Can Someone Really Prepare for Ministry Online?
By Rick Bartlett, Director of Theological Education, Assistant Professor of Ministry, Tabor College Wichita
Figure 1. A Study Abroad Trip
As someone looking to further my ministry education, I approached my journey into the online education environment in early 2003 with nervousness and fear. My master’s degree had been completed at a traditional Seminary with classrooms, whiteboards (brand new technology), and overhead projectors. I sat with my fellow students, listened to lectures, and made classroom presentations live in person. Now I was starting a doctorate that was primarily online. I worried: Would I connect? Would I make friends? Would I be alone?
What I found in the three-year education journey exceeded my expectations. I did make friends, I did learn, and I developed deep and lasting relationships which have lasted to this day. I also learned that I enjoyed and thrived in this emerging online environment; as an introvert who rarely spoke up in a face-to-face class, I found my “voice” magnified in the written discussion forums. I also discovered my colleagues shared personal information more deeply in the written forums than I had ever heard in the face to face environment. I learned at that time there were real strengths with online education.
Now I get to work in my sweet spot. I help people prepare for a life of learning, work, and service for Christ and his Kingdom through my role as director of ministry programs at Tabor College Wichita. I know there are other faculty engaging with students through other seminaries and schools, but what makes my job especially fun is the opportunity to engage with innovative and entrepreneurial students from all over the world.
People often ask me how it is possible to prepare people for serving in a church or ministry role without spending time with others in the classroom? Skeptics say, “Isn’t it ironic to prepare leaders for a job working with people when they can be taking classes in their pajamas at 3 a.m.?”
This view demonstrates a limited view of online education. Since working in the field, I’ve been surprised to hear friends, colleagues and family members describe what they think online education looks like. As I’ve heard their explanations, it seems to me they are talking about an independent study or the old-school correspondence course rather than the robust online program of today.
I have first-hand experience with correspondence courses. When I was in college, I discovered I would be six credits short to graduate in four years. So one summer, I took two courses through correspondence with UC Berkeley. One of the courses, “The World of Mystery Fiction,” was quite enjoyable. I received a packet from the instructor, I would read the books and send him my papers via mail, and in within two weeks, he would mail my graded paper back to me. It was a solitary course for sure. I was on my own timeline; there were no deadlines except for what I self-imposed.
Contrast this with the online programs we run at Tabor College. Students are in a tightly run six-week course. The instructor is a regular participant in the class, making comments on discussion in real time, engaging with the grading, and posting weekly announcements and videos. This experience, and not the correspondence course model, is what empowers the online programs I coordinate today.
John Westerhoff, pioneer in the arena of spiritual development states, “No longer can we assume that the educational understandings that have informed us, the purposes that have inspired our efforts, or the theological foundations that have undergirded our programs are adequate for today.” (For a helpful overview of the Community of Inquiry or “CoI,” see: https://coi.athabascau.ca Accessed 14 July 2018.)
This paper will address the skeptic by specifically addressing these questions: What philosophical shift has taken place in the way education is given at a distance? Is there research to back up this methodology?
Community of Inquiry Model
One obvious shift from the correspondence course to online education is the change in technology which have occurred since the mid-1980’s when I took the Mystery Fiction course. It bears mentioning that online education would not happen without the Internet. This has been an important part of shifting from a post office-based system to one that includes email, texting, and a learning management system (LMS). Because of this shift, researchers and educators have been free to think through models of best practices. The Community of Inquiry model has arisen as best practice for online adult learning.
This model for effective online course development revolves around the Community of Inquiry (CoI) perspective created by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer. The Community of Inquiry is a framework for online education based on the theories of John Dewey and is formed around a constructivist approach to learning. Constructivism is a useful framework, especially for education focused on the adult learner since it emphasizes the responsibility of each person to pursue their own learning. It changes the role of the teacher from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side,” which fits the adult student and the model of online education which Tabor has chosen.
