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Building a ‘web’ of community

The Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT), an independent, pan-Lutheran pastoral training organization, has launched its “House of Studies” program. Hosted by Lutheran Church of the Master (LCMC) in Omaha, Nebraska, in late January, “A Festival of Preaching” was the title of the inaugural offering.

In-person discussions at an Institute of Lutheran Theology offering spend in-person time, while most instruction is conducted online; images provided by the Institute of Lutheran Theology

Timothy Swenson, an ILT administrator, shared, “The House of Studies model provides an opportunity for pastoral formation within the culture of a congregation as students spend time with local pastors and congregants. More importantly, it gives students a chance for a residential experience in an educational program that is primarily offered online.”

Based in Brookings, South Dakota, the ILT serves students from the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, the North America Lutheran Church, the Canadian Association of Lutheran Congregations, and the Augsburg Lutheran Churches.

Since 2009, 110 students have enrolled in the ILT, with 40 to 50 active at any given time. The institute hopes to double the number of active students within the next five years.

Because the bulk of the coursework is done through distance learning in online classes, students do not need to relocate to complete the program. Swenson remarked, “We can deliver a master of divinity degree for about a third of the cost of a traditional residential seminary. We do gather for some courses, such as the Festival of Preaching, to fulfill residency requirement required by certification bodies.”

Students and professors from the Festival of Preaching course offered by the Institute of Lutheran Theology in January

Pastor Mark Jamison, St. John Lutheran Church in Sterling, Nebraska, served as one of the preaching instructors. He said that even though the setting differed, the coursework was comparable to what a student would find in a traditional seminary classroom. “It was an intense week of lectures focusing on Lutheran theological concepts in sermon writing and delivery, along with public speaking. Each student was required to preach four sermons. They were in class all day and spent their evenings writing sermons to deliver the next day.”

There were no complaints about the pace. “This program allows students to retain their residence and employment, while still being a part of theological education. It’s less disruptive on a person’s life than the more traditional seminary experience.”

As one of the ILT’s designated teaching centers, Lutheran Church of the Master’s Pastor Kip Tyler was delighted to serve as host for The Festival of Preaching. A recent ILT graduate, Pastor John Lewis, coordinated the event for the church. Lewis had been a member of Lutheran Church of the Master and previously was a regional manager with Payless Shoes. Tyler reflected, “We saw in John the gifts for pastoral ministry and encouraged him to enter the ILT. This past August, he graduated and we called him as our fourth pastor.

“The students came from all over and were joined in the classroom by church members who also were invited to attend.” The opportunity for students to learn from members of a local congregation was one of the reasons Taylor signed up for the program. “Because the ILT curriculum is offered primarily online, the face-to-face interaction between students and our congregation was a positive experience.”

Learning from a distance

Professor of New Testament Mary Hinkle Shore served as Luther Seminary associate dean for First Theological Education when the school launched its distance learning master of divinity program. “While the Web enabled us to accomplish connecting with individual students in their various locations, it was important to build community into the educational experience.” Students travel in a cohort of 12 to 18, taking most of their classes together. Two-thirds of the courses are taken online, with one third completed on campus.

Some have expressed a concern that completing an educational degree online may be isolating and even lonely. However, Shore reports just the opposite occurrence in Luther’s program. “The thing that has surprised us most is how effectively students draw one another into community. They consistently look out for each other. They post prayer requests on class online message boards. We don’t think computers can foster community, but they can. Our students have done a great job of being a support to one another.”

Pastor John Hulden, Assistant to the Bishop for the Minneapolis Area Synod (ELCA), has seen firsthand the benefits of Luther’s distance learning degrees in watching others go through the program in recent years. “The students I know have been surprised by the deep and rich relationships they encountered in their small cohort group.” Hulden sees advantages for church workers, in particular, in taking some seminary courses online while remaining in the congregation. “Almost every seminary across denominational lines offers contextual education. You can teach in a classroom, but some are more receptive to learning if they are in the middle of a church community.”

According to Timothy Swenson of the ILT, the next local House of Studies course, focusing on the Old Testament, will be offered at Faith Lutheran Church (LCMC) in Hutchinson in July. For more information, go to www.ilt.org or call 605/692-9337.

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