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Cyber-Seminaries and Spiritual Formation
The role of seminaries in helping students reach spiritual maturity may be changing. Many are now pushing for training to be delivered entirely online.

Russ Nelson dashes home from a church board meeting to ease into the chair in front of his computer. It is 11:00 p.m., but he has to finish an assignment for an online theology course. While he works on his Master of Divinity degree, which will qualify him to lead a church, Nelson also serves as a youth pastor, the father of a two-year-old, and the husband of a wife pregnant with their second child. Financially and logistically, Nelson would not be able to pursue his M.Div. without the opportunity to do much of his course work online.

”…three Ms are driving this push for online education: marriage, ministry and mortgage…”

Nelson is one of hundreds of online seminarians, most of them Evangelicals, across Canada and the United States.

“At Fuller Seminary, we used to say it is the three Ms which are driving this push for online education: marriage, ministry and mortgage,” says Howard Wilson, now president of Ambrose Theological Seminary in Calgary.

Evangelical seminaries have been leading the charge even before the Internet arrived to respond to those market demands for more flexibility in M.Div. and other degree programs.

Many now offer modular programs, for example, which deliver teaching in condensed segments so working people can squeeze them in a week at a time instead of having to attend throughout a semester or a year.

Online courses have grown even more explosively. Almost every evangelical seminary in Canada now offers some course options online. Some courses aim to deliver 80 percent or more of their content online. Others, called hybrid courses, blend online and face-to-face delivery. Many traditional classroom-based courses now offer supplemental Web-facilitated instruction.

Online courses often include chat rooms where seminarians can interact with each other and professors across various time zones in a “synchronous” environment. Other online work can be “asynchronous,” meaning students are free to access course material at their own convenience without interacting with fellow students.

Programs in which students spend several years on a campus, living in residence, to earn an M.Div., are still common in Roman Catholic circles, but those days seem to be gone for Protestant evangelicals. Students who work in a ministry position and simultaneously study seem to be becoming the norm.

That new normal has created tension at the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), where most of Canada’s evangelical seminaries are accredited. ATS still requires accredited seminaries to ensure seminarians spend a third of their M.Div. degree program on campus, or roughly one year of the three-year degree.

Some ATS members are pushing to change that requirement and invigorating a debate over whether schools can deliver key aspects of the seminary experience – spiritual formation, worship, community and mentorship – through online options.

Formation Versus Information

Seminaries agree that an M.Div. program should help students in their personal faith development, spiritual maturity and self-discipline – grouped together in academic circles under the term ”spiritual formation”. Seminaries are asking each other how well these can be facilitated online. Can connectivity bring with it a rich enough form of community?

“Education is fundamentally a personal, relational and transformational activity,” says Paul Williams, academic dean of Regent College in Vancouver. “We are concerned about the trend of online education when it replaces face-to-face and community learning. We do see a role for it, but we get concerned when we see significant portions of the program being delivered online.”

Although many other seminaries seem to have concluded that online interaction can contribute to spiritual formation, Williams has his doubts. He cautions against letting “technology drive the educational agenda.”

Spiritual formation is such a crucial part of that agenda at seminaries today in part because it is “happening less and less in the Church, and seminaries have to do remedial spiritual formation,” says Williams.

Seminaries are struggling to meet the needs for spiritual formation and flexible course delivery by seeking new partnerships with the congregations students belong to.

“Spiritual formation takes place inside a person’s own life context,” says Paul Bramer of Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. “A requirement I had in my courses was that everyone needed to cultivate a spiritual friendship in their own church.”

Bramer is professor of Christian Formation and Leadership (and director of the D.Min. program) at Tyndale. He has taught courses in spiritual practices and spiritual direction online.

“We can have some level of community online, but I try to reinforce the community the students are already in with their church or small group,” says Bramer. “Is it necessary for them to develop another community at seminary?”

Church-seminary co-operation

“Churches and seminaries have to work together to develop leaders,” agrees Rob Blackaby, president of Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary in Cochrane, Alta. The people in both churches and seminaries will have to change their thinking to make that partnership effective, he says. Both groups need to recognize that a seminary can’t develop ministry leaders on its own.

“…apprenticeship and mentorship are significant issues…”

“Many of our students are coming only one or two years after coming to faith. Mentorship needs to occur in churches,” says Blackaby. Neither churches nor seminaries are “doing a good job” at that yet, he says.