CoI focuses the student learning experience around three main areas: Social Presence, Cognitive Presence, and Instructor Presence, arguing that in order for maximum effectiveness to take place, all three need to be in rhythm. This concept is very similar to Parker Palmer’s concept of the “Community of Truth,” which encourages instructors to create a space where learners, educators, and the content come around to share learning. (Palmer, 1998, p. 90)
How do the three main areas of CoI work in preparing students for ministry?
Social presence refers to the interaction of students and the sense of community one builds in a course. This is the work of both students and the instructor. In a face-to-face (F2F) setting, instructors use discussion, role-play, group projects, presentations, and other items to create this bond. Obviously, this is still vitally important in an online environment.
Since the biggest question and critique for ministry preparation online is the solo nature of learning, which critics assume is the default setting for online education, this section will focus on how Tabor addresses this important “Presence” beginning with the question, “Is it possible to build deep community online?”
An online program takes the complexity and reality of online spaces seriously. Joseph Myers highlighting the proxemics work of Edward T. Hall concluded there are four “spaces” humans use to develop relationships, culture, and communication. He labeled those spaces: public, social, personal, and private. Myers states, “These four spaces communicate how we belong to each other.” (Myers, 2003, p. 20) If these different spaces are an accurate description of current reality, then in this new world of social media and Web 2.0 ministry leaders can also find community in an online educational program.
Researchers have been pointing out the rich connectivity of the online space for a number of years. In her 2014 book It’s Complicated, Danah Boyd says this referring to teenagers:
Although some teens still congregate at malls and football games, the introduction of social media does alter the landscape. It enables youth to create a cool space without physically transporting themselves anywhere. And because of a variety of social and cultural factors, social media has become an important public space where teens can gather and socialize broadly with peers in an informal way. Teens are looking for a place of their own to make sense of the world beyond their bedrooms. Social media has enabled them to participate in and help create what I call networked publics. (Boyd, 2014, p. 5)
A reference to teenagers granted, but with a bit of thought and observation of adult behavior in the age of smartphones, one sees networked publics in the grown-up world as well.
As a former pastor, I was often expected to know what was going on in the lives of our congregation through what was posted on Facebook. On more than one occasion I was criticized for not knowing about an upcoming surgery or significant event because I missed their post. Speaking about these virtual spaces as instructors of Pastoral Care, Melinda McGarrah Sharp and Mary Ann Morris writes, “...pastoral theologians must prepare seminarians for greater attention to and recognition of the communal and cultural complexities that form the context of these traditional practices of care. We need to recognize the reality of virtual space as a substantive part of our lives today where human beings express and meet needs, suffer wounds, and experience the binding up of healing.” (McGarrah Sharp & Morris, July 2014, p. 262)
Sitting in a face-to-face classroom does not guarantee community is happening either. Intentional Social Presence creation is also vital in live classes. In almost prophetic tone, John Westerhoff writes about education in 1975.
Presently I am developing a ‘community of faith-enculturation’ paradigm in which the total life of a faith community becomes the natural context of education, and intentional religious socialization the means. We need to stop thinking of "school" or "instruction" and center our educational concern on the church’s rites and rituals, the formal and informal experiences persons have in community, the interactions between the generations, the church’s environment, structure, organization and budget, the role models presented, the status assigned particular persons, and the actions witnessed and encouraged in a host of often unconscious ways. (Westerhoff, n.d.)
Each of the four spaces that Myers identifies forms legitimate community, meaning not every group in the local church or educational community has to move into the intimate space. This is helpful with online education because it means that community can be valid in both the social and personal spheres. I would argue that due to the written nature of most online communication, students actually open up and reveal more in an online space than they would in a live classroom.
