long-term vision. As the book of Proverbs reminds us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
A vision comes to a community through leaders who articulate a picture of the future—not a far-off future, but one that is already arriving. That vision doesn’t encompass the whole picture, but it provides a glimpse, an image, a foretaste, a snapshot. Even if fragmented and partial, such visions can pump new life into a community. They are powerful motivators, pointing forward. They are little engines that give horsepower to any theological school.
So where is the future breaking into the present today, in 2016?
Technology. Technologies from the previous generation’s science fiction are now revolutionizing theological education, and innovation has put everything in flux — from pedagogy to educational platforms, from back office functions to communication. The future is still being invented in Silicon Valley and in other technology hubs far beyond our theological school campuses.
New models of teaching and learning. The change of focus from teaching to learning has been a dramatic shift in theological education. The former emphasized the content that was taught, while the latter stresses “learning outcomes” — that is, what students are actually learning — and this shift is shaping the future in significant ways. Assessment of students and programs will never be the same.
Formation. How does a school shape a leader? Effective and faithful formation in its various components (spiritual maturity, human development, professional competency, and intellectual curiosity) is becoming the ultimate goal of theological education programs. Knowledge alone is not enough.
Contextual education. Following other professional education programs (for example, law, medicine, and social work), theological education is becoming more contextual and more participatory. Technology is enabling this shift, but so too are congregations and service-learning sites that welcome students to hands-on educational environments.
Curricular innovation. Can a curriculum achieve more with less? All of these innovations are accompanied by a desire among many leaders to reduce costs for students, which sometimes means reducing program hours and requirements.
At the same time, curricular innovations and new technologies may allow students to get more from their education than previous generations could.
Is any long-range planning possible during this season of rapid change? Most leaders are coming to see that the future demands building tents, not temples, so their vision for the future is to stay flexible and adaptable for whatever comes their way.
The key questions for each school remain: Can you see and taste the future? Can you share the vision with other leaders? Can you help incoming and current students grasp it?
Some describe this function as the “poetic role” of leadership, and it’s usually seen as the prerogative of the president. But while it’s true that board members must focus on fiduciary concerns, they too share the responsibility to welcome the future as it is breaking into the present. They too hold the vision of their schools in trust. It’s one of the greatest gifts that a board can offer — to administrative leaders, to students, and to the church of God as it proclaims the good news in the 21st century.