Is there a better way to do seminary?

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An online article over at Forbes  by Jerry Bower entitled, “The Seminary Bubble” has been making its way through my email and Facebook portals today. Bower ably analyzes the problem with traditional forms of seminary education, but doesn’t give solutions (yet). Without reiterating the whole article (which you can quickly read for yourself), I can tell you that I am also of the belief that the delivery system of seminary education is going to have to change significantly in coming years and decades, not only if it is going to survive, but also if it is genuinely going to serve the needs of the Church and the priorities of Christ’s Kingdom.

Bower ends with the tantalizing line: “There must be a better way [to do seminary], and in fact there is a better way – the original one.  Technology is the pin which is beginning to burst the seminary bubble.” He promises to tell us what this “better way” is in a post next week…I’m interested to see what he says.

But in anticipation of Bower’s suggestions, let’s brainstorm: If in fact technology is bursting the seminary bubble (and I’m guessing that technology is going to come into play in Bower’s solution, but I’m not sure…), then what is the better way to do seminary? Or maybe better yet, we should be asking whether seminary is just one of those institutions that will eventually (and should) die?

I’m ready to hear your opinion. Anything goes. Don’t worry about feasibility–addressing that can come later. Who’s gonna be first?

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8 thoughts on “Is there a better way to do seminary?

  1. RougueMonk

    An apprenticeship modle.

    Training in ministry under the guidance of a mentor, supplemented by twice annual meeting in cohort groups for training seminars over a two-three year span.

  2. I was pretty happy with my seminary, and while I think distance learning (i.e., technology) can be a good complement to a degree program and offers much needed flexibility, I think the classroom experience and community life that goes with it are vital and irreplaceable. I like the modular format that I experienced for that reason.

  3. Bob Pond

    I concur with Jon C that we cannot be effective learners if we are not bathe in a community of learners along with the teachers. There is something about being on-site. Having said that there is something missing about the education approach in relations to being integrated in the life of a church. I have found it too easy to divorce my studies from ministry at the time I was studying and find that the gap between studies and the reality of ministry is a little to big. As far as I’m concerned I think that the best situation right now is to study on a modular format while still in ministry. That way you have your feet in both worlds and it keeps you real during your studies. That’s my bit of thought.

  4. I’m sensing, at the very least so far, that a combination of intensive study, mixed together with a cohort of students and ministry integration are the key points.

    I’m philosophically opposed to a seminary education that is 100% online in similar commitment to the “face-to-face” learning that can only occur when there are people together in a room. However, I’ve wondered if an “ideal” situation is where a seminary program is divided into thