When Kent Anderson assumed the presidency of Northwest Baptist Seminary in 2010, he had a goal in mind: An experiment that would turn theological education upside down. Risk was minimal, he assured his board, because students would have a choice. They could opt for the classic M.Div. program available through the seminary’s membership in the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (a consortium usually called “ACTS Seminaries”). Or they could enroll in a nontraditional alternative — one that the school’s website states “is not for everybody.”
The school has a strong relationship with its supporting churches—all board members are active in churches affiliated with Fellowship Pacific, a regional association of Baptist congregations — and Anderson felt that there was a general feeling in the denomination that ministerial preparation was ripe for change. He proposed that the school work in partnership with church leaders to design a program that would better prepare clergy for ministry.
Anderson petitioned the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) for permission to experiment, and earned buy-in from the faculty. “I like to say we reverse-engineered our seminary,” he explains. “We started with the end in mind and asked ourselves, ‘If we weren’t encumbered by institutional requirements, how would we train church and ministry leaders who are experienced, well prepared, and trustworthy?’ We looked at it from the other side and focused on achieving outcomes.”
What emerged five years later is called “Immerse,” a name chosen to reflect that the program’s participants are immersed in a local congregation or ministry and make only brief visits to campus for traditional instruction. Participants study under mentors who guide them through assignments that become increasingly demanding and complex. The goal is to achieve 27 outcomes, each with academic and practical components. Each of the 27 outcomes is worth three credits on the way to the 87 credits required for the M.Div.
About Northwest Baptist Seminary
Location: On the campus of Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia
Church affiliation: Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in British Columbia and Yukon (also known as Fellowship Pacific)
Institutional structure: Member of the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS Seminaries), a consortium of four seminaries
Leadership: Board elected at Fellowship Pacific's annual convention
“Technically there are no courses in this program, only outcomes,” says Anderson. “In a classic setup you’ll have semesters that run three and a half months, but in this process we don’t have that kind of timeline. Students deliver their work, and if it’s not good enough, we ask them to do it again. It’s all about leading students through a customized and flexible process to the point where they show us that we can trust them with the challenges of ministry. The goal is mastery.”
The three-person mentoring team that nurtures each student includes a member of the seminary faculty, a working pastor, and an overseer from the church network. Working together, the team takes a holistic approach that integrates segments of the curriculum that traditionally are studied separately. “In our classic M.Div. curriculum, we have a course on the book of Acts, another course on the doctrine of salvation, and another course on personal evangelism,” says Anderson. “But in our Immerse system, those courses comprise one outcome. So, students are studying scripture, thinking theologically, and living it out in practice in their daily lives. All those elements are present in every outcome.”
Mentors and students interact within a customized, secure online environment. Participants upload their work and mentors log on to record all significant interactions with their students. “If an assessor — someone from ATS, for instance — wants to review us, we can justify the grades we give on the basis of a very full and robust portfolio of interaction with students around the outcomes,” says Anderson. “I personally work on six mentoring teams and I’m amazed at the quality of the interaction. It vastly exceeds what I’m able to do for students in the traditional setup.”
Time on campus often takes the form of two- or three-day seminars that build on the books that students are reading independently or the research they’re conducting in the field. Their mastery of the material is assessed in a variety of ways. “We might ask them to teach a class on something related to the subject, and we’ll observe them,” says Anderson. “Or, we might ask them to preach a sermon that reflects some aspect of a theme. We may have a conversation with them or request that they submit a paper on a topic. All these enable students to demonstrate their mastery of the integrated outcome.”
As enthusiastic as he is about Immerse, Anderson is quick to note that traditional M.Div. programs shouldn’t feel threatened by its success. To reiterate the school’s disclaimer: Immerse clearly is not for everyone. Students on doctoral tracks that lead to teaching careers may need more classroom instruction than Immerse offers.
Students who prefer the structure of an academic calendar that culminates in a week of final exams may struggle with the program’s self-paced approach. For these reasons, applicants are carefully vetted and counseled before gaining admittance. Still, the hurdles have done little to deter interest.
“We’ve made it really difficult to get into Immerse, and as it’s moved along we’ve only increased the standards,” reports Anderson. “The surprising result is we’ve had better response to this than anything we’ve ever done. We’re turning people away all the time. It’s amazing.”
To read more about the Immerse program, visit www.faithandleadership.com/kent-anderson-mastery-model-theological-education
“Blue sky” dream to day-to-day reality
In order to bring the vision for a new M.Div. structure to fruition, Kent Anderson and his team needed to work out the details. In Trust asked how the program was steered through the seminary’s governance structure and how they are assessing learning
Q Did faculty members at Northwest Baptist initially object to the proposal for a revised M.Div. program?
At first, faculty expressed concern as to whether this process would be sufficient to deliver on academic outcomes. There was little concern about the “applied” side of things, which seemed self-evident. They had to be convinced, however, that students could be held sufficiently accountable academically through this approach. The key here is that the faculty remains in control of this aspect and that they continue to be responsible to see that the students achieve the same standard that we would expect from any traditional student. Faculty members were also concerned about an increase in their workload. We were able to address that matter administratively, assuring that faculty loads remained in the normal range.
Q How was the new program steered through the seminary’s governance structure?
Typically our board of governors does not look closely at curriculum and degree program structure, but given the radical nature of this approach and the implications involved, we kept the board up to date and in dialogue around this item from the beginning. Formal program approval followed the normal patterns of faculty and senate approval.
Q How is student learning assessed?
All mentors, including the faculty mentors, utilize an online portfolio to track student learning and their mastery of outcomes. All of the student’s substantive work toward mastery is posted here. In addition, the mentors have regular personal interaction with the student through regularly scheduled meetings with the student for guidance, encouragement, and evaluation.
Q How is faculty performance assessed?
We track closely the interaction level of all mentors, including faculty members, with their students. Mentor team leaders report back to management about the effectiveness of the team. In addition, we have built a comprehensive, randomized degree program assessment process that will assess the effectiveness of faculty and other mentors within the program.
Q How are program objectives assessed at the institutional level?
The faculty and administration meet annually to closely observe program effectiveness against a standardized set of program outcomes on a rotational basis. In addition, we submit to the evaluation of the denominational network, which is regularly assessing the effectiveness of the program.