What is CBTE?

Competency-based theological education (CBTE) represents a paradigm shift in theological education. CBTE offers an innovative way for seminaries and learning networks to raise a new generation of proven leaders, trained in-context, in the knowledge, skills, and character traits they need to prosper in their callings.

Competency-based education is not a new idea. When the goal of a program is vocational preparation, it goes to reason that its outcomes and context should emulate the vocation as much as possible to make the transition from training to practice seamless. In some industries, mentored training based on a specific set of competencies has been the primary training model for decades. Even in theological education, the ministry practicum has been central to programs for years.

What is new, however, is the movement to develop robust, fully-accredited theological education programs that award credit based on demonstrated competency, not completed courses. These programs are fully-delivered within the ministry-context, and strategically develop future ministry leaders in a holistic way. This movement is being called Competency-Based Theological Education, and it’s gaining momentum.

What’s different about CBTE?

Traditional seminary programs use a course-credit model of program design and evaluation. Faculty identify core development goals and outcomes for students, and students demonstrate achievement of those outcomes through successful completion of courses. A student’s passing grade in a course is accepted as evidence of competence in that subject, and credits are awarded.  Once the prerequisite number and combination of credits are earned, a degree is conferred.

Conversely, in CBTE, program design begins with the end in mind. Core leadership competencies are identified for the ministry setting (e.g., church, parachurch, marketplace), and students graduate when they have demonstrated mastery in each competency. Mastery is developed and demonstrated through a number of assigned tasks, customized to the student’s experience and ministry context. Once mastery is demonstrated in all program competencies–in context, not just in school–a degree is conferred.

What’s a competency?

“Competencies” are the attributes deemed essential for a person to be successful in a given occupation. They encompass the body of knowledge a person should have and be able to draw on, the values they hold and exemplify, and the skills they are able to perform. In other words, competencies define who a graduate is, what they know, and what they can do.

Competencies seldom stand on their own in a ministry setting, and are often required in combination. For example, consider humility and leadership–effective ministry requires both, demonstrated in an integrated way.  One may be able to teach knowledge of leadership models and practices in a classroom, but to be considered competent in ministry, a Christian leader is expected to lead with humility.

Competency is demonstrated not just by what you do, but how. Developing and assessing practical, integrated competencies requires a different type of educational model–performance-based vs. time-based.

What else is different about CBTE?

Beginning with the end in mind frequently requires a dramatic rethink of any institutional structure, and competency-based programs are no exception. In order to work directly towards developing the student for ministry, most CBTE programs contain seven core commitments.

1. Contextual Learning

Developing students for ministry necessitates that students are involved in ministry. Going beyond an internship that constitutes part of their degree program, most CBTE students are immersed full-time in their ministry environment. Assignments and learning opportunities are outcomes-based, and therefore, can be adapted to fit and contribute to the student’s ministry context.

2. Partnered Investment

Having students immersed in a ministry environment transforms the program from being primarily a service contract between the students and the seminary to being a partnership in developing leaders between the seminary, church, and network. CBTE programs are increasingly developed in full-partnership with future employers of the students.

3. Team-Based Mentoring

Diverse mentor teams are engaged in order to holistically develop students. They work as a team to develop students in all areas of their life. Mentor teams often include:

  • An academic mentor – a seminary faculty member,
  • A network leadership mentor – an experienced individual representing the denomination or host network, and
  • A practitioner mentor – an on-the-ground mentor from the student’s ministry context.

4. Integrated Outcomes

To ensure holistic development, the program is designed with integrated outcomes that aim to develop students in all areas of their life. They integrate what you do, where you do it, and how you do it.

5. Timely Instruction

By the end of a CBTE program, all graduates will have demonstrated achievement of the same set of standardized outcomes. However, the order in which those outcomes are achieved is highly individualized. Under the direction of their mentor teams, students can tailor their learning pathway to the specific needs they face in ministry at a given time. This promotes “just-in-time” learning, immediate application, and the opportunity to deepen learning through reflection.

6. Recognition of Prior Learning

Many students seeking theological education come to schools with prior education and experience. Traditional programs will usually grant advanced placement to students who have completed accredited courses similar to those in the program; credits given for prior credits earned.

In a competency-based program, however, credits are awarded for demonstrated competency, not completed courses. An individual’s prior formal learning will likely reduce the length of time it takes to demonstrate a competency, thereby reducing the overall length of the program. So, in effect, advanced standing for prior credits is granted.

CBTE programs, however, also recognize informal learning and experience. Since the goal is competency, not credits, students who bring extensive life experience, personal study or ministry service to a program also have opportunity for advanced placement; they may start the program already able to demonstrate several of its outcomes.

7. Rigorous and Adaptive Assessment

The rigor of a CBTE program rests on its ability to effectively assess students. Standardized outcomes and indicators are clearly defined and provided to mentors and students. Mentor teams use these rubrics to evaluate a student’s strengths and prior learning on program entry so they can focus energy on maximizing strengths and shoring up weaknesses. Continual assessment throughout the program ensures that students graduate only when they have demonstrated mastery in each competency, and are fully-equipped to serve their ministry context.