There is a general misperception in higher education regarding the role and abilities of online education for building community amongst students. In a recent interview, Edith Humphrey, Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said regarding online education, “... it’s never the same, …. Christianity is not just a philosophy that can be passed down: it’s something that one enters into. You enter into a community, into communion with the apostles and with those who followed them.” (Estes, July 2018, p. 28) However, Arthur Holmes writes, “Community arises from the social nature of those whose common stake in life and common values unite them in a common task.” (Holmes, 1987, p. 79)
Good online education seeks to develop the type of community that Humphrey and Holmes are describing. There is a way to provide deep connections as well as the ability to stay home and not be uprooted from family with what could be a more intimate community than one formed artificially in a seminary classroom. Leonard Sweet, using the metaphor of the “tablet” to refer to online education and the “table” to face-to-face gatherings, describes an ideal scenario: “And then there are online universities, where your entire learning is conducted on a tablet with no face-to-face table time at all. True online learning is peer-to-peer distributed tablet learning and face-to-face immersive table learning, built around a monastic model of community that eats together, worships together, prays together, sings together, lives together, and learns together.” (Sweet, 2014, pp. 214 – 217)
In what was a surprise to them, McGarrah Sharp and Morris discovered, “Hallmarks of vital community emerged in the midst of the class’s self-reflexive discussion about the limits of virtual learning communities the first week of the semester. By the end of the course, we had evidence of the possibilities of interpersonal connections that surpassed our expectations – often manifest in expressions of insight and understanding.” (McGarrah Sharp & Morris, July 2014, p. 257)
The Tabor MEI (Ministry Entrepreneurship and Innovation) program is actively seeking to provide these type of outcomes.
However, just connecting socially in community is not enough for a rigorous course of study. As Garrison states, “Students recognize that they are not there for purely social reasons. A sense of community is based upon common purposes and inquiry.” (Garrison, Apr. 2007, p. 63) Students need cognitive and instructor presence as well.
Simply defined, cognitive presence makes up all the thinking and learning in a course. This can include content, discussions, brainstorming, and experiential practices. Traditional theological and ministry education emphasised the knowledge of the potential minister: does he or she know how to preach, counsel, marry, and bury? At one point this was proven through the capstone ministry degree, the Master’s of Divinity (MDiv). Over time, a shift has taken place in the local church over the importance of this degree.
In the mid 2000’s, I was working at the MB Biblical Seminary in Fresno, CA. At that time the primary focus of ministry degrees was the Masters of Divinity (MDiv) degree. There was pushback from students wanting to get a degree quicker, and as a concession, a MA in Christian Ministries had also been established. I recall the shock the Seminary faculty experienced when one of the Mennonite Brethren national leaders told us in his experience working with search committees, fewer and fewer churches were looking for pastors who had a MDiv; the majority were happy for a pastor with a Masters in ministry. And some were just looking for a pastor with any kind of masters degree. It was like a bomb went off in that faculty meeting. Fast forward to today. Apart from Mainline Churches, fewer evangelical churches are looking for pastors with a MDiv degree. The MDiv is in decline. (Shimron, May 11, 2018)
An exciting new development for Cognitive presence is that online education provides the ability to have meaningful interaction with ministry leaders from around the globe. Expressed in a press release announcing their upcoming move, Fuller Seminary President Mark Labberton stated, “As we innovate new applications of technology and vocation formation, distance is not an obstacle to forming local leaders around the globe. In fact, when leaders from widespread contexts come together for dynamic online learning experiences, it facilitates a global perspective not previously possible in the history of the church.” (“The Future of Fuller…,” May 22, 2018)
The online environment is well-suited for practical kinds of topics as well as traditional subjects like biblical interpretation, counseling, theology, etc. Cognitive presence in the online classroom is a focus on the content, but also taking content deeper.
