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.


  1. You have expressed a valid concern about online learning. However, a well designed course may certainly overcome this drawback. A course might require a face-to-face component with other students who live fairly near each other. (They might be assigned to complete a group project in their home community.) Or students who have previously completed the same course, or clergy mentors in the same locality may be enlisted to interact with the online students in order to help broaden the student's perspective. A local learning cohort may be formed with students enrolled in the same online course. The learning cohort could be required to meet regularly as part of the learning process.... The problem you have identified is not insurmountable.

    1. These are excellent suggestions that, depending on the geographical location, vicinity of a student cohort and creativity of the instructor, could be implemented. In part 3 of this blog (to be released May 4, I will propose a model that also addresses drawbacks in online delivery. Phil Wingeier-Rayo

    2. As online education spreads internationally, seminaries will need to consider how they will deal with language and translation issues. Will courses only be offered in English, or will students be able to take classes in their native lanugages? Also, it is important to note that having international students from a different culture will surely expand the horizons of ALL the students in the course.