Saturday, July 17, 2010

Faith Works 7-24

Faith Works 7-24-10

Jeff Gill


Virtual Tries To Get Real, Even Spiritual



Lincoln Steffens, the noted early 20th century muckraking journalist, visited the Soviet Union in 1921, and on returning to the United States said to the industrialist and diplomat: "I have been over into the future, and it works."


You probably know how the Soviet Union turned out, if you're old enough to remember them (it's called Russia now).


Anyhow, the point is that such predictions have a way of making the predictor look foolish in fairly short order. I do feel as if a few days ago I took a trip into the future, except a) it's already here, and b) there is plenty of room for humility in looking a year from now, let alone further.


What I saw was how a mainline Christian denomination's seminary, in this case Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky (LTS), is about to go from a three-/four-year residential model of seminary education to an almost entirely on-line, "virtual" program for the Masters' of Divinity, or "M.Div." as it's usually called.


For most religious traditions, to be a credentialed or certified leader, usually called "ordained," there's an educational component. Since World War II, that's gone from being a bachelor's degree (a B.D.) to a master-level program, another 60 to 90 credit hours and often a theses beyond an undergraduate diploma. Some, but not all get religious studies or philosophy degrees, but mine was anthropology & political science, and when I was in seminary my classmates had engineering, pharmacy, and law degrees.


But to get ordained, you needed to earn a master's degree, usually at an accredited seminary and the M.Div. program. Other Christian bodies can range from two years past high school to a six year semi-monastic formation program before final ordination.


What's driving some of the online trends are certainly economic factors: small churches which once hired seminary students can't even afford the health care, let alone a pay rate that allows living expenses plus the cost of seminary tuition, and some of those sort of churches where new seminary graduates once started their work in ordained ministry can't offer a package that allows them to pay their student loan debt . . . which for many seminary students is on top of existing debt from their undergrad education.


Add in the staff costs of a full scale residential program going up, while endowments are losing value and not getting much new giving, and you have a sort of "perfect storm."


LTS just three years ago published their fall newsletter with the headline "Solid Financial Picture & Great Faculty Summarize 2006-7 Report," and the president then was telling the truth, as he could see it. Today, they are effectively broke, and have let go of much of their faculty. Whatever LTS does next, it has to pay for itself – there is no magic pot of money to cover their bets.


What they're doing is something that the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the accreditation body for US seminaries, is actually encouraging, because LTS is, in their view, not an outlier, but the leading edge of a wave that's cresting right now. Residential seminary education has not been economically or, quite candidly, culturally sustainable for years, and endowment draws have covered this fact until the arrival of the stock market downturn two years ago.


So ATS is encouraging non-residential models of seminary education, where a candidate for the M.Div. has to be admitted and started into the process much as the churches always have done, but then they take their coursework largely on-line, listening to lectures, viewing interactive content (videos and visual files), answering questions and engaging in discussions through chat and message boards, and right now the plan is for something like two times a year to come together for eight very long days face-to-face.


If you do around 9 credit hours per semester, you'll graduate in four years, and it will cost you about $18,000. That's for Disciples of Christ and UCC students; others would pay exactly twice that, since it's $240 a credit hour times 75 for the M.Div, $480 per hour for others.


Will we lose something in this kind of seminary education? Without a doubt. Is it something that the denominational structures and local congregations can help create in a different way, while seminaries, quite frankly, do what they have to do?


In the next year or two, we will see. But the implications of what we're doing will have lasting, even eternal resonance. If these changes have done nothing else, they've reminded all the right people of the need for prayer with our ordination candidates.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he works with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on their licensed and commissioned ministry training programs. Tell him how you get equipped for ministry at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Faith Works 7-17

Faith Works 7-17-10

Jeff Gill


Virtual Environments Are Everywhere



Last week I recommended what some called "surrender" to cell phones in church services.


That description doesn't strike me as quite fair, but actually, I'll admit to it for simplicity's sake. In brief, for those just joining this conversation, I suggest that worship leaders and churches that try too hard to enforce a "turn it off" standard run the risk of creating a bigger distraction with their announcements and interventions than do the ringtones themselves, which more and more of us are used to just letting roll on by.


Funerals, weddings, solemn gatherings – most offenders are accidental, and a simple reminder is only kind, but if the interruption happens, it's time to let it pass and move on.


I continue to be fascinated by ways some congregations and pastors are actually working digital media of various sorts directly into their preaching and teaching, whether encouraging parishoners to "tweet" comments on the sermon in real time (by the way, they already are, you can just provide a hashtag so you and others can see it), or taking polls for feedback and reaction while the message is taking place.


Like dialogue sermons or multimedia, some of these contributions to preaching are just trends, of little impact, and may not even be around in a few years and are certainly not appropriate for every setting or situation. But when you have a two-way immediate connection in real time to people, it's going to get used. Add in the "durability" of texting and such, where unlike a classic "phone call" which is there and gone, a text lasts on your screen and in the device's memory, you have a way to stretch the preaching experience out over the week, refine your feedback beyond watching from the pulpit to see who and how many go to sleep, and expand your discussions pre- and post-sermon beyond the usual five people in a Sunday morning adult Bible study, and you have something worth considering. At least a bit.


Should your church or faith community have a Facebook page? Well, what makes you think you don't already have one? (I'll wait while you go over to the browser to run a search.) See, someone already set one up. What, you aren't sure the right board committee has approved the creation of a page for your church? Ahh . . .


This is the part of digital media and church life that, like any opportunity is fraught with both peril and possibility.  Back when creating a three-fold flyer or print brochure in color cost money and much time, this was a major investment and hence required more involvement of church leadership to make a decision on the final expenditure. What the designer thought was best might get overruled by the finance committee because those added full color pictures meant major dollars.


Now, creating a Facebook page or even a relatively robust web page is virtually (ha!) ten minutes work . . . or less.  So you could have four or five different people create on their own in an afternoon what, not very long ago, was a full board/committee/pastoral leadership discussion to get one of, and maybe only 500 copies of that single model.


You can't have five different websites out there for your church, though – right?  Well, here's the question today is asking you: why not? As some of us (yes, including a tinny little voice in the back of my head) sputter and say "you can't have multiple websites that aren't co-ordinated for content and approach and style all claiming to represent our faith community!" the reality is: why not?


You could go around and tell your youth or committees or ministry teams "hey, no claiming to speak for the church without running it by the leadership team," but most people today are quite accustomed to a more fluid model of accountability and representation. If they aren't making promises that spend dollars or obligate assets of the faith community, why not? It might not work for everyone, but in many ways, a more distributed presence on the web and across the internet has more advantages than hazards, creates more connection than dissention, and can generate creativity by the very lack of consistency and conformity we once (reasonably) had to enforce through board & administrative process.


If every task force, team, or committee of your church had its own web or Facebook page, what exactly is the downside? Who do you chase away by trying to prevent that sort of flourishing from taking place?


For those who find the circumstances I'm describing to be confusing and disorienting, wait until next Saturday when I tell you about what's happening to seminary education . . .


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; yes, he uses e-mail and Facebook and Twitter, a bit. Message him at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.