Thursday, May 4, 2023

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Implications of Online Education for the Future of the Church, Part 3

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 Three: The Impact of a Fully Online MDiv for Theological Schools

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 final part of a 3-part blog on the implications of this policy change. The first part explored implications for students and future pastors, part 2 examined the impact for the UMC, and this final segment analyzes what this change will mean for theological schools and propose a mediated alternative between the two extremes of the costly traditional residential model and 100% online delivery.

Theological education, just as all of higher education, has been in crisis in recent years due to rising costs and a decline in enrollment. For decades, the MDiv has been the bread and butter for seminaries, and this has meant a consistent tuition revenue, but fewer students are enrolling in the MDiv. According to a 2018 report by Chris Meinzer using data from 240 member institutions of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), enrollment in MDiv programs declined from 43% to 40% of total students, while enrollment in academic MA degrees increased from 12% to 17% of degree-seeking  students.  While 40% is still the largest of the seminary programs, it is significant that less than half of students are preparing for parish ministry. This trend has accelerated since 2018.

Historically, the UMC has subsidized the 13 official United Methodist seminaries through the Ministerial Education Fund (MEF). A formula divides the designated funds based partially on the number of United Methodist ordination candidates who graduate from a seminary. The number of seminarians pursuing ordination has declined, and so the school won’t be credited for these students.

Many students are instead enrolled in other degree programs, such as the Master of Theological Studies (MTS) or the Master in the Arts in Theology (MA) and feel led to work in non-for-profits, chaplaincy or some para-ecclesial ministry. MA in Religion programs require fewer credit hours and can be completed in two years, as opposed to three to five years for the MDiv. As a result, seminaries will be hit by a double-whammy of both a lower MEF allotment and also less tuition revenue. Seminaries are feeling this economic pressure.

Many schools also receive revenue through room and board in their residential facilities. The University Senate’s decision will likely lead to less demand for physical facilities for seminaries as future students will not reside on campus, eat in the dining hall, sit in class, or do research in a brick-and-mortar library.

These added financial pressures will accelerate the trend of seminaries merging, embedding in larger universities, and closing campuses. For example, in the last two years Lancaster and Moravian Seminaries in Pennsylvania combined, General Theological Seminary in New York came under the umbrella of Virginia Theological Seminary, and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary became embedded in Lenoir Rhyne University. In March of this year, Claremont School of Theology announced that they will relocate from their historic campus in Claremont to Westwood UMC in Los Angeles. Saint Paul School of Theology was ahead of the curve when it sold its historic campus in 2012 to have a smaller physical footprint renting space from the Church of the Resurrection and a second campus at Oklahoma City University.

With fewer residential students and more distance learners, aging campuses that require maintenance become more of a burden than an asset. This, of course, will depend upon the enrollment, budget, and ethos of each school. However, this announcement from University Senate will impact all the schools, as they will need to take into account the increased competition, as ministry candidates do a cost-benefit analysis and weigh their options.

In light of the University Senate’s announcement, the decline in MDiv enrollment, the cost of maintaining a physical plant, and the challenges with online pedagogy, I would like to propose a via media—a middle way. I propose a path the has the best of residential pedagogy and the accessibility and cost-effectiveness of online education.

Contextualized theological education is not new to ministerial training. Even before the latest technological advances, Methodism has a long tradition of training pastors by extension. John Wesley created the Christian Library, an anthology of classical theological writings that he deemed essential for new preachers to read. Aspiring circuit riders on the American frontier were assigned reading, and they were partnered with experienced pastors, called “yokefellows,” for apprenticeship.

Eventually, a more formalized 4-year reading list was published by the Methodist Book Concern, which led to the Course of Study for local pastors. As transportation improved, the Course of Study moved from correspondence courses to a residential model. Even still, this training method was contextual because pastors were under appointment and their courses only required 2-4 weeks of residence each year—usually in the summer.

Institutions of higher learning, particularly Ivy League schools on the East Coast, were the forerunners in professional theological education. Yale University, for example, graduated its first Bachelor of Theology (BT) class in 1869. The emergence of graduate theological education and the MDiv as the gold standard for ministerial training didn’t become common place until the mid-1950s. Yale changed its BT to an MDiv in 1971.

So, the University Senate decision to allow a fully online MDiv degree for ministerial candidates is not entirely new or without precedence, and, in fact, is actually closer to the early training model for American Methodism.

Contextual theological education has several advantages. I have taught in the Course of Study for 25 years, and local pastors bring their pastoral experience into the classroom. They engage course readings with a pastoral lens as to what is useful and what is hyperbole. They practice the advice of Paul, who wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:21: “test everything; hold fast to what is good.”

In other words, local pastors want a practical theological education they can use in their ministry settings. One student under appointment reported: “Since I was a student pastor, therefore it was an excellent experience because I was applying the knowledge as the seminary shaped my theological and ministry understanding.” I’ve received reports from Course of Study students who study a concept during the week and then preach on it on Sunday.

This is very different from young MDiv students who are straight out of college often studying theory to be applied later in their field education site or their first appointment. Thus, online-only degrees will push seminaries to reevaluate their pedagogy.

On the flipside, as discussed in Parts I and II of this blog, students who remain in their home contexts and aren’t exposed to a wide variety of experiences in residential theological education often complete seminary without major changes in their worldview or theological perspectives. This also creates pedagogical challenges.

I propose a hybrid pathway where students are allowed to remain in their communities and maintain their current family and work commitments and travel to the seminary campus for intensive face-to-face immersions with their professors and their classmates. These intensive immersion classes can be week-long or for just a weekend.

This model retains the best of both extremes while still creating spaces to embrace diversity, to sit in class, in chapel, or across the table from someone from a different life experience than one’s own. It will force students to get out from behind a computer screen and open the door for deeper relationships and cognitive dissonance. Students will build community, and this will improve morale and retention. Students who are more connected with their professors and classmates in a cohort model are more likely to complete the degree.

A hybrid delivery method also justifies the use of seminary residential and dining facilities. Students can rent a room and eat meals in the dining hall, giving the schools some additional revenue.

This model isn’t completely new, as it has a great deal of similarity to the summer Course of Study, where students serve as local pastors throughout the year and travel to a seminary campus for 2-4 weeks every summer. This hybrid pathway will create a cohort where ministerial candidates can build community as they journey through the MDiv program together, seeing their classmates for a few intensive encounters every year.

In conclusion, the announcement earlier this year from the University Senate will have major repercussions for theological education in The United Methodist Church. Candidates for ordination no longer have a residential requirement and can now complete 100% of their MDiv online. This allows students who are tethered to their local communities to study while remaining in place. This pedagogical model is a throw-back to earlier models of contextualized theological education where students completed their training while under appointment, such as the Course of Study. To mediate the 100% online vs. traditional theological education debate, I propose a hybrid pathway that involves courses taught online with intermittent intensive immersion encounters placed in the middle of the semester. This will allow students and professors to have the advantages of both delivery methods. 

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