Critics question how ministry students can learn skills necessary for successful work with people in the online world. McGarrah Sharp and Morris had similar questions when they taught pastoral care online, “As we designed the course we worried about issues such as: the loss of personal interaction, the lack of access to affect and body language, the loss of shared time and space, and whether we would compromise the quality of education by moving this course online.” (July 2014, p. 248) However, they found, “... that a virtual class can provide a surprising context for developing and exercising a new kind of empathy, for both faculty and students.” (McGarrah Sharp & Morris, July 2014, p. 248)
Developing cognitive presence comes from more than the course content. The goal is to encourage deeper thought and reflection from students, and accomplishing this goal requires a collaboration with Social Presence as well. Reflecting on one methodology of online learning - the hybrid program which combines online with short F2F meetings - Steve Delamarter writes, “The best online courses are designed to be student-centered constructivist learning environments, in which we re-conceive the teaching-learning process from the ground up. Parker Palmer’s description of a community of inquiry is a helpful guide: students start by doing their own work individually, and then come together in a discussion environment, where learning is constructed.” (Delamarter, Ulrich, Nysse, Polaski, & Hack, July 2011, p. 258) Good ministry training in an online environment incorporates this flow from individual to group focus similar to Sweet’s tablet to table.
Future ministry leaders will be trained with new degree programs that will become more global in nature. They will need to be entrepreneurs, to think creatively, find innovative ways to solve problems, and to address issues in church, culture, and society that have not arisen yet. The online format is perfect for this kind of training and preparation.
Figure 2. Screenshot of A Zoom Session (with Names Redacted)
One thing I quickly learned in my transition to online teaching was how much more work it is for instructors. Before an online course opens, it has to have 99% of the content loaded. The other 1% includes announcements, grading, and responses to student discussions in real time. In contrast, when I taught face to face, I put effort in at the syllabus creation phase to make sure I had an overall flow and plan for each week’s material; however, I usually waited until after one week’s lecture to begin preparing the second week’s course material for presentation. In fact, I know some face-to-face (F2F) professors who prepare their class for that day as they walk across campus! Online courses do not allow for this luxury. All course materials, lectures, additional content, assignments, etc. need to be added to the LMS long before the module begins.
Instructor presence (or teaching presence) sustains the learning experience and creates inquiry. The instructor creates a learning environment for students to explore the content being considered during that week, module, or course. Teaching presence includes the course design as well as the content and instructor engagement.
In addition, developing instructor presence in an online course requires more work than a face to face course. One misunderstanding about online education is the instructor is absent and the student works alone, receiving occasional feedback like my Mystery Fiction correspondence course. In good online education, nothing is further from the truth. Instructors (in addition to preparing the course in advance) are actively engaged with students during the duration of the course offering comments, questions, grading, and encouragement.
McGarrah Sharp and Morris comment, “Using multiple ways of interacting online requires more precise instructions and consistent assurance through timely feedback.” (July 2014, p. 250)
What Have I learned in this Six-Year Journey?
Figure 3. Graduates of Tabor College (Cohort #2)
When I began teaching at Tabor College, my online education experience had been as a student with limited experience teaching online. Little did I know that 7 years later I would be working and teaching almost entirely in this medium. Moving into the online space and teaching ministry have created interesting and curious challenges.
In summary, here are a few of my main takeaways.
First, people involved in ministry want to stay in their local context and fulfill their calling. In previous years, potential students would be willing to relocate to attend Seminary. However, with the need for two income families, with more concern placed on a child’s experience in school and community, and a sense of calling to a location, pastors and potential pastors are much less likely to transition to a new city to attend graduate school.
This desire to remain rooted while studying was confirmed through a survey by the Learning House: “Most online students are older, have past experiences in higher education, and have several responsibilities in life, so they seek convenience and flexibility when furthering their education. Millions of postsecondary students have turned to online education because it enables them to fit education around their work and family responsibilities and to study anytime and anywhere.” (Aslanian & Clinefelter, 2012, p. 16)
Second, it is important to address the human dimension of preparing people for ministry with people in an online environment. This occurs in a couple of different ways. First, through regular interaction with the other members of the cohort. Students are regularly interacting with one another through discussion, peer evaluation activities, and off-line discussions using Slack, Messenger, or the group Facebook page. Second, in the Tabor programs, students join synchronous chats every week using Zoom where they see one another and engage with each other through video chat. Finally, the program begins with a face to face week with the goal of building relationships and engaging with one another. In addition, after the first year, the cohort takes an international trip where in addition to listening and learning from a variety of entrepreneurs in that location, they spend ten days together traveling, eating, praying and worshipping with one another. Tabor has made significant use of the Zoom platform for live meetings, which connect students from around the world. Using a program like Zoom (which did not exist back in the Mystery Fiction course days) to talk and pray together is an invaluable way to build community and connection in an online environment.
