The press release from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) reads: “A lot has changed in thirteen years.” And it has.

In 2000, ATS did not approve any kind of distance education, but now eight ATS schools have been permitted to offer fully online degrees:

  • Anderson University School of Theology

  • Chicago Theological Seminary

  • Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary

  • Moody Theological Seminary

  • New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

  • Pentecostal Theological Seminary

  • Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

  • Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

In Trust recently talked with administrators at several of these schools to discuss the news.


Student demand drives theology school online

At Anderson University School of Theology, moving fully online was a response to an expressed need from students who found the residency requirement a high hurdle, says David Sebastian, the theology school’s dean. 


Anderson also saw an opportunity. The school of theology draws 65 percent to 70 percent of its students from the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), which does not require a graduate degree for ordination. In fact, almost 80 percent of the denomination’s pastors do not have graduate degrees. “These are people who are in Arizona and Colorado and can’t pick up and move their families,” Sebastian says, but who might benefit from graduate theological education. The fully online M.A. in Christian ministry allows the seminary to serve this constituency.


With partially online programs that Anderson has been offering for years, careful attention has been paid to integrating off-campus students into academic life — and that emphasis will continue. Once a year, all online students are invited to campus for a week during which they attend lectures, sit in classes with residential students, and worship together in chapel. The online program also requires that students participate in a local congregation and meet with a mentor.  


The current goal is to enroll 15 students per year in the all-online M.A. Since the school’s courses — both online and residential — are taught mostly by full-time faculty, Sebastian does not want to grow so much that he must hire many additional adjuncts.


In 2002, the school of theology explored the possibility of starting a campus in Florida and surveyed prospective students in the southeastern United States. Back then, Anderson’s administrators learned that students preferred online education to an extension site. When the online program began in 2004, there was some resistance from faculty, but over time and through experience, the “culture has shifted,” Sebastian says. New hires are told that online teaching is part of their teaching course load.  


To skeptics who say that education for ministry cannot be conducted fully online and that practical subjects such as preaching and pastoral care will suffer, Sebastian has one response: “They should talk to our students.” Technology, combined with creativity, is overcoming barriers to effective teaching and learning. For example, teachers use conferencing technology like Skype. Students send videos of their sermons for critique. And of course, local mentors provide practical help and spiritual guidance.


Where the personal and the virtual are blended

“If we could turn back the clock and make everyone come to us and have that monastic seminary experience, we would love to do that,” says Maury Robertson, director of online education at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. “But the reality is that people are getting educated on the go. The question is not whether we want to do online education, but whether we want to have a seminary at all.”


For several years, Golden Gate has had regional commuter campuses and a number of online courses, but now bigger changes are afoot. Seminary leaders have recently announced plans to sell their 148-acre primary campus in pricey Mill Valley, California, north of San Francisco, and open a commuter campus in a more accessible part of the Bay Area. They’ll continue operating their other commuter campuses but move their primary operations to Southern California, where seminary president Jeff Iorg says they will build a “new kind of seminary campus reflecting the way educational delivery methods are changing in the 21st century.”  


Golden Gate Seminary does not make a strong distinction between online and on-ground students. “Our ground campus has online components,” says Robertson. Professors use videos and things on the web to supplement teaching.” Nevertheless, students can choose to define themselves as primarily online or on-ground. Right now 94 students place themselves in the “online” category and seminary leaders expect to enroll 35 new online students in the fall.


Robertson says that the “big hurdle to get over” was preparing online students in practical ministry skills — for example, the courses in preaching, pastoral care, and spiritual formation. But he responds to critics of fully online education by noting that the traditional seminary is itself an artificial environment. “Where else do you have professors and students together and take the cream of the crop?” he asks. “That is not necessarily a good testing ground for whether a person can operate well in a ministry setting.” 


Robertson says that in some ways, the online experience is superior to the traditional educational setting, because it allows students to be mentored in context. Part of his job involves coaching students who are working with pastors and mentors in the field.


A single program, various delivery modalities

President Alice Hunt says that when she and her colleagues at Chicago Theological Seminary engaged in a community-wide visioning process in 2010, the results were crucial for the seminary’s future. “Trustees, faculty, staff, students, and alums spent time together considering the needs of the world around us as they relate to our mission,” she recalls. “We asked ourselves how to provide access to this faculty and this marvelous theological education to those who wish they could come here but cannot because they are deeply rooted where they live.” 


