Credit: Sheila Sund    


In 1918, the very first “Conference of Theological Schools” met for a simple purpose: to give the deans and presidents of seminaries and divinity schools a chance to converse about the challenges facing their institutions. Their concerns sound familiar today: What is a theological school? How does a theological school relate to the broader world and the church? How can we survive in these current troubled times?

This year, at the centennial anniversary of that first meeting, the leaders of the schools of the Association of Theological Schools will continue to ask many of the same questions. In fact, the theme of this year’s event, which is taking place on June 20 and 21 in Denver, is “Legacy and Innovation.” 

In Trust was interested in finding out how schools are addressing the Biennial Meeting’s theme in the metropolitan area where the event is being held. So we reached out to three theological schools in the Denver area to ask about “Legacy and Innovation.” We found that the three are firmly committed to adapting and thriving in an unsettled world.

Augustine Institute

Over time, love is a little bit like the Mississippi River. It might not look exciting, but there’s a lot of power behind it. That lovely sentiment is from a beautifully produced promotional video for a marriage course, highlighted on the YouTube channel of the Augustine Institute, a unique Catholic graduate school in Greenwood Village, Colorado. The institute’s channel also includes a “Reformation playlist” with lectures on “The Reformation and the Grace of Conversion.” 

The videos, which mostly show lectures and talks that explore the Catholic faith, are beautifully shot with professional intros and music. There is no shaky camera work or inadequate sound — no just-good-enough production values. The Augustine Institute has invested in quality since its very beginning in 2005, fundraising specifically for a $300,000 professional studio in which to film their classes and presentations. 

“We created a professional studio classroom, and we record with two or three cameras,” says Tim Gray, the institute’s president and co-founder. “We have someone in the control room. We’ve invested in the infrastructure to make it work,” he adds. “It’s the small things, like the camera angles. They change every few seconds which is really important; it keeps the brain engaged.” A professional videographer team and a full-time video editor help ensure that quality. 

Established in 2005, the Augustine Institute is very young in the world of theological education. The school has not lived through the ebbs and flows of enrollment that other schools have grappled with in recent years; on the contrary, there’s been a steady flow of students since they opened their doors and their online portals. Although some ordinands do attend, they are not the primary audience for the Augustine Institute’s programs and courses. The lay people who attend, either online or in person, want to engage more fully in the New Evangelization — that is, the challenge to proclaim the Gospel that was issued by Pope St. John Paul II at the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver.  

Gray says that the institute has been blessed. “In the fall we had 110 new students. In the spring we had just over 30. It’s been great, substantial growth.” He believes that serving the laity is a significant advantage. “We created a very innovative distance education platform that we use to reach our distance education students,” he says. “We have students from 40 states and 12 countries.”

Em-em Talaboc, from the Philippines, is one of those students. She works full time in a bank while also serving as head of formation for a chastity ministry, Pure Heart Philippines, which offers workshops, talks, and retreats for young people and their parents. Talaboc knew she wanted more theological training, but she couldn’t give up her full-time work to attend onsite classes, even in the Philippines. She’s enrolled in Augustine’s M.A. program in theology. 

Talaboc says that she reviewed some of Augustine’s materials and found them to be of high quality. “I really like their way of teaching,” she says. Sometimes the internet service in her home country is slow, but she has found that she can easily engage with her professors when her signal is strong or hold off until later if the connection is temporarily weak. She’s also travelled to Denver for a summer class, which made her feel even more a part of the community. “I love to be with them on campus,” she says. 

Em-em Talaboc

“I was organizing a monthly philosophical discussion among young adults,” she says. “It was a tough topic.” She’s pleased with how it went but she doesn’t think she would have had the courage to initiate the discussion at all without her formation from the Augustine Institute. 

That goes directly to the heart of the Augustine Institute’s mission: to serve the formation of Catholics for the New Evangelization. “Through our academic and parish programs, we equip Catholics intellectually, spiritually, and pastorally to renew the Church and transform the world for Christ,” says Gray.

And it is mission that drives innovation, he says. When students reported it was difficult to hear questions in some of the classes, Augustine installed a whole new sound system. “It’s those little things that make it better,” he says. Because of their success, and the quality of their classes, Gray says they have been asked for advice by other groups.

Gray always asks inquirers why they want to imitate Augustine Institute’s programs, and often he’s told that the inquiring group is trying to develop a revenue stream. But he says that the Augustine Institute did not start offering online courses to monetize a master’s program. Rather, “We did it from the beginning for mission,” he asserts. “For us, our distance students are primary. And that’s why we’ve invested a lot of money.” 

Gray says the best innovations emerge from a “desire to serve the students and give them a richer experience and a deeper engagement.” He adds, “These are real people, real students. We can really serve them digitally and online, but we have to think about making this a better experience for them.” 

Denver Seminary

One of the first courses any student takes at Denver Seminary is GS 500, “Thinking Biblically and Theologically.” For students enrolled online, an early assignment they complete is a two-minute video of themselves answering the question of what the Bible is all about. 

Students then post their video online using a service called VoiceThread, knowing that other students will watch, comment, and critique their clip online. Interactions through VoiceThread and Zoom (a videoconferencing and webinar service) — along with videos, online white boards, and book chapters posted online — are among the ways that Denver creates interactive learning activities (ILAs), which are integral parts of all the seminary’s online courses. 

“A lot of online education is still stuck in this digital correspondence course model,” explains Aaron Johnson, associate dean of educational technology. 

But not at Denver. The seminary uses the catch-phrase “Next Generation Online Learning” because student engagement — the experience of learning — rather than content delivery is the primary driver for the seminary’s online programs. Denver pays attention to the smallest details of the online experience, both for the faculty member leading the class and for the students interacting with the material, the professor, and one another. 

