Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella
Continuing education has long been a staple for many theological schools, providing a door for potential students and a connection point for alumni. Helen Blier, Ph.D., has spent her life working in Christian theological higher education, and, as the president of the Association of Leaders in Lifelong Learning for Ministry, she believes that a healthy continuing education program can bolster a school. In Episode 44 of the Good Governance podcast, Blier talked with In Trust’s Matt Hufman. This is an edited version of the conversation in which she provides some key points that she thinks boards should consider about lifelong learning. Listen to all of her ideas at In Trust Podcasts.
It’s missional. Boards should embrace lifelong learning as a crucial part of the educational mission of a school. Despite all the innovative efforts that schools have engaged to try to boost interest in these programs, there hasn’t really been an appreciable increase in people who are interested in degree programs. But those of us who do this work for a living know that theological education continues to be a really valuable resource. With the significance and the depth of some of the social and cultural issues that we’re experiencing today, I really think theological education is one of the important tools in our toolbox that we need to bring to bear on building communities with resilience that can then go out and deal with these problems. I’d want boards to embrace this idea that lifelong learning is one of the very important and valid ways that a school can continue to live out its educational mission and leverage its considerable resources – whether they are intellectual, social, theological, or financial – for the benefit of larger communities.
It reaches new audiences. I think when you expand the reach of your educational mission beyond traditional degree program students, you’re inviting people into your community and availing them of your resources. By that practice, you’re making the case for the importance of theological education. We can no longer assume that people will buy into this as being a good and valuable thing. But providing opportunities for average laypeople, businesspeople, or folks who might be financial or other kinds of supporters of your institution to come to know the really great stuff that goes on in theological education, that’s a wonderful way for you to sell them the importance of theological schools. This expands the possible ambassadors that you might have for your school.
It’s cutting edge. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve talked to who say that their boards or their administrations have expected them to be the cash cow that’s going to save the school. We don’t expect the degree programs to be cash cows. Lifelong learning can’t be either, especially if you’re trying to get pastors primarily to participate. They don’t have the resources. We need to discover a financial model for supporting these programs that works, and finally embrace the work that’s done in these offices as a creative advantage. Then find a way to fold that insight back into strategic planning and decision-making. If you want to know what people didn’t get in seminary that they need now that they’re out in the field, talk to your lifelong learning leaders. They are the ones who are communicating with these people. Their curricula are sometimes driven by filling in the gaps or providing the just-in-time learning that these pastors and ministry professionals need.
So, find a way to fold that wisdom back into decision-making and back into strategic planning as you re-envision what the future of your school should be.