Thursday, April 27, 2023

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Implications of Online Education for the Future of the Church, Part 2

Today's piece is the second in a three-part series by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Part Two: The Impact of Fully Online Theological Education on the UMC

On February 9, 2023, the University Senate of the UMC announced that they have approved a fully online MDiv degree to meet the educational criteria for ordination orders. This is a monumental change from the previous policy that required at least one-third of the degree to be completed in-person.

This is the second of a three-part blog analyzing the impact of this policy on the student in preparation for ministry, on the UMC, and on theological schools. In this part, I will look at the impact on the UMC. The third and final part will propose a model that addresses some of the concerns and questions raised in the first and second parts.

In my opinion, this new policy will favor those annual conferences that do not have a seminary (either a UM seminary or a seminary that is approved by University Senate) within their geographical boundaries. There has historically been a “brain drain,” where rural areas lose talent when young people go off to study in urban areas and don’t return.

Similarly, when ministry candidates move from their homes to a major metropolitan area such as Atlanta, Chicago, or Washington DC, many do not return to their home conferences. Talented young people are enticed to divinity schools with full scholarships for three years where they are exposed to new opportunities and connections at seminary. Students participate in a very diverse community and are exposed to new ideas. Students are tempted by studying for a PhD. There is also an increasing number of seminary graduates who do not feel led to serve the church, whether ordained or not. Many enter into chaplaincy, non-for-profit organizations, or other career options.

This is not true of all students from rural areas; some candidates are far enough along in the ordination process, or they have significant community ties, so that they indeed do return to their home conferences, accept an appointment to a local church, and continue the ordination process once they have completed seminary.

The new University Senate policy permitting a 100% online MDiv degree will allow more ministry candidates to stay within their annual conference, which could lead to a higher percentage of young people who remain in the candidacy process and continue on through ordination. The Lewis Center of Wesley Theological Seminary began reporting on the decline in numbers of young clergy under the age of 35 in 2006. In 2005, the number of young elders declined to a historic low of 850 in the United States. For a few years, the denomination provided greater support and incentives for young clergy, and the number rose to 1003 in 2016. However, in recent years the decline in young clergy has continued. A 2022 report by Lovett Weems stated, “The number of young elders in 2021 hit a new historic low of 742. The trend of steep losses continues in 2022 with a loss of another 94 and thus another record low number of young elders at 648.”  

This University Senate policy change may help annual conferences retain young people, who can stay within their geographical boundaries while they complete their seminary training. Moreover, annual conferences can appoint ministry candidates to an appointment as a student pastor while they are completing their degree.

On the downside, I also foresee fewer opportunities for transformational learning experiences for students who stay put to attend seminary. When one does not have to be directly confronted with another person’s reality and life circumstances that are very different from one’s own, then there are fewer opportunities for cognitive dissonance. I fear that students who study for their seminary degree completely online will go through the curriculum without major challenges to their beliefs. This could lead to a lack of critical thinking skills. If an author, instructor, or classmate presents an idea that is mediated by technology, then one is safely behind a computer screen unchallenged.

Students will not have to live in residential student housing, eat in the dining halls, and attend chapel with other students from different walks of life. The richness of campus life is a seminary community of students who identify as rich and poor, gay and straight, rural and urban, as well as international students. You may encounter students different from you in an online class, but there won’t be spontaneous and perhaps uncomfortable conversations in the parking lot after class, late night theological discussions or weekend road-trips.

While online students can still access e-books and electronic resources, they will have fewer opportunities to peruse the reference materials or get lost in the stacks of a theological library. Online education can also rely on “cookie cutter” and “check the box” methodology that transmits knowledge but without liberatory pedagogy that teaches critical thinking.

These changes matter not just for students, but for the church at large. They could result in pastors who are not trained as public theologians to think on their feet and lead their congregations through the unchartered challenges ahead. The church will need skilled leaders and theologians in the years ahead. Online study could result in fewer MDiv graduates with the academic preparation to pursue a doctorate or to lead in innovative and inclusive ways.