As seminaries move to more and more online training options, Blackaby and other seminary leaders agree on the need for a corresponding uptake in developing internships, apprenticeships, mentorships, and spiritual formation for students in the churches where they serve while they are taking their degrees.

But examples of this level of co-operation are hard to find.

On the church side, many congregations are familiar with internships, but few are familiar with formal efforts to provide real mentorship and deep spiritual formation for seminary interns. In many denominations, churches expect seminaries to look after those things, while seminaries may be expecting churches to do them.

Al Hiebert agrees that “apprenticeship and mentorship are significant issues” for seminaries and churches. “There are some things you just cannot learn online. Medical doctors have to do internships and residency in a hospital. There is no other way.”

Hiebert is outgoing executive director of Christian Higher Education Canada (CHEC), a group of 34 post-secondary schools affiliated with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Thirteen have seminaries.

Virtual formation

Yet there are ways to facilitate spiritual formation in distance education, says Greg Bourgond, formerly of Bethel Seminary in Minnesota. He led an ATS-sponsored webinar in May 2009 titled “Virtual Formation: Fact or Fiction.”

In the webinar he points to networking support, on-campus intensives, discussion forums, student-centred support, 24-hour responses, posted personal profiles, new student orientation and programmed socials.

He even argues that the sense of community online can actually be greater than in a traditional classroom setting if there is effective use of written prayer, perhaps a web prayer room where students and professors share personal spiritual experiences, allowing self-disclosure, reflection and interaction.

Bourgond also reflected on 1 Corinthians 3:6, where the Apostle Paul wrote: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” Paul’s “students” required further nurturing at the local level through local leaders, even though his instructive letters travelled on the “Internet” of their day – Roman roads – to provide a form of distance education.

“Students need both a sage on the stage and a guide by the side. Online is not enough,” says Bourgond.

He also points out that the whole idea of spiritual formation varies from school to school and within different Christian traditions.

“Spiritual formation has been the weak side of Protestant theological education, and it still is,” writes Ward Gasque in a classic 1996 article in Studies in Canadian Evangelical Renewal. He argues for a “balanced emphasis on the head, heart and hand.” By “heart” he means “spiritual formation.”

Seminaries were initially founded in the fourth century to train clergy for church ministry. The English word “seminary” comes from a Latin word meaning “seed-bed.” The idea is of a bed of soil prepared for planting seeds and nurturing small seedlings until they become mature enough to transplant.

The model of seminaries, generally associated with monasteries, gradually changed as some became attached to universities. During the Protestant Reformation John Calvin saw theological training as a necessity for clergy, but also as an extremely valuable gift for laypeople. An educated laity would provide the church with greater effectiveness and reach in its ministry capacity. As early Protestant seminaries adopted a more academic approach, spiritual formation became marginal.

Early Evangelicals opted to start their own Bible colleges, which often focused on practical aspects of ministry. Later, evangelical seminaries adopted a research model which left both the spiritual formation and the practice of ministry to the church.

Catholic seminaries today continue to pursue a residence-based model of preparation for clergy, complete with a focus on worship, community, mentorship, spiritual formation and practical ministry.

Accredited seminaries

According to Daniel Ayleshire of Pittsburgh, executive director of the ATS, there are 36 ATS-accredited seminaries in Canada. The 13 which are evangelical (see sidebar) include all of the largest seminaries in Canada. The total enrolment of Canadian evangelical seminarians is approximately 2,800.

In the ATS across the United States and Canada, there are 250 seminaries. About 95 of them are evangelical, 95 are mainline Protestant and 60 are Roman Catholic or Orthodox.

However, by population, 60 percent of the seminary students in ATS schools are in evangelical seminaries, 30 percent are in mainline Protestant seminaries, and ten percent are in Roman Catholic or Orthodox seminaries.

Clearly, Evangelicals and their greater affinity for online courses and possibly weaker emphasis on spiritual formation are driving the conversation about the ATS residency requirement.

The current ATS accreditation standards for seminary education state: 

M.Div. education has a complex goal: the personal, vocational, spiritual, and academic formation of the student. Because of the importance of a comprehensive community of learning, the M.Div. cannot be viewed simply as an accumulation of courses or of individual independent work. In order to ensure an appropriate educational community, at least one year of full-time academic study or its equivalent shall be completed at the main campus of the school awarding the degree or at an extension site of the institution that has been approved for M.Div. degree-granting status.

