As colleges, we take great care designing products (our courses), selling them in the marketplace using professional logos, marketing people (student procurement officers), advertisements, brochures and stands in trade fairs. We have growth objectives, five year future planning, and the head of the organisation is a sort of managing director of the whole operation, responsible to a board, with the treasurer peering over his or her shoulder. And when colleges die, they eventually almost always die for financial reasons.
So are we a business?
It is hard not to say yes to this question, and for good reasons. Institutional theological education is a very expensive way to train a student (sorry, customer). We are constrained by legislation (often for a charitable business) to be accountable to government and those who provide the money. Anyway, market-led courses are indicative of a servant attitude to the church, we give them what they perceive they need. This whole approach stresses good accountability and good stewardship.
So why are we uncomfortable with this?
Firstly for the same reason that many secular universities are uncomfortable with the commodification of higher education and the consumer approach that is growing across the world. It does not lead to good learning, which is fundamentally not a product to sell.
Secondly, the language of business distorts what we are trying to do. Our products are our students not the courses we design to sell. Our aim is to develop people not be successful in the competitive marketplace of theological education. The customer we ultimately need to satisfy is not the church or the student, but God who gave us a mission.
Thirdly, Economic viability, although ultimately essential, is not the best factor of judgment in most of our decisions. It is not economically sensible to reject a marginally unsuitable student, because we need to fill the college. It is not economically sensible to run an important course with too few students. It is not economically sensible to design a course just putting in what the customers want rather than what the students and the church need.
The truth is that theological education today needs to be looked at through more than one lens. One of those valid lenses is the business lens but if the thing we see through that lens is all we see, we have diluted out mission. We need board members, rectors, treasurers who can look at the college through more than business glasses.
Following our sense of mission and calling as a college generally is good business sense. However, as was said long ago, “But if not, we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”