Illustrattion by Dale Edwin Murray
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois received a Resource Grant from the In Trust Center for Theological Schools in early 2020, which helped the seminary’s response to the pandemic. John S. Simons, Ph.D., associate dean and director of the Master of Divinity program, talked with the In Trust Center’s Matt Hufman about the grant. This is an edited version of the conversation.
What was the genesis of the grant proposal?
Historically, our masters programs have been residential, and we were trying to look at ways to create some flexibility, primarily for those students who might need to leave campus for family reasons or those who wanted to accept a ministry position but still finish their studies. Previously, we were able to offer maybe a third of our Master of Divinity program as asynchronous online classes, but our faculty were hesitant to go any further than that because they’re concerned about formation and getting to know students and building relationships. The idea for the grant was to do a pilot program to try a few of our M.Div. courses as blended classes. Our proposal to the In Trust Center was to equip two classrooms and work with two faculty members as a pilot project, and then by the end of the year, hope to have some guidelines for what might make this a conceivable project to expand.
When the pandemic hit, how did the grant proposal help?
It gave us a really easy answer for when the administration came to us in March 2020 and said, “OK, we’re going to have to go to some sort of remote learning; what are some ideas on how we do this?” We certainly couldn’t do it all as a blended pilot, but we’d already explored a little bit about what pedagogy might look like on Zoom. It very quickly went from a limited pilot project to a massive experiment, and by the time we got to the fall, we had a few classes that were blended. It also gave us some opportunities to have conversations with faculty about what worked in each format.
From an institutional perspective, how would you say this has changed the school?
If we had talked two years ago about the idea of teaching a significant portion of our Master of Divinity curriculum in a remote format, it just wouldn’t have been conceivable, but we have learned how to be a little bit more agile as a result of having to pivot very quickly. Frankly, it wasn’t a single pivot point for our school, and I suspect this is true of our peer schools, as well. We pivoted into remote teaching and then the summer was a second pivot point where internally we began having conversations about how to tweak what we’re doing, how to make some adjustments to our schedule, our teaching methods, and what we expect from students.
What are the lessons that you’ve pulled out of this so far?
The Resource Grants that the In Trust Center offers, which was really the genesis of this project, are relatively small grants. If you look at just the dollar amount of the grant, you might not think of that to catalyze something new, but we used the grant for a potential strategic idea with the hopes of building something. We started by hoping for a small pilot project, and it turned into a very large experiment, which is now becoming part of our strategic plan for how we reach a few more students.
See more on Resource Grants
Learn more about how Trinity Seminary has pivoted to distance education, including formation online, with the full video interview.
Reflection: How does your board invest in its own development?
Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella
“The president is a critical partner in building a strong board, but the president’s involvement is not a substitute for the board’s attention to its own readiness to govern well. Whether recruiting, orienting, or educating board members for more effective and faithful service, responsibility for making it happen rests with the board.”
— From the In Trust Center’s Wise Stewards Guide