Faith Works 7-24-10
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 email@example.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.