Earlier this month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, the theological school in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by Jerry Falwell, is training more future U.S. Air Force chaplains than any other school. The Christian Century picked up the story too.
The paper also reported that Eden Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ school in St. Louis, is launching a new initiative to provide more liberal chaplains for the military. President David Greenhaw said that "there's a vacuum" in the chaplaincy that Eden wants to help fill.
But what's most interesting to me about this story is buried a little deeper than the headline. It turns out that that chaplain candidates are required to pass 72 semester hours in post-baccalaureate studies in theology or a related field. This coursework must be taken at an accredited institution -- but not necessarily a program accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.
Liberty Theological Seminary has accreditation from its regional agency, the Southern Associations of Colleges and Schools (SACS), through its parent institution, Liberty University. But it is not accredited by ATS.
What's the difference? For one thing, SACS allows all-online master's degrees, but ATS does not. And at Liberty University, online enrollment in the chaplain-track students has exploded over the last few years, while on-campus enrollment is small -- only about 30 students.
ATS schools may be losing potential students to regionally accredited institutions like Liberty that offer the same degrees without ATS's residential requirements. This competitive disadvantage is behind at least some of the changes that are being considered in ATS accreditation standards.
In addition, some people question whether graduates of all-online programs are as well prepared as graduates of traditional residential degree programs. The Post-Dispatch article quotes Colonel Steven Keith, commandant of the Air Force Chaplain Corps College in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, who says, "Resident seminarians, we feel, are better prepared."