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The Seven Distinctives of Competency-Based Theological Education

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

So what makes Aquila’s approach to training marketplace missionaries, church planters, and pastors different than so many other approaches?

It’s a good question, because it gets to the heart of what makes Aquila Institute so special, unique in fact.

I went to school for a particularly long time. But crucially, I have a great diversity of experience. I went to a public university in Texas for my undergraduate degree. I then attended a condensed, cohort-based seminary degree focused on training lay-persons for church engagement. I attended a traditional seminary where I earned my M.Div. After this, I attended a research university in the UK and earned a research M.A. Finally, I earned my Ph.D. in the UK and spent some time at a German university.

In other words, my experiences are diverse and my philosophy of teaching has been shaped within many contexts over a long time period. I know the good and the bad of these systems and their distinct approaches to education.

This is why early on in my engagement with Aquila, I knew that this type of program would require something new, something that focused on personal discipleship within the context of the local church. But the problem was that none of my experiences fit the approach that I instinctively new Aquila would require.

Then I heard about Competency-Based Theological Education (CBTE), a lesser-known pedagogical approach that is swiftly growing in popularity. After making a visit to Northwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the pioneering institutions of CBTE, I realized that this approach could offer Aquila an entire vocabulary. We didn’t have to start from scratch but could take an existing model that had already been proven and adapt it to our own needs.

But what makes this approach different? Here are the seven distinctives of this appraoch as articulated.

Collaborative Partnership

CBTE works best in partnerships. Partnerships with sending churches, denominations, conventions, and other NGO’s are the bedrock of the CBTE approach. Aquila, seeks to work directly with the pastors of sending churches to ensure that the goals of the partners are met. The local church sending a church planter or preparing a pastor for full-time ministry will always be the hero. Aquila seeks to enable local churches to rise to the occasion and assist them in their goal of training more ministers.

Context-Based Learning

Mastery is developed and demonstrated in the context of the local church, not on a campus. Aquila apprentices must be actively involved in their targeted ministry context throughout the program, and assignments are customized to the nature of the end goal. The approach can be adapted to a foreign missionary, a church planting team, or a full-time pastor.

Team-Based Mentoring

Aquila apprentices are supervised by a team of three mentors. These mentors include pastors, convention representatives, and academics. The mentor team is engaged in the development and assessment of the apprentice and works together for the good of the apprentice.

Static Outcomes and Tailored Learning Pathways

The traditional approach to theological education has set classes and established learning pathways to graduation. The problem that arises from this model is that it results in a variety of outcomes; some graduates are competent and others are not. In CBTE, it is the outcomes that are determined and static; the pathways are flexible and are tailored to the specific needs of each apprentice. We will do whatever it takes to mentor an apprentice to the point of being a fully competent marketplace missionary.

Integrated Outcomes and Assessment

The CBTE philosophy does not focus only on information transfer. Rather, apprentices are expected to grow in character and consistently demonstrate that they are competent within the context of the local church under the supervision of mentors.

Direct Assessment of Mastery

Learners move toward graduation by consistently displaying competencies, not by completing courses. Assignments are added, repeated, or replaced according to the specific needs of the apprentice. This means that the time required to achieve mastery will vary for each apprentice. But this also means that the mentor team can directly assess competency.

Learner-Paced Development

Aquila apprentices progress at their own pace, accelerating where they already have competency and slowing down where more development is required. This means that apprentices can get into ministry quicker. Under the supervision of a mentor team, apprentices are free to be trained in the midst of ministry.


Taken together, these seven distinctives make for a radical divergence from the traditional approach to theological education. But more than that, we believe that this approach is the best suited for our European context. We believe that this approach serves our partners best. We believe that this approach will be most effective at preparing competent pastors, missionaries, and church planters for sustainable, effective ministry.

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