By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Tom Tanner has visited the Grand Canyon University campus four times.
The first time he said, “Wow, it’s big.”
The next three times he said, “Wow, it’s even bigger than the last time. They’re always building something.”
One of the building blocks, in a figurative sense, has been Grand Canyon Theological Seminary. A month before it opened in August 2016, it earned associate status from Tanner’s accrediting organization, the Association of Theological Schools.
But the Seminary recently was deemed worthy by the ATS of a much more important milestone: full accreditation for seven years. That means it is one of more than 270 ATS members – and Tanner, a Director of Accreditation for ATS, said the October site visit was an eye-opener for all five members of his team.
“I wanted our board, who makes the final decision on initial accreditation, to have hands-on experience from two of their own members to see up close and personal what Grand Canyon Seminary was doing,” he said. “They were equally impressed. One of them said that, in many ways, Grand Canyon sets the gold standard for how to do online education well.”
The reputation of ATS shines equally bright.
“We’re part of that community now, which means that we’re connected to a prestigious group as far as higher theological education is concerned,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology. “This validates all the hard work our faculty and staff have been doing to ensure our academic and spiritual programs meet the highest standards, and it will help our students as they prepare for careers in church ministry.”
The approved degree programs are Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Christian Leadership, Master of Arts in Christian Ministry, Master of Arts in Youth and Family Ministry, and Master of Arts in Urban Ministry.
GCU first applied for ATS associate membership in 2015, a year before the Seminary was born. That was a leap of faith for the accrediting body, as GCU was still in the process of reverting back to its nonprofit status – which was approved in July 2018.
“There were a lot of questions that I was representing on behalf of the ATS board of commissioners,” Tanner said. “But when I had a chance to meet with the University administration, the president and his cabinet, I was really amazed by the strong missional emphasis of the school, how it’s making a difference and has made a difference in its own community there in west Phoenix, and how much they were putting back into the community.”
Said Hiles, “We had really good conversations about what they were looking for, what they were looking to see. If you’re going to form pastors, if you’re going to form ministers, what does that look like? As they were listening to what we were trying to do and as we were listening to what they expected, we realized there was quite a bit more alignment than either of us would have realized initially.”
The process gained even more steam when Dr. Peter Anderson was hired as an assistant dean and put in charge of the Seminary last year. Anderson said it was a key topic of the interview process, and he hit the ground sprinting, not just running, as soon as he arrived on campus.
That’s where other University departments came in. The self-study document alone was 150 pages, with about 2,000 accompanying pages. “It felt like another dissertation,” Hiles said. Anderson, who has gone through the same process at other institutions, was stunned by the amount of support.
“It was an overwhelming prospect, the combination of staying in email/phone contact with Tom and his team, prepping on this end of things the logistics with the other departments,” he said. “We can’t speak enough about how much the University pulled behind us. The shared resources were invaluable in cutting back the amount of energy Jason and I had to expend.”
Tanner and the other ATS representatives, some of whom are administrators at other colleges, met with alumni, students, advisory board, faculty and the University administration to review the programs. Hiles emphasized that ATS accreditation isn’t just a gold star for the Seminary.
“When the ATS team members come and are looking under the hood in trying to figure out who we are, they’re not just looking at the Seminary,” he said. “They are trying to understand organizationally who we are as a Christian institution that supports nearly 100,000 students.
“What they determined is that, yes, as a university we are supporting that Christian mission not just by word but also by deed, and there are sufficient resources on campus for that sort of thing. It’s a stamp of approval that extends well beyond this department.”
What’s next? Now that the Seminary is a full ATS member, Hiles and his team can utilize all of its services, which include annual meetings and workshops, research into theological issues, assessment of student learning, training materials, counseling and coaching.
And then there are the accreditation visits, which means Hiles is eligible for a new responsibility.
“They’ve already told us they’re going to begin to invite us to participate in other site visits,” he said.
He certainly knows how to prepare. As Tanner put it, his team was “just really impressed with how seriously they took the work of accrediting, how much they had been engaged in the process before the visit.”
That’s another way of setting a gold standard.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.