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Educating future clergy online?

Seminaries are trying new formulas, but in-person teaching still matters

The Rev. Dennis Bielfeldt, president of Institute of Lutheran Theology, teaches an in-person session at a theological conference. Photo provided by ILT

When Jesus taught, the most remote he ever got was preaching from a boat just offshore. Nowadays, however, people who want to learn ministry can’t all readily leave church, family, and jobs to go to school. So seminaries offer online learning. You can take classes from almost anywhere.

What are the pluses, the minuses? Pastoring and other ministry work is hands on, personal, subtle. Can you teach it online?

Seminaries offering online courses usually require students to meet face-to-face sometimes. One such is the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) in Brookings, South Dakota, launched in 2007 for mostly online teaching.

The Rev. Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt, ILT president, says his seminary does online teaching that “closely duplicates the back and forth movement of dialogue within residential classes and seminars” of in-person classes.

ILT uses software that allows real-time video images of students. Everyone can see everyone else. “When I taught, I always looked at students’ eyes,” says Bielfeldt. ILT teachers can do likewise via Web-cam.

Video lectures, PowerPoint, whiteboard, chat modules, note modules, text sharing, and posted forums are also part of three-hour sessions for the 46 students enrolled this semester. About 30 percent of students preparing for ordination at ILT are women.

Piping content

The Rev. Dr. Mary Hinkle Shore

Long-established seminaries have been going online as well. Luther Seminary in St. Paul may be a benchmark. “The best online programs offer something more than piping content from one person’s computer to another,” says the Rev. Dr. Mary Hinkle Shore, who taught New Testament at Luther for 16 years and helped other faculty learn online teaching. She now is pastor at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brevard, North Carolina.

Can you teach pastoring online?

Luther wants online students to learn “as much from each other and from a ministry context as they learn from books and professors,” says Shore.

Teaching and learning particular content is neither harder nor easier online, according to Shore. “Instead,” she writes in a follow-up email, “it has to do with the capacity of the instructor to connect with students whether they are face to face with them or not.”

Back at Luther Seminary, Dr. Michael Chan tells his students that he will work with “everything from a stick of chalk to in-class chat conversations. If it helps students engage the material effectively, then I will try it.”

Chan, teaching Old Testament, leads a course on Jeremiah this term purely online. He also leads in-person classes — and allows students to post comments via in-class chat for all to see. A student’s question mark on the screen behind him, for example, means “I don’t get it.”

‘Major mistake’

What don’t experienced teachers get about online? They think, “I just need to make a digital version of face to face,” says Chan. “Major mistake.”

Online requires design from the ground up. Part of Chan’s approach is a concept that some veteran lecturers may find hard to grasp: If you’re going to lecture via recorded video, says Chan, “Make your point in 15 minutes.” Chan, however, admits that he pushes the limit to 25 minutes.

Dr. Michael Chan; photo provided by Luther Seminary

Teaching and learning particular content is neither harder nor easier online.

Nevertheless, veteran teachers can go online and still do some of it their way. “I’m a lecturer,” says Chan’s senior colleague the Rev. Dr. Walter Sundberg, professor of church history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

The video lecture suits him, and Sundberg prepares carefully, writing it beforehand, recording it and splicing in PowerPoint slides.

What about discussion among students and with the professor? “I don’t have anything like a chat room,” says Sundberg. Students with questions can email him. Last spring for a course in modern church history, he sent out 161 pages of comments to students.

The move to online notwithstanding, in-person teaching still matters. Chan thinks it’s a mistake for seminaries to go strictly online. “I think something is lost to do it that way,” he explains. “In ministry we are in the business of caring for souls. We’re in the people business, interacting and loving and caring for them.

“We shake people’s hands, see their smiles, look into their eyes, place bread and wine into their hands. For these reasons, I think that some face-to-face interaction with mentors and professors is necessary.”

Such in-person interaction “can happen in many different ways, however,” adds Chan, “and theological educators need to think hard about how to integrate face-to-face education with online, distance-learning models.”

Bielfeldt of ILT, where the focus is online, completely agrees — and makes the case that keeping people at their home church while studying online is a wise course. “Pastoral formation happens within the crucible of congregational life,” writes Bielfeldt in a follow-up email.

“Instead of pulling students out of their congregations and relocating them within a residential community far from the congregation, we bring theological content to people who are already engaged deeply in ministry issues within their local congregation.”

Jeremiah says God’s Word will be written on our hearts. Can you do that on a computer keyboard? We are finding out.

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