Monday, December 9, 2019

Fixing theological education

A crucial moment 

Theological education in Australia is a crucial moment in our Evangelical History. Michael Jensen wrote recently that "not all Australian theological colleges are viable long term. There are too many colleges serving too small a market." ('Have we got too many Bible colleges?', Eternity, Nov 2018) This has forced each of the dozen or so evangelical theological colleges to try and find a niche market. For example Moore seeks to have the best of everything (library, scholars etc), Christ College Sydney is expanding into New Zealand, Ridley is seeking to capture the online market and PTC Melbourne is expanding its Chinese theological education. No doubt these efforts will prolong the life expectancy of each college.

Fee-HELP: not as bad as we think

Now it's not just too many colleges serving a too small a market of theological students, there are  financial pressures reducing the number of full time students and candidates. The average Australian is left with a fee-HELP debt of about $20,000 ('Updated Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) debt statistics', Parliamentary Library, May 2018), however the average theological HELP debt is higher, particularly for ministry candidates because it's usually a second degree and usually a masters, which costs more per course unit. Now there are benefits, fee-HELP debt is currently non-transferrable and most ministry jobs don't reach the repayment threshold of about $55,000. In one way Fee-HELP debts are part of sacrifice of ministry, you earn less and have more debt but on the other hand you get paid to serve God's people.

But compliance is the sting in the tail

Ironically, Fee-HELP comes with a sobering sting in the tail not for the students but for the colleges and the denominations. That sting is the cost of administrative compliance. The Australian College of Theological (ACT) manages most theological colleges in Australia by sharing and standardising the burden of compliance. However each of the colleges have to meet increasing and complex levels of compliance to be eligible to provide Fee-HELP courses. We're seeing this first-hand with PTC Melbourne. Every year we hear at Assembly how the administrative burden is increasing on faculty, and the need to employ more faculty to meet rising ACT standards. And then the need for increased funding falls on the denomination. If you aren't compliant you can't offer Fee-HElP courses, but the cost of compliance is always increasing.

How Colleges promote themselves 

Which brings me to the rationale for theological education as it currently exists in twenty first century Australia. Even Ridley which has a booming online education component argues for the need for full time on-campus study. This is a valid argument, nothing replaces the ability to ask questions in person, discuss issues with peers and have printed resources at hand. Additionally college leaders are able to observe and help candidates grow in their spiritual maturity and leadership capacity. The less convincing part of the rationale is the argument that theological education needs to be theoretical and then made practical later in the field so to speak. The argument for theological then goes like this: "Come and study on campus for four years to be theoretically trained and spiritually matured for a task that will be need to be practically applied off-campus." The campuses are centrally located in the big cities, making it not just a theory/practice gap but a geographical and promotional gap between the congregations and the college.

How to fix theological education

I studied at Ridley and Christ College, but PTC Melbourne is the college for my denomination, the Presbyterian Church of Victoria (PCV). My suggestion for the PTC is to add another string to their bow. To modify their rationale for existence. Instead of 'just' making the argument "that interested students go to Box Hill for four years of theoretical training", they should be actively and carefully training all the leaders of PCV, across the state. They should make the college indispensable to the spiritual growth of the PCV. The biggest weakness of Ridley's online training is the lack of structured groups and direct practical tasks. Imagine if PTC offered regular NTE (National Training Event) style training strands? So every year a different Presbytery hosted a different strand (plus an annual residential conference for those who prefer that more intensive style). Some of the strands could include:

  • The Gospel: how to summarise and explain
  • The Bible: the big story and finding topics 
  • Navigating the Presbyterian system
  • Apologetics: explaining how and why Christianity is plausible
  • Ethics: how to research the Bible to answer practical problems

There are a number of keys to making an idea like this work though. Firstly it needs a simple website that is the portal to register, track your progress, find out when/where your group is meeting, find the content etc. Secondly, the groups needs trainers who know the material and are able to guide the assessments. Thirdly, the content must be carefully crafted, both 'meaty' in order to keep people's interest and practical in order to be directly applied in real world assessments.