“The biggest challenge and opportunity is aligning how we do education with our values,” says Johnson. “Innovation actually has very little to do with technology. It’s about people and how they choose to navigate emotional processes.” Often, the changes put in motion by innovation are disorienting, says Johnson. He adds, “Change requires humility because you often have to set aside what you’ve done for a decade.” That can mean learning a whole new way to teach, a process Johnson compares to learning to drive a manual vehicle when you’re already an expert at an automatic. You need a guide. So Denver provides a team of instructional designers and teaching and learning coaches who work with faculty to develop online courses and coach them in instruction.

Mark Young, the seminary president, stresses the need for buy-in from faculty, board, and staff when making these large institutional shifts, such as Denver’s decision to offer a fully online, shortened M.Div. chiseled down to 78 credit hours from 97 hours. Denver’s program now has more students enrolled than ever before.

Denver Seminary president Mark Young speaks on "the metanarrative of Scripture and the mission of God" in a video for The Workshop, a series of TED Talk-style videos produced by the seminary. 

Courtesy Denver Seminary 

“Collaboration is the real backbone of innovation,” Young says. “If you don’t have the majority of the key players involved in the process, I’m not sure you’re really innovating. I think you’re imposing new ways of doing things. We made it clear that we thought our institutional survival was at stake in this. It wasn’t me telling them that; it was us looking at the same data.” 

Young says that Denver Seminary’s “very significant” curriculum revision has included not just the slimmed-down online M.Div. but also the creation of new programs like a 39-hour M.A. in biblical and theological studies, which was crafted with Bible study leaders and Sunday school teachers in mind. “In the evangelical world, there is that trend of people doing ministry without theological training. What we do best is provide that theological and hermeneutical background.” 

Young says that the idea behind the new programs is reaching new markets, and the same impetus has spurred them to update their mission statement. “The mission of God is always to be pushing toward those who don’t know him yet,” he says. “We’ve adopted that language of pushing forward. We ask, ‘Who are those for whom theological education might be meaningful, but they don’t know it yet?’”

Denver is also exploring that question in relation to new partnerships with nonacademic institutions like churches and mission organizations. “We bring a level of expertise that we are best able to provide, and they do the same,” says Young. “We have to create a better linkage between education and occupation.” He observes that the luxury of attending seminary to learn more about God without concern for future employment is a thing of the past.  

“Innovation isn’t an option in theological education,” says Young. “It’s a necessity. We have to be willing to try, fail, and try again. Innovate. And if it doesn’t work, close it down and innovate again.” 

Iliff School of Theology

Don’t bother to ask Thomas Wolfe, president of Iliff School of Theology, the predictable question at the end of the year: “What did we accomplish?” He is not interested. 

“That is an old, tired question,” says Wolfe. “Now we ask: What change has impacted us and how do we account for that? What change have we as an institution created that is our contribution to the future of theological education? What new institutional capacities have we gained over the year that cause us to claim the spirit of our institution in new ways? Those three questions are huge for us right now,” he says. 

This is a school unafraid to ask big, tough questions. Their mission statement alone hints at that spirit with the phrase: “educating leaders with courageous theological imagination.”

This is not about a school doing something new just to survive during a time of rapid change, packed with enrollment and fundraising challenges, says Wolfe. New revenue streams must speak to mission. “Our mindset at Iliff is: What are we contributing to the emerging theological education, to creating new, meaningful places for theological education to engage? We can do that now because our innovation is not aimed at merely surviving, but really at the primary work, which is framing theological education for the future.”

Iliff is considering its own physical space in a new way as it contemplates these questions. “Journey,” their hybrid program that has for years enabled students to do programs online as well as in person, has diminished demand for classroom real estate. “It leaves us with some space,” explains Wolfe. “We’re looking at like-minded partnerships that are missional.” That means Iliff might invite a denomination to share space at the school, or a nonprofit whose presence and creative collaboration with Iliff might benefit the development of students. 

The sharing of space is one kind of innovative collaboration going on at Iliff. There is also the creation of space for new kinds of conversations that push against the artificial boundaries that might exist between theology and other fields. 

Michael Hemenway is the director of academic and information technology. “Most of us believe the discourse of theology has something to offer any conversation,” he explains. 

For example, why can’t theology have a role in the huge arena of artificial intelligence (AI)? “One aspect of theology historically is theological anthropology, which asks the question, ‘What does it mean to be human in the world?’” Hemenway says. “Is it possible that a place like ours could offer a different perspective on the emerging AI movement?’” 

Iliff says yes, and they are using their space — literally and online -— as a platform for “labs,” in which theologians, staff, and practitioners (including board members who work with advanced technologies) explore, experiment, and hypothesize around topics like AI. The AI lab has met a couple of times already, with a few participants in a classroom on campus, a few more joining the discussion by phone, and others joining via Zoom. 

Michael Hemenway

Courtesy Iliff School of Theology 

Their use of “lab” is very intentional. “What we’re really after is to cultivate an institution-wide culture of curiosity and innovation that allows folks to spend time in their workday trying new things, understanding that a large percent of these new things might not work. Most experiments fail, but we don’t stop running them,” says Hemenway. “That is one thing we can learn from the scientific world — let’s keep going until we find the results we need. We’re intentionally approaching this.” There are three labs in development at Iliff: one on environmental justice, another on artificial intelligence, and a third on emerging organizations. 

“We believe there are some really interesting and different possibilities on the horizon for a school like ours that may not look like anything we’ve done in the past,” Hemenway says. “Let’s imagine those futures, rather than just sitting back and doing what we’ve always done.”  

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