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.

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