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Church as Classroom: Competency-Based Theological Education

January 9, 2023

Headshots of John Mark Hicks and Randy Willingham

"It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t matter.”

“It’s not enough to have the best class in the world if it doesn’t connect,” says Randy Willingham, Director of Lipscomb’s new Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE) program. “The question becomes ‘does it work or not?’”

With the launch of the CBTE, Lipscomb’s Hazelip School of Theology is pursuing the heart of what matters.

“Our main goal with this program is to equip members of the church to do ministry in areas they are passionate about and gifted to do,” says John Mark Hicks.

“It’s a new way of partnering with churches in their own context,” he adds. “We’re moving the classroom out of the academy and into the church. Unfortunately, the academy has sometimes been in its own arena with the church having little to no say in what training is offered, so the academy produces ministers that the church isn’t looking for and the church can feel the poverty of ill-equipped or un-equipped people doing ministry.”

So, five years ago Lipscomb invited leaders from 14 churches to a 2-day conference and asked a foundational question on which the CBTE was formed: what do churches actually need and how can we help? The gathering was funded with grant support from the Lilly Endowment as part of their Educational Models and Practices project.

Frank Guertin, associate dean, facilitated that conversation. “My main goal was to see how we could get closer to the church and how we could create an educational solution that leads to even deeper partnerships with it.”

“What we heard was not really surprising, but it was good to hear the truth about the holes in our training,” adds Hicks, who also took part in the conversation. “They said some people had the information, but not the skills to be effective in ministry. It began an important conversation; plus, it was a great couple of days with men and women from churches of all stripes. It was good to experience the camaraderie among us.”

“We decided the data we got from that discussion would set the outcomes for our programming,” says Guertin. “And we continue to use that same method. We sit down with a church and ask, ‘What do you need?’ Then our curriculum must give them that training, knowledge or ability.”

“The genesis of the program is its greatest strength,” says Hicks. “The design is to equip people in churches to do ministry in a collaborative way.”

In other words,” he continues, “the CBTE is a mechanism by which a church can say ‘we need someone to do xyz,’ like lead a grief support group. They have members who have a passion to engage in that ministry, but they are not equipped. Where can they find the capacity to equip them? Instead of sending them away to the academy, we will partner with the church to help form them in the competencies the church needs.”

Through contributions from experts, input from churches and feedback from initial participants, the CBTE team (Willingham, Hicks, Guertin, and Leonard Allen) have overseen the creation of 34 courses in seven foundational certificates of competency:

  • Pastoral and Self Care
  • Discipleship and Mission
  • Ecclesial Formation
  • Collaborative Leadership
  • Campus Ministry
  • Disciple Making
  • Church Planting

Each course is a combination of three parts. 40% is online learning, reading and reflecting. Another 40% is hands-on skills formation within a participant’s own context. “It could be leading a small group in their congregation or shadowing a hospital chaplain, for example,” Hicks explains. “It’s about learning the best practices and going out and experiencing them.” 

The final 20% is the capstone project in which participants demonstrate their skills, such as starting their own grief group. “Hopefully everything in the course has led us to that moment. And then the question is not ‘what grade did you get?’ but rather ‘are you competent in this? Are you a master?’ We expect to see a biblical dimension, theological reflection, spiritual formation and leadership development within each competency.”

“This is why I came to Lipscomb,” says Willingham. “It’s not that I would be able to interact with churches or teach a new masters program. I was doing those things already at Harding. It was connecting them together – integrating them. There’s a sense of convergence here and deep, deep investment. I have decades of investment in these areas and now they are coming together to give meaning to all of it, making it much more powerful and, I think, useful to people.”

“Think of three Cs: communities connecting for collaboration,” he says. “It’s all about the mentors because they are the links in the field where all of this connects.”

Each CBTE participant is connected to a mentor who supports them throughout their learning experience. There are currently 14 mentors who are taking the courses themselves in order to be “more effective at mentoring others through those courses,” says Willingham. “Three of them are elders in very different congregations. And they are comparing notes. ‘This is what we’re doing over here. How are you handling that over there?’ Those conversations are incredibly rich. We don’t focus mainly on theory. We have tangible realities. We read those realities like one reads books to apply theory and theology to what is happening on the ground.”

While Willingham is excited that the CBTE already has just over 40 active students, he also notes that there is more to be optimistic about than just counting heads. “All numbers don’t weigh the same,” he says. “Let’s say you could have a group of 50 or five people. Well, what if those five people mentor people who mentor people but the group of 50 takes a class to aid their own ministry but doesn’t pursue intentional mentorship? We would not neglect the 50 but we would be crazy to think that one member of the group of 50 weighed as much as one member from the five who mentor others to mentor others. We must weigh our numbers and not just count them.” 

Thus, instead of focusing on the number of students in the classroom to gauge the program’s success, Willingham looks at its amplifying impact out there in the ministry field. For example, “we have one elder at a large church who has been a leader in his congregation since the 1990s. He is taking a course so he can put legs on the concept of discipling in his church. There are about nine members of his church who are already participating in what he’s doing. What is going to happen when he has this tool and can be one of our key mentors? What happens in that scenario will continue to grow and will, therefore, be sustainable.”

“A community of mentors is emerging,” he continues, “and a community of churches. We are deeply connected with churches and a couple of nonprofits. What’s exciting is that they are all different sizes and in different contexts. One is a very healthy small church that really boomed through COVID in both their membership and contribution numbers. What if we can facilitate connections between this congregation and other small churches, and they are willing to share what they are doing and how they are doing it?” 

“It’s one community interacting with another community, and they are also connected to the course, which brings Lipscomb into that community. So you have a complex, rich texture for multiple dimensions of communities to connect and collaborate. My role is to ensure that the collaboration is true collaboration, and I love that.”

Willingham points to the vision statement of Lipscomb’s College of Bible and Ministry as what drew him to this work that he loves:

“to empower the priesthood of all believers for good works in the Kingdom of God by collaborating with congregations to equip members for discipleship and mission.”

“I believe in this mission and have deep convictions that the CBTE is one of the most strategically effective ways of achieving that vision.”

Hicks agrees. “Our goal is to raise the level of all the boats in the harbor. We want to equip the body of Christ to minister and not just create ministers who can be hired on as staff. Let’s equip God’s people to be ministers where their passions lie.”

You can learn more about the CBTE and how to participate here.

Bible and Ministry Blog