June 2020 Newsletter: A Representative of the Gospel
June 12, 2020
May 2020 Newsletter: Don’t Waste a Good Crisis…
May 15, 2020

2020 – from Calamity to Evolution,
from Lament to Celebration:

A New Ministry Season for ABTS

Elie Haddad
June 15, 2020

Chapter one

The pandemic has caused global disruption and has forced the world to rethink priorities and methods, and even to raise core and foundational questions about who we are, what we do, and how we do it.

This is no different for ABTS. Life was suddenly disrupted by the pandemic, as the majority of our programs and initiatives revolve around bringing people together, whether in a classroom, in chapel, or in meetings and gatherings. It did not take a lot of thinking and effort, however, to implement emergency measures and move everything online. This was not the main challenge. Operating in a volatile region has conditioned us to become flexible and nimble and to be able to adjust quickly when we are faced with disruptions.

The big challenge for ABTS is long-term. Some of our partners in theological education are labeling this period as a time of liminality. A time of sharp transition. What was no longer exists and what will be is a place that no one has been before. This is no doubt a time of lament and disorientation. But it is also a time of exploration and discovery. A time to be bold and daring. A time to be strategic.

During these past months, we have had extensive conversations, discussions, and times of reflection and discernment. As we deliberate the future of ABTS, two terms continue to surface: innovation and collaboration. These are two vital elements without which there will be no prospect for the ministry of ABTS. We will be sharing a lot more in the near future as our explorations mature. I want to focus here on innovation, specifically regarding what has been at the core of the ministry of ABTS for the last 60 years, our residential program.

ABTS was founded in 1960 to equip leaders for the Church in Lebanon and the Arab world. The main vehicle for that has been full-time residential education. The curriculum used had been similar to curricula used in theological education globally but delivered in Arabic, and it was enhanced throughout the years. However, a major evolution took place between 2009 and 2012 when a new curriculum was devised that significantly transformed the ministry of ABTS. This curriculum expanded the vision of theological education to include leadership formation. The shape of this curriculum can be simply summed up as holistic, contextual, and integrated.

First, the holistic nature of the curriculum meant that we were not only concerned in forming leaders cognitively but also affectively and behaviorally; we became concerned with the disposition of a leader in all of its dimensions. Second, the curriculum was specifically designed for ministry in an Arab Muslim context. And third, the curriculum featured an integrated educational approach that is multi-disciplinary and highly reflective, delivered in a modular format. This resulted in converting the classroom from a teaching environment to a learning environment, and the professors from the holders of knowledge to facilitators of learning. We became concerned with developing highly spiritual critical thinkers who can think biblically through real life issues, who are transformed and transformative, and who have the skills to lead and mobilize their church communities for effective service.

We learned a lot through this design process. We learned how to build a program that is solid at the core yet flexible enough to be tweaked and updated in response to feedback and assessment and in response to changing needs and realities. We also learned that a change like this can only happen in community, when stakeholders are consulted and when the faculty are at the core of this change process. It takes the community journeying together to achieve a drastic change like this.

Back to 2020 and liminality. It has become obvious that we cannot maintain this full-time residential program in which we invested so much and that has worked well for our students and the churches that they serve. We cannot maintain this program because of new realities. There is no doubt that distancing and travel restrictions will prevent us from bringing students to Lebanon for at least the next academic year. In addition, a new funding reality is presenting itself. No one knows what that will look like post pandemic, but we do know that we need to become a lot leaner and more cost-effective in order to survive.

The first reaction is lament and disorientation. We did that. Actually, we are not yet over the lament of what cannot continue. The second reaction, however, is moving forward with a new strategy, a renewed vision, and a creative solution that takes theological education and leadership formation in the region well into the 21st century.

Our new strategy for our core ministry is to transform our full-time residential program into what we are currently calling a modified residential program. The shape of this new program is becoming clearer. Our academic team and faculty are in the process of completing the details of the design.

The new program will consist mainly of distance components with short annual residencies on campus. The reason that we still have the word residential in the name of the program is to stress the fact that we are maintaining the same curricular shape of our old program. This will not be an online program. We have that. This will be a blended program that preserves all the key features of what was successful in our residential program. We are still committed to the high-quality training that our constituency is used to. We are preserving the holistic, contextual, and integrated dimensions of the curriculum, also in a modular format. We also remain committed to the same quality research component that marked our residential program. Basically, we will be offering our same distinctive curriculum but with a new delivery method.

The full-time residential program used to take three academic years to complete. The new program will be stretched over four-and-a-half calendar years. This is because our new strategy is to serve a slightly different clientele. With this new format, we are now able to equip the key leaders in the region who are eager to be trained, yet they cannot come to Lebanon for three years because they are immersed in ministry. We want this new program to be accessible to them. Instead of looking for full-time students, our new strategy is to look for those in full-time ministry who can invest two hours per day for the duration of the program (in addition to the annual short residencies in Lebanon).

With the move from long-term residencies in Lebanon, we are freed from visa and residency restrictions that are out of our control. We will now be accessible to Arab leaders residing in the entire MENA region and beyond.

With this new delivery method, we will be able to admit around 30 students per year. This means that within four years we would have increased the capacity of our program from 40 students today to 120 students.

We will lose many key elements in this new format, such as the community life that forms on campus, with all its resulting transformative elements, life-on-life experience, and the exposure to serving in a different church and ministry context. We recognize the importance of these elements and are working hard on designing alternative methods for building community and forming cohorts. What we will gain, however, is the ability to train students within their own ministry context, which will help them reflect on and enhance their ministry as they are growing in their learning. This will also give us the opportunity to partner with the students’ local churches in addressing the transformative elements.

There are a few key factors for the success of this new delivery method. One of them is the ability to leverage the technology available to bring people together virtually and remotely. Another key factor is the availability of digital resources when access to a physical library is limited. We are working hard, and collaborating with others, to find solutions for these challenges.

Our design team and faculty are now in the process of defining what elements should be included in the residencies, what kind of community life can be formed in short residencies and nurtured virtually, how transformative elements can be addressed, and how the informal elements of the curriculum can best be incorporated.

We are excited about this new development. Our faculty are excited. Our Board of Trustees is supportive. We still need to have many more conversations with stakeholders and partners in theological education and accreditation. We are working hard on all the components, and we will be sharing the various aspects of our design as they take shape and mature.

Yes, we are celebrating. We are celebrating the goodness of God. We are celebrating the new opportunities for ministry that God is opening up before us. We are celebrating the long heritage of ABTS and the experience and expertise that prepared us for this. We are celebrating the many thoughtful, prayerful, and creative members of our community of faculty, staff, students, board, graduates, church leaders, and partners who are helping shape this new strategy and empowering its implementation. If you are reading this, then you are likely a valuable member of this community. We invite you to celebrate with us.