It took a lot of planning and some difficult conversations, but Northwest Baptist Seminary in Vancouver created and launched a new model for theological education.
The Immerse program is a “fully context-based, competency-based, mastery model degree,” developed in collaboration with the seminary’s primary denominational body and the roughly 100 churches it serves, said Kent Anderson, the seminary president.
“We reverse-engineered seminary,” Anderson said. “We said to ourselves, “If there are no sacred cows here -- institutionally, structurally -- what can we change?”
They changed almost everything -- there are no more traditional courses or semesters, for example. The program has been a “game changer” for his small denomination, Anderson said, and he hopes it will serve as a model for others in theological education.
The project was approved in 2014 as an experiment by the Association of Theological Schools.
Anderson spoke to Faith & Leadership about the program and the painful but fruitful process of creating it. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: How did you get started on this process? Did the churches come to you or the denomination? Or did you go to them?
It’s hard to say exactly how it started. There was a sense of concern and dissatisfaction on both our part, in the seminary, and that of our churches. We just started asking the question, “What would it look like if we really partnered on this?”
If this is the “product” we need, what do we have to do to ensure that we achieve this result?
Q: How is Immerse unique?
It’s quite different from classic programs in that there are no courses. There are no semesters. It’s literally, “Here is your context; here are your mentors; here are your outcomes; let’s see what you can do.”
We’ve been working in collaboration with our churches and some other networks and come to the conclusion that some of the things you need to know to be effective in ministry are best learned in ministry and not in classrooms.
We’ve put a lot of structure behind that, and there’re all kinds of checks and balances and systems that make it possible. So we haven’t given up the farm with respect to academic standards.
Q: Does every student have the same expected outcomes? Or are they customized?
We have a standardized set of expectations, but it is customizable.
We began with our primary denominational body, Fellowship Pacific. It’s a uniquely Canadian group of churches [in British Columbia and the Yukon].
We developed a very carefully designed set of outcomes in concert and collaboration with the churches themselves, and came out with a pretty significant set of expectations -- 27 “ministry leadership outcomes.”
We have “outcome development assignments,” and these are projects that allow the student to show and display and prove mastery of the larger outcome.
We have three-person mentoring teams. One is an academic mentor, another is a pastoral mentor on the ground, and the third is a big-picture, network mentor. They really work as a team.
We’ve set all that up in a standardized way for the entire network of churches and any students who are engaged with those churches. Then the mentor team that works with the student has full freedom to customize as necessary for the good of the particular student.
I’ll give you one example. We have an outcome that deals with working with small group ministry.
Well, one student I’m working with is an acknowledged expert in small group ministry in his region. He has, for a number of years, been training others. For us to require him to do all the detail work that might be expected of other students is just not necessary. So we were able to sign off pretty quickly on that one and customize our expectations for him.
Q: Is there an academic component?
When I say there are no courses, what I mean by that is students are not coming into the classroom and receiving a syllabus for which they have expectations that will last for three and a half months, and then writing exams, or the classic course setup.
We have learned that it’s valuable to bring students together for what we call “instructional seminars.”
But we’re very careful to indicate to the students that these are not courses in the classic sense, because we really want to distinguish between what goes on when the student sits in the classroom and what goes on in ministry on the ground.
We do academic presentations. But the fact that they sat there in the classroom doesn’t really cut any ice for us. What matters is what they do with that material when they go back into their contexts.
The students will prove what they’ve learned through the teaching that they do in their contexts, whether it be with groups or in preaching or working with individuals.
They will get a grade for their performance with respect to the outcome. The mentors will collaborate together to give a grade for the overall outcome when it’s completed.
One of the things that’s unique and interesting is that it takes a long time for students to actually start getting grades in the program. What typically happens is they come in at the start and they’re faced with these 27 outcomes.
They get the entire curriculum on day one, and they will work at a variety of things at the same time. But often, they won’t actually complete an outcome for a year or more.
Q: How long does it take to complete the program?
To some degree, it’s at their own pace, although there’s some pressure to keep moving and keep active. We tell students that we think it’s reasonable for them to complete it in four years, and many of our students are tracking with that.
Rather than having to spend three or four years of study before they can get the job, they’re getting to be actively engaged in the ministry for which they feel called from the very beginning.
