by Bradley Longfield and Beth McCaw
Recently Heath Rada, moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), asked, “How might the denomination use the seminaries more effectively? . . . Could the training of commissioned ruling elders be moved under the seminaries’ oversight? Might a renewed emphasis on education of the laity be incorporated into the curricula of these schools in ways that could incite enthusiasm throughout our denomination in new ways?” The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (UDTS) has been asking just these sorts of questions for the last 15 years and has answered with the development of a wide variety of online educational options for the theological education of laity and clergy.
In response to our call “to follow Jesus, walk in the Spirit, and join God’s mission,” in 2000, UDTS began teaching online courses to reach commissioned ruling elders (CREs). A generous grant from the Lilly Foundation supported this pioneering work. In 2007, the seminary began offering an online Master of Divinity to equip yet another portion of the body. Then, appreciating the variety of ministries emerging across the church, the seminary added an online Master of Arts in Missional Christianity (M.A.M.C.) in 2011. The growth in recognition of diverse vocation has continued, and the University of Dubuque will launch a 30-credit, fully-online Master of Arts in Christian Leadership degree (M.A.C.L.) in the fall of 2015. UDTS is deeply committed to reaching Christians anywhere – in the nation or around the globe – with the blessing of theological education. Receiving full accreditation for the online degrees has given UDTS a unique role among Presbyterian seminaries.
Students pursue online education rather than a residential program for reasons as varied as God’s children. There are students whose family members need specialized medical or educational resources and students who share custody for children. Some spouses are unable to relocate. Many of our students are already serving in ministries that cannot spare them for one to four years – such as chaplaincies, foreign mission fields, bivocational church staff positions or as CREs in small congregations. Some simply need further education for the ministry currently at hand. UDTS recognized that not all those called to church leadership are able to travel to a residential seminary.
The calls of these kinds of individuals inspired faculty, staff and administration who are passionate about their own vocations and building up the church for mission in the world. The UDTS program began by offering the courses required by the Book of Order for commissioned ruling elders (then called commissioned lay pastors). It quickly became evident that an asynchronous, Internet-based education would better serve the church and allow for vibrant interaction between students and faculty. The initial offerings have grown to eight, taught primarily by full-time UDTS faculty and staff at least twice a year: Old Testament, New Testament, Reformed theology, preaching, Reformed worship, pastoral care, Presbyterian Polity and Christian education. These foundational courses are often supplemented by advanced courses. The feedback from over 1,500 CRE students in 135 presbyteries indicates that they especially value coursework that is challenging and practical, relationships with other students, the convenience of learning at home and personal support from staff. Such affirmation has been significant as UDTS continues to improve distance education for laity in the PC(USA).
A new style of education
This success in training laity online deepened the faculty’s commitment to provide theological education for all of God’s people. UDTS took the forward-looking step to apply for accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools to offer the Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Missional Christianity online. UDTS was dedicated to finding fresh ways to offer the same substantive content and programing of our residential degrees to students across the country. Students take the same courses with the same faculty in residence or online.
Teaching online is not without its challenges and requires the commitment of the entire faculty and staff to think creatively and work energetically to offer rigorous and formative education to God’s people wherever they may be. Faculty members need to develop new pedagogical techniques to guide discussions and encourage deep thinking and sharp analysis. Librarians must find ways to provide the resources students will need across the country. Administrative staff has to address continually developing federal, state and accreditation standards concerning distance education. Those who oversee student life need to develop ways to build community and guide students on their vocational journeys. Technology staff must keep abreast of developments in hardware and software that can improve online teaching and delivery. All of this requires institutional investment of time, money and energy that is not necessary on a purely residential campus.
Such challenges are well worth the rewards, however. In the first years of teaching online, instructors were pleasantly surprised by how cohesive and engaging online classes could be. They have discovered that it takes more time to teach and facilitate classes online rather than residentially, but the efforts yield unique fruit. For example, a traditional residential class session might include shy students who contribute to discussion minimally. In asynchronous online discussion, each student has equal opportunity and responsibility to participate. In a traditional residential class session, it is natural that some of the spontaneous discussion offerings are less useful than others, but in online education each student has time and space to think through his or her best contributions and responses.
