Bexley Seabury launches competency-based theological education program to prepare leaders to minister in context

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Mar 3, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] Bexley Seabury Seminary has launched a new program to provide students an alternative way to meet the requirements of a master of divinity degree.

Historic racism and classism have prevented some people from getting a theological education, and now institutions like Bexley Seabury can help change that, Northern Indiana Bishop Douglas Sparks, a member of the seminary’s board of directors, told Episcopal News Service.

“They can seek ways of addressing the dynamics that are part of our history,” he said, adding that this new program, as well as online courses in general, can help break down barriers.

Through what the seminary is calling its “Mentor Assessed Program,” students won’t be required to take a standard set of classes but instead will work with a team of mentors to demonstrate mastery in common core competencies, Scripture, Christian history, theology, liturgy and ethics. The program is supported by $300,000 in grants from Trinity Church Wall Street in New York.

The program parallels the existing seminary-based model, Leila Fry, associate academic dean and assessment coordinator, told ENS, and it will have the same academic rigor the seminary always has demanded. “But we’re redefining what academic rigor looks like,” she said, with mentors an important part of the process. Students will learn from the beginning “that formation happens in partnership with others,” she said.

The need for a diversity of leaders, including Indigenous leaders, across The Episcopal Church helped drive the development of this new approach, the Rev. Eileen Shanley-Roberts, the Chicago, Illinois-based seminary’s assistant director of formation and contextual learning, told ENS. “Those leaders aren’t all formed best in the traditional seminary model,” she said. “[We] need to meet people where they are and give them the tools they need, and help them develop their own tools so they can do God’s work in the world.”

The first 12 students gathered in January in Chicago for orientation in what is a non-residential program that mostly will be completed online. More than half of this pilot cohort are Indigenous people who already are serving in small congregations. This program allows those experiences to be included among the required competencies, the Rev. Mary Crist, The Episcopal Church’s Indigenous theological education coordinator, told ENS.

Bexley Seabury identified accessibility and cost as main barriers to a seminary education for some students, and the new program should help with both, Julie Lytle, the seminary’s director of distributive and lifelong learning initiatives and associate professor of educational leadership, told ENS.

The Mentor Assessed Program follows on what the Association of Theological Schools calls competency-based theological education, which focuses on preparing students to demonstrate competencies in and for their own ministry contexts. Bexley Seabury is one of the first mainline denominational seminaries and the first Episcopal seminary to formalize it at the graduate level, according to a press release.

In places like the Diocese of South Dakota, where 54 of the diocese’s 79 congregations serve Native Americans on reservations, an alternative path to a master’s degree is a welcome option. The Diocese of South Dakota has its own formational program for deacons, but education for priests has been overseen by groups, including seminaries, that South Dakota Bishop Jonathan Folts said don’t always meet the needs of Indigenous people.

“It’s a very European-centered model, a very white model,” he said. “It serves a lot of people very well, but it doesn’t serve everybody really well.” He thinks the new model is a needed alternative for places like his. “It’s one thing to take an Old Testament or New Testament class,” he said. “But can you lead a Bible study? Can you deliver a sermon?”

One student, the Rev. Twilla Two Bulls, a deacon, serves on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Since being ordained a deacon in 2017, she has taking seminary courses in the summers to prepare for ordination as a priest. What may have taken several years, is now more likely to take up to three years.

The program also requires students and their mentors to develop ways of showing competency in a variety of ministry-related activities, such as adaptive leadership, pastoral care and bearing public witness to the Christian message – areas where students may already have experience through church leadership. So far, students are excited about what this new program offers them and means for their future ministry. “I’m really interested in everything they will teach me,” Two Bulls said. “I feel like I’m a sponge.”

Like Two Bulls, Taiana Faavae tried to take enough seminary courses to be ordained a priest – to serve the only Tongan-speaking congregation in The Episcopal church, which is part of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Burlingame, California. She took classes at the nearby Church Divinity School of the Pacific, but she has a full-time job and three children, and a cancer diagnosis ended her education plan. With her cancer now in remission, Faavae is excited to be part of the new pilot program. “It really suits my situation,” she told ENS. “I was really happy and blessed that this might work best for me.”

Feedback from students about their experiences will be incorporated into a wider offering of the program, which will launch in fall 2024.

Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and the former director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.