Theological Education that Impacts—On Whom/What? For Whom/What?

In this paper, Allan Harkness outlines how theological education can make an impact on the church and society as we focus on its direction and dimensions, the process by which curriculum develops, and our identification of the end results we seek.

Allan Harkness

Allan Harkness and his wife Marven, from New Zealand, are retired OMF members. They served in Singapore from 1988 to 2015, and Allan has over thirty years of theological education experience in Asia. He was the Founding Dean of AGST Alliance and served on a number of Asia Theological Association seminary accreditation teams. Now a theological education consultant, he’s an educator at heart who is fascinated by transformative learning, adult and theological education, and what educators bring to—and receive from—their educational roles. He has facilitated impact-based curriculum reviews in several seminaries. Allan may be contacted at


Theological Education that Impacts—On Whom/What? For Whom/What?

Mission Round Table Vol. 17 No. 2 (May-Dec 2022): 40-43

To download a PDF of this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 17:2.


In Majority World theological education (TE) over the past decade, significant attention has been given to impact: What impact do seminaries have on the churches and organisations to which they are linked (by virtue of their governance and where their graduates are serving) and in the wider society in which they are situated? (In this article I use “seminary” to refer generically to the wide range of theological and Bible colleges and schools that have pastoral formation as their primary focus – what is needed to form those being trained with the appropriate blend of qualities to enable them to minister effectively within their own culture and/or in cross-cultural settings.)

For evangelical seminaries, this impact theme was reflected at the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) consultation in Turkey in 2015, where the consultation theme was Engaged and Effective  The Impact of Theological Education .

At ICETE 2015 the outcomes of a project in which ten Majority World seminaries undertook an impact-based curriculum review process were presented. Findings of the project are published in Is It Working? Researching Context to Improve Curriculum (Brooking 2018). Since then, there has been a ripple effect as other seminaries have been encouraged to undertake an impact-based review process, and to modify their curriculum based on their discoveries.[1]

The COVID-19 pandemic, socio-political and economic crises, and other developments in many Majority World countries have driven seminaries to take stock and to engage in a re-calibrating, even re-imagining, process like mission organisations—that invest significant resources in this direction—are undertaking.

If “impact” is the goal of TE ventures, then what might impact look like? More specifically, how does impact relate to:

  • the direction and dimensions of the TE content? In Christian discipleship and formation, “direction” relates to focus towards God, others, self, and the natural creation. “Dimensions” relate to how people and their organisations or institutions are encouraged to respond “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, NRSV).
  • the curriculum processes adopted in the seminary?
  • what we perceive the end results of our efforts to be?

These questions may be explored with three increasingly focused perspectives, analogous to seeing a distant feature in a landscape, perhaps a distinctive tree or structure, and making our way towards seeing it close up:

  1. We start by looking at the feature panoramically—from afar—which gives us the big picture in which the feature is set, its overall context. For seminaries, this panorama is the broad context of God’s creation and kingdom, and within which any activity—theological education or otherwise—is situated.
  2. Moving nearer, we get a middle-distance view of the feature and see it set in its closer topography. Perhaps it’s on a small hill or beside a stream. For seminaries, this middle-distance view relates to the focus and purpose of TE as a discipline generally, as a vehicle for partnering with God in achieving his purposes for his creation and his kingdom.
  3. We arrive right beside the feature and are able to have a close-up view of it. We can now note in detail how it’s constructed and what it’s used for, what’s unique and distinctive about it. For any seminary, the close-up view entails examining and reviewing, affirming and constructively critiquing what is specific to this seminary’s purpose, role, and processes.

We will explore these three perspectives in further detail.

The panoramic view: What sort of mission and vision?

Any theological education activity needs to be set in the broad, big-picture context of God’s kingdom, God’s activity in his creation, and our participation with God in his purposes and plans. This is a missional-ecclesial perspective and it has clear implications for TE.

