The iSeminary Cometh
At seminaries, online ministry degree programs are tapping into a storehouse of pent-up demand. Those who once dismissed the possibility of full-time ministry can pursue dreams without making drastic changes and piling up a crushing loan debt. Students avoid the expense of moving on or near campus—or of commuting daily for three or four years. Congregations retain valuable ministry workers as they learn more.
Among ATS institutions, 102 schools now offer some kind of distance or online education. "Just about every institution is looking to expand online capabilities and capacities to reach students beyond their geographic boundaries," says Gregory W. Bourgond, director of strategy for online education at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Online distance education greatly increases the pool of potential students of all kinds: the traditional, under-age-30 divinity student, currently employed pastors, lay program staff at churches, and educational and parachurch leaders.
Distance education at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has been around in one form or another for two decades. Starting in 2004, students at the South Hamilton, Massachusetts, school may take up to one-third of their education through online classes, including Hebrew and Greek.
"Our online program is designed to supplement our residential program," says David Horn, director of Gordon-Conwell's Semlink program. "You cannot take a fully online program with us, and that's by conviction. Theological preparation for ministry really does need substantial face time."
"As in the business world, where some of the most successful retailers [use a] brick-and-click model, there are great advantages to having both in seminary," says Robert Freeman, associate dean for distance learning and a full-time distance learning faculty member of Fuller Theological Seminary.
Fuller, largely a commuter seminary, began offering distance learning more than 30 years ago. In December 2009, Kevin D. Osborn became Fuller's first executive director of distributed learning. One of his primary challenges is to get all full-time instructors to teach at least one of their classes online by 2015.
"Fuller wants to blow the doors open to people who haven't had access to theological education before, to give access to people who can't move," Osborn says. "For those who don't want to leave the context in which they are serving, online theological education gives them a chance to be spiritually formed in their service context."
Dallas Theological Seminary started with one online course in 2003 and now has two dozen, with 1,000 students total, according to Bob Abegg, director of online and external studies. The nondenominational seminary has 20 faculty directly involved in online education, plus a host of graduate teaching assistants and adjuncts.
Jennifer Woodruff Tait is an adjunct professor in the distance education program at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and three other schools.
"Online teaching forces you to think about pedagogical issues more intentionally," says Woodruff Tait, who lives in Huntington, Indiana. "So much happens in the discussion. There's a high degree of intentional interaction."
New (Online) Wineskins
If online seminary education is the wave of the future, Rockbridge Seminary may be ahead of the curve. The nondenominational school, with business offices in Springfield, Missouri, is the nation's first online-only seminary. Its enrollment is growing at a compound annual rate of 29 percent.