Greg Henson, lead partner of the Kairos Network, sounds as if he’s talking theology when describing the experiment in competency-based theological education that had its beginnings at Sioux Falls Seminary in South Dakota in 2014 and is today a growing, global network and influencer in conversations about the future of seminaries.
“Kairos is one, but also many,” Henson said. “We are trying to realize the benefit of being one university, one school, one seminary – while also being distinct.”
The “one” is a network that has touched down on six continents, lives out in four languages, and educates nearly 1,000 students through an outcome-based, highly individualized educational experience that is deeply and personally contextual for each Kairos student.
The “many” are the five partners that have joined together and are functioning as a single theological institution that will be governed by a joint board and share accreditation, staff, faculty and, crucially, their mission to provide theological education that is affordable, accessible, relevant, and faithful.
The partners are Sioux Falls Seminary, Taylor Seminary (Edmonton, Alberta), Evangelical Seminary (Myerstown, Pennsylvania), BLI School of Ministry (Freeport, Pennsylvania) and Houston Graduate School of Theology. Henson said the result is one institution that allows students to study in different theological traditions (in which they can remain or cross over). The schools thus sustain their work while giving their students a greater range of opportunities in theological education. There are also collaborating schools beyond these five that participate in the Kairos Network, further expanding avenues of possibility for students.
“It is like a university that has a business school and a psychology school,” Henson said. “We are a large-scale, non-geographically bound collaboration. We want economies of scale to have everyone pulling in the same direction. To get to the ‘one’ we need the governance piece with the legacy schools. To get to the ‘many,’ each school’s legacy is honored and retained.”
Gary Bailey, president of BLI, agrees. “The uniqueness of the partnership we have allows us to come together and share so much of what we’re doing as institutions, while at the same time retaining some of that uniqueness as an institution,” he said. “BLI continues to exist. We are Kairos, but we have a great heritage we continue to draw from. We haven’t lost who we are.”
“We want to realize the benefits of being one university, one school,one seminary–while also being distinct.”
A New Governance Model
What is changing significantly is that the boards of Taylor, Evangelical, BLI, and Houston are dissolving. Members of those boards will join the Sioux Falls board. The result is a board of 25 members, up from the nine that previously composed the Sioux Falls board.
The room is not only more crowded, but it feels and runs differently from the typical seminary board. Henson said the initial representational nature of the board will not drive its composition in the future, and he describes the current operations as “trust-based collaborative governance.”
That means, among other things, that there are no committees. “The whole point is no one is in charge of one thing,” Henson said. “The only way to be collaborative is if everyone in the room has knowledge of the whole. And the best way to have cross-knowledgeability is to not have committees.”
A bi-weekly “Kairos Notes” email keeps board members informed of everything from partnership issues to student enrollment updates, while a detailed financial dashboard offers an inventory of seven essential performance measures. The interim reporting provides the currency of information that allows board meetings to proceed as conversations, Henson said.
The board also is considering shifting on-site meetings from three per year to bi-monthly remote meetings, with at least one extended in-person meeting a year, post-pandemic. The agendas are bare-bone and full of white space: Scripture. Silence. Prayer. Conversation. “We want to hear each other and the Spirit, not reports,” said Henson, who uses adjectives like “messy” and “organic” to describe the competency-based soil from which this new project grows.
A World of Opportunity
Kairos students have a world of options – almost literally – to choose from as they create individual paths to their degree, within their own theological tradition or another if they choose, supported and guided by their own small team of mentors. Students pay through the Kairos subscription model, which in North America usually falls between $300 and $400 per month. There is only one admissions process, one faculty, one staff and one governance body, geographically dispersed but missionally aligned.
That’s what caught the eye of BLI’s board, which unanimously agreed to enter the Kairos Network in February 2020, according to Bailey.
“God’s powerful presence is suffused within the world. It’s the hidden music that interprets and sometimes brings healing and hope to ordinary events.”
Dr. N.T. Wright at M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust Leadership Now conference, December 2020
“It made sense for us as a small Bible college to go all in with Kairos, across the board with governance,” he said. “We thought it not only provided the kind of education we wanted to do and were already doing, but the structure, the governance, and the resources of the partnership would allow us to become part of something we could never do on our own.”
It’s exciting, he said, and expansive. For David Williams, president of Edmonton’s Taylor Seminary, already a sister school to Sioux Falls through the family ties of a shared denomination, the move to Kairos was a logical and missional alignment, played out incrementally over the past several years. It also is a “radical shift in the way an organization is run.”
“Often, the business structures that are so deeply embedded in traditional models keep schools tied to those same models, so the shift to credits tied to outcomes and not conventional courses, along with subscription pricing, are massive changes for any institution,” Williams said. “I think there are lots of schools that may like the flexibility of it, the affordability of it, but I often wonder if they are willing to make the changes necessary to have those things? I don’t know.”
Those necessary big leaps are what makes the new confederation possible.
Through its union, the Kairos Network will become larger than 90 percent of the accredited seminaries in ATS, with students drawn from over 70 different denominations in 28 countries across six continents, shepherded by more than 1,000 mentors.
At the center stand those legacy partners, now as one, but still each their own.