Sioux Falls Seminary: A Short Story about a Timely Project (Part 1)

People are often asking me about the Sioux Falls Seminary story.  How did a scrappy little seminary in the middle of nowhere achieve such explosive growth?  Here's my recounting of the basics. - NH

In 2014 Sioux Falls Seminary was in a place all too familiar to theological schools: against the ropes.  Various initiatives - extension campuses, online courses, new programs, reduced credit hours for a degree - had yielded modest results.  Attendance was flat and the financial situation was precarious.  But something new was stirring.

That year the seminary decided it would start a new track called Kairos Project.  It was not a new program per se.  Kairos would be designed to meet the same outcomes as the seminary's traditional masters programs. 

What was so fresh about Kairos?  Several things.  First, the content would be radically oriented to a student's ministry context.  Nearly all of the degree program could be done "on the job," with the learning process designed to be completed at one's church, parachurch organization and/or business.  Where the content or evaluative method didn't fit, the student was given means to adapt the curriculum.  Indeed, students were encouraged to adapt assignments.  Second, there would be no mandated timeline for the student.  Assignments could be done in any order, at any pace.  Enabling this value, Kairos would be offered with a monthly subscription fee.  Students could step in or step out at any point of the year.  Third, most dramatically, the degree would be conducted almost entirely under the supervision of a mentor team.  A faculty mentor (a professor) would join with a personal mentor (a spiritual director or confidant) and ministry mentor (a pastor or ministry supervisor) to ensure that the curriculum was completed.  Traditional classes were purely elective, available for audit; only a handful of on-campus intensives were required.

The initial framework was brought forward by Greg Henson, the seminary's new president, whose energy and willingness to iterate quickly got things moving.  Ron Sisk, Sioux Falls Seminary's dean who was nearing retirement, took on the herculean task of organizing the faculty to generate an initial curriculum.  Following a very busy summer, the seminary launched Kairos in September 2014.

Fifteen students were quickly recruited to pilot the new track.  These were not traditional seminary students.  Some were well-established pastors in booming churches, some were playing key roles in non-profit organizations.  Others were business owners, real estate agents, childcare workers or homemakers.  They were extraordinary learners and leaders, the faculty concluded.  Most of the inaugural students expressed they had avoided seminary thus far because it wasn't affordable or accessible enough.  Kairos Project offered them a chance to work through a master's degree without quitting a job or uprooting their family.

Enthusiasm was high.  So were the hurdles.  It soon became apparent that nothing was working smoothly.  The 1.0 curriculum was confusing and clogged up with far too much reading.  The learning management system, Moodle, was nearly impossible to navigate, especially for mentors who weren't employees of the seminary.  With roles and division of labor unspecified, mentor teams had to figure out processes on the fly.  Even so, students and mentors were optimistic.  They found creative avenues and tried workarounds where necessary.  They bonded and supported one another through that first year.  Fourteen of the fifteen were still in Kairos by the end of year one.

By summer 2015 a long list of needed improvements had been made.  Nearly everything was overhauled in preparation for the 2.0.  Professor Nathan Hitchcock stepped up to play a greater role, reorganizing the technological platform and serving as pointman with the curricular revision.  A "hybrid" option was pioneered, one in which select MDiv students would take eight traditional courses in the place of blocks of certain assignments.  A special sub-track for Lutheran students was being planned too.  The number of Kairos students doubled in time for fall, with additional men and women enrolling during the academic school year.

In year two Kairos students began to thrive in new ways.  The depth of community increased.  The week-long intensives were electric.  After having met there, students were starting ad hoc circles for study and support, some in person, some online.  Mentor teams restructured themselves and began to parcel out tasks more efficiently.  Students with the new curriculum were making faster progress.  The decentralized approach to development of Kairos meant that each student was a miniature experiment of sorts.  The cream rose to the top, and the skimming of initial best practices resulted in a Kairos Guide. 

By the end of year two, traditional students at Sioux Falls Seminary were aware of the alternative track.  Some began indicating that they wanted to switch over.  President Henson's enthusiastic sharing of the vision led to new recruits, and COO Nate Helling was instrumental in helping prepare students enter the novel system.  At the start of year three, the number of Kairos students had again doubled - and that with no formal advertising budget. 

What are the takeaways from the story so far?  First, schools in general and seminaries in particular need to take seriously the desire of students to have maximum flexibility in their program.  Most of the students in Kairos Project expressed that they had ruled out theological higher education because it was inaccessible.  They weren't willing to move their job and family.  Online courses in the typical semester-based schedule was only a partial fix.  They had bandwidth to learn, but not consistently: life in their respective ministries didn't permit them to devote a predictable amount of time to school each week.  Kairos was the first opportunity they had to make things work. 

Two, schools in general and seminaries in particular need to take seriously the essential role of ministry partners.  Kairos achieved success in this area by placing students under the care of the mentor team, and fundamentally under its care.  Students were primarily supervised by  persons who understood their ministry context, secondarily by content specialist professors.  Leaders like pastors and elders and counselors and spiritual directors were finally made stakeholders.  Granted, in the first two years Kairos wasn't yet making strategic use of the seminary faculty or the student's broader personal network.  Even so, students were finally able to go through their programs with full-fledged participation from their local church and ministry partners.

Finally, one can learn from Sioux Falls Seminary that education is done best in rapid iteration.  Smart planning is important, no doubt.  But the world of education changes so quickly, requiring professors, administrators and the students themselves to adapt with similar rapidity.  Sioux Falls Seminary was releasing considerably different curricula each year.  It was modifying resources and guides even faster.  It required lots of effort and lots of transparency.  It was hard.  But doing something is better than doing nothing.  And you can always fix it along the way, which is exactly what Sioux Falls Seminary would continue to do. 

[To be continued.]