In conclusion, a student who completes seminary in a fully online platform may produce pastors who are more deeply rooted locally with less exposure to the national and global church and the reality of those whose life experiences are different than themselves. I foresee that the long-term impact for the annual conference will be pastors who have a more local or regional worldview—largely unchanged from the time that a student enters seminary. Collectively for the annual conference, the clergy will become more like-minded without the national or international connections of those who have been exposed to a broader range of seminary experiences and relationships.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Resource: Florida Annual Conference Missionary Legacy Preservation Project

The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church has launched an ambitious digital humanities project that seeks to collect and preserve materials related to the history of missionaries from the Florida Annual Conference. Called the "The World Parish: Serving Beyond Boundaries-The Missionary Legacy Preservation Project," this digit humanities resource has the potential to be of significant interest to church members and academic historians alike.

An overview article about the project can be found here. The project contains nearly 500 items ranging from decades ago to the present. The materials can be browsed by collection (such as organizations, journals, laity, missionary families, etc.) or by tag (mostly related to place of service, program, and organization). The project also has a well-elaborated search function.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Implications of Online Education for the Future of the Church, Part 1

Today's piece is the first in a three-part series by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Part One: The Impact of Fully Online Theological Education on Seminary Students

On March 11, 2020, while serving as Academic Dean at Wesley Theological Seminary I did something that I never thought I would do. I sent out an email to faculty that stated: “We are cancelling all classes.” The first positive case of Covid-19 had come too close to our seminary community, and so I cancelled all in-person classes and campus activities and instructed the faculty to transition their classes online by the following week. This was a very sudden pivot, but necessary to practice social distancing and still advance our educational mission.

Nearly three years later, on February 9, 2023, the University Senate of The United Methodist Church announced the inevitable consequences of the changes wrought by the pandemic: approval of a fully online MDiv degree for ministerial candidates. This is a monumental change from the previous policy that required at least one-third of the degree to be completed in-person. Citing accessibility, global access, and especially the Covid-19 pandemic as the impetus for accelerating change, the University Senate acknowledged the need to keep pace with changing times.

Now that this policy change is official, I’m pausing to ask what are the long-term implications of this decision for training clergy for The United Methodist Church? What will the impact be upon students themselves and for theology schools? This is the first of a 3-part blog series that will examine the consequences. This first part will deal with the implications for the students themselves and for future pastors. Part II will explore the implications of this decision for the United Methodist Church, and part III will examine the impact for theological schools.

To begin, I want to emphasize the obvious: this is a major change and will have serious implications for future clergy and the church. It is an attempt to make theological education more accessible and affordable for students who are unwilling or unable to move to a brick-and-mortar campus for a traditional residential seminary experience. There are other denominations where one can complete the educational requirements, become ordained, and enter full-time ministry with fewer hurdles and less financial burden—not to mention more lucrative non-ministry career options. The UMC is competing for talent against other denominations and other vocational choices, so it makes sense to remove barriers from the journey toward ordained ministry.

Removing the residency requirement will even the playing field, removing barriers for those who are not able bodied, untethered candidates with the financial means to pick-up and move to another part of the country for 3 or more years to complete an MDiv. Students will no longer need to move to a seminary campus, or within commuting distance, to study in the traditional residential method. Due to the decision to allow a fully online MDiv for ministry candidates, I foresee more students taking advantage of this distance learning option and staying in their home communities.

This will be especially advantageous for the second career or working student who is tethered to work and/or family commitments. This also applies to international students who will no longer need to obtain a visa and plane ticket and travel far from home. This move will also make theological education more accessible for persons with a physical disabilities or other limitations, such as time and money.

There is a financial incentive for students to stay in one’s current setting where one can remain employed, stay in current housing (living at home), and not be uprooted from one’s community. If a student is married or has family obligations (childcare, eldercare, etc.), one can continue to uphold these commitments while pursing an MDiv, perhaps part-time. If a student has a job, or even a career, then one can study in one’s free time and not quit in order to pursue theological studies, resulting in fewer student loans and less student debt.

This delivery method will help more rural communities retain talent and avoid the “brain-drain” to urban centers and conferences that do have seminaries within their geographic boundaries. International and domestic ministerial candidates in rural settings can remain close to family or to their current employment—as long as they have access to reliable internet.

