The Future of Seminary: Non-Residential

The Future of Seminary: Non-Residential October 18, 2011

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.

One of the hallmarks of the emerging church movement, from its earliest days, has been its call to deep community.  For some of us, that’s meant rootedness in the places we were reared.  It’s also meant that some church planters (think Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Dan Kimball, Tim Keel), it’s meant a long-term commitment to the churches they founded (not very Pauline of them!).

So it’s seemed odd to us that when individuals in our communities desire more theological education, the requirement is that they uproot themselves (and their families) from our churches and move somewhere else for three or four years.

Indeed, that’s what I did.  But I was a 22-year-old, fresh out of college, when I matriculated at Fuller Theological Seminary in the fall of 1990.  I wouldn’t do that today, nor would I encourage a person of that age who’s finding life and ministry opportunities in abundance at Solomon’s Porch to do so.  I would encourage them to stay put, and to get innovative at how they extend their theological education.

There are, of course, ample opportunities to study theology online, even with accredited seminaries and divinity schools.  I’ve taught a few of these courses, and I’m not a huge fan.  Learning happens, to be sure, but it’s not an ideal learning environment.

At this point, my encouragement to students of this sort — whom seminaries refer to as “non-traditional students” — is to find a seminary that suits their needs and desires, and take classes á la carte; that is, take intensives.  That’s how the D.Min. that I teach at Fuller Seminary is arranged.  However, that means you can’t attend Princeton Theological Seminary, because they don’t allow non-traditional students.

So it’s an imperfect solution, and it’s temporary.  It’s a stop-gap measure, developed by seminaries and divinity schools, and it’s fine for now.  But, as I will explore later this week, there is something better on the horizon.

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  • In some ways I agree with you, but there’s still a nagging question for me. Yes, I support the connection to one’s community of origin. But what of the community that is created when you are a “traditional” student?

    I say this having studied at AMBS, first at their Great Plains Extension program in Kansas, and then on the main campus in Elkhart, IN. In Kansas, most everyone that was taking classes was working in or deeply invested in particular churches in the area. They connection between theory was immediate and invaluable and I wouldn’t give it up. However, after spending the latter half of my educational time on campus, I came to see the value of a rather unique community of people all gathered together. Being on campus allowed for the conversations to continue in a way that wasn’t possible in Ks. There’s something important to having a rather unique community of learners and teachers that doesn’t exist in very many other places. Those two years brought a community experience that I will realistically never be able to have again. I’ll be in a local church community for the rest of my life, but I’ll never have another experience like my time on campus.

    In any case, I’m curious to see what you propose later this week.

  • Scot Miller

    Of course, one of the benefits of any residential education is the networking that takes place. For example, I’ve been on Harvard’s campus and met both graduate students and undergraduate students, and as a group, they aren’t any “smarter” than the students at my small-town Southern Baptist university and medium-sized city seminary. (And I would argue that I acquired better research skills at my university than I would have at a larger university where the resources are plentiful and easily available.) So I don’t think there’s too much difference betweenwhat I learned and what students at Harvard learned. The biggest difference is who I went to school with. These people are more likely to be my peers and colleagues and contacts for the rest of my life.

    I’m not saying that the students are more interesting at my alma mater than Harvard or vice versa, only that it’s easier in a residential educational setting to build the kinds of networking that are important when you leave school. I suppose you could argue that online communities and social networking are even better than the face to face networking one develops in a residential educational setting. But even though Tony Jones is my Facebook “friend,” I doubt that he even remembers meeting me, and I would imagine that he would just ignore me if I asked him about my personal and/or professional problems (as he probably should!).

  • Cohort-based accelerated intensives. Relational-based immersion experiences. I can’t understand why seminaries have not gone this way? Oh yeah, yes I can. The same reason the Newspaper Industry is dead.

  • Tony, like you I went to Fuller out of college (I did spend about 1.5 years between college and seminary. Would I do it again, I would say yes. I found great value not only in the classes I took, the professors who taught me, but also in the community I found. I am a different person today because of the stretching that I got there. I understand the dilemma many face about moving to another place, but there are benefits. Like you, I’m not convinced that online courses are the answer, but I’m not sure taking classes ala carte works either.

    The biggest issue I think that faces seminarians today isn’t the move, but the escalating cost of education. Folks graduate today with huge debts that make it difficult to take on entrepreneurial kinds of ministry. It also puts burdens on existing churches, which can’t afford to pay a person right out of seminary the kind of wage that those with decades of experience might earn.

    Ultimately, I still value traditional seminary education, as long as we understand that it won’t “teach you everything” you’ll need to be successful in ministry.

  • My personal experience has been with the traditional residential format. My family and I had to uproot and have spent the last 1.5 years in a new city and a new community. Although there are other options, I will agree with others that community is built within this structure. I have met a few individuals that I know will be friends for life. I also think that learning occurs best within the physical presence in the classroom. Online learning, for me, is a joke. I could just as well read books on my own, now I just get credit for it. On the other hand, I hate uprooting my kids from their established community when we moved and have begun the process of preparing them for another move this may when I graduate. It would be interesting to look at other options, and I believe that seminary should almost be required for most ministers, but too many obstacles seem to keep others from actively learning.

  • Jerry Van Aken

    Seminary is out of reach for many who would like to study. I live in the interior of Alaska in the Fairbanks area. I am being fair when I say there are no seminary studies except by long distance for Alaskans. To attend seminary from here is prohibitive. The expense of moving for a residency program alone could put you in debt for years. There must be another way.

    When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I had completed the first two years in residence. The last two years were on-line. So I have experienced both sides of the coin. From my personal perspective I spent considerable more time researching and completing papers for the on-line portion then I did for the resident courses. A good on-line course you are on your own. You study alone. You do research alone. You do assignments alone. There are no study groups at the campus coffee shop for you to lean on or study with.

    I question the true value of networking. Are we looking for a job or trying to nurture ourselves for a vocation? If you are talking about the ministry I hope it is the latter. I currently do a great deal of networking over the internet. I keep in contact with ‘old’ friendships I have developed over the years and many are pastors, but it isn’t networking. Networking I have found valuable when I needed a subject matter expert. Relationships are what I develop with people close to me and they will last a life time because I care and love them for who they are, not what they can do for me.

  • Bruce

    I have degrees in philosophy (BA) and literature (MA) from a traditional university. Last year, I started taking the yearlong introductory courses in the New Testament from United Theological Seminary and found that the online classes was as challenging as the graduate work in my MA program. Being 44 with two kids (college for my daughter isn’t too far away), I have to rely on those seminaries who are providing folks like me a chance to study theology with good scholars….and I can’t begin to express my longing to study theology at a seminary. It’s the best I can do for now, and I, for one, am thankful for online classes, intensives, and any other format that will provide a means to experience a theological education.

  • trent

    You are going in the right direction Tony, but respectfully I do not feel you’ve gone far enough. The chasm between seminary training and what is needed in church is broadening. The uprooting from community, the cost, and the shabby mentoring programs for seminary requirements by people that do not truly know us is fading in effectiveness. Church based seminary is the way to go…..Paul had a strategy for training people….taking them with him, networking, paying them visits, meeting with them, sending others to train them, etc. More than half my profs would not remember my name nor know a lick about my time in seminary. Theological education must happen in one’s local context AND be relevant. Its possible. Antioch School of Church Planting and LEadership development has taken some steps that direction. I have an MDiv from Regent College and a Dmin from Fuller THeological Seminary. ANtioch has helped my hermeneutic become more reproducible for laity and sent me back to my bible to understand discipleship.

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