In the past, heeding the call to serve as an ELCA pastor meant commuting to or living on the campus of an ELCA seminary. Some ordination candidates have asked—and gotten—permission to attend non-ELCA seminaries for some of that time.
In 1994 a new idea began formulating, said Richard H. Bliese, president of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn. “That’s when all the seminaries realized that potential students—leaders of the church—aren’t always able to pull up stakes and move to St. Paul or Berkeley,” he said. “[At Luther] it meant exploring how to take the strength of our residential program and put it into distance learning.”
Many of the eight ELCA seminaries offer some online classes, as well as video courses and online advising. All participate in the Fisher’s Net, which provides online learning opportunities open to all, including those registered at ELCA seminaries.
However, Luther is the first to offer an online method for obtaining a master of divinity degree. It follows the school’s creation of an online master of arts degree program in children, youth and family ministry, approved by the Association of Theological Schools in 2002.
Two things drove the move: younger students with interest in such a program and competition from a nearby Baptist seminary offering such an opportunity.
Luther designed its online program for those already in a ministry setting wanting to begin nonresidential theological training. It’s not for students open to residential seminary education, Bliese said, adding, “This is not meant to be a ‘plan B.’ ”
When Barb Gwynn, a member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Veradale, Wash., decided to pursue a divinity degree she was torn. The closest ELCA seminaries were Pacific Lutheran in Berkeley, Calf., and Luther. Gwynn was concerned her children weren’t ready for her to move. In the five years since her husband died, Gwynn’s children have depended on her through the grieving process. “My children are in a transitional part of their own lives,” she explained. “[My daughter] just graduated from college and got married, and [my son] is in his sophomore year of college.”
Yet Gwynn continued to hear a call to ministry. During an admissions interview at Luther, she learned of its online program and enrolled. Today she completes contextual leadership at a consortium of three area Lutheran congregations—Joint Valley Lutheran Ministries —comprised of Good Shepherd; Christ, Spokane; and Holy Trinity, Spokane Valley.
“[The program] works well in terms of me being able to not put off this very important commitment of beginning classes,” she said. “I just know God wants to use me in this way—that I have something to offer.”
Face-to-face time included
In envisioning an online or “distributed learning” divinity program, Luther faculty realized a strictly Web-based program for theological education wouldn’t work. “It would likely be cold. It doesn’t create the right dynamic,” Bliese said. “Mixing online with face-to-face—half online, half on campus—would work.”
Luther’s curriculum was specifically designed for online education, said Mary Hinkle Shore, associate professor of New Testament and associate dean for first theological degree programs. “Distributed learning courses are completed by combining short-term face-to-face classes and online coursework. … We’re being decentered by technology, and that’s a good thing.”
Bliese said the teaching needs are different for online courses. Library resources must be digitized, there must be online staff support and technology must be state of the industry. He also noted that it’s also not “easier” or “cheaper” than a traditional seminary education. “[An online degree] takes a little bit longer, and the student must get approval from his or her candidacy committee and congregation,” he said.
More than 10 Luther faculty teach the online courses with role-playing, chat tools, a message board and other Internet tools. Some also teach the weeklong on-campus “academic intensives.”
Two-thirds of courses are online, and the remaining third are completed during intensives, as well as residential courses in January and June.
“[Distributed learning] students are required to work and be active in a supervised ministry setting, as our courses depend on students being active in the context of ministry,” Shore said.
Ryan T. Ray, an associate in ministry at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Hickory, N.C., explained, “Much of what I’m learning is through practice in my ministry setting.”
In a residential divinity program, seminarians complete roughly 39 contact hours and 40 classroom hours. Through the distributed learning program, the students have 39 hours of contact with each other throughout the academic intensives. The difference, Shore said, is the intensives require reading before and writing after the week of contact with faculty and other students on campus. Online classes are open to residential students as well.
“The last thing I want is a bunch of hothouse plants,” Shore said. “The purpose is for them to interact with the campus community during these intensives.”
There is a lot of “healthy skepticism” associated with distributed learning for theological education, Bliese said. “We’re exploring this as an option, watching it closely and evaluating all aspects of the program,” he said. “It’s a three-year pilot to see if this is a viable option for educating leaders for the church.”
Distributed learning is not a candidacy program of the ELCA, said Kim L. Beckmann, director for ministry leadership-candidacy and deployment with Vocation and Education.
“In this pilot phase of this M.Div., synodical candidacy committees are free to discern whether a particular candidate might benefit from a distributed learning environment and whether the church’s missional need in preparing rostered leadership can be most appropriately met by a distributed educational opportunity for a candidate,” she said.
Formal discernment of a person’s formation for candidacy as an ELCA pastor begins at “entrance,” the time when a candidate’s readiness for beginning seminary study is assessed, Beckmann said. Entrance is followed by “endorsement,” when a candidate’s progress and readiness to begin internship are evaluated. Finally, the candidate moves to the “approval” phase, where readiness for rostered leadership is assessed.
“Applicants who are interested in this pilot should begin conversation with their synodical candidacy committee as early as possible in discernment,” she said. “Committees already strive to consider all aspects of [a] candidate’s life situation in planning for paths through seminary and contextual preparation that will lead to thriving and flourishing in their life and ministry.”
The ELCA practices an “incarnational faith,” Beckmann said, adding, “Our process has inclined toward face-to-face learning and has assumed the context for this learning is ‘away’ within a residential seminary community. What kind of leaders will distributed learning ‘at home’ produce?”
It’s a serious question, Beckmann said, and the pilot program may help the church arrive at a definitive answer. “The candidacy process represents the best accumulated and agreed-upon wisdom about fruitful formation for public leadership we hold in this church at any given time,” she said. “Lutherans have had a history of using emergent technologies to distribute learning. Online learning has been a component of seminary education for at least the past decade but has most often been employed within a traditional residential structure.”
Shore acknowledges concerns about the amount of time students spend interacting with each other via computer—not in person. “I think of the Internet as a means of gathering people around content,” she said. “There is a lot of interaction that takes place. This isn’t a correspondence course. Students go through with ... classmates, read each other’s work and complete assignments every week. ... [They] get real life experience in ministry.”
Fourteen students are in the first cohort group—most from the western U.S., while the rest are from Missouri, the East Coast and upper Midwest.
“Our goal is to discover new leaders for the church,” Bliese said. “Think of it as the pie getting larger—these are all students who wouldn’t have gone to seminary.”
Yet a primarily “at-home” seminary education raises another question, Beckmann said. “We expect our candidates to be available for service to the wider church ...,” she said. “How will learning in place affect the mobility and assignment of first-call candidates?”
Beckmann sees Luther’s program as an occasion to gather candidacy partners—ELCA seminaries, synodical candidacy leaders, and Vocation and Education—for conversation. She said the critical question is: “What types of learning environments prepare the leaders called forth by the Spirit to serve Christ’s church in God’s world today?”
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers