Online MDivs in dispute

GBHEM's new guidelines

Via a friend on facebook, it came to my attention that the GBHEM has clarified its requirements of online MDivs and now require that only a third of a MDiv may be done by remote learning, throwing enrolled seminary students into disarray who might be seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church.

Both United (link) and Iliff (link) have on their pages the following statement purportedly from GBHEM:

The University Senate of The United Methodist Church has published a new guideline for candidates for ordained ministry, limiting the use of online theological education to one-third of the courses for a masters degree.  According to Dr. Wanda Bigham, Assistant General Secretary for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church, this new guideline will become effective July 1, 2011, so that “students enrolled prior to that date are grandfathered to complete their programs.”

Students who enroll in [an online MDiv program] prior to July 1, 2011, are therefore to be assured they will be eligible for ordination in The United Methodist Church.

FYI I can’t find any published records from the GBHEM on this topic as of yet.

Note that neither United or Iliff offers a completely online MDiv…contrary to what Jon Stewart says, we aren’t the University of Phoenix. Rather they are both hybrid degrees, requiring a mix of online and person-to-person classes. But for people who live hours away from the closest UM seminary, having to attend class only once a semester (United) or 4 times  a year (Iliff) is a blessing indeed. However, both of these degrees are more than 1/3 online.

The GBHEM’s new guidelines require a maximum of a third of a degree to be distance-learning. While that is their right, it certainly makes hybrid or online-MDivs very difficult as far-away candidates would have to relocate their families for a few years to finish the degree, and throws into worry the current class of hybrid MDiv students.

I’m torn on this decision. On the one hand, classroom experience is not replaceable or replicatable online or in hybrid formats. I learned so much from discussion and engaged lecturing. However, if we really want more qualified candidates, and they have a learning style that makes up for the disadvantages of distance-learning, then most classes could be done online. Absolutely. A preaching class can be uploaded as a video for critique, an internship class in their field could be supervised online, etc. Some classes (like pastoral care) would need to be face-to-face for role plays and such, but the bulk of the reading could be done online.

Hybrid education (online and face-to-face) has been emerging for a long time and I’m interested in how the GBHEM deals with it in the future.

Thoughts? Could a MDiv be done mostly online? Or is 1/3 of the degree program about right?

Thanks for your comments!

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  1. Keith Stiles says

    As a professional working in the field of educational technology (webmaster and online support), I find this attitude quite disappointing because it misses the point that education is no longer completely accessible to an increasingly overburdened workforce who cannot afford to move their families for a few years and relocate. How many highly qualified and passionate future pastors will be lost to an arbitrary and totally early-20th century mentality!?!

    I have taught and am currently teaching online classes. I would argue that an online course can be as rich as a seated course provided the instructor and students choose to make it so. The technologies are readily available now to have streaming online audio and video discussion (i.e., skype for one and it is free and readily available). All that takes is a computer with a microphone and a webcam. And lectures could be delivered the same way. Additionally, online courses have a wealth of possibilities through learning objects. It would seem that the GBHEM should think before they act.

    In a perfect world, and a more financially secure world, it would be wonderful if everyone could afford to go full-time to a seated classroom to receive their degrees. But, we neither live in that perfect world nor a particularly financially secure world. Having just read an assignment posting for my online course that is arguably one of the most well-written student assignments I have read in years, I would attest that distance learning CAN and IS equivalent.

  2. says

    I’m with you that I’m torn on this one. On one hand I did uproot my family for four years to I could get my MDiv and found the experience to be beyond important. Yet, serving in a rural state I know that opportunities to do that are rare and often times lead to candidates not returning to there home conferences. So allowing online education would let them be better connected to there local conference while getting an education.

    Perhaps better standards for online degrees is a better path? A required apprentice type program that will give real human contact and practical experience along side the classroom learning.

  3. don woolley says

    I lived 2.5 hours away from my seminary while serving as a student pastor. I took both online and in-class courses, and found my online experience to be better than in class. I had easier access to my professor and classmates. I thought I had more of my professors time. Some profs don’t allow for much interaciton in class, and little time for real exploration of questions or serious dialog. The University Senate is completely out of touch on this one. Or, the accusation may be true that this is some issue between them and Asbury. idk.

    Moreover, the drawback of traditional seminary education is that it removes you from the context of ministry, making you increasingly disconnected from the world where most of the world lives. I found being a student pastor every bit as valuable as classroom time. Action-reflection learning (instead of purely academic/classroom) is increasingly recognized as crucial in other contexts. This move by the University Senate is unfortunate, short-sighted….. stupid.

  4. Stephen Woolverton says

    The United Methodist Church is pushing “Rethink Church.” How about “Rethink Seminary,” or is seminary not a part of “Church”?

    By entering in to the Ordination process and accepting an appointment as a Local Pastor, I am already drastically changing my life and my family has to deal with this as well. Now the University Senate deems that is not enough chaos. I should uproot my family and leave the church I just started pastoring?

    I understand the importance of seminary, but why would a group of loving Christian leaders think that it is important to make seminary one of the most difficult times in my life and the life of my family? Especially when there is another viable, proven option available?

    Love. Mercy. Kindness. Care.

  5. Michael says

    I would not change my seminary experience for anything. Yes it was hard to move my family to another state. Our daughter was only six months old at the time and we moved 12 hours away from all family and friends. That was part of the adventure in our family’s journey in following God.
    However, I understand, for some people, moving is simply not an option open to them. For that reason, I am dissappointed that the University Senate took this action. I hope and pray that they will rethink this action.

