I am often asked to describe in a nutshell what competency-based theological education is, so here goes. Long before the advent of the university, the Church trained its ministry workers for centuries through an apprenticeship model. Instead of attending a series of classes, aspiring pastors were accompanied by mentors as they ministered in their congregations. This model has been revived today in the form of Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE).

While there is much variety in how it can be expressed, CBTE has three basic characteristics:

Mastery Learning

Everything a thriving ministry worker needs to know, be able to do, or simply to be is defined in a collection of competencies. Over the course of the program, students must demonstrate proficiency in each one of those competencies. The student must demonstrate proficiency in all aspects of the competency to successfully pass the assessment, not just have a passing grade overall. After all: you can’t fly if you only know how to take off and navigate – you need to know how to land as well! If a student attempts an assessment and is unsuccessful, they may re-attempt it until they succeed (with coaching after each attempt by the appropriate mentor).

Each competency has a standard set of learning activities that can be used to help the student develop that proficiency. However, the Faculty Instructor is free to remove or replace some or all of these activities if the student’s prior learning, experience, learning style or context calls for it. This flexibility enables the mentor team to craft a development plan that suits the student, moving them towards competency on the most direct route possible.

Relational Learning

Most educational programs mention a student-to-teacher ratio. But CBTE boasts a teacher-to-student ratio – three to one! Each student has a Personal Mentor and a Vocational (or Ministry) Mentor, who accompany them throughout the entire program. These mentors are usually selected by the student, which helps to ensure a good fit. These mentors are a vital part of the student’s team, as they both facilitate and assess learning together with an academic mentor. Some schools use Faculty Instructors that switch from discipline to discipline to ensure students have access to a qualified Subject Matter Expert for each competency, and to expose the student to a variety of coaching styles. Others prefer an Academic Coach who, like the other mentors, also journeys with the student from the beginning of the program to the end.

Contextual Learning

Student learning should not occur in a vacuum. Rather, it should be tightly integrated with some ministry context. This goes a step further than distance learning, which simply allows students to pursue their studies while physically remaining in their context. In CBTE, learning activities and assessments are oriented towards the student’s personal and ministry context, either by knowledge related to that context or by actual activities performed in that context. This way, students gather valuable practical experience while they are learning and have a portfolio of ministry skills when they graduate.

CBTE is a wonderful way to recover the ancient model of ministerial formation within the framework of an accredited degree. By focusing on mastery, it ensures that every student is proficient in everything they’ll need to do well in ministry. By focusing on relationships, the student is supported throughout their training by a team of experts. By focusing on context, the student is not just equipped for real life, but real life becomes their classroom. I believe it to be the ancient-future way of learning.