Robert S. Landrebe, who has just retired as senior vice president at Asbury Theological Seminary, offered advice for finding clarity in your school’s future in the Spring 2014 issue of In Trust. In his article titled “To create the future, selectively abandon the past,” Landrebe offers blunt but empathic advice to schools facing shrinking enrollment (in other words, most schools): “Let me describe theological education as an ‘industry.’ We are part of an industry that has a vital mission that serves the church. But, over the last decade, our student market has been in decline. During this decade we haven’t adjusted our expenses in response to a shrinking market. Rather, expenses have risen even faster than the consumer price index." 

Landrebe says the key to successful adjustment during a time of shrinking enrollment is to focus on the future rather than being overwhelmed by the immediate needs of the present. Begin with an honest – even if painful – look at your school’s data. If the status quo is not sustainable, trustees need to take action. Landrebe counsels: “Businesses often have a difficult time realizing when their economic models are unsustainable. How much more difficult is it for leaders of theological schools!”

Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, offers a method for dealing with unsustainable economic models, and Landrebe recommends his model. It involves writing the name of every initiative that the school is currently pursuing on a business card. Then drop each card into one of three boxes:

  • Box 1: Manage the Present

  • Box 2: Selectively Abandon the Past

  • Box 3: Create the Future

Landrebe notes that most institutions spend too much time managing the present, which is understandable but unfortunate. Schools and individuals are reluctant to abandon the past, but need to realize that “A school cannot create the future if it won’t selectively abandon the past.” 

The article goes on to provide valuable information about tools for strategic thinking about the future, practical advice about how to use the “four-action framework” to address issues related to the past and the future, and an explanation of how this model for change has been used at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Difficult decisions must be made, Landrebe counsels. But in the end, “our brands, like promises, must grow stronger, and theological schools must be capable to deliver on those promises. The church needs us. So, with God’s help, let the innovation begin!”