  6. Creed Pogue says

    If seminary actually helped a pastor in the pulpit, that would be one thing. If seminaries felt that their mission was to help develop clergy to fill pulpits, that would be one thing. However, the seminaries say that their mission is to create Biblical scholars instead. It is a lot like the FAA who has a twin mission of both regulating the airlines while promoting air travel and then we wonder why we get problems on airline safety.

    Instead of continuing to centralize the oversight of clergy education, we should probably let the annual conferences and their boards of ordained ministry work out their best solutions. Instead of spending $6 million a year through the MEF to subsidize seminaries that produce very few elders, we should leave the money with the annual conferences so they can direct the aid for their candidates. We have too many “official” seminaries.

  7. Wade says

    First, I think we do have an issue with our Methodist seminaries. They are not accountable to the annual conferences and congregations that send candidates for ministry to be educated and trained to lead, teach and preach the Word of God in the Wesleyan tradition (I agree with you Creed). We have a Methodist approved and sponsored seminary that believes its mission should also include educating Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams with the idea that it is more important to get along with and understand other religions than it is to share (evangelize) what should be the most important thing in our heart. I could give examples of tenured professors who have no place teaching clergy.

    So, what does this have to do with online classes? Several things: 1) Online classes done properly give the clergy in training access to the best instructors on a topic. As opposed to professors using a whole semester to read through their newest book. 2) It should reduce the enormous education costs. 3) It should allow more student pastors to spend less time away from church and family. 4) It is environmentally friendly, reducing travel of student pastors. I know several who travelled 300-500 miles a week for 2-3 years!

    I have had discussion with other clergy that surely we can find better, less expensive ways to educate, train and mentor our new clergy. I am not sure what the answer should be, more accountability to seminaries? More reliance on local pastors?

  8. says

    As mainline denominations continue in their numerical decline and educational opportunities outside of denominationally approved lists continue to grow and innovate we will surely have to Rethink seminary in the coming years.

    A welcome trend that has been helping train more faithful ministers as of late is the focus on connecting the academic with the practical; Duke’s Field Education program, Emory’s Contextual Education Program, and others are striving to do this in a strong way. I believe that the UMC should strive to look at online education as being an innovative way of connecting orthodoxy and orthopraxis as it allows students to be both in the classroom and in full/part time ministry in local settings. Such an approach would view online education with a critical eye, but one pointed towards its potential not its demise. Perhaps looking at a school like St. Paul’s Theological Centre in the UK would be beneficial:

    Jeremy, I think you hit on another key point earlier when you stated that such an online model could also help clergy stay rooted in more rural areas. This point could be expanded to areas of the country without strong seminaries nearby as well.

  9. Lance Houghtling says

    I have no dog in this hunt except for a couple of observations. I did seminary 30 years ago in a different denomination and got such a poor education I’ve chosen to fill in the many gaps on my own just for fun (as a lay person now). My observation is that seminary, while truly valuable (and I guess required) really does no better at preparing students for ministry any better than law school prepares one for being a lawyer (I did that too.) I admit my experience is ancient, so I perhaps things have changed a lot.

    The training in academic areas I suspect reflects the latest thought(s), but those in the pew do not share that knowledge, and I suspect it would be very dangerous for a pastor to share it much anyway. I read a lot of statements about “the real world”, but I’ve not found many pastors that manage to make that connection as well as plumbers and carpenters etc. in the first place. I am not trying to be critical as you folk have the toughest job in the world; thus, it seems to me that educating you properly must be even tougher, especially in this crazy-fast paced world.

  10. Mike H. says

    I live in an area that is rural. the nearest Seminary is almost 350 Miles away. Travel expenses and hotel to attend classes for three days a week every week would be so crushing in of itself, not to mention the tuition burden added on top of that. In these tough economic times it is getting harder and harder to raise funds to cover the travel expenses. If the GBHEM would ask most of the people in seminary right now they would be more than happy to have the online segment of education opened up to them more. The methodist church is in decline all across the board, and education methods are no differant. In my annual conference they require that you take two additional classes face-to-face and do not even offer to pay for the extra burden. My wife has a great job, with top pay in her field, it is not fair of me or the methodist church to ask her to throw away all her hard work she has done in her job. It is not fair to the marriage to have us seperated for months while I go off to school. Being married to a pastor is hard enough, does the GBHEM need to add more trouble to the mix. I signed up to serve God in this copacity, not my wife and family. The time of the perfect pastor’s family is past. We live in a world where it takes two incomes to sustaine a household. Unless the UMC wants to start hiring pastors wives to a salary also, they should not expect them to just give up their lives. My wife supports me in this journey to ordination, but, I can not and will not let it effect our marriage. God gave me this woman to love and chaerish and support. I can preach and teach anywhere, I just choose the methodist church because it fits me and my thological views as well as my wifes. But if the choice has to be made, I choose my wife. Times have changed and the UMC is still behind in it’s thinking and strategic development. Equipe us by whatever means are avaliable. I have taken my B.A. in Religion all online and have learned a lot at my pace. I fall asleep during lectures. Let us work with the annual conference that we work for to set up programs that work for us individually. I think we would see a up swing in the number of elders getting ordaines.


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