A missional-ecclesial foundation for theological education suggests that our schools exist in order to prepare men and women who are capable of guiding the church to be effective in fulfilling the mission of having Christ acknowledged as Lord throughout the earth. Note that the preparation of men and women is not the ultimate goal, but a significant means towards the accomplishment of the greater goal of seeing empowered churches which significantly impact their communities, such that the marks of the kingdom of God are evident in the world.[2]

Note the “big picture” impact emphasised in this quotation. Note, too, how this resonates with the mission and vision of many organisations. For example, the mission and vision of OMF is as follows:

Our Mission: We share the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with East Asia’s peoples to the glory of God.

Our Vision: Through God’s grace we aim to see an indigenous biblical church movement in each people group of East Asia, evangelizing their own people and reaching out in mission to other peoples.

Our mission is what we do as we hope to see what is stated in our vision fulfilled. In short, the panoramic view recognises that when we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matt 6:10), the scope encompasses the whole of life, existence, and experience.

Emphasis on the participation of God’s people in God’s mission has been picked up by theologians and missiologists alike. For example, think of classics like David Bosch’s Transforming Mission,Chris Wright’s The Mission of God, and the literature spawned since they appeared.[3] In recent decades, the discourse on TE has advocated the application of this emphasis, seen in the writings of commentators like Robert Banks, Linda Cannell, and Bernhard Ott.[4]

  • What does a missional-ecclesial vision for TE mean? We can start to unlock this by considering these key panoramic questions:
  • What is our understanding of God’s mission—especially in our part of his world at this time in “his-story”?
  • How do we know God’s mission is being achieved?
  • What are the challenges faced for this mission to be accomplished?
  • What is the church’s role in this mission?
  • What sort of men and women does the church need so that it can fulfil its missional mandate?

As we process these questions, it is helpful to think about the foundations upon which our responses are built and the underlying assumptions we bring to our answers. Robust and fruitful discussion may well result if our colleagues in TE come to the questions with different perspectives and assumptions.

Answers to these panoramic questions set us up for the second perspective to consider, relating more specifically to impact in any TE venture we may be in partnership with—but still a little removed from the actual detail of the life of that venture.

The middle-distance view: What impact are we seeking in TE?

Educational accountability embedded within the European Bologna Process over the past two decades[5] has emphasised “fitness of purpose” and “fitness for purpose,” foci that are influencing educational programs around the world, including TE programs.

Fitness of purpose is the extent to which the mission and/or goals—raison d’etre—of an organisation or institution are suitable and appropriate for the institution’s context. In the TE context, we will ask: is our seminary vision/mission statement a good fit for what we sense God is calling us to?

  • Fitness for purpose is the extent to which the processes/systems of an organisation or institution are suitable and appropriate for the organisation to fulfil its vision/mission. So, we will ask: how effective are our seminary’s processes and curricula for achieving our vision/mission statement?
  • Most seminaries have mission and vision statements. To ensure fitness of purpose, these statements may need to be reviewed for their continuing relevance in a seminary’s “here and now,” in the light of the agreed understanding of the panoramic perspective above. Once (re-)affirmed, those statements become foundational, as the seminary constructs its various processes to be genuinely fit for purpose—to ensure the mission and vision is being fulfilled. It is here that consideration of impact plays a crucial role: where does the impact the seminary is seeking to have lie?

Rupen Das[6] has drawn on the Kellogg logic model for community development initiatives[7] to suggest a four-phase process for understanding impact in TE. This logic chain is summarised in Figure 1.

Fig. 1 The Kellogg logic model adapted to theological education.[8]


