Friday, May 29, 2020

David N. Field: Connecting Across Europe – the Case of the Methodist e-Academy

Today's piece is written by Dr. David N. Field. Dr. Field is the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.

The advent of the corona virus covid-19 has sparked an intensification of the move toward online theological education that has been slowly growing over the past decade. It is quite possible that in the aftermath the pandemic online education will have established itself as an integral component of theological education and pastoral formation.

It is appropriate at this juncture to look at one model that has been operating for almost 12 years. The European Methodist e-Academy started operating in 2008 as a response to the specific situation of (United) Methodism in Europe.

European Methodist Churches are all minority churches. In most cases the annual conferences are small with limited resources yet in many cases experiencing steady but limited growth. Establishing theological seminaries in every country was not viable, and it was not practicable or desirable for students to attend one of the existing seminaries.

A decision was taken that students would do their initial theological training at a seminary or university in their own country and that this would be supplemented by an online program focused on Methodist studies. Thus, the Methodist e-Academy was established to offer this program.

The program consists of six modules covering Methodist History (Early Methodism and European Methodism), Methodist Theology (Doctrine and Ethics), and Methodist Ecclesiology (Including polity but focused on the mission in contemporary Europe). Students take one module a semester. In the majority of cases, the students are engaged in ministry either prior to or after ordination during this time.

At present each module in made up of eleven lessons which have of three components.
 •  Printed and online readings.
 •  Online exercises
 •  A weekly webinar

From 2020, each lesson will also include at least one videoed lecture. This was successfully introduced to one course in 2019.

Each module is concluded with a residential block seminar of two to three days, and students have to complete a major essay on a topic related to the course.

The e-Academy operates primarily as a network linking together students and lecturers from diverse parts of Europe. The lecturers are either suitably qualified pastors or professors at one of the Methodist seminaries. The only people employed on a regular basis are the coordinator and an administrator – both of whom are employed in a part time capacity. The work of the e-Academy is overseen by a board comprised of representatives of the four UMC episcopal areas, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, and the independent Methodist Churches.

A new development which, it is hoped, will facilitate the expansion and improvement of the program is a partnership with Cliff College in Britain. This partnership includes access to the TheologyX learning management system, which offers numerous technological advances that will enhance our program.

The key pedagogical features that we strive to implement are.

 •  Learner centred – It seeks to enable students to learn with and from each other.

 •  Interactive – It requires interaction between the lecturers and students, and amongst the students.

 •  Praxis oriented – It is designed to facilitate interaction between academic theological content and thinking with the lived experience of ministry.

 •  Connectional – It brings together students and lecturers from diverse countries to learn together.

 •  Communal and relational – It is based on the recognition that the learning best takes place in the context of relationships of commitment and trust. A key element of the program is the building of a community of learning. Here, the residential seminars have been of great importance

 •  Responsibility and commitment – Community involves mutual responsibility. On the one hand, students are responsible for their own learning, but on the other, they responsible to enhance the learning of other students by participating in the interactional dimensions of each lesson. 

The program was designed to meet a particular need – to equip students who had been educated at non-Methodist Institutions with a deep understanding of the Methodist tradition so that they could creatively draw on it as they engaged their ministry. It has however had two unforeseen consequences which have become increasingly important particularly in the present context of The United Methodist Church.

1. The development of deep relationships between church leaders from different parts of Europe. This occurred not only in the organised dimensions of the program but also on the initiative of students. They organised, for example, an online fellowship group, congregational visits, and partnerships between congregations in different countries.

2. The facilitation of inter-contextual learning. While students were united by their common membership in a Methodist, in most cases United Methodist, Church they discovered the dynamic variety of contextual differences that lead to very different understandings of the Methodist tradition and its embodiment. Students came from the richest and some of the poorest nations of Europe. Some came from highly secularised societies others from deeply religious societies, though with different dominant religions – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Islamic. The nations and the churches had lived through the twentieth century on different sides of the Iron Curtain. The e-Academy provided a community in which students could learn from each other’s contexts and experiences  

The Methodist e-Academy has not achieved all its goals and has not fully implemented its desired pedagogy. However, its structure as a virtual connection linking students and lecturers across very different countries and contexts has provided the flexibility to address the particular needs of European United Methodism and provides an example of how online learning can be used to provide inter-contextual and connectional theological education with limited resources, which would not have been possible in a traditional institution.

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