In fall 2014, Sioux Falls Seminary launched the Kairos Project, a unique approach to theological education. The Kairos Project is an outcome-based program that uses mentor teams to oversee students. Assignments are adaptable, and each program emphasizes contextually integrated educational moments. Students do much of their learning in their respective ministries. The learning process looks quite different than the traditional seminary experience.
Why did we pursue such an ambitious new direction? A major reason was that our seminary was determined to reach working students. The Kairos Project was formed for those who are actively engaged in ministry. Some of Sioux Falls Seminary’s students are full-time pastors, while others are parachurch leaders or missionaries. Still others – indeed, a sizable percentage – serve as lawyers, business owners, pilots, firefighters and social workers, just to name a few. These are the very students who are most passionate about integrating their faith with their work.
There are two students engaged in the Kairos Project – Andy and Tyler – whose stories, I think, show the value of theological education that moves the ideas of “mission” and “ministry” beyond church programs.
Andy is an oral and maxillofacial surgeon who owns and manages a private surgical center. When Andy enrolled in the Kairos Project, he did so because it fit well with his schedule. His goal was to slowly remove himself from his role as a surgeon so that he could pursue his call to “ministry” in the local church. “Ministry,” he thought, was suffering because of his commitments in the medical profession. Over the course of his two years in the Kairos Project, Andy has come to speak differently. He now says that his journey of theological education has made him a better surgeon. Engaging in a curriculum built around contextual learning has opened his eyes to the importance of professional relationships. He understands mission and ministry as things that extend into every aspect of his life. Today, Andy always considers how best to steward his gifts in the office and the operating room, not just the sanctuary.
Tyler is the founder of an award-winning real estate company. He saw the Kairos Project as an opportunity to deepen his faith and expand his understanding of Scripture. He thought of seminary as the way to prepare for a possible future as a pastor. Things didn’t go as expected. The mentor team that supervised Tyler kept pressing him to integrate his learning with his on-the-ground work as a realtor, and a small group he participated in spent two years looking at Christian calling. Because of these experiences in the Kairos Project, Tyler came to realize that his workplace is somewhere where he can be fully invested in God’s mission. In particular, Tyler is dedicated to infusing his company’s practices with values that support Christ-centered human flourishing. Like Andy, he is committed to doing ministry through his occupation, not in spite of it.
In both of these stories, we see the Kairos Project at Sioux Falls Seminary making theological education a reality for “non-traditional” students. More importantly, we see students gaining a fresh perspective on how the Christian faith necessarily intersects with work and economic development, with human relationships and culture. Andy and Tyler continue to be involved their local churches, but Sundays are not the beginning and end of their Christian vocation. Now they see their business places as arenas where Christ can be shared and where Christian wisdom can be implemented.
Sioux Falls Seminary has appreciated Oikonomia Network’s role in helping empower our contextual learning paradigm. The network has helped shape our approach to students’ workplaces. With regard to the Kairos Project, three special aspects about faith-work integration are worth noting.
First, the integration of faith and work flows throughout our entire curriculum. Rather than addressing “economic” themes through a specific course or group of courses, we made sure that all our learning outcomes included requiring students to think critically about things like vocation, money, socioeconomic factors and human flourishing. This began in 2014 with a syllabus integration plan that enabled faculty in all disciplines to build work-related elements and economic questions into each of their courses. Today, that work is supported by dozens of discrete learning goals that awaken students to the realities of whole-life discipleship.
Second, students attend a number of week-long intensive courses over the duration of their program. Intensives are built around an integrative question (e.g., “What Does Good and Faithful Stewardship Look Like?”) rather than a discipline. In doing so, seminarians are exposed to broad-spectrum thinking and intentional praxis. Moreover, at the intensive our students participate in case study groups, in which they analyze and share a noteworthy occurrence at their place of ministry. What goes on in these groups is sometimes raw, sometimes messy, sometimes weighty, sometimes life-changing. But these moments always force students to connect theological education with their actual ministry contexts.
Finally, again, Kairos Project students are working while enrolled. We don’t simply tolerate their work; we insist on it. They need to be actively invested and actively laboring in the world. “Being in ministry” may mean serving as pastor at a local congregation, but more often than not it means participating in an occupation outside of church walls. The Kairos Project, by helping students to stay in their work, by building assignments that are contextual, by forming structures around the working student, is making holistic disciples.
Admittedly, we have a lot of things to improve with this innovative approach. But our conviction is clearer than ever: the workplace is not ancillary to theological education. No, the workplace is an indispensable theater of discipleship. It can and should be one of the chief spaces in which seminarians develop as followers of Jesus.