For two days in November, Northwest played host to the first ever International Conference on Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE 2018). Thanks to a grant awarded to Northwest by the Association of Theological Schools as part of the Educational Models and Practices Forum, supported by the Lily Endowment, Northwest was able to draw in a broad range of experts from the wider world of competency-based education and from theological education in particular.
In 2011 Northwest became the first seminary in North America to begin experimenting with Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE), only we didn’t know it at the time. While it took some time to identify the language and relationship to the Competency-Based Education movement occurring elsewhere in higher education, Northwest’s Immerse program has been centred around the values that have become core to the emerging CBTE movement, right from the start. The central values are that students train for ministry by being involved in ministry in the context of the local church, students utilize the learning opportunities their ministry presents at a pace that works for them, students are overseen by mentors in a program that is individually designed, and the program is delivered in partnership between the school, the church, and the denomination. When Northwest began to partner with Fellowship Pacific to outline what would eventually become the Immerse program, we had no idea that this would be the beginning of something completely new and significant in theological education. We just knew we needed to be better at serving our churches.
Jump forward seven years. The ideas behind the Immerse program have been rapidly gaining credence in the broader world of theological education. Northwest, Fellowship Pacific, and their program have garnered significant interest from a wide variety of groups who felt a similar need to serve their ministries better. It was clear that there was a broad-based interest in CBTE throughout North America. When the opportunity arose to pursue a grant that would fund a conference, we knew we had to try to provide something that would shepherd this emerging movement well.
The landscape has changed since 2011. First of all, Northwest isn’t the only school with an active CBTE program. For a number of years, we have recognized a kindred institution in Sioux Falls Seminary, based out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Their CBTE-based “Kairos” program launched In 2014. Additionally, Grace College and Seminary in Indiana consulted with both Northwest and Sioux Falls when designing their “Deploy” program which launched in January of this year.
When seeking speakers and topics for the CBTE Conference, Northwest drew from the leaders, experience, and expertise in these schools, as well as our own. In addition, we eagerly welcomed speakers from the Competency-Based Education Network, experts in the field of CBE. We also had the opportunity to expose our conference attendees to the strength of our partnerships with Fellowship Pacific, other network partners, and our students, as representatives from each of these led or participated in breakout sessions and panel discussions.
The results were as much a success as possible. The 120 conference attendees filled the venue and represented organizations from all over North America and beyond. In total, 70 organizations were represented coming from 5 provinces, 25 states and even Brazil, Guatemala, and Australia. Because one of the values of CBTE is partnership with the ministry organization seeking to train their future leaders, we were excited that only one-third of these organizations were other graduate-level theological institutions. Another twenty-six percent of participating organizations were undergraduate-level schools. Additionally, twenty-nine percent were missional organizations such as churches, denominations, missions or para-church organizations.
Of the organizations that attended, nearly half indicated they were in the process of developing CBTE programs and nearly a third had just recently heard about CBTE and came to learn more. This suggests to us that, as successful as the first conference was, the groundswell is only just beginning. Something big is happening in theological education and Northwest is at the forefront of it. The excitement at the conference was palpable. It was clear to all those in attendance that this was only the first step towards what is to come. With nearly two-thirds of organizations in attendance being represented by only one conference attendee, we expect that a follow-up conference could easily have double the attendance.
So what happens next? Throughout the planning and the conference itself, we at Northwest were clear that CBTE was no longer just a Northwest thing. We are now serving the greater Kingdom. At the same time, it is important to us that we remain at the forefront of this wave. Following the conference, Northwest hosted a meeting of those institutions most engaged with CBTE. The aim of this meeting was to organize together to help set the direction for the fledging CBTE movement for the sake of the Kingdom. The result was a commitment to work together in continuing to research, demonstrate, and promote CBTE to both theological education and missional institutions as well as plan to hold more conferences in the future. It was clear that all at the table were as passionate about training leaders in context as we are. Northwest may have been the first out of the blocks, but we are no longer running alone. We are engaging together with other groups, and more are joining the race every day. We feel a responsibility to help however we can and steward this movement for the betterment of the Kingdom.
One way we will do that is through a new venture being undertaken with partners Sioux Falls Seminary and tech company Pathwright. Together with Northwest, these groups will form a new company called Symporus. Powered by the Pathwright technology platform, Symporus will serve schools and missional organizations by providing tech services capable of hosting a CBTE program. Additionally, Symporus will draw on the expertise of both Sioux Falls and Northwest to provide a whole host of CBTE related consulting and services including program design and even customized, credit-bearing degrees. We believe this partnership will enable Northwest to continue to maximize the experience we have gained for the benefit of the Kingdom while allowing us to continue to prioritize our core mission of training leaders for the Fellowship.
As we witnessed over 120 people gather to learn more about CBTE it was clear a lot has changed since 2011. And yet, our heart has not. We are still passionate about training leaders in the best way we can. And we are always grateful to our constituents and partners for not only pushing us to do that better every day but for being fully engaged with us every step of the way.