Hunt says that the seminary decided to begin offering the online M.Div. before other degree programs for a couple of simple reasons: It was the most re-quested program, and “it continues to be the standard for those who are moving into progressive theological education.”  


During the extensive discussions leading to the decision, Hunt said that one board member commented that she could not see how pastoral care training could occur online. Another board member responded with a story: A couple of weeks before, the board member’s daughter had run through the living room. “Dad,” she said, “I’m going over to Angie’s. It’s an emergency, but I’ll be right back.” Twenty minutes later, the daughter walked through the door, and the board member asked what the emergency had been. She said, “I had to go fix her computer so that we could chat online.” The board member’s conclusion: “Many people today are already fostering relationships and communities online. It’s imperative to train religious leaders for this type of world.”


Chicago Theological Seminary had made very early forays into distance learning even before the advent of the Internet. In the 1990s, she says, “we had a cooperative program with Central Union Church in Honolulu, where we taught a live class via TV hook-up.”


When the online program began, administrators assumed that the residential and online programs would be distinct from each other, with two different student bodies. But that’s not what happened. “Many of our face-to-face students decided to take online courses along with face-to-face courses,” she says. “And some of our online students decided to come to campus for a week-long intensive course in January or in the summer.”  


What developed was a single M.Div. program with a variety of delivery modalities. The seminary live-streams chapel, convocations, annual lectures, and workshops to help integrate the two campuses, and they’ve created a virtual gathering place for the entire community. In addition, most on-ground classes have some virtual components and online classes frequently use WebEx, Skype, or Oovoo to facilitate interaction.  


Chicago Theological Seminary has invested significantly in the technology that makes online education possible. “We use state of the art video cameras to record classroom lectures and discussions,” says Hunt. “Many of our faculty produce multimedia lectures or course segments for our online classes. A number of our online students like having the sense that they’re sitting in the classroom by watching the classroom lectures.” 


The seminary’s new high-tech building also boasts “short-throw” video projectors, which allow instructors to project high-quality images and video from right above the whiteboard. “These projectors also enable digital annotation,” Hunt explains, “which can later be saved and distributed to students electronically.” 


The move fully online has sparked an enrollment boom. Before the announcement, three or four student enrolled in a typical spring term. But this past semester, 20 new students enrolled, 17 of them fully online. And the seminary continues to receive inquiries from across North America and even from other countries. 


Hunt says that online learning can be a real benefit for more introverted students, giving them a chance to participate, but that “people who enjoy face time with others have to work harder in an online class to get that face time.” She says that online classes are not for everyone — and face-to-face classes don’t work for everyone either.


A new degree for a far-flung student body

Southern Baptists have about 4,900 missionaries in posts around the world. And Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has a vision for those missionaries to earn master’s degrees in church planting. 


Chuck Lawless, the seminary’s vice president and dean for graduate studies and ministry centers, and his colleague, Jerry Lassetter, director of distance learning, say that Southeastern’s M.A. in church planting is designed for North American or international missionaries, allowing them to stay in the field while working on their degrees. “Through this program, they get academic training and practical experience at the same time,” they say.  


The M.A. in church planting is new, and the seminary’s leaders are hoping that 20 to 30 students will enroll this fall. Since the program is flexible, students are not committed to an “online” or “in-person” track —they can choose to take each course online, at an extension site, or at the home campus, depending on where it’s offered that semester. Lawless and Lasseter say that all students, no matter where they are, have the same access to library and student resources. And they study with many of the same professors, too. 


Like leaders at other seminaries, Lawless is sold on the high quality of discussions in online classes. “Our experience is that online students are often more involved in the discussions than many of our on-campus students,” he says. “Granted, online students are required to enter the discussions, but that’s one of the strengths of this approach.” Some online students also meet with a local mentor face to face — either a pastor or a church official.

Lawless reports that the seminary has just added two more degrees that can be completed online: the master of divinity and the master of arts in Christian studies.


Implications for the future

The landscape of theological education may have changed since 2000, but it’s hardly finished changing. More schools will soon be offering fully online degrees, which means that competition among seminaries will likely increase. Seminary leaders know this all too well.


Maury Robertson, the online education director at Golden Gate Seminary, is realistic about the future. “We understand that we won’t be the only eight very long,” he says, and seminaries will need to define themselves anew in a world where students can choose their school based on “merits, not geography.”  


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