Out of chaos comes creativity

Art by Post Wook

There is no doubt about the tumultuous times facing theological education in North America. Over the past decades, as a variety of Christian denominations have reported declines, theological schools have faced the reality of changing views on religion, flagging enrollments, financial crunches, and most recently, the global pandemic.

Last year, Lilly Endowment Inc. announced a major grant that has the potential to remake the face of theological education and support the church. The Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative is designed to help theological schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) strengthen their ability to prepare pastoral leaders and congregational lay leaders.

In November, Lilly Endowment announced grants in the second phase of the initiative, giving 84 schools between $500,000 and $1 million each to implement a wide variety of projects. The school proposals range from creating new degree programs to meet changing ministerial needs to rethinking seminary structures to support a more vibrant future.

ATS and the In Trust Center were awarded grants to co-coordinate the initiative. In a kickoff meeting in late January with grantees, ATS Executive Director Frank M. Yamada, Ph.D., said the Pathways initiative “turns this time of disruption into a time of opportunity and creativity.”

“Within the Jewish and Christian traditions, it is often in times of crisis that human creativity and ingenuity flourish,” he said. “In fact, in the beginning (bera’shith in Hebrew) creation emerges not in spite of chaos, not in opposition to chaos, but indeed in the very midst of chaos.

“It’s fair to say that the past several months have felt like treading water in the chaotic depths, but there is creativity and promise to be found in the middle of these turbulent waters.”

In Trust Center President Amy Kardash said the initiative provides great excitement in theological education.

“This is an incredible time for schools to innovate and grow,” Kardash said. “What is learned in the grant will be made available to other schools so they’ll be able to glean wise practices across a variety of topics.”

The grants that were awarded in the second phase of the initiative cover five broad themes:

Accessibility and affordability. Schools are considering ways to help ministers not only obtain an education but also make it affordable, particularly for groups of students who have typically been unable to attend seminary. Many projects proposed reaching students who traditionally have not been in their student bodies. For example, many schools are reaching out to students of color and those not well-represented in their student population. As well, schools are looking at helping students without a bachelor’s degree obtain theological training, cutting tuition costs, and attracting students who have not thought about seminary.

Pedagogical practices. Schools are considering different ways to engage students, including online and hybrid courses, apps, and interactive methods. Several schools proposed projects that would help students learn in their current contexts instead of relocating, including working in some form of competency-based education. Several schools included projects that would help reconsider how they do ministerial formation, including how to do it online or in a hybrid model.

Field education. Many schools plan to boost field education projects to provide students more practical experience in ministry. Several schools proposed creating or strengthening partnerships with churches and ministries to give students greater opportunities in internships and mentorships so they can learn in real-life settings.

Partnerships. Schools saw the need to create or increase partnerships with denominations, networks, and other schools to help create new church leaders. There are also projects that call for providing more lifelong learning opportunities for those currently serving in ministry to continue their education.

Financial viability. Several schools proposed ways to increase financial sustainability and measures for long-term viability, which include increasing fundraising capacity and the ability to generate revenue.


It’s fair to say the past several months have felt like treading water in the chaotic depths, but there is creativity and promise...


A Pivotal Moment

Kardash said the grantees’ proposals “really run the gamut of ways to address many of the issues facing theological education.”

“This promises to be a pivotal time in theological education,” Kardash said. “We are deeply grateful for Lilly Endowment’s generous funding to support these important projects and through them the future of theological education.”

The Pathways initiative is broken into three phases. In the first phase, 234 ATS-accredited schools received up to $50,000 in planning grants to help consider ways they could explore issues, challenges, and opportunities facing their schools and to assess the effectiveness of their educational and financial operations that support their preparation of congregational leaders in the United States and Canada. The first phase was non-competitive.

The grant’s second phase was competitive, and the projects will run over the next three to five years. The grantees include 74 in the United States and 10 in Canada. They represent primary campuses in 28 states and the District of Columbia and seven Canadian provinces. There are 32 Mainline schools, 32 Evangelical schools, 18 Roman Catholic schools, and two schools affiliated with Peace Churches. They include 46 freestanding schools and 38 that are embedded. The schools range from small (under 50 full-time enrollment) to large (over 2,000) with the bulk of grantees having a full-time equivalent enrollment of under 200 students. Among the grantees, there are courses offered in four languages other than English.

“The grantees provide a great snapshot of what theological education in North America looks like,” Kardash said. “This diversity provides fertile ground for schools to learn from one another.”

ATS will be the lead coordinator. Jo Ann Deasy, Ph.D., the director of institutional initiatives and student research at ATS, will serve as the director of the Pathways coordination program. She said the coordination program is “really an offering and an invitation.”

“We will be providing resources, research, and support and inviting schools to be part of a learning community,” she said.

Deasy said that the coordination program would hopefully help “capture and disseminate the learning that takes place within the broad initiative” and “amplify” the learning so that other schools can more quickly learn from one another.

