Monday, February 20, 2012

Higher Cost of Theological Education

Written by: Conrade Yap

In the most recent issue of THE REGENT WORLD, there is a writeup about Regent College's 5-Year Strategic Plan. The President of Regent College shares about the challenges surrounding theological education. Firstly, student enrollment numbers are down by almost half since 2003. Secondly, the high costs of education are discouraging potential students to study theology. Thirdly, there are the associated high costs such as housing, currency disparity, volatile markets worldwide, which all add up to the already difficult tuition costs. In trying to address these challenges, Rod Wilson outlines 5 strategic responses, two of which are cutbacks while three are push-forwards. In helping to deal with the costs, Wilson says that the financial structures will be 're-engineered' while at the same time 'streamline' the curriculum. Both are meant to cushion any financial impact on the students. The other three are geared toward greater publicity and beefing up the already great quality of the teaching environment.

I read the proposal cautiously. On the one hand, I understand the need to address the challenges of high costs in theological education. On the other hand, I feel that the costs are way too financially constricted. There is a higher cost that is beyond financial: The cost of NOT having theological education in the first place.

Gone are the days in which people can claim to self-train themselves to become theologians. Granted, there are resources out there that enable people to learn Greek and Hebrew. Lots of websites are offering audio courses, and some of them offer credit courses for a small fee. Some sites like even distribute materials for free! In an increasingly online world, one of the biggest sense of entitlement in the newer generation is the expectation of 'free stuff.'

A) Context Over Content

Quality education is not about the content or the information any institution dishes out. Quality education is almost always contextual. Any strategy raised needs to consider the contextual question critically. Is education about information giving or formation setting? Is it about flooding the minds with the best of Christian scholarship or the training of the Christian mind? Is it about content focus that is not related to the contexts of the students? Let me share one example. One reason why online education has been advocated by many is the attraction of offering high content at low costs. It appeals to the frugally minded. Unfortunately, it is an unhealthy reduction of what good education is all about.

I have been on the online world long enough to know that what is offered online, is not really adequate. Think about the way we download our Bibles. Which of these two questions are more true?

  1. "Your Word I have hidden in my heart, that I will not sin against You."
  2. "Your Word I have downloaded into my iPod, that I will retrieve when I think I need it."
When I was a IT consultant, one of the regular requirements is to keep up with my certifications. Every quarter, I need to fulfill a certain number of training hours on some of the latest technology offerings. As a way to cut costs, the folks are the corporate headquarters dish out online offerings. I was enthusiastic initially, keeping up with my requirements. Once my other work pressures build up, I found myself cutting corners. I multitasked my way through the training. By opening multiple windows, I will keep one window opened on the training module, another on my Email client, and another on a database application. Sometimes, my training module will time out due to inactivity. At the last minute, my colleagues and I would be sharing answers so that we can simply fulfill the requirements. Eventually, I completed the training with minimal understanding of what the technology is all about.

Theological education can be supplemented with online courses, but not replace the need for face to face learning. For me, I have been in theological education long enough to know that the value of theological education is not the content but the contexts in which we study the context. Theological education is all about learning how to contextualize the information we have. This is best done by interacting with professors, students, staff, and people in general. I hope that the latest Regent strategy will incorporate an increase in contextual awareness even as they 'streamline' course offerings. Online courses are powerful content managers, but are miserable when it comes to contextual awareness. The higher cost of theological education is not based on content but the context. Content means information. Context influences spiritual formation.

B) Promote the Brand

Regent already has a great brand name. Let that not be diminished in any way. Many professors are already engaged in many places. Here, I believe the need is for Regent to use the Word of Mouth strategy to promote the Regent brand. There is no better way than to let the quality of the students/faculty speak for themselves. One of the strongest reasons why students come to a school is due to recommendations by students both past and present. For example, I know of pastors who are always ready to recommend Regent College to their congregation members interested in Bible school. In a nutshell, Regent College can incorporate in their strategy the many 'ambassadors' worldwide. Share with them information on a more regular basis. Utilize the bookstore offerings. Perhaps, regular free audio downloads with an option to give freewill offerings can be adopted. Write and market books written by both Regent faculty as well as alumni. 

One of Regent College's strengths is in marketplace theology. Another is the fame of certain professors, many of them already categorized as 'Professor Emeritus.' Both are enrollment attractions. Another of the strengths is the Summer School courses. I know of some professors already speaking and teaching outside of Regent. Every staff member, every past student, every faculty member past and present are immediately potential ambassadors to promote the brand. Is there an elevator story for them to share with the communities they are living in? Maybe, that ought to be emphasized. Not using sufficiently the strengths and ambassadors of Regent are in themselves a heavy cost to foot.

C) Opportunity Costs

While financial costs may be rising, what is often not evident is the opportunity costs of NOT having theologically trained leaders in the Church. Sometimes, all it takes is a trigger point, a reminder that the typical layperson needs to supplement their personal discipleship program to grow. Theological education is not simply for people who want to enter any Christian-specific full-time ministry. Regent College has been well-known for their theological training for the whole people of God. That is one distinction of being an 'unseminary.'

I remember a missionary years ago coming to my Church to ask some basic questions. Using very familiar questions that puts our basic Bible knowledge to the test, I was astonished to realize that out of 10 simple questions, I had hardly four correct! The missionary then goes on to highlight the need for theological training even for those who have been Christians for a long time. Looking back, I feel that too many people have taken their theologically astute members for granted. Many see the theological vocation as just another way of life. What if more Church people are able to appreciate the VALUE of theological education? What if common issues are debated that exposes people's need for a theological perspective, instead of the common layperson dissing off the need for theology in favour of some common-sense solutions?

Here is an opportunity that all Church leaders need to be aware of. In order to champion the need for theological education, one needs to experience the benefits of theological engagement. Regent faculty and alumni can help beyond just pulpit supplies. They can be champions of theological education by sharing how they apply theology in their lives.

There is another opportunity cost. I know of many people wanting to know what to do with their lives. There are those in mid-life crisis, the fresh graduate out of college, or people simply wanting to know how to discern God's will. Regent College can certainly provide a regular vocational discernment offering, and to PUBLICIZE that! In many cases, opportunity costs of not having any theological training may be higher than financial. Remember how the apostle Paul warns the Church about false teachings and false teachers?

So, in summary, theological education cannot be constricted to content based downloading of information. Theological education is more contextual. Theological education needs to be more widely promoted as a need, especially in many places where people presume their common-sense Bible reading suffice for all circumstances. When people see a need, they will be more readily convinced. Finally, the costs of theological education need to be measured against the opportunity costs of NOT having any theological education. Perhaps, the problem is not the economy. The problem is the lack of vision by church leaders to see theological training as part of their discipleship program. Regent College and its supporters must continue to teach the need for theological education. Every Christian needs to be mindful of disciplining themselves to know God and to make God known. In our increasingly complex world, Christians need to be able to think well. They need to learn to reason well. They need to keep in touch with the world of ideas by learning to counter the world's values with biblical foundations.

While theological education can be intellectual, it is more important to promote theological education as cultivating 'intelligent minds.' The word 'intellectual' has too much negative connotation. 'Intelligent' is better. Mark Noll writes:

"In the end, the question of Christian thinking is a deeply spiritual question. What sort of God will we worship?" (Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994, p253)

A growing disciple will grow in their training of their mind. While zeal in service is important, zeal with knowledge to serve better is even more important. It will be a sad day for the world of theological education if the purpose of any marketing program is the survival of the theological education providers per se.


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