Prepare to Lead: The Changing Seminary Experience

Accommodation of Non-traditional Students

As student enrollment declines or flat-lines at seminaries nationwide, Fuller Seminary is finding creative ways to reach non-traditional students who otherwise might think seminary is out of the question for them.

“Theological education needs to become more accessible and affordable,” says Fuller’s Kurt Fredrickson. “Over the past several decades we’ve created this almost elite system of education. There are a whole bunch of people who need good theological education but who can’t get it in the normal manner, either because of finances, time or distance, so we are completely rethinking the way in which we do theological education.”

At the degree level, Fuller is introducing this September a revised version of its ThM and MDiv degrees. Both require a minimum of just three residential weeks for a two-year program at any of Fuller’s eight campuses.

“There are a whole bunch of people who need good theological education but who can’t get it in the normal manner, either because of finances, time or distance.” —Kurt Fredrickson, Fuller Theological Seminary

Fuller is also developing two diploma programs. First is an advanced diploma in ministry leadership, intended for pastors who want more theological training but perhaps don’t have the means to pursue a doctoral degree. To earn the diploma, they’ll attend three or four DMin classes and engage in an online mentoring relationship. That begins this fall. Fuller’s new diploma in theological studies is for those who can’t afford or don’t have the educational background to pursue a master’s degree. The one-year, in-person program will be taught locally by master teachers (typically Fuller PhD or DMin graduates) anywhere in the country, and eventually anywhere in the world. The program’s target opening is January 2015.

“There are a whole lot of people out there who are serving churches who love God, love their church and have an NIV study Bible,” he says. “That’s it, but that’s not good enough when a person says, So pastor, where was God when this happened? We’ll help people get a good, rich, theological framework and underpinning so they can do their ministry better.”

Finally, in September 2014 Fuller will offer a doctor of leadership degree, which Fredrickson says they’re still adapting to meet accrediting requirements. This one is intended for professionals (like lawyers, architects or filmmakers) not serving in churches, but who already have terminal degrees or doctorates and who consider the work they do in the marketplace to be a ministry.

“Ministry is not just for those who call themselves pastors, as significant as that is,” Fredrickson says. “Ministry is a much broader term than that.”

Students are also learning ministry online, in increasingly innovative arrangements.

As one of the leaders in online education, Dallas Theological Seminary is always finding new ways to expand this means of learning. This fall, DTS is introducing a program that combines online and in-person elements in new ways. According to John Dyer, DTS’s executive director of communications and educational technology, the program, preliminarily called Mobile Seminary but now called Seminary for the City, offers a master’s in Christian leadership to groups of students in particular cities without having to open up physical campuses.

“We try to gather a group of students who are all on a common mission,” Dyer says. “They really believe they are called to invest in that city, which is why they don’t want to move and go to a seminary.”

DTS will fly a professor to the group’s city once or twice and require that the coursework take place partly online, partly as a group in the home city and partly in Dallas, when the group comes to campus for a one-week intensive period.

“We’re getting people from a variety of different denominations who are at churches down the street from one another,” Dyer says, “and now they’re able to work together through a degree program.”

Dyer anticipates each of the three cities participating this first year—Pittsburgh, Fargo, N.D., and Nashville, Tenn.—will have 20 to 25 students. As interest grows in cities with a host church, the program will expand.

“We really wanted to build a community of learners together and do that in a city where people are working commonly together,” he says. “We’re getting the best of both distance and campus education.”

At Wheaton College, online courses are becoming an increasing part of the curriculum, says Wheaton’s Lon Allison. The school is slowly building into its master’s in evangelism degree, for example, a handful of the required courses that students can take online, while they complete the rest of the requirements by engaging in intensive weeks of cohort work with fellow students in the program.

A global component is also becoming part of doctoral degrees at some U.S. Christian universities. Whereas it’s typical for doctoral students to complete most of their course remotely and online, and then spend a short, intensive period of time studying with a cohort on the seminary’s physical campus, not as many programs take their students to different places around the globe, where what they’re studying is a rich part of the culture. Allison says Seattle’s Bakke Graduate University (which includes a school of Christian theology for church leaders) has such a model for its doctoral students. Each time they meet with their cohorts, he says, it’s in a different country.

“For instance,” Allison says, “if you’re focusing on reaching emergent culture in America, what better place to go than Berkeley [Calif.] or Santa Cruz [Calif.] and be in that hyper-postmodern culture? If you’re thinking of really reaching the world, [you might] do a week in Mexico City, and the whole cohort flies into that place, so you’re living in the midst of the laboratory about which you’re talking.”

For students who prefer to be closer to campus but still want flexibility, seminaries are responding. At Northern, students can take evening classes taught in blocks or week-long, intensive summer courses. At Talbot, students can take evening classes. Several years ago, Talbot also started scheduling its required courses on Saturdays, McIntosh says. Additionally, Talbot has what it calls a “J term” in January, when semester classes aren’t in session. Instead, students can take condensed classes and complete an entire full-semester course in a week or two. It also offers two summer school sessions.

“We’re trying to meet the needs of everybody who has different work schedules,” McIntosh says.


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