People have asked, fairly, how personal and formative online education can be. As such, it has been interesting that God would call a seminary like UDTS, with strengths in formation in community, to develop online education. As a result of finding new ways to express historic strengths, some unique pieces were brought to the distance education program. From the outset, for example, our faculty members were committed to being the primary instructors for all students across all platforms. They insisted on maintaining distinctive offerings at the core of our degrees, such as spiritual formation in faculty-led small groups and the development of rich spiritual and vocational unity across platforms.
The result has been a high degree of community formation and commitment, within cohorts and among the wider seminary. UDTS has a rather unique situation of a single student body learning and ministering in diverse ways. For example, students in the new 30-credit M.A.C.L. degree – who study solely online – will be classmates with students in the distance and residential M.Div. and M.A.M.C. programs. One-to-one peer guide relationships are established across classes and platforms. Both the distance M.Div. and M.A.M.C. programs require two two-week intensives on campus each year. During these intensives, distance and residential students share in classes and cross-cultural immersion trips. They also collaborate in planning daily worship for these residencies using phone, chat space and Skype.
Knitting together a learning community from people who are living and ministering around the world has enriched our student body immeasurably. The individual students participating in class discussion might be coming from an offshore oilrig, a mission worksite in the Dominican Republic, a Christian radio station in Florida, off-road mountainous Idaho or a church in the Middle East ministering to refugees. Two recent graduates who became especially close friends and colleagues were from the Gulf Coast in Florida and North Pole, Alaska. They developed a weekly routine of fellowship and study via Skype. In a new day, we are engaged in theological education in a new way.
Intricacies of distance learning
When the distance programs first began, the success UDTS found was hard to imagine. Students describe their academics as “rigorous.” Though they often gather virtually, the experience of community is praised highly. And the seminary’s deep-rooted passion for mission has taken new shape among a student body that is disseminated, but well supported. In addition to avoiding the disadvantages of geographical dislocation, online education restores to students the rich advantages of being equipped in their home contexts. Students are not necessarily distanced or detached from sources of nurture such as mentoring relationships, small groups or worshipping communities. Even when they engage in field education in new settings, judicatories with oversight for preparation are near enough to witness their ministries and provide intelligent support, and their supervisors are likely to have an established relationship with them. Students are nurtured both in their home congregations and the seminary community and engage in theological education embedded in the life of the church.
UDTS faculty members have fully embraced distance education and continue to find innovative ways to provide the best online theological education available. For example, library and academic success center staff ensure that students have full access to services – articles and texts might be sent electronically or posted in the mail; coaching for research and writing is offered online, by text or by phone. Worship and spiritual life include offerings such as prayer vigils observed by participants from their home communities and retreats held around the country. Faculty meet regularly to brainstorm ways to adapt teaching of content to engaging new formats, share best practices for facilitating discussion forums or explore resources for online education. They advise students in person, by phone, online and through video conferencing. UDTS has a vision to fully equip each student for joyful service. The results are tremendously encouraging. UDTS reports that matriculation/graduation rates, ordination exam pass rates and placement rates are very strong.
The calling of the church
A recent report by the Pew Research Center discovered that “the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years,” while “the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ – has jumped more than six points.” “The drop in the Christian share of the population” the report continues, “has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics.”
Given such realities, the church is called to use every means at its disposal to develop strong, faithful Christian leaders who can share the gospel with power, nurture new disciples with grace and build communities that reflect the love of Christ. In an age when technology offers so many opportunities to reach out, the University of Dubuque Seminary is marshaling its resources to take theological education to God’s children wherever they may be.
Bradley Longfield is dean and professor of church history at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He is author, most recently, of “Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.” Beth McCaw serves as pastor to students and assistant professor of ministry at UDTS. She pastors, teaches, prays and worships with church leaders online and on campus in the CRE and degree programs of the seminary.