Competency-Based Theological Education

A paradigm shift in theological education

What is CBTE?

Competency-based theological education (CBTE) is changing the way people think about and practice theological education. Northwest was the first school in North America to offer fully-accredited, direct assessment Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE) programs. But what exactly is CBTE?


CBTE is an educational philosophy that represents a significant paradigm shift in theological education. All of our CBTE programs are designed the end in mind, with a focus on the actual vocations and ministry contexts that students are or will be leading in. Particular emphasis is given to:


  • The knowledge, skills, and character essential for ministry leadership
  • The daily, monthly, and annual work of ministry leaders
  • The practices and habits of reliable and creative ministry leaders

These leadership requirements are articulated as outcomes and competencies, and programs are designed to guide students toward holistic, integrated demonstration of growth in their ministry contexts. Students graduate when they have demonstrated achievement of the outcomes and competencies that define their program to an interdisciplinary mentor team that guides and assesses their development.


Ultimately, CBTE brings the theological academy to people in their ministry contexts rather than asking people to leave their ministry context to come to the theological academy. Or, more simply, CBTE transforms schools into churches and churches into schools.

Seven values that drive Northwest's CBTE programs

CBTEValue1Collaborative Partnership

Northwest works with churches, denominations, and ministry organizations that want to equip and empower their future leaders. Together we define the knowledge, skills, and character traits needed for the leaders. The ministry context has the best sense of what a student needs to flourish on mission and the school can connect the student to broader and deeper scholarship.

CBTEValue7Team-Based Mentoring

Students are mentored toward growth by a team of hands-on ministry practitioners and academics who walk with them, get to know them, and nurture their development. This interdisciplinary mentor team offers different perspectives and fosters holistic growth.

CBTEValue2Context-Based Learning

Competency is developed and demonstrated in the context for which the student is preparing to serve. Because of that, students are actively involved in ministry throughout their program. Assignments can be adapted to meet the needs of their individual ministry and situation.

CBTEValue3Direct Assessment

Northwest's CBTE programs utilize direct assessment, which means a student's progression is based on demonstrated achievement of program competencies, not course completion. The benefit to the student is that they can move through the program at their own pace, focusing time and effort on areas where development is required, and not where competency has already been achieved and demonstrated.

CBTEValue4Integrated Assessment

Course-based programs tend to focus on knowledge and classroom simulation of skills. CBTE programs develop and assess holistic application of knowledge, skill, and character in the field, throughout every aspect of the program.

CBTEValue5One Goal, Many Paths

What matters is demonstrated competency, not a uniform path to it. Assignments are always a means to the end, not ends in themselves. Assignments may be skipped, repeated, or adapted, depending on what a student needs to take their next step in development.

CBTEValue6Student-Paced Development

Students can move at paces that suit them. Some competencies may come quickly, others may take much longer to develop. The competency-based system allows students to focus their time and energy differently than their peers to focus on their individual learning path.


There are many advantages to CBTE that make it an ideal way to equip and empower the next generation of ministry leaders.

Practical Experience

Most people learn best by doing. By engaging their program in an active ministry context, learners have the opportunity to  apply what they are learning and hone their skills under long-term, guided direction.

Targeted Learning

Directly assessing competencies allows students to focus their efforts on where they need to grow and avoids busywork. The goal is demonstrated mastery. A saying we have around here is: "Once achieved, move on!"

Real Life Application

Students are engaged in active ministry from the first day of their program. They can apply what they learn in the day-to-day complexity of serving unique individuals in diverse settings.

Demonstrated Ability

By the time they graduate, students have years of practical experience in the roles for which they've trained, and they've already proven they have the knowledge, skills, and character needed to thrive in it.

How is CBTE different?

Your CBTE learning experience will be quite different from the style of higher education you may be used to.


Our CBTE programs are much like apprenticeship

We apply many of the principles of training for a trade to pastoral ministry. There's classroom time and instruction, but the emphasis is on hands-on learning with supervision from mentors and coaches.


Programs are made up of integrated outcomes and competencies, not individual courses

In some ways, outcomes are similar to courses. They take a similar amount of effort to complete, and are comprised of multiple competencies that sometimes read like course objectives. Final grades are also given for each outcome and all outcomes in a program must be completed to earn a credential.

However, unlike courses, outcomes are not sequenced or delivered at a scheduled date and time. You have the flexibility to work on as many outcomes at a time as you want, and focus on competencies from multiple outcomes in a given term. Your progress is measured by competency achievement, not just completed outcomes.


Your program is an integrated whole and you decide the sequencing

Our programs are self-paced and self-directed. Each term, you will look at your program outcomes as a whole and together with your mentor team, chart a unique path through them that aligns with what is happening in your ministry context and life. You may not complete 3 or 4 full outcomes per term, but you will be making progress toward completing 6 or 8 or 12. For this reason, it's common not to begin completing outcomes until you near the end of the first year or more of your program.


Your classroom is the ministry field

You will have ample opportunities to participate in online or in person instructional events led by subject matter experts, but these are designed to be supplemental. We assume you are working at least 1/2 time in a ministry context, and your mentor team is guiding competency development on the job. Northwest's state of the art technology-equipped classroom and broadcast studio means there's no need for you to be on campus or relocate to our area to learn from experts or connect with peers.


Assignments can be adapted to your ministry needs

Every outcome contains prescribed assignments designed to help you develop and demonstrate competence, but any assignment can be adapted for your context or needs in consultation with your mentors.

Since CBTE programs are based on demonstrated competence and not time, assignments are not "once and done". Feedback from your mentor team is iterative and you have opportunity to revise and resubmit assignments until the learning or competency goal is met.


Life-on-life learning

Your cross-functional mentor team will walk with you throughout your whole program, sharing life, wisdom and experience. While you will have opportunity to interact with a broad variety of faculty and instructors through program seminars and workshops, your mentor team will be a constant in your life, supporting your learning journey from start to graduation.

Accreditation and credit hours

Whether earned through competency- or course-based approaches, all Northwest degrees are accredited. That means every Northwest program and degree carries the full academic weight of corresponding degrees.


We design every program according to the standard credit-hour system of accredited North American universities: 1 credit hour = 40 hours of academic engagement, with each outcome or course being considered equal to 3 credit hours = 120 hours of academic engagement. These time estimates are based on the engagement of an average student rather than a specific measurement of required engagement for all students.


With the above in view, the only difference between competency- and course-based education at Northwest is that the academic accreditation of CBTE is built on achievement of outcomes, not assignments completed. Consequently, students who exit a CBTE program prior to graduation are only eligible for credit for completed outcomes. While Northwest will support students seeking to transfer credit to other institutions, the decision to apply credit is always retained by the receiving institution.

What Kind of Learner Are You?

The key to knowing whether you are a good fit for a CBTE program is to understand how you learn best. Follow the links below to learn the difference between a competency-based program versus a course-based program, and to understand the role of mentors in a competency-based program.

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