The following are my remarks at the Consultation on Theological Education in the Balkans, held in Osijek, Croatia in April 2018. My essay will be published under the title, “Nonaccredited, Nontraditional, Nonformal.” This will be a series of five posts.
The Consultation brought representatives of more than 25 schools from all over central Europe; Hungary, Germany, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, etc. Only two or three of these schools possess national accreditation (the equivalent of regional accreditation in the USA). Several of these schools cannot muster a traditional student body, and the majority of students study part time while working full time in “secular” jobs and volunteering for their churches.
The organizers of the Consultation asked me to speak about how schools can be successful if they do not have accreditation or cannot offer traditional programs (e.g., do not have a traditional full-time daytime student body.)
Here is my answer to the question, “What could success look like outside the traditional model of ‘doing college’?”
Theological education in the Balkans comes in a variety of flavors, but we all seem to be prizing the same model. Regardless of country, denominational affiliation, etc., the “gold standard” for schools is the same: we wish we were accredited by our governments, granting transferrable ECTS points, holding classes according to the traditional model, viewed as “real colleges” by the society around us, legitimized by some external authority.
But not all the schools at this Consultation can realistically pursue that model. Does the lack of government accreditation (or the lack of traditional daytime classes) illegitimate our work? It does not. Here, I describe the vital role in pastoral education that non-accredited schools and schools who do not deliver content and formation according to traditional models, etc., can play, and the advantages that schools who do not “fit the mold” can enjoy.
Accredited and nonaccredited.
In the Balkan context, “accreditation” commonly refers to governmental approval for educational activity. Non-governmental accreditors—e.g., our partners at the European Council for Theological Education, formerly the EEAA—accredit institutions for theological education, and among peers we recognize the importance of their work. But to the public, employers, and pension boards around us, the only accreditation that counts is governmental.
Accreditation has many advantages. Peer review improves our processes, practices, and outcomes. To employers, supervisors, and others inside and outside the church, accreditation legitimates a degree. This is no small thing.
But accreditation has its disadvantages, also. Accreditation forces institutions to approach all situations and opportunities with the question, “How will this affect our accreditation?” The need for documentation of planning and institutional effectiveness, etc., make it difficult to respond quickly to the needs of constituents. Nonaccredited schools—or nonaccredited programs in accredited schools—can be more nimble than accredited schools.
Accredited schools can offer nonaccredited classes and programs, which are easier than their accredited counterparts to take into churches and communities. These not-for-credit classes can accept everyone who is interested in the topic being taught, and provide people with a friendly, accessible, low- or no-cost introduction to theological education. This allows schools to cast a broad net for recruits.
Most participants will not take classes for credit, but they benefit by growing spiritually and intellectually. Some participants will show a sense of calling to ministry, along with increasing spiritual maturity and intellectual capacity. Depending on the setting, some of these participants may seek ECTS points and a degree by paying tuition and doing extra work, above and beyond attending open lectures and participating in discussions.
In this way, nonaccredited programs can serve as the wide end of the enrollment funnel, a tool for recruiting students into accredited programs. If twenty people participate in a church-based not-for-credit class, some percentage of that group will be willing to commit to the work it takes to earn credits. By making that commitment, they move down the funnel. In this way, nonaccredited programs can be the foundation for building an accredited student body.