ATS is working to bring grantees together once a year in person (including a meeting in June as a pre-conference event to the ATS Biennial in Pittsburgh) as well as provide online gatherings. Recently, ATS launched a series of monthly webinars for grantees, with sessions aimed at strengthening the grant projects. The webinars opened with a series focusing on storytelling for grants, assessment of grants, and structuring for sustainability. ATS also is planning webinars around specific topic areas and creating peer groups.

ATS will launch several research efforts with the initiative and will collect data on what the schools are learning. Deasy also said she expects to launch programming for project leaders and school senior leaders. ATS also is building a virtual learning community.

Deasy noted the importance of the support that Lilly Endowment has provided for theological education and its ongoing commitment “to the role of theological education and developing the leaders needed for vibrant Christian communities in the United States and Canada.”

“We are so grateful as well for the vision of this initiative designed to leverage a moment of deep disruption in church and society, and for theological education to forge pathways for the future,” Deasy said.


Out of chaos comes creativity

Art by Post Wook

Resources for Leaders

The In Trust Center will work alongside of ATS to provide a variety of resources for grantees. Kardash said this is the first time that ATS and the In Trust Center “have collaborated in this way to leverage our organizations’ programs and our teams’ strengths to collectively support theological schools.”

“We see this as an opportunity for each organization, ATS and the In Trust Center, to draw on our individual core competencies while recognizing the many intersection points and opportunities for shared programming and support,” she said.

She said the In Trust Center would look at several areas to help schools. The first is in learning community space and creating peer learning, topical education, and confidential space for conversations. The In Trust Center launched a series of webinars in March on institutional sustainability that is available on demand for anyone in theological education. She said the In Trust Center also is considering several other areas to explore based on project proposals, including readiness for change, continuing education, and innovating wisely.

The second area the In Trust Center is offering is Resource Consulting, which has been a mainstay of the center for the past several years. Resource Consulting provides connections to thought partners, consultants, peer organizations, and confidential conversations. Grantees and members of the In Trust Center are able to take advantage of that service.

The third area Kardash noted was in publications and communications. She pledged to use all of the center’s communications platforms, including In Trust magazine and its newsletter, website, blog, and podcast, to share what people are learning and how they’re collaborating.

“We think that this is valuable to both grantee and non-grantee schools,” Kardash said. “We want to highlight the work and give people the opportunity to share both the challenges and the opportunities that they experience.” She added that the In Trust Center is “deeply committed to inviting non-grantees into the learning space, both via webinars and our publications.”

The fourth area that the In Trust Center will focus on is providing space for thinking. “The In Trust Center is uniquely positioned to provide confidential safe space for difficult conversations – space that may not already exist in many institutions,” she said. “Our hope is that we can foster collaboration and innovation through this space for exploration.”

The last area Kardash pointed to is in connecting to board members, who she said may not be well connected, to the broader work of theological education.

“We have an opportunity and a responsibility to inform and connect board members to the Pathways initiative and invite them to consider how to engage in strategic discussions for sustaining the capacities of their school to support and prepare pastoral leaders.”

In Trust is planning to launch a newsletter later this year for board chairs involved in the Pathways grant, providing guidance for their important roles as pragmatic internal negotiator and articulate external voice.

Kardash said she hoped that the work of the In Trust Center and ATS would enhance the experience for the grantees and encourage and sustain them in the work.

“We’re eager to model the collaboration and partnership that so many of you are tending to in your own projects,” she said.


This is really a hopeful time, an era in which schools can envision a brighter future and create a pathway forward to it.


Out of chaos comes creativity

Art by Post Wook

Better Together

In addition to webinars and resources that already have already been announced, both ATS and the In Trust Center are working on rolling out resources over the next several months in a variety of ways to respond to the needs of grantees.

“While we have plans for what we will do, we expect our work to be dynamic,” Kardash said. “Our goal is to help schools with just-in-time resources that answer questions and address the needs they have as they arise.”

Yamada, the ATS executive director, said the coordination program will “eventually and hopefully and creatively prepare leaders and pastoral leaders for the future of congregational work.”

“We believe this is how we build change collectively,” he said. “We believe that we are better together, and together we can build a better future for theological schools, for communities of faith, and for the leaders that serve those communities.”

Yamada added that this would be a time to take “concrete steps toward tangible and more sustainable Pathways for Tomorrow, for your schools, for future pastoral leaders, and for communities of faith.”

Kardash said for a field that has struggled through many difficulties, the sense of hope was palpable. In years past, she said that schools often felt like they were being acted upon by forces outside of their control. With the Pathways initiative, the schools now have an opportunity to innovate and learn from one another to make wise decisions.

“This is really a hopeful time, an era in which schools can envison a brighter future and create a pathway forward to it,” she said.


For more on the In Trust Center’s role, click here.

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