Friday, October 16, 2009

The Business of Theological Education

I believe in education. I believe also in theological education. In fact, I believe in it so much that I have given up a lucrative career to pursue a theological degree. There is no better proof of my desire than where I choose to invest in. That is why, whenever I read about closure of Bible schools, downsizing of theological institutions and the demise of any institution offering theological education, I become sad.

Victims of the Economic Crisis
In the US and Canada, there has been several theological institutions that were forced to shut due to the lack of finance. Even the venerable Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has to shrink its bookstore, reduce commitments and let some staff go at the peak of the crisis. The crisis is global. It extends also to the British University, the University of Sheffield, which is famed for its Biblical Studies department. Founded by the late F F Bruce, the administration had wanted to close down the venerable department for good, due to financial viability, low student enrollment and especially after a mass departure of senior lecturers from the faculty. Fortunately, the closure has been averted, at least for now. For colleges that has been struggling with the balance sheet, the recent economic meltdown has dealt a fatal blow to its existence.

Any form of educational endeavor requires some sensible management skills as well. It is one thing to produce the best biblical scholarship to offer the world. It is yet another to find the money to support this cause. I am familiar with several theological institutions, in Asia, in Europe as well as in North America. There is a common denominator. More than 80% of the money needed to run the Bible colleges are funded by a meagre 20% or less. For some, the ratio is 90-10. For Salt Lake Bible College in Utah, it takes just one big donor to withdraw his financial commitment to shutter the whole place. For many others, it is due to dwindling student enrollment.

I find that often, people has mistaken naivety for faith. They think that as long as they operate on the basis of the right cause, they do not have to worry about the cost. 'The funds will come.' so they say. The question: "What if it doesn't?" In fact, asking this very question can make people accuse me of having no faith.

Faith-Based Ministries have a hard time distinguishing between living by faith and stewarding one's resources. There is a time in which I was impressed by people like George Mueller, who basically prayed and testified God's providence over all of the needs of his orphanages. Without stating publicly his dire needs, his ministry is filled with boundless testimonies of how money simply arrived at his doorsteps. When people read it, it is like a miracle happening through prayer alone. With each answered prayer, the man of faith grew in leaps and bounds to encourage other believers struggling to make ends meet. Is it possible that not everyone is called to do what George Mueller is doing? Is there then another way to exercise faith-based ministry? I believe there is. The difference is in terms of context. Mueller did what he knew best. In our modern era, we need to live in step with what God has given us. In an Internet age, where information is freely and quickly available to anyone with a network connection, ease of getting free information online threatens the traditional model of offering theological education offline. Online Bible classes are sprouting out all over the Internet like wild mushrooms. How then can traditional theological colleges survive the onslaught of free information available as long as anyone has free time? How can anyone live by faith when the whole world is living-by-free-stuff?

The Tri-Partite Solution
I believe that there is a need for 3 entities in any theological endeavor: the Belief, the Business and the Bridge.

This defines the identity, the vision, the mission and the calling of the theological institution. Without the cause, there is no reason to start a college. The artist, the academic and aspiring theologian will all connect with this common conviction. It is the very basis of being. It is this basic statement of faith that gives the college a unique identity, to draw people of diverse backgrounds toward one common cause. Take a look at these statement of faith:
MISSION (Regent-College)

"Pursuing attentiveness to what God is doing in the world, we are committed to a global perspective in our teaching and learning."


"Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is an educational institution serving the Lord and His Church. Its mission is to prepare men and women for ministry at home and abroad."

MISSION (Cambridge, UK)

"The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence."
Just a brief comparison of the mission statements will indicate to us where the specific emphases each institution represents. Regent-College is more concerned with worldview formation. Gordon-Conwell emphasizes ministry work. Cambridge desires to offer the highest level of excellence in all branches of education to society. Having a specific mission statement helps the stranger to understand what the institution stands for and its unique placement in society. In order to spearhead the institution forward, there need to be committed teachers, faithful givers, sufficient administrative structure as well as students. All of them has to be committed to this common cause. Otherwise, why should people fly all the way there from all over the world? Why not simply plump for the nearest neighborhood school for one's theological exposure?

While it is an honorable goal to pursue causes, there is also a need to exercise wise stewardship and responsibility. For example, it does not make sense to maintain an organization of 100 people to serve a student population of 100. Likewise, it is hard to justify flying in an expensive professor and then offer his classes away cheaply, even for free. There is always a minimum price-tag, even for non-profits. Some places pass down the costs directly to students. I know of many students who struggle from semester to semester to pay off their school fees. Some have to resort to dropping Summer classes so as to earn some money to pay for the tuition during the normal Fall and Winter terms. Scholarships and bursaries are sometimes available, but are usually insufficient to pay for all of the students' monthly expenses.