  1. The seminary plans activities—classes, field education, personal study time, chapels, pastoral care groups, etc. This is the curriculum in its broader sense of being the intentional learning experiences planned by a seminary for its students rather than simply the subject matter of education (often termed the syllabus). A range of resources (or inputs) are necessary to serve this activity—human, financial, administrative, and technological resources from both inside and outside the seminary.
  2. As a result of the activities, change is expected in the students as they go through their time in the seminary, and certainly evident by the time they graduate. This change is outputs—direct products of the activities. What sort of outputs are these, both qualitatively and quantitatively? A graduate profile is designed to detail what is expected ideally, and graduate documentation (transcripts and statements of achievement or character) will try to enunciate achievement of outputs.
  3. The seminary’s graduates move into churches and organisations. Outcomes are seen in changes in the direction and dimensions of ministry and mission in and by those churches and organisations as they are influenced by the seminary graduates serving there. Key issues are the extent to which these outcomes are consistent with the vision held by those churches and organisations, and whether the sort of seminary graduates who come to serve are helping or hindering the achievement of the vision.
  4. The churches and organisations within which a seminary’s graduates serve are set within societies and communities, with the mandate to “celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.”[9] So, what impact do the churches and organisations have in these societies and communities? How are the communities different because of the presence of Christian people and Christian churches or organisations?

Campus cleaning as part of spiritual formation


It’s the impact phase that is crucial to consider for the middle-distance view of what TE is seeking to achieve with the panoramic perspective in mind. Recall the quotation above:

Note that the preparation of men and women is not the ultimate goal, but a significant means towards the accomplishment of the greater goal of seeing empowered churches which significantly impact their communities, such that the marks of the kingdom of God are evident in the world.

Similar can be said for any organisation. OMF, for example, seeks people who can be a significant means of ensuring the development of an indigenous biblical church movement involved in evangelisation and reaching out in mission.

Thus, in Majority World TE, to ensure fitness for purpose, the key question for seminaries to ask will follow this logic chain:

To what extent does our society (or do our local communities) reflect God’s kingdom values and perspectives

… because there are communities of God’s people (churches) in that society

… who are served by students and graduates of our seminary

… whom we have been responsible (and privileged) to relate to and equip during the part of their life journey that they have been with us?

This is rather different from, and more expansive than, a typical “end point” educational focus on graduates themselves for determining TE focus and effectiveness.

The close-up view: What is “impact” for my specific seminary?

It’s at this point that we can consider how an impact focus works out in individual seminaries. Mission agencies may place their focus on the ones they, in one capacity or another, partner with because of the resonance of perspective between the seminary’s and agency’s missional visions.

It may be argued that “theological seminaries are the most important institution in the Church, bar none. They are the repositories of our past and the shapers of our future.”[10] A focus on impact by seminaries, described in the four-phase process above, will better ensure seminaries are “shaping the future” by equipping the churches and organisations they serve to be (re-)aligned to God’s purposes in their unique time and place.

This is about a seminary (re-)assessing its fitness for purpose—and perhaps even revisiting its mission and vision statements—to ensure fitness of purpose in its curriculum processes and content. Such (re-)assessments can be challenging, but ultimately productive and confidence-building.

Commitment to impact will present a range of elements for seminaries to consider. These elements are likely to include, inter alia:

  • Interacting with the seminary’s stakeholders—those with a vested interest in the effectiveness of the seminary—to ensure their voices are heard in an impact-based review, and consensus is sought for the way ahead.
  • Seeking insights from key informants in the surrounding communities is likely to be valuable, even if what they say is perhaps painful to hear (e.g., if they indicate that the presence of the seminary is irrelevant to their community).
  • Recognising that an impact-based seminary focus requires dynamic rather than static transformative processes. What sort of transformative processes are required in the seminary, and how will those be facilitated? Seminary leadership plays a crucial role in guiding these processes.[11]
  • Considering how the many varied elements of the seminary’s life interrelate, for an integrated process in which impact is integral to the seminary’s “DNA.” Integration recognises that the formal, non-formal, and informal aspects of seminary life may all contribute synergistically to the process.[12]
  • Revisiting the content of the curriculum, to ensure that it is contextualised for the unique opportunities and challenges each seminary faces. Involving key stakeholders and community informants will doubtless enrich any curriculum review exercise.
  • Reshaping graduate profiles through impact-based lenses. Usually, such profiles focus on individual formation and development, to ensure more faithful disciples and disciple-makers. But that focus doesn’t have sufficient reach for impact-oriented profiles.
  • Enriching the faculty as a key asset for their seminary adopting an impact focus. Faculty members are strategic change agents in any seminary, and more so if impact-oriented recalibration is undertaken. What sort of faculty is needed? What vocational competence do they need? What can be intentionally planned to help them become more competent? Consistent faculty equipping pays dividends, even though it is not an easy task.[13]

With a panoramic vision and impact-based perspective as a foundation for achieving that vision, a seminary has a plumb line against which its leaders can assess where to put or re-direct their focus and energies. They are a standard by which to assess what is being accomplished as “the nuts and bolts” of its life and activity are reshaped by means of the elements noted above.

