Given that all theological schools face the challenging dynamics of a fast-changing culture, what if we ask the question: Where are the bright spots where innovation wins out over hand-wringing and battened-down hatches? This is the aim of the new Bright Spots research project at Auburn Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education. 

While senior administrators and boards of trustees should attend to the challenges facing their institutions, people who focus on shortcomings may miss the examples of strategic innovation right under their noses. Bright Spots invites us all to be evangelists for innovations that work. 

We encourage your engagement in this project by letting us know about Bright Spots that you see from your vantage point.

An example 

In 1965, nearly two-thirds of children in Vietnam were malnourished. Jerry and Monique Sternin were sent by Save the Children to try to change this situation. With modest resources and a short timeline to show an impact, they decided to look carefully at the circumstances of a particular region. They measured all the children to get a baseline and then visited families to observe their food preparation and mealtime practices. All the families faced the same difficult conditions, but they found a few cases where children were healthy. 

After closer examination, the Sternins found the families with healthier kids had introduced small innovations that went against the grain of standard practices. They collected tiny shrimp from their rice fields, and added these, along with some greens not typically fed to children, to their children's diet. In addition to these simple nutritional supplements, they fed the children smaller meals four to five times a day in individual bowls, rather than sharing from the common bowl at the typical twice-daily meals. 

The researchers invited the innovating parents to become teachers, showing other parents what they did. And the Sternins carefully tracked the impact so everyone could see the results.

Bright Spots in theological education

Across the spectrum of theological schools, it’s widely acknowledged that doing theological education in the same ways we have for the last 50 years is not working. The challenges of the 21st century require innovative faith leaders who are flexible, faithful, and wise, willing to risk and innovate in order to find ways to join in God’s work of loving the world in Jesus Christ. It is the Spirit’s movement among us, doing “a new thing” (as Isaiah 43 says), that convinces us to look carefully for the ways innovation is meeting challenges in effective and imaginative ways.

The Auburn Center’s staff is in the midst of our research, but we have a leading conviction: The challenges facing the church in the 21st century are adaptive in nature and require leaders who risk and innovate. We’re looking for examples within theological education of leaders who are being prepared to build bridges among faith communities, address the social challenges faced by members and neighbors, and bring God’s reconciliation to the complex and hurting world beyond. 

During a site visit, one seminary dean put it this way: “We’re aligning the curriculum as closely as we can with lived experience so that the students’ education won’t have a shelf life — they’ll have transferable skills to meet changing circumstances.”Won’t you join the conversation? Write to us with your thoughts, responses, and examples of Bright Spots.

Contact Christian Scharen at or Sharon Miller at 

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