Hoist the Sails: Unleashing the church through educational partnership

In March 2020, we witnessed something unexpected: deserted city streets, a masked population, and a shutdown that created ripples we can still feel and see more than a year later.

The assumptions we carried into our workplaces, churches, and classrooms were disrupted overnight. Empty seats and livestreamed events left many of us feeling adrift as we started living important parts of our lives through screens. The two-week pause in our routines was only the beginning of an era defined by a pandemic.

In academia, leaders quickly realized that learners needed a different kind of support in order to be equipped for the new mid- and post-pandemic landscape. But what did they need? How should higher education systems engage them? And how can academia offer an educational experience that supports both students’ goals and the church’s greater mission?


Higher education’s role in the 21st century is about preparing people to have options in the marketplace and in ministry, helping them be agile and respond quickly to inevitable change (such as a global crisis). Across the workforce, employees are demanding better training and education to help them survive and thrive in the workplace. 

You’ve probably seen this play out in your own organization: workers aren’t just interested in a one-time degree but are seeking relevant, career-focused training, and it’s happening in every industry. 

A June 2020 survey conducted by Strada Education Network found that if adult workers were faced with losing their jobs, their immediate response would be to change careers, not return to school for an additional degree. It also found that 62% of Americans prefer non-degree/skills training over degree programs.1 This correlates with global trends as well. In its review of the future of work in a post-pandemic world, the World Economic Forum argues that “right skills will be prized over academic qualifications alone.”2


When you think of education, you probably imagine the four-year, on-campus college experience and subsequent graduate coursework. But over time, people have become comfortable with the idea that this traditional pathway can take place online, rather than perceiving it as an inferior alternative to residential onsite learning. As a result, online degrees, certificates and training have become perfectly acceptable pathways for adults seeking new careers or future promotions.

The rapid growth of online learning has also reshaped the educational institution that is most resistant to change: the seminary. Developments in digital technologies that facilitate communication and create meaningful platforms for learning have enabled bi-vocational ministers, missionaries and church planters to continue serving in their local contexts without moving to a new city to complete their seminary degrees.


For busy working adults, higher education can be a sail that carries them to previously inaccessible careers, roles, and ministry opportunities.

Higher education leads students through a transformational self-assessment where they engage new ideas and perspectives as they are challenged to think critically about their beliefs and experiences. While this happens in any education setting, Christian institutions provide opportunities for students of all ages to grow in their faith and develop a worldview that shapes how they see themselves in their chosen profession.

A church that wants to move from aspirational to efficient should consider what education and training can do for its lay leaders—that is, individuals who work vocationally outside the church but play critical roles within the church that enable its continued work. 

Not everyone needs a degree (or a second one). Given the fast pace of change in the 21st century, many people need to add new tools and skills to their resumes. Micro-learning options come in different forms, ranging from certificates and credentialing programs to contextual, hands-on learning. This just-in-time, in-context training helps leaders stay relevant, whether it’s helping a church meet the changing communication needs of their congregation, a ministry response to marketplace dynamics or businesses addressing cybersecurity threats.


One interesting development in this space is churches and ministries partnering with Christian universities and colleges to develop these micro-learning options. What they find is that when churches engage in education, they actually support and empower their congregants and communities. Church-sponsored daycare and even K-12 schools embedded in churches are not uncommon, but some have taken the extra step of hosting university partnerships that make higher education more affordable and accessible.

Specifically, these partnerships can foster a number of positive outcomes for both students and ministries.

Spiritual formation for disciples

The church has a vested interest in these changes, not only because lifelong learning supports the holistic health of the body of Christ, but because an educated and trained congregation, coupled with strong discipleship, is prepared to effectively live out the gospel in every corner of society. Education infuses laity with a deeper and richer equipping in order to continue to serve a changing landscape well.

Preparation for marketplace disciple-makers

Lifelong learning helps create marketplace multipliers—individuals who influence their workplaces and integrate their faith with the goal of making disciples and unleashing the kingdom of God wherever they are. Marketplace multipliers are salt and light in places the local church may not be welcome.

Tools for thriving congregations

The value of Christian higher education for adults is this concurrent preparation for both marketplace careers and ministry; however, it’s the integrated nature of a partnership’s curriculum that results in laity who themselves are integrated and engaged—who are equipped for the questions, challenges, and opportunities for missional engagement as they arise in the day-to-day work. Education also gives learners the tools and foundation they need to thrive in society, resulting in lower levels of unemployment, higher earnings, greater participation in religious activities, and a healthier life overall.

Higher education and the church have a vested interest in partnering to improve our ministry, education, and work models. Rather than being broken down and adrift mid-cruise, we can build new partnerships that prepare people to impact the world for Jesus Christ—a mission the church and Christian higher education have in common. We can help people hoist their sails by preparing Christian adults who are ready for missional ministry and able to lead both in the church and the world.





This article was extracted from Issue 6 (Summer 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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