Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE) is a way of training Christian workers that focuses on outcomes (i.e., the competencies) rather than on the amount of time you spend studying the subject matter. This video gives a good overview of this educational strategy.

The Problem with Being

One of the challenges in CBTE is how to assess those competencies related to character. Almost all schools define three kinds of competencies: knowledge, skills and character (aka knowing/doing/being or head/hands/heart). There are well-established ways of measuring knowledge and skills, but measuring character is more elusive. It’s not hard to imagine how to assess if a student knows the three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible or if she can preach a sermon. But how do I measure her humility (Philippians 2:3-4) or her capacity to love her enemies (Matthew 5:44)?

Traditional theological education struggled with this challenge as well. Most schools require programs and even individual courses to have learning objectives from the knowledge, skills and character domains. However, the actual learning activities and assessments focused mostly on “knowing” and a little bit on “doing”, with the fervent hope that “being” would somehow result. Nevertheless, despite seminaries struggling to find a way to reliably measure character formation, parishioners somehow manage to figure out within weeks whether a new pastoral staff person is “the real deal” or not.

Assessing Attitudes

Educational psychologist Robert Gagné identified several domains of learning, each with its own methods of instruction and assessment. The one most relevant to character formation is what he called attitudes. Attitudes are difficult to assess because they are unobservable; I can’t directly measure your humility. You can ask the learners what their preferences are, but this will not detect gaps between espoused values and operative values. However, Gagné noted that attitudes manifest as the tendency to make particular choices, and choices generate certain behaviours – and behaviours can be observed.

Nevertheless, there are challenges to this behavioural measurement. Gagné observed that attitudinal changes were difficult to evaluate in the short-term. Therefore, measurement of these indicator behaviours would likely need to occur over a long period of time in a longitudinal assessment. Another problem that Gagné found was the evaluator’s ability to observe the behaviour. Many attitudes are only expressed as behaviour in response to specific life events that are impossible to realistically re-create on demand in front of the evaluator.

A Proposal

In light of Gagné’s insights into measuring attitudinal outcomes, I propose the following approach to developing and assessing character competencies. It is based on Dallas Willard’s VIM model for change described in Renovation of the Heart: Vision, Intention and Means.

We begin with painting a dual picture for the student. First, describe what life is like for someone who lacks this character trait, virtue or aspect of being. Then, set forth a vision of what life would be like for someone who enjoys it. Create a felt need in the mind of the student, give them a hunger and thirst for it. An effective way to do this can be learning about that trait (or its lack) through reading, self-evaluation, interviews, music, biographies, poetry, films or other means. James Bryan Smith does this in his Good and Beautiful series by setting forth a false narrative and then identifying the corrective true narrative from Scripture. Another vision to acquire at this stage is the vision for what kind of person the student would need to become for this character trait to emerge naturally from the core of their being. For this reason, John Coe’s prayer of recollection process includes a step of discernment focused on the question, “Who is God calling me to be?”

This vision makes it possible for the student to intend to live this way – to actually decide to do it. This intention is two-fold. First, the student actually decides to do it, to act in obedience to the teaching and example of Jesus, trusting that His Father wants this for them and His Spirit stands ready to work it in them. However, this Intention must be matched with a resolution not to do it in their own power. Thus, in the categories of Gerald May, it is an expression of willingness but not willfulness. Beyond the actual decision itself, there is nothing more to do at this stage. Formal professions of intention don’t count for much and so are not necessary; if the intention is genuine the profession adds nothing, and if it is not the profession is only good for compounding the failure with shame or dishonesty.

Finally, you help the student identify the practical means of developing the character trait. Willard insists that this is done indirectly. That is, rather than just trying hard to exhibit that trait, the student instead discerns, “What regimen of training is God inviting me to that I would become the person He is calling me to be?” First, there are proactive means of adopting personal spiritual disciplines, practices that are customized to the situation and temperament of the student. For example, Smith prescribes a spiritual practice for each true narrative, to bolster it when the false narrative strikes back. These practices might not even be recognizable by others as spiritual disciplines (Rees Howells felt called to never go out in public with a hat), but they are nevertheless an expression of the student’s intention.

Then there is the reactive practice of kairos events. When the student faces a situation where they either did exhibit that character trait, or did so imperfectly, or failed to do so, they reflect on the event and pray through it. In Building a Discipling Culture, Mike Breen calls these kairos events, moments that signal opportunities to celebrate or grow, and he describes a process called a Learning Circle to unpack the event for maximum benefit. The fruit of each Learning Circle is recorded in a journal and the student debriefs the journal’s contents (without directly sharing those contents for privacy reasons) with their mentor every week or two. This may result in changes to the personal disciplines to focus on what is being revealed in the kairos events. This reactive approach is especially helpful for character traits whose manifestation cannot be initiated by the student in real life, such as loving one’s enemy – only when a real enemy presents themselves can the trait show itself.

It can be difficult to sustain this level of intentionality on a specific character trait, virtue or aspect of being, so it can be helpful to put limits on this regimen. A three-month period – I prefer the term “season” to the more mercantile “quarter” – seems to be short enough to maintain the intensity but long enough to see concrete gains. If the student is not where they need to be with the being competency after one season, they may continue for another season, or come back to it later after moving on to work on a different character trait for the next season.

The kairos journal constitutes the longitudinal behavioural measurement that Gagné suggests for attitude assessment. While it is a self-assessment, the regular reviews with a mentor allows a richer picture to be developed than would be the case if the student were simply asked to rate the character trait directly. Developing and assessing character is one of the more difficult aspects of theological education. However, as educators we owe it to our students and all their future congregants to do the best we can.