Leadership training reaches ‘tipping point’ (Alan Roxburgh)

Alan Roxburgh believes that leadership training has reached a tipping point.

The amount of change we are facing as national and regional church leaders in the United States continues apace. I believe the same is true of the UK.

Institutions we've come to take for granted are coming under pressures that fundamentally change their identity. I have heard about a number of large, significant seminaries struggling with massive challenges around debt and student decline. We know that large numbers of small, struggling seminaries across North America won't survive into the next decade. But when large, well-established, prestigious schools are confronting big financial challenges, one's sense of confidence in the stability of systems is shaken a bit.

We are working with a number of national denominations, listening to regional executives describing the ministry challenges they're facing. A common theme that keeps cropping up centres on concerns that they're not getting the kind of congregational leaders they need from the seminaries, persons able to lead congregations engaging rapidly changing communities. Some of these regional leaders are now seriously asking if they shouldn't be developing their own regionally-based training programs for clergy. They may be onto something!

I recently read an article in The American Interest (volume VIII, number 3) in which its lead story was The End of the University as We Know It – an article by Nathan Harden. The inside page headline was,

Everyone knows that change is coming to higher education but few realise just how destructive (and creative) the coming revolution will be.

Harden argues that in less than a generation, half the colleges and universities in the US will no longer exist. What is also clear is that in less time than that the majority of seminaries and Bible schools will no longer exist.

There are three reasons for this massive change:

  1. Economic: Seminary education is now far too expensive. It's less and less affordable to students who are acquiring more and more debt, and the schools themselves are less able to keep ahead of overhead costs through endowments etc. There is a wave of deferred giving up ahead that will last for a short window while the 'loyalty' generations pass on and their gift promises pay out, but after that, the money simply will not be there the way it has been in the past. At the same time, we are reaching the point where, in many denominations, over 50% of congregations can no longer afford full-time clergy and many of the remainder can't pay their clergy the salaries needed to maintain a decent living and pay down their student debt.
  2. Technology: This, when combined with the financial challenges, is the game-changer. The classroom is about to go virtual. Tablets and the revolution in connectivity are now fundamentally changing the nature of higher education. We are now able to connect students to the best teachers and learning experiences at a fraction of the cost of existing campus-based schools. And, this distributed, on-line education can be done in ways that enable students to do much of their learning on the ground, in their local settings rather than be pulled out and located within some distant campus for three-to-seven years.
  3. Disconnection: There is a disconnect between the kind of leader that seminaries are producing and the growing sense of the kinds of leaders now needed on the ground in congregations. There is a heightening of anxiety across church systems that what seminaries are producing is simply out of step with what is needed. There is a growing conviction that the established model of the 'professional' clergy will go the way of the Dodo. We are in need of shaping new kinds of contextual learning communities which are working at discovering together what the new leadership needs to look like. This is not an abandonment of classical or intellectual skills but a loss of confidence in the existing professional, graduate models of leadership.

This set of new realities is providing regional and national church leaders with an array of possibilities for those ready to embrace the space opening up before us. There is a confluence of factors coming together to remake the education of church leaders.

Some of these new realities are:

  • A massive shift in power. National denominations and schools, in partnership with credentialing organizations, have been able to set the agenda and standards for the training and education of leaders for the churches. They have determined what is taught, how it is taught, where it is taught, and who will be taught. It's all about to end! For those ready to embrace it, new kinds of distributive, learning networks are waiting to be created. Regional leaders thinking about how to train leaders for the realities the churches are asking the right questions in a moment when this confluence of change is picking up speed.
  • A significant overproduction of PhDs coming out of theological schools and seminaries. These represent bright, young men and women looking for places to teach that no longer exist. There are fewer and fewer positions available. As more and more schools struggle to survive, there will be even fewer positions in the classic, traditional teaching profession of the seminaries. This means a growing pool of young, energetic, creative teachers are becoming available. Will they be open to participating in creating new forms of training for a networked world, one in which they will not have salaries and tenure to lose? A majority of young people are less and less willing to move across the country to spend three-to-seven years in an on-campus school getting an education because that is the established requirement of denominational and accrediting agencies. In other words, there is a growing pool of young, creative men and women ready and eager to experiment in the emerging virtual classrooms that allow them to stay local for most of their experience and do this at a fraction of the cost of traditional seminary education.
  • Once dominant denominations are waning and morphing. They will soon be unable to plug the dike and maintain their controls over the credentialing of clergy leaders. Established credentialing has lost its gloss; it no longer holds the prestige and privilege it once did. Current critiques of on-line and networked education simply don’t hold water anymore. We have reached the tipping point in terms of the interactive technologies being available for creating rich educational experiences, and there are enough studies emerging to show that this kind of learning can be high quality.
  • There is now a new environment of experimenting. Some schools are putting 'everything' on the table in an effort of discern the adaptive shifts they need to make. This is creating a new openness to developing experiments in learning and training. We are in a space of new learning and discovery. No group has an inside track on what it all needs to look like but… regional and national leaders of churches have before them an unparalleled opportunity for cultivating new ways of training leaders for their churches. A distributive, networked, interactive world is not a futurist's prediction; it's already here. Technologies are now available that make it possible to create just-in-time learning and training educational experiences.

We are seeing tectonic shifts reframing how emerging generations live and think in a networked world. It is not all wonderful, there are downsides, but we are, unquestionably, in the midst of the ending of practices long thought essential (the 'seminary' as we know it is mostly a 20th century creation). We have entered yet another time of amazing opportunity and creativity. A confluence of factors provide a moment for church leaders to heed the Spirit's invitation to experiment and learn together how to form leaders for the strange new space into which God has brought us.