As seminary “distance education”—that is, programs that teach students individually away from an institutional campus—grows ever more common, some in the world of theological education grow ever more nervous about whether theological students can be adequately “formed” away from the academic community.

Is the learner’s immersion among a group of peers essential to the educational process?

Educators being almost by nature disputants, others counter unhesitatingly that community is not necessary among mature students. Or that off-campus students find community in the “virtual” world they discover as soon as they begin to explore the resources of the internet. Or that they find community in other human groupings they encounter where they are.

Concern about the student’s possible lack of community, for example, lies behind Bethel Theological Seminary’s requirement that off-campus students pursuing degrees be actively engaged in ministry concurrently with their academic activities. The theory propounded in the classroom becomes the actuality of a ministry actively practiced. (See “On Line or On Campus” in this issue.)

In fact, however, the nature of a community and its impact on its members are matters far more complex than simply what happens when human beings are interacting in the same physical space. Note that, as teachers discuss the importance, even cruciality, of educational community, most of the time it is only students for whom community life is felt to be mandatory. So far as I know, the General Theological Seminary in New York is the only North American theological school that requires its faculty to live on campus. At General, students may live in seminary housing or not as they choose (and housing is available), but professors, as one of the terms of their employment, must live in residences the school provides for them on the seminary close. (On crowded Manhattan Island, where only General Seminary professors, pastors of old city churches, and multimillionaires can aspire to live in private houses, some might say the requirement is not so terribly onerous!)

Moreover, for most Christian believers community exists in more than the here and now. It finds its locus not only in space but also in time. 

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

So mused T.S. Eliot in the “Burnt Norton” section of Four Quartets. Many believers have sensed the presence of the cloud of witnesses that surrounds today’s churches, a community of every time and place stretching back toward our origins and, for all we know, forward as well into the unknowable future.

Educational formation in a secular context may be no more than what happens when two or three students shoot the breeze about their classwork. Theological education, rooted in a community of faith, offers the promise of a far richer “learning community”—or to speak in more biblical language, “community of disciples.” Given the weakness of much religious education these days, however, many theological students, both on campus and off, are likely not to know how to live in this invisible community unless their seminary teachers teach them how.

Instruction in how to be a lifelong disciple, fully incorporated in the community of prayer, may be the most important educational goal a seminary can offer to those it prepares for ministry. What are the ways such a goal might be pursued on line?

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