Seminary Charts Course for New Direction with Strategic Plan

At its March 2010 meeting, the Bethany Theological Seminary Board of Trustees approved a strategic plan to guide the work of the seminary through 2015. Bethany Seminary is the graduate school and academy for theological education for the Church of the Brethren, located in Richmond, Ind.

Passage of the plan marked completion of another step in Bethany’s ongoing process of developing, implementing, and assessing the seminary’s strategic direction.

Reframing Bethany’s mission and ministry to address the challenges of providing quality theological education in the 21st century was high on Ruthann Knechel Johansen’s priority list when she assumed the presidency in 2007. The recommendation of one of the seminary’s accrediting bodies to evaluate enrollment and develop a comprehensive assessment plan, and the approaching end of the strategic initiatives of the time, underscored the need to address the issue.

Johansen also considered external factors influencing the perception of theological education. “In the last several decades, great changes have occurred in all Christian communions: in the local congregations and districts of the Church of the Brethren, and in the United States and global cultures, leading to the observation that we are living in a post-Christian time,” she observes. “Reconsideration of Bethany’s mission and vision invites clarification and possible enlargement of them in the face of significant challenges.”

Johansen approached the process by inviting people from many constituency groups into dialogue. This included several joint meetings of the board, faculty, and staff, including an envisioning discussion informed by storytelling and personal sharing, and a weekend retreat funded by a grant from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion led by Faith Kirkham Hawkins.

Through these conversations it became clear that Bethany’s future direction would be served best by holding fast to and creatively incorporating the Church of the Brethren core testimonies that contribute to God’s transforming work in the church and the world.

In Oct. 2008 the board received and approved a strategic direction paper based on the discussions and drafted by Johansen. The paper presents challenges facing the seminary, goals to address the challenges, and strategies for achieving the goals. The board also approved the creation of a Strategic Planning Committee to prioritize the strategies and set a timeline and benchmarks for meeting the goals.

A year later the board approved a new mission and vision statement, which can be viewed at The new mission statement reads, “Bethany Theological Seminary equips spiritual and intellectual leaders with an Incarnational education for ministering, proclaiming, and living out God’s ‘shalom’ and Christ’s peace in the church and the world.”

Johansen describes the mission statement this way: “An Incarnational education is based on the life and work of Jesus Christ, emphasizing both the historical context of his life, death, and resurrection and the timeless call to embody his example of caring for God’s creation, loving neighbor and enemy, and serving the weak and the poor through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As we practice this distinctive manner of living, we experience God’s ‘shalom’ and Christ’s peace, reconciled with God and reaching out in reconciliation to others amidst our diversity.”

With the mission and vision statements as a guide, the Strategic Planning Committee reviewed the 22 recommendations from the strategic direction paper and categorized them into seven priorities with accompanying subsets of goals and tasks. The goals focus on educational ethos and environment; curriculum focus, integration, and expansion of the educational program; and funding for new initiatives. Each task has a time frame for completion, measurable marks for accomplishment, and personnel assignments.

Implementation of an ongoing assessment plan will complete the circle of work related to the strategic direction process. Karen Garrett of Eaton, Ohio, has been hired as coordinator of assessment. She holds a master’s degree from Bethany and a master’s degree in education with specialization in curriculum and assessment. At a future meeting, the board will approve a comprehensive assessment plan in anticipation of a focus visit by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools in 2011.

When describing how Bethany’s new strategic direction will shape the work of the seminary, Johansen says, “Preparing students for religious vocations today involves more than giving them biblical and theological knowledge and skills for carrying out ministerial vocations. Bethany must provide the contexts and resources for understanding present realities in relation to the past and the future, such as ‘fore-grounding’ work that prepares leaders for pluralistic contexts, developing curriculum in conflict analysis, offering courses that bring Matthew 25 and Matthew 28 together in conversation, and interpreting the seminary’s importance as a valuable educational resource for analysis and interpretation of and witness to urgent questions facing church and society.

“Incarnational education transforms the teaching and learning experience because it invites us to embrace Christ’s way of love and to continue the work of Jesus–in service, in simplicity, and in the pursuit of peace and justice for human beings and the earth.”

— Marcia Shetler is director of public relations for Bethany Theological Seminary.

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