We do no one a favor by refusing to take a long look at ourselves, our missions, and our outcomes. Nevertheless, there is something deeply ironic about our assessment efforts. We live in a fiercely graceless world, a punishing performance-based culture. When our graduates stand before congregations they are fully aware there are women and men in those congregations who have been battered by the competitive forces of the workplace. They have been told their self-worth is tied up in their performance. Where will they go in this Darwinian world to hear a word of grace?
As a Christian I would argue that at the heart of our gospel is the word of God's grace. In this punishing, graceless world we offer God's enormous generosity. When our corporate culture evaluates, assesses, and assigns value based on performance, we speak of God wiping the slate clean and loving us regardless. We offer the one place where value is assigned not on the basis of performance but simply on the basis of being. We are loved, forgiven, received simply because God loves us. So, it is ironic that we call our students to ministries of grace in the process of assessing them and ourselves within an inch of our lives.
Let me reiterate that I am not arguing against our culture of assessment. I am rather raising the question of whether our understanding of the nature of God would suggest that we do assessment differently. Are we able to assess in a way that is consistent with our convictions regarding the grace of God? Can we learn valuable lessons from our colleagues in politics and business while clinging to our commitments to a God of generosity and forgiveness?
John E. Phelan is president of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. This is abbreviated from reflections he delivered on June 26, 2006, at the Association of Theological Schools Biennial Meeting in Chicago.