Underlying the question from the skeptic is the issue of character development. How can the person in his or her pajamas doing homework at 3 a.m. truly be formed in the way of Jesus? In her book Character Formation in Online Education author Joanne Jung writes, “.. character formation happens in relationships, and relationships are effectively fostered in online classes by combining course content with purposeful assignments, meaningful feedback, personal interaction, video conferences and collaborative documents to establish a viable, sustainable learning community.” (Jung, 2015, p. 104) This is the goal of the ministry programs at Tabor, and by combining social, cognitive, and teacher presence with the stated goal of forming in Christ-likeness, we feel we are meeting this goal.
After four years of running the Ministry Entrepreneurship and Innovation program, we have graduated students who have learned, launched ministries, and transformed their lives. They have stood with one another through births, deaths, cancer diagnosis, and general stress and strain of life. Four of our grads have continued on to doctoral studies, one spent a year as a missionary as part of the world race, two work for an urban ministry, and a number serve in a variety of roles in local churches.
The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes, and the high graduation rate, the continued connections students have with one another and their faculty mentor, and the positive outlook they have on ministry in the church are all indicators we are doing our job well.
Aslanian, C. B. & Clinefelter, D. L. (2012). “Online college students 2012: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences.” Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.
Boyd, D. (2014). It’s Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Delamarter, S.G., Ulrich, S.L., Nysse, D.W., Polaski, R.W. & Hack, S. (2011, July). “Teaching Biblical Studies Online.” Teaching Theology & Religion, 14(3), 256-283.
Estes, D. (2018, July). The professing life: A conversation with Edith M. Humphrey.” Didaktikos Journal of Theological Education, 2(1), 26-32.
The Future of Fuller: Largest Multidenominational Seminary Announces New Way Forward. (2018, May 22). Fuller Theological Seminary. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from https://www.fuller.edu/posts/the-future-of-fuller-largest-multidenominational-seminary-announces-new-way-forward/.
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McGarrah Sharp, M. & Morris, M.A. (2014, July). “Virtual empathy? Anxieties and connections teaching and learning pastoral care online.” Teaching Theology & Religion, 17(3), 247-263.
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Palmer, P.J. (1998). The Courage to Teach. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Shimron, Y. (2018, May 11). More seminary students leave the Master of Divinity behind.” Religion News Service. Retrieved Aug. 16, 2018, from https://religionnews.com/2018/05/11/more-seminary-students-leave-the-master-of-divinity-behind/.
Sweet, L. (2015). From Tablet to Table: Where Community Is Found and Identity Is Formed. Colorado Springs: NavPress, Kindle Edition.
Westerhoff, J. III. (n.d.) “Church education for tomorrow.” Religion Online. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from http://www.religion-online.org/article/church-education-for-tomorrow/.
About the Author
Rick Bartlett is the Director of Theological Education at Tabor College. He joined the Wichita campus in 2012 to create and design the online Ministry Entrepreneurship and Innovation MA degree.
Dr. Bartlett has worked in a variety of church-based and academic roles in California, Washington, and the United Kingdom (UK). He earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from George Fox University in Leadership in the Emerging Culture. He travels and speaks extensively and has visited over 14 countries. One recent passion is the intersection of AI (artificial intelligence) and humanity. He tweets at @rbb2nd and can be reached at email@example.com.
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