Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, does not have the flashiest site on the web. Its operation is low budget—the current site was designed by a student intern from a nearby college, according to admissions director Randy Miller, and probably won’t be redesigned until another intern comes along. For all of that, it has one student who wouldn’t be there were it not for the school’s presence on the web.
In the fall of 1998, Kerry Flynn clicked on a search engine and looked up “peace studies.” The new University of Michigan engineering graduate was volunteering at an adult learning program in Boston and looking for her next school. “I knew I wanted something with a theological base, something Christian,” said Flynn. The search engine led her to Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and its M.A. in peace studies. “I didn’t know exactly what a Mennonite was,” admitted Flynn, who is Roman Catholic, “but the information on its website looked encouraging. I e-mailed the admissions office, they sent me more information, and I enrolled last fall.” She describes the program as exactly right for her.
Accessible and Helpful
Five years ago, In Trust ran a story on theological education’s new presence on line—and theology school web pages were such a novelty then that we featured them on the cover. Now it’s a rare school that doesn’t have a website, and admissions offices are discovering that the internet is a major information source for prospective students. Currently about two-thirds of the schools affiliated with the Association of Theological Schools have a link on their home page labeled “prospective students” or “admissions” or something else clearly aimed at potential attendees.
What prospective students will find when they click varies tremendously. Doubtless the most egregious admissions page belongs to a mainline school in the Midwest that begins a page of text about their admissions process: “An application for admission is available from the Office of Admissions. It must be completed by the applicant and returned, along with the applicable fee.” One hopes that grad school applicants could manage that without on-line instructions. On the bright side, the admissions office’s address, phone, fax, and e-mail are all listed clearly at the bottom of the page. This is no small thing. On some seminary sites, it takes multiple clicks to find out where the school is located.
Some schools do rather better. There are several easy steps that can make your site both attractive and helpful to prospective students. They are manageable in different styles and levels of technical sophistication according to the image your school is aiming to project.
Humanize Your Site
Humanizing a website doesn’t necessarily mean pictures of human beings. Several schools have pictures of their admissions officers heading their pages. Some are benign and grandmotherly, some are young and have smiles that bespeak excellent dental care. All might be better placed farther down the page.
There are other faces that speak more clearly about your school. Alliance Theological Seminary, Nyack, New York, suggests that those following its “about the seminary” link begin their exploration of the site with the “welcome from the president”—a nice use of the symbolic role of the office. Pictures of students, along with pieces of their stories, can also give a sense of a school’s style. Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Mill Valley, California, offers short statements from students along with pictures. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts, features student diaries that are updated periodically—they are squeaky-clean and relentlessly upbeat but do give potential students a sense of day-to-day seminary life. Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary has stories students presented in chapel about how their sense of call developed. They also have an “ask a student” feature—an e-mail link connecting questioners to an actual student. The feature has been available for six months now, and nobody has used it—but it’s staying in place toward the day when somebody does.
Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, has lots of links on its prospective student page. Readers might find all that hypertext daunting, but for a simple question at the beginning: “How can we help you?” As a prospective student scrolls down the list, she will find that a serious attempt toward helpfulness has been made. Here are answers to all sorts of questions; she can take a virtual tour of the campus, read faculty profiles, look at housing and employment options, and send for more information.
A welcoming graphic or a banner that conveys more than information can also help humanize your site. New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, New Jersey, has an interesting treatment of a photo of its library—featuring its door—on its home page, along with the tag line, “The door to your future.” The door is the button one clicks to enter the site. Bexley Hall in Rochester, New York, seems to be a school with a sense of humor—its home page displays the school’s logo and motto, “Courageously bear the cross,” next to an invitation to “courageously press the logo to continue.” Text top and center on the page of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, echoes the prospective student’s quandary, “I sense that God is preparing me for something; I just don’t know what it is. . . .” If you click on the text just below it that reads “What is God calling me to do?,” you arrive at a question-and-answer page about vocations.
Help Students Find a Fit
It is a kindness to acknowledge that students might not know every single thing about the process of getting into theological school or even if that’s the best path for them. A fair few Roman Catholic schools have links to religious orders: the Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis, Missouri, is a Dominican school that leads students to a page with the heading “Could you have a Dominican vocation?” and lots of information on helping sort out the answer to the question. Mundelein Seminary belongs to the Archdiocese of Chicago, but its vocation links take inquirers to a listing of twenty-one men’s orders and half a dozen for women.
Several schools post articles on how to decide which school is a student’s best choice. Fuller’s president, Richard Mouw, authored a particularly helpful one that describes the difference between various kinds of theological schools, the purpose of accreditation, and the necessity of thinking through one’s beliefs about community—without turning the exercise into an ad for Fuller. Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a list of seven questions to ask about a theological school and does not hesitate to point out Calvin’s answers to those questions. Denver Seminary, Denver, Colorado, asks, “Why come to Denver?”—then cheerfully suggests, “Let’s make it happen!”
