Magazines 2024 Jul - Aug Theological Education: Principles and Practices of a Competency-Based Approach

Theological Education: Principles and Practices of a Competency-Based Approach

02 July 2024 By Jason Mills

An extended review of a 2024 book by Kenton C. Anderson and Gregory J. Henson

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

Book by Kenton C. Anderson and Gregory J. Henson. Kregel Academic, 2024. 144 pages. $30 (audio $15)

In this slim and practical book, Kenton Anderson (Providence University College and Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Man.) and Gregory Henson (Kairos University in Sioux Falls, S.D.) collaborate to pitch an alternative to the traditional model of post-secondary theological education.

Convinced of a problematic and growing divide between the church and academy, the writers propose an interesting solution: Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE). CBTE’s approach is defined as being “rooted in contextualized standards of excellence, shaped by the recognition that the act of knowing requires the integration of content, character, and craft, and evaluated in the context of team-based mentoring.” In other words, students learn in places like churches with a team of mentors to support and evaluate them.

Anderson and Henson contrast CBTE with traditional theological education by providing six comparative principles. First, they argue that the mission of the seminary is different from that of CBTE. In the traditional seminary the mission is educating learners, whereas CBTE focuses on the mission-holder – the church – and educating with the church in mind.

Second, the context of the two is different. The seminary is built around the classroom, whereas CBTE provides multivalent learning environments, including congregations.

Third, they argue the outcomes are different. The seminary tends to focus on institutional survival and ticking boxes to fulfill course assignments, whereas CBTE values whole person formation through the development of soft skills and leadership proficiency.

Fourth, the pace is different. Traditional programs contain set curricula arranged in terms, whereas CBTE customizes learning which leads to proficiency outside the semester system.

Fifth, teaching is different. The traditional seminary relies on expert lecturers while CBTE provides the learner with a team of mentors.

Sixth, Anderson and Henson contend assessment is different. Rather than assessing intellectual abilities through research papers and exams, CBTE evaluates student competencies for ministry.

Alongside these principles, Anderson and Henson commend six practical reasons why CBTE trumps the traditional model. CBTE offers (1) more affordable programs, (2) unified systems, (3) flexible technology, (4) collaborative governance, (5) continuous improvement and (6) quality framework.

The book concludes with design proposals, meant to help theological educators and administrators with nuts-and-bolts recommendations related to financing, mentor development and leveraging technology toward institutional change.

Written for academic administrators primarily, and church and denominational leaders secondarily, this book fills a very significant gap. While a handful of books on theological education have been released in the past few years, including Candler School of Theology’s Theological Education Between the Times book series, very little has been written on CBTE. I commend Anderson and Henson for it, even if evidence for their research is in short supply.

Nevertheless, the book has its shortcomings. One such limitation is the question of how exactly Anderson and Henson define the theological school if, as they state, “the mission of theological education is the mission of the church” and “our purpose is [the church’s] purpose.” The reader never gets a clear sense of how the authors define a competency-based school.

A second challenge relates to the scope of their research. The book is jargony and includes broad generalizations evidenced in statements such as “most research shows” with no supporting citations. Their descriptions and assumptions about the traditional model are unnecessarily stretched, and the core argument arises based mainly on their experiences and the stories of others.

There are nods to a handful of books yet little sustained engagement with those authors or sources. Neither is there an examination of other religious institutions that have embraced this form of education (e.g., The Canadian Association for Spiritual Care) in educating their religious professionals.

CBTE is an important learning model with a growing network of supporters. Anderson and Henson’s book offers interesting and helpful insights. While some arguments against the traditional model mirrored my experience as a seminary dean, others appeared to be straw men, hastily propped up and knocked down by the authors. If you are looking for a basic introduction to CBTE, sprinkled with a subjective assessment of traditional theological education throughout, this book might be for you.

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