The economic downturn of the business may have hit many institution's faithful givers. What is worrying is not this group of people. It is the fact that the younger generation comprises only a small fraction of the previous generation's appetite for giving. From statistical studies on giving, the majority of big givers are among the Baby Boomer generation (people born after WWII.) After them comes the Gen X and Gen Y, who practically lived through believing that this is a culture of entitlement rather than faithful giving. In a ChristianityToday article entitled, "Scrooge Lives!" not only are the numbers of givers decreasing, they are also giving less. In the article, there is a perceptive comment that:
"In addition, America's biggest givers—as a percentage of their income—are its lowest income earners." (CT, Dec 2008)
Does this mean that there are less poorer people entering the church? Or does it mean that more wealthy people are overwhelming the church with their stinginess? We need to continue to educate people on the business of giving. In our Internet age, where people even need to be coaxed into receiving freebies, the task of communicating the need to be generous is even more important. The rich and the not so rich cannot presume each other's level of giving. They are accountable first to God.

There is one thing that I learned in my early years in business. The way to make money is not only in cutting cost. It is increasing revenue. While theological institutions can wisely steward what they already have or are promised, they need to do more than simply manage funding. They too have to educate people on the business of giving. In fact, giving in itself is an act of worship to God. They have to play their part in showing the Christian public that giving is not simply a handout. It is an attitude, and reflects how much one loves God. Giving away money is solid proof that money is not an idol. This presents another opportunity for ALL theological institutes to be mindful of. Solicit funds not just for self, but for the whole people of God. This educating of 'giving-as-an-attitude' ought to be part of the business of the theological college.

I was commenting on a friend's blog a few days ago, about the need to balance both art and business. Both feeds off each other. Without the art, business has nothing to spend its money on. Without basic business sense, art will run out of resources to operate. There is a third component, one that is able to bridge the understanding of the two. I call this the bridge. With the presence of a bridge, the artist can periodically cross over to see the businessperson's point of view. Likewise, the businessperson can regularly make a trip to the artistic world and see the significance of his investment. This bridge can be in the form of seminars, conferences or any opportunity to meet. It is also highly recommended that such bridges be built from within the artist population as well as the business population. Have training for both entities. Have regular interaction among them to ensure that each is aware of their unique contributions to the overall thrust of the institution.

In summary, we need the three components to be working together for the survival and flourishing of any theological educational endeavor. We need a BELIEF that unites all toward a common cause in the name of Christ. We need a BUSINESS model of understanding that does not only concern themselves with wise stewardship or constantly nipping at the heels of a handful of regular big donors. We need to grow a teaching arm of giving-as-an-attitude or giving as a profound kind of spirituality that transcends all generations. The BELIEF may kick-start a theological enterprise, but it takes a viable BUSINESS model to sustain itself into the future. In order to keep all working together in commitment and passion, we need BRIDGEs to inform one another of the different outlook pertaining to this common cause.

Of course, what I am writing here is nothing really new. Except that we all needed reminders in one way or another. Theological education is not simply studying theology. There is a business involved. There is also the need to bridge with the Church and Christians in the world. Without this bridge, when the money runs out, the artist and the theologian's work ceases. Without this bridge, when the creativity and talent expires, the businessperson finds one less avenue for investing and for giving to. Without this bridge, instead of studying the history of Christianity and the various theological disciplines through the ages, our modern 'theological education' as we now know may very well find themselves extinct.



Li Sui said...

And then there's the Business-watering-down-Education model. This has unfortunately been the path taken by many a Christian bookshop, with its self-help titles, feel-good books, gifts, pretty bibles, etc. Business and Message/Vision must be kept together in the proper perspective. I'd dread it if, like numerous secular universities today, theological schools also become nothing more than corporations selling education.

YAPdates said...

Li Sui,
Your observation is perceptive. There is always a risk of business casting their shadow over the whole enterprise. I know of some that has adjusted their theologies to suit the funding philosophy. That is why a good institution is one with a board of directors that comprises people, both theologically trained and business people.

For those self-help bookshops, it is often sole-proprietorship.


K M said...

Perhaps, it's like having a balance between managing an instutition as an educational centre whilst ensuring tent-making processes continue to hum in the background. But often easier said than done when challenges arise in both difficult times as well as when money is more than adequate.

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