Stand Out a Bit
There is a small but rapidly growing number of schools that allow on-line applications; a quick informal poll of these suggests that just under half of their applications come in this way and that the percentage is growing. On-line application probably won’t be a way to stand out for long.
Tangibles can help make you memorable. For years now, Luther Seminary has had an on-line Bible Tutor with a quiz format that has become so popular that the school is now marketing it on compact disc. Seasonal devotional guides, sermon helps, and collections of papers on selected topics abound on seminary websites; some have considerable charm.
For potential students, the mention of money can help make a connection. Alliance Theological Seminary offers up to $200 in travel expenses for prospective students who come to visit—and a statement of that fact has pride of place on their home page.
A Foot in the Door
When you’re based in Caronsport, Saskatchewan, you have to work at making yourself visible. Briercrest Biblical Seminary has been working hard, and the internet has been its most effective tool. Since the school’s website was posted five years ago, it has been the single means by which prospective students are most likely to seek information about the school.
Tim Glenn, the school’s webmaster for the last two years, is a full-time employee of Briercrest and its sister college and high school. He keeps things moving: he advised In Trust not to comment on the site’s current design, because a new design will be in place by the time this issue is printed—and another is due later this summer.
Last year a banner sponsored by the school appeared on the school’s website, on various evangelical sites, and on Yahoo! Canada, trumpeting, “Win a $1,000 scholarship to a post-secondary school of your choice.” A promise is made that entrants won’t be sent Briercrest information unless they request it. “We ask them when they’re looking to start school and at what level,” said Tim Glenn, the school’s webmaster, “and by that point we know what we can show them about what we have that will fit their needs.” The contest, which ends on August 15, has attracted only 800 entrants so far. Why so few? “We’re all afraid of what someone will do with our name,” according to Loren Hagerty, Briercrest’s director of marketing. Still, getting a few people to allow the school access to their mailboxes is worth the cost and effort, he claims. “We’ll be doing the contest again next year,” he said, even though it has been directly responsible for just thirteen new inquiries about the school.
“There’s so much clutter in the marketplace,” Hagerty said, “that another ad for another seminary just isn’t enough anymore.”
What is enough? An honest presentation of your school—be it slick or homey, high-tech or no-tech. If you have the resources, use them to tell a story.
Seminary’s Fire Chronicled on its Website
Prospective students are not the only people interested in your school’s story, of course. Graduates, their families, people whose churches have been pastored by graduates, and residents of the surrounding community will all respond to an interesting story told well on line.
Just ask Carolyn Obert, who started her job as administrative director of institutional advancement at the Pontifical College Josephinum last December—the week the Columbus, Ohio, school had a million dollar fire that left a dormitory without a roof.
Obert and her staff had the story on the school’s website the next day, complete with pictures and information on how to donate. “We needed to get the story out quickly,” she said, “and although we sent a letter out, of course, it was almost a week until we got it written, signed, printed, and sent. The website was right there.”
Obert didn’t stop with the first story. The web story on the fire was updated twenty-one times in seven weeks. The content of the pages is diverse. It includes morning-after photos and the story of the first people into the chapel when things cooled down and how they found the host unharmed although the tabernacle holding it was damaged beyond repair.
There are first-person accounts by students who were asleep when the alarm was sounded. Clean-up and construction is followed, again with photos. An early January banner trumpeted, “We have occupancy.” Viewers learned what students retrieved from their rooms—one man found an icon painted by his mother intact—and what was destroyed. One of the later postings details an appreciation event honoring those who helped.
At whom was the coverage aimed? “The students went home for Christmas break right after the fire,” said Obert, “so the website was an easy way for them to keep track of what was going on. And as word spread, we had graduates all over the world checking in—we got e-mail from people in Rome, people in London.”
Money came in as well. “There’s no way to know exactly what came in because of our coverage on the website,” said Obert, “but we do have a hundred new donors since the fire. We’ve raised $159,000 in a seminarian’s fire fund to replace students’ belongings not covered by insurance; that’s pretty significant in a short time.” The fund is about three-quarters of the way to its goal.
The goodwill continues, as does Obert’s work on the school’s website; she devotes about a fifth of her time to keeping stories fresh. And it works: the site has a friendly feel, with homepage photos of liturgical events and social ones. “There’s a woman in my parish who tells me she checks the site every week just to see what’s going on,” said Obert, “and a man in New York just e-mailed us to donate a classbook from the last century he found in a house he bought.” You can find the Josephinum’s website at www.pcj.edu; to find the fire stories, click the button labeled “previous postings.”
Even without the drama of fire, a school’s construction, deconstruction, or reconstruction makes for a visually interesting story easily told on line. Harvard Divinity School, the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary all have building projects chronicled on line.
Any of these are infinitely more interesting than the all-too-common phenomena of links marked “giving” or “development” that take prospective donors to a page with an address where they can send their check. Most donors could have figured that out, but a regularly updated illustration of where the money is going will keep them coming back.