Another, perhaps unintended, outcome that I foresee is greater affinity with technology. Since the learning process will be mediated through the computer, the online student will gain greater aptitude at editing videos, blogging, and PowerPoint presentations. Here I’m thinking of the 10,000 hours rule referred to by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The basic thesis of Gladwell is that the more you practice something, the better you become. It would follow that the more seminary students use technology, the more comfortable and adept they become.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly expanding, and tech-savvy students who are on computers more will learn more about technology and can harness these skills for ministry in the 21st century. Just in the last couple of months, articles and blogs have reported pastors and rabbis experimenting with chatGPT in writing sermons. Students be particularly adept at using technology as a medium for digital ministry, such as teaching a Zoom Bible study, broadcasting worship, or facilitating their Ad Council meetings on an online platform. As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and churches face decisions around the future of live-streaming worship vs. in-person worship, pastors who are more knowledgeable and skillful with technology can help the church re-imagine the opportunities for digital ministry church in the 21st century. This skillset could help pastors reach millennials and younger generations who regularly use technology as part of their daily lives.

These technology skills, however, may come at the cost of interpersonal skills, such as building deeper personal relationships, spiritual formation, or pastoral care with their parishioners. During the Covid-19 pandemic, students at Wesley Theological Seminary reported a loss of connection and difficulty building community. As dean, I responded to this feedback by encouraging faculty to open up their zoom platform 30 minutes before class and leave it open after class to allow students to connect with one another in a more informal online environment.

Generally speaking, studying for a degree online is a much lonelier endeavor without a close cohort of classmates. After graduation, this could translate into pastors who don’t have a support community and don’t have the interpersonal skills to create one. Pastors trained in the fully online modality may score lower in emotional intelligence, or the ability to “read the temperature of the room,” while guiding a congregation through difficult decisions about the future direction of the church. The online modality could lead to more “group think,” where difference is white-washed, and assumptions remain unexamined. With less direct exposure to difference in seminary, future pastors may have a more difficult time dealing with diversity.

In sum, the University Senate’s decision to allow a fully online MDiv degree will make theological education more accessible and allow students to remain in their communities, but with fewer opportunities for those transformational encounters. Students will graduate with the same credentials; however, the seminary experience will be very different, producing a graduate with a very different skillset than your traditional residential program. Students will have better technology skills, but not as much experience dealing with diversity or as much interpersonal aptitude.

The next part of this blog will address how technology will impact the UMC as a whole.

Monday, April 17, 2023

News Roundup – Earth Day edition

In honor of the upcoming Earth Day celebration, here are some recent creation care related United Methodist stories from the past couple months. Note the significant amount of creation care work happening outside of the United States and that most of the work is not geared toward Earth Day celebrations but rather a regular part of the church’s activities.

Biogas stoves in mission school in Zimbabwe: The Nyadire Connection, Carnegie Mellon Engineers Without Borders, and United Methodist-affiliated Nyadire Central Primary School partnered to install an environmentally friendly biogas digester to make cooking fuel for the Nyadire Central Primary School.

Solar energy installed at hospital in Zimbabwe: Global Ministries and Old Mutare Hospital partnered to install a 120-panel solar system at the hospital as part of renovations there.

Solar energy installed at church school in Sierra Leone: U.S.-based Operation Classroom and the Sierra Leone Annual Conference have partnered to install solar power at the Taiama Enterprise Academy in Sierra Leone.

Solar ovens distributed in Sierra Leone: Solar Ovens Partners, a UMC-related, U.S. based nonprofit distributed solar ovens in Sierra Leone in March in collaboration with partners there.

Sarah Bach on ecospirituality: Swiss United Methodist pastor and ecotheologian Rev. Sarah Bach conducted an interview on how ecospirituality can guide Christians in the face of climate change.

Swiss United Methodist helped develop hotel eco-label: The Swiss United Methodist Church profiled Urs Bangerter, a United Methodistand retired hotel manager who helped pioneer sustainable hotel practices and an eco-label for hotels.

Faith-based resources for Earth Day Sunday: The ecumenical Creation Justice Ministries is offering a special Earth Day resource.

UMC Creation Justice offers model resolutions: UMC Creation Justice has published eight model resolutions on topics related to creation justice that can be introduced at annual conferences.

East Ohio Annual Conference offers creation care seminar: The East Ohio Annual Conference is holding a day-long seminar on creation care on April 22nd.

Climate justice update from Cal-Nevada Annual Conference: The California-Nevada Annual Conference highlighted educational opportunities, advocacy steps, and resources related to climate justice efforts in that annual conference.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Kirk Sims: Correlating disaffiliations from the UMC (2019-2023) and the 2020 Presidential Election

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Kirk Sims. Rev. Dr. Sims is a United Methodist missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries, serving as a consultant and theological educator based in Prague. He is an ordained elder in the North Georgia Annual Conference.