The wonderful book A Leader’s Guide to Competency-Based Education is a vital tool when designing a competency-based education (CBE) program. Chapter 2 describes two ways to identify the competencies that should be included in a CBE program.

The first technique is what they call deconstruction-reconstruction:

This approach uses current curricula, degree requirements, course descriptions, and supporting learning objectives as the starting point. Faculty deconstruct, or take apart, an existing degree piece by piece (learning outcome by learning outcome) for each required course. These “bite-size” outcomes are normally those listed in a syllabus (i.e., course objective or course outcomes), which are then reorganized into new categories or “buckets.” With this approach, you have the same puzzle pieces, but you are creating a new picture with them…[You use] most of the same pieces, though one can get rid of redundant pieces, improve a piece (rewrite an outcome), and add new pieces based on stakeholder input or discovery of a missing piece of learning.

The other way to do this is the framework origin approach:

Another approach for building a CBE program is to use existing standards, principles, or frameworks…For example, some disciplines have specific standards and outcomes, such as professional organizations in the areas of nursing, engineering, teaching, psychology, and social work. Other frameworks exist in career and technical fields with specified areas of study and outcomes, as well as industry standard certifications. There are also frameworks in liberal arts and twenty-first-century skills. Fortunately, there is also a rich source of information on required knowledge, skills, and abilities for specified professions in the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET data…On the basis of one or more frameworks, standards, databases, industry standard certifications, and so on, the faculty are answering the question “What should students know, understand, and be able to do at the end of the program?”

The Leader’s Guide is oriented towards all kinds of CBE programs, so I wonder what program design might look like in competency-based theological education (CBTE)? The deconstruction-reconstruction approach would be the same – simply pull out all the learning outcomes from the existing courses in the program and then put them back together as competencies, perhaps streamlining a few on the way or filling in some gaps.

It seems to me, however, that the framework origin approach is more suitable for CBTE. For centuries, churches have been complaining that seminaries produce graduates whose suitability for pastoral ministry seems unrelated to their training. The development of a new CBTE program is a golden opportunity to free pastoral formation from its Babylonian captivity by the academy.

One challenge immediately presents itself, however. What “frameworks, standards, databases and industry standard certifications” do we use to guide the development of our competencies? Unlike other fields, pastoral work has no such standards. How, then, do we proceed?

One obvious candidate are the standards laid out by the bodies that accredit theological degrees. They will often require so many credit hours in certain disciplines or identify the key components in a theological degree, both of which have been developed in extensive consultations with churches and denominations. For example, the Association of Theological Schools’ degree program standards indicate that an MDiv program should have content in these areas: the theological disciplines (i.e. Bible, theology and history), religious heritage, cultural context, personal and spiritual formation, and ministerial and public leadership (see section A2). These standards can be helpful in developing competencies for your program. The challenge here is that the standards are deliberately vague to allow each school the freedom to develop programs that fit its mission. So you will need to look elsewhere for detailed guidance.

Another source of standards might be denominational ordination requirements. Even schools that haven’t partnered with specific denominations can review the requirements for ordination (or licensure or credentialing or whatever) from the denominations their students typically come from. These norms will reveal the kinds of things that denominations believe to be important prerequisites for successful pastoral service. In fact, a student graduating from your CBTE program would ideally have already fulfilled everything their denomination requires for their ordination board as part of their studies!

However, the very nature of these first two standards can result in some tunnel vision. There are important competencies that might not appear in them because those competencies are difficult to assess or develop, or the academy mindset has created a blind spot. Therefore, one must consult other, less systematic, sources as standards.

One rich source is the field of pastoral theology. Pastor-theologians have been reflecting on their craft for centuries, and they have some excellent insights into what a pastor needs to survive and thrive in the role. A helpful sub-set of this literature are the many articles and even whole books on the topic of “what I didn’t learn at seminary.” In your research, don’t make the mistake of only consulting modern Western sources. An appropriate ressourcement of insights from other cultures and times would enrich any CBTE program. For example, a careful reading of C.H. Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, and Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule would reap great rewards.

A related field is that of alternative pastoral formation. Educational journals abound with proposals and trials of innovative ways to train pastors. Often conducted at the margins of the academy, such as inner cities, rural contexts or new mission fields, the necessities of the situation have forced these educators to think outside the academy model’s box.

There are still less systematic sources. Biographies of famous pastors and missionaries can yield very helpful insights – although this requires a bit of reading between the lines. Slightly easier are interviews or focus groups with pastors, both those in-service and those who have left the pastorate. Related to this are consultations with those who provide care to pastors, to understand the various problems that give pastors trouble and to learn what might be done to proactively prepare them to face these challenges resiliently.

The framework origin approach suggests the consultation of several frameworks to build a composite answer to the question “What should students know, understand, and be able to do at the end of the program?” Therefore, all of the above sources should be mined for rich ore to refine into a holistic set of competencies for a CBTE program that truly prepares its students for fruitful and sustainable ministry in the Church.