For a long time Christian Leaders Institute was not affiliated with any accrediting organizations. Because of the nature of the mission of CLI, the expenses involved in traditional accreditation were just not feasible for this ministry. However, accreditation is a question that comes up a lot, and with good reason. Yet many of the people who ask about accreditation aren’t entirely aware of its meaning.
What is Accreditation?
When most people hear accreditation, they associate it with credibility. They know that accreditation means something in education. They know that it’s something desirable. However, if the issue is pressed most people will admit that they are not entirely sure what precisely accreditation means or why it gives educational institutions credibility.
Accreditation is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the granting of power to perform various acts or duties. In terms of educational accreditation, Wikipedia defines it as “a type of quality assurance process under which services and operations of educational institutions or programs are evaluated by an external body to determine if applicable standards are met. If standards are met, accredited status is granted by the agency.” This agency is known as an accrediting organization.
Accrediting Organizations and Their Role in Educational Accreditation
Accrediting organizations exist with the purpose of overseeing the accreditation of educational institutions. They evaluate campuses, classes, diplomas, and degrees offered based on a set of standards agreed upon by a board of qualified members. If the educational institution applying for accreditation is not found to be in compliance with all standards, they are notified of the rejection of their application with one or more codes that delineate the reasons for rejected. If they meet all standards of the organizations accreditation requirements, they become full members of the organization and receive accreditation.
There are various accrediting organizations that exist throughout the world. Since Christian Leaders Institute was founded in the United States, the Association of Theological Schools in the U.S. and Canada would have been of particular interest. This organization is the major accrediting organization for theological schools all over the country, including Calvin Theological Seminary and Moody Theological Seminary.
The Association of Theological Schools, or ATS, includes over 270 graduate schools of theology in various denominations. Admission into this association and the transition from associate member to full member are a lengthy process with costly requirements such as tenured professors and extensive physical libraries. The application process includes a $1000 initial application cost and a $2300 fee for initial evaluation. This, however, is small change compared to the enormous amount of income that is required to maintain a large physical library and a physical campus with amenities, pay tenured professors, counselors, and other faculty members.
Traditional Accrediting Organizations didn’t Fit Christian Leaders Institute’s Mission
Christian Leaders Institute was founded with a single goal: to bring ministry training to everyone in the world who needed it, even those who couldn’t afford it. When you are bringing ministry training to people with no money, there are certain realities that come with that.
CLI didn’t choose the non-accreditation route because we have anything against accreditation or accrediting organizations. It was a choice based on necessity. Even with some very generous donors to start Christian Leaders Institute off, the costs required to maintain the necessary resources for accreditation were impossible if we held to our mission of training people for ministry without charging them any money. If we had chosen to seek accreditation through traditional means, CLI would be required to abandon the vision of free ministry training. There would be no possibility of maintaining an entirely free ministry training school or seminary with a physical location, physical library, and full faculty on campus.
The Strength of Non-Accreditation
Some people would say the phrase “strength of non-accreditation” is an oxymoron. However, during the initial years of operation we discovered this was not the case. In fact, the non-accreditation factor produced success in reaching those who had no other means. People who came to study at CLI were truly motivated to be trained as pastors, teachers, and church leaders because they were called. Many already served in some capacity, including pastor, because their community lacked anyone better qualified to fill that role. They didn’t care about accreditation. They just knew that they could do better with training, and they sought training out where they could find it.
What they discovered at CLI was that non-accreditation doesn’t mean low quality. The courses were rigorous, and students who weren’t truly called would end up dropping out because of the work required to complete them. Students who did complete the courses expressed their satisfaction at the changes they could see in their own preaching and teaching. They would also share how their congregations had noticed the changes. They affirmed that the courses were indeed producing fruit in their lives and in their teaching.
Non-Traditional Accrediting Organizations Emerge
Christian Leaders Institute is not adverse to accreditation. In fact, we recognize the benefits of having a peer review process by which your standards are examined and tested. As it says in Proverbs, “Iron sharpens Iron, and one man sharpens another. (ESV)” However, as stated before, initially accreditation wasn’t an option for us.
Then, while doing some research on theological education, one of our team members stumbled across a new possibility. As educational capabilities evolved with the improvements in technology, the realization was starting to arise that an educational institution could have a great program without a traditional brick and mortar building. The team member discovered an accrediting organization called the Academic Council for Educational Accountability, or ACEA. Unlike some other accrediting organizations, ACEA was not tied to approval by the U.S. Board of Education or the requirements that come with it.
While the greater credibility of the U.S. Board of Education and other more traditional accrediting organizations were not present with ACEA, this non-traditional accrediting organization also did not carry with it the necessity of physical location, physical libraries, and full faculty including tenured professors, counselors, and the like. The leaders recognized that the internet holds many resources that can be used in teaching, including old and modern scholarly books, various sermons from preachers in all denominations, and even biblical Greek study aids. Research that would formerly have been done wading through page after page of various books in a library could now be done with a few short commands on a keyboard.
In light of this, ACEA provides accreditation through a strictly peer-review process. The process evaluates courses, training programs, and the like based on the educational merits and the dedication of the faculty to quality theological education. Membership fees are substantially lower, and there are no requirements for physical campuses or physical extensive libraries.
When we discovered ACEA, Christian Leaders Institute quickly took advantage of the opportunity to incorporate a peer-review process into our organization. We applied for membership and received approval to join the ACEA community of Christian theological education institutions. This membership in a peer-review accrediting organization will be beneficial to us as we seek to hold our training to the highest educational standards and train up leaders for Christ wherever they are all over the world.