The concept of “residency” in theological education — and the corresponding residency requirements — have historically been related to two basic advantages: (1) access to educational resources and (2) the establishment of an educational community. Improvements in information technology have, within the last generation, rendered physical proximity to educational resources unnecessary in most circumstances. Thus we are left with the issue of educational community as the main reason for residency requirements.
Yet the concept of educational community has itself changed over time.
Take the University of Cambridge as an example. In the Middle Ages, most students and teachers at Cambridge were priests who had parish responsibilities and agricultural tasks waiting back home. To accommodate this, the university schedule consisted of three highly compressed terms with long vacations between them. Students and professors had focused time to engage with each other and the books — that is, their educational community — while their lives actually revolved around another community — their parish. The schedule reflected the reality that Cambridge was not the students’ primary community.
Over the centuries, as educational institutions grew more and more self-contained, they became the primary communities for students and professors, and the stringency of “residency requirements” reflected this expectation.
Christians today properly insist that online community is not the same as face-to-face community, and we assert that face-to-face community is crucial for the church and for the spiritual growth of Christians. But does the centrality of face-to-face community in spiritual life mean that students’ educational community needs to be face-to-face? This is not nearly so obvious.
When we argue that theological education ought to be done “in residence,” perhaps we are unwittingly accepting the assumption that Cambridge, not the parish back home, ought to be the students’ primary community.
But why must that be the case? Isn’t it acceptable for students’ primary communities to be their churches, their mentoring relationships, and their places of current ministry? Is it not possible to conceive of the educational community as a secondary community, as it was for early medieval scholars?
If we do that, we can entertain the possibility that while the primary community ought to be face-to-face, the secondary community can function well even if it is virtual.
If the educational community is the secondary community, two interesting possibilities arise:
Students do not need to leave their primary communities and establish new ones. They can remain in their primary, face-to-face communities and add virtual, educational communities to them. This enables theological education to return — at least partly — to the apprentice model that was common throughout most of Christian history.
Through technology, students’ secondary communities can give them exposure to a greater swath of the Christian church than was ever possible before. It has never been easier to put students from many cultures and from around the world together in a single online classroom. Doing so can dramatically enrich the students’ educational experience.
I believe we should define a student’s “residency” as the place where the student’s primary community is located — the one that must be face-to-face. If a student moves on campus, or to an apartment nearby, then he or she is choosing to establish a primary community at the school. This can be valuable, and we want to continue to encourage it.
But if a student chooses not to move but to remain in his or her current primary community, perhaps because of family requirements, a significant ministry position, or an invaluable mentoring relationship, we can build on that primary community — that “residency” — by offering to the student a vast, varied, secondary educational community that can enhance the apprenticeship-style education he or she is already gaining.