Q: Are they paid for the work they do?
Usually they’re paid something. Every situation’s a little bit different. We’ve had a variety of situations. We have a woman who used to be a missionary, so she’s used to living on little money. So this particular church has provided room and board for her, and they give her a small stipend, and that has worked quite well for her.
There are some other cases where the students were actually already hired by the church, and that really appeals to the churches, because they get to be actively involved in the shaping of the students’ training.
Q: What are the costs?
The delivery cost is around half to two-thirds of what it costs to deliver a classic program. This has been highly attractive to donors, and so we’ve been able to make financial aid available to students, to make this quite a bit cheaper for them.
Q: You serve a single denomination, and the denomination and the seminary work together as partners. What are the strengths and weaknesses of that relationship?
First of all, we have to work together, because that’s our job. We are a denominational school.
I’m very happy about that, because I believe that what we do has to pay dividends for the ministries we serve. That has challenges attached to it, for sure.
I would have said going in that we had a pretty high level of trust between the two groups, but boy, we tested that. There were tears shed. There were some hard, hard conversations where you heard about the distrust between the church and the seminary.
I was surprised how much was there. I thought we were doing better than that. We had to work that through, and that was a really healthy thing, but it was a very hard thing, and it took us a long time and a lot of dialogue.
One of the things that really made it possible, I think, was that the head of the denomination -- Fellowship Pacific -- and myself are old friends, and we go back 35 years. There’s a lot of trust between the two of us.
At one point, he looked at me and he said, “OK, Kent, we’ve got these two jobs, and we need to steward our relationship for the good of the work that we do here.” And I said, “Yes, we do.”
He said, “One thing I can promise you is we’ll never doubt each other’s hearts.” And I said, “That’s true.”
And he said, “So you know what that means? It means we can fight.” And we did.
We had hard conversations, but we never doubted each other’s heart, and so we were able to get to where we needed to go, and that was pretty amazing.
Q: What were the difficult things?
Well, it was mostly the church telling us how we’d failed. That’s real, and the truth is, we knew we were failing in many ways.
It’s not that we were doing bad things in the classic approach or that we weren’t trying hard or that we didn’t care or anything like that. But we’ve been doing things pretty much the same way for a very long time, and the world has changed.
The churches have changed, and we haven’t really changed a lot with them. One of the phrases that they used is, “You guys in the seminary, you sit in your classrooms and you haven’t really ‘felt the burn.’ You really don’t know what it feels like to go and have to deal with an angry parishioner.”
Now, the fact is, we do know that, because pretty much everybody on our faculty has had significant pastoral experience. But for most of us, it was a long time ago. For me personally, I had 12 years in the parish as a pastor, but that was more than 20 years ago now.
What it came down to is the seminary saying to the churches, “Yes, we agree with that assessment. You guys bring something that we can’t bring, and we value what you bring, and want to respect it and build it into the system by which we train our leaders. But at the same time, you have to understand that we bring some things that you can’t bring very well.”
They did understand that, and they respected it.
There was a moment where the denominational leader -- having recognized just how hurtful some of this dialogue had had to be -- came and met with the faculty, and on behalf of the churches and behalf of himself, apologized for years of disrespect.
That was incredibly meaningful to our faculty. I mean, people were crying. It was a really powerful moment, and allowed for a huge amount of trust to develop.
Q: Were there concerns from faculty that the program wasn’t rigorous or academic enough?
Sure, it was a concern at the beginning, but we made promises that we would sustain the values that faculty cared about, and I think we delivered on that.
I think there was enough trust there with our faculty. Now we’re about three years into actually delivering, and there’s been growth and adaptation along the way.
Q: How many students do you have?
We have approximately 40 students working through it right now, and that’s about to increase, because we brought in two or three new [partner] networks.
That’s not a massive number, but on the other hand, those 40 students were from a network of about 100 churches. It already has had a massive impact on the quality of the ministry of our churches. It’s been game-changing.
There’s no going back; this is absolutely the way [the churches and denomination] want to go. Our donation income is up; our buy-in from the churches is way up; even our student counts are up.
I mean, we’re firing on all cylinders now. This has been amazing, the journey we’ve been on here. We’re really encouraged.