This article has advocated that theological education should be designed and carried out for impact. Majority World seminaries should therefore adopt an impact-based approach to setting and navigating their direction as they seek to equip faithful women and men to lead God’s people as they partner with him in his mission and the fulfilment of his purposes—all for his glory. What better partnerships could we be in?


[1] Allan Harkness, “Faculty Enrichment for Impact: A Schema for Holistic Faculty Development,” In S ights Journal for Global Theological Education 7, no. 2 (2022): 37, (accessed 19 December 2022). For the findings of the project cited, see Stuart Brooking, ed., Is It Working? Researching Context to Improve Curriculum: A Resource Book for Theological Schools (Carlisle: Langham, 2018).

[2] Perry Shaw, Transforming Theological Education: A Practical Handbook for Integrative Learning, 2nd ed.(Carlisle: Langham, 2022), 31. Italics original.

[3] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993) and Chris Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Nottingham and Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).

[4] Robert Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Model s(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); Linda Cannell, Theological Education Matters: Leadership Education for the Church (Newburgh, IN: EDCOT, 2006); and Bernhard Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education (Carlisle: Langham, 2016).

[5] “The Bologna Process [started in 1999] seeks to bring more coherence to higher education systems across Europe. It established the European Higher Education Area to facilitate student and staff mobility, to make higher education more inclusive and accessible, and to make higher education in Europe more attractive and competitive worldwide.” (accessed 3 November 2022).

[6] Rupen Das, Connecting Curriculum with Context: A Handbook for Context Relevant Curriculum Development in Theological Education (Carlisle: Langham, 2015).

[7] WK Kellogg Foundation, WK Kellogg Foundation Logic Model Development Guide (Battle Creek, MI: WK Kellogg Foundation, 2014).

[8] Adapted from Das, Connecting Curriculum with Context, 41. The definitions of “activities,” “outputs,” “outcomes,” and “impact” used here may be somewhat different to uses of the terms, both generally and educationally, readers are familiar with.

[9] United Church of Canada, “A New Creed (1968),” (accessed 7 November 2022).

[10] Doug Birdsall, quoted in “Leaders to Focus on the State of Theological Education,” 29 May 2012, (accessed 4 November 2022).

[11] For further discussion on this, see Allan Harkness, “The Role of Academic Leadership in Designing Transformative Teaching and Learning,” in Leadership in Theological Education, Vol. 2: Foundations for Curriculum Design, ed. Fritz Deininger and Orbelina Eguizabal (Carlisle: Langham, 2017), 135–75.

[12] “Formal modes of learning use structured and institutionalised settings (e.g. classrooms, workshops, and seminars). Non-formal modes of learning are those which are intentional, but which take place in non-institutional settings (e.g. field work and visits, camps, and retreats). Learning can also arise from informal modes when spontaneous or coincidental opportunities in the course of life are utilised, e.g. drawing learning from an accident or illness, watching children play, cross-cultural experiences, or an unplanned D&M (‘deep and meaningful’ conversation) with a peer in the seminary dining room or after corporate worship.” Harkness, “The Role of Academic Leadership,” 144. The theme of the 2022 ICETE Consultation was “Formal and Non-Formal Theological Education: Beyond Dialogue.”

[13] AGST Alliance (mainland SE Asia) launched its Faculty Enrichment Initiative (FEI) in 2022, providing customised, contextualised, and bite-sized learning pathways for vocational enrichment of Asian seminary faculty, further insights on faculty enrichment for impact and domains of competence for seminary faculty, see Harkness, “Faculty Enrichment for Impact,” 37–58.

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