The program shall provide opportunities through which students grow in personal faith, emotional maturity, moral integrity, and public witness.

The ATS held its bi-annual conference in Montreal in June, 2010. At the end of that conference, steps were taken to pursue a serious look at accreditation for a fully online M.Div. degree.

“There are two tensions,” says Ayleshire. “We want to make theological education available to more people, because we believe that any theological education is better than no theological education.” Second is the issue of teaching methods. “How do students learn the materials which need to be learned?” This involves asking broader questions, such as who they are, their own spiritual lives and their own relational capacities for ministry.

“These are questions best answered in community,” says Ayleshire. “Pastors don’t get into trouble for not knowing Greek. It is almost always relational issues which cause problems.”

Yet many evangelical seminaries seem to have concluded that the challenges around community and spiritual formation are not much greater in online programs than in traditional ones. They want the ATS to move more quickly to enable fully online programs.

“We need to encourage the ATS to catch up with the times,” says Steve Parsons, director of online education at Canadian Baptist Seminary. “We are limited by them. Most schools want to go full-time online.”

Financial implications

Going “full-time online” also has financial implications. As most seminaries feel a cash crunch thanks to the economic down-turn, some may be tempted to look at online degree programs as a way to increase seminary revenues. One might imagine that once the initial hard costs for technology and IT personnel have been undertaken, online students could provide a much-needed boost to seminary bottom lines.

Such thinking would be mistaken, says Blackaby, the president at Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary. “For us, there has been no financial upside.”

He cites the loss of rent and business on campus when students are online instead of on-site. Tuition fees are the same in most cases for online courses, but the technology is expensive to buy and maintain, plus there is a need to provide technical support to students online.

Aylshire at the ATS agrees. “Our early experience is that good online education is not quite as expensive as on campus. But it’s not going to be the silver bullet that will bring in revenues to shore up weaker seminaries. There are no cash cows in theological education. Online is not less expensive to deliver. Schools who think this will discover that there isn’t a scale of economy to this.”

Another “downside of online education is that for professors, it can take a lot of time to post, monitor and interact with students on the Web,” adds Paul Bramer of Tyndale Seminary. “The time of interaction between professors and students is actually higher with the Internet, as introverted students are more empowered to engage in questions. In the classroom, a professor could ask a question and one student might respond. Online, if there are 20 people in the classroom, there could be 20 responses.”

The Church of the future

Stepping back from the specific downsides and upsides of online education, it does seem to be a development that may have a variety of affects on the future of the Church. It’s not hard to imagine that more people around the globe will have access to a North American model of seminary education via the Internet. This could improve the opportunities to develop trained leaders for the Church in countries where there are no seminaries (provided that courses can be made available in the appropriate language, and students have access to broadband Internet).

It also means that more people who are currently already in ministry can gain additional theological training.

Furthermore, there are all those laypeople who might be interested in Christian courses. Many, perhaps most, might have no interest in academic credit. But if online courses get effective enough and affordable enough, there would be no shortage of work for the seminary and Bible college professors who would be willing to teach them.

Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary has already investigated what it would take to set up a campus in Second Life, the Internet’s largest user-created, 3D virtual world community.

“We considered buying an island to create a virtual campus,” said Parsons. However, the costs and complexities of the technologies are still out of reach for CSBS.

As such possibilities loom, valid questions must continue to be worked over by churches, denominations, seminaries and accrediting bodies: “What is the best way to train a minister to face the challenges of 21st century ministry?”

Some would eagerly answer: In front of a computer monitor. Others would say: Face-to-face, supplemented by computer. Still others would say: Nothing can replace living in community while being spiritually formed and gaining a theological education.

As the debate continues, the urgency for seminaries and churches to be engaged in this discussion together and not separately has never been more crucial. Indeed, the task before the seminaries, their accrediting bodies and the churches they seek to serve is to go far beyond discussion and move to a drastically improved model of co-operation to train leaders for the future Church.

Richelle Wiseman of Calgary, Alberta, is a freelance writer and executive director of the Centre for Faith and the Media.

Originally published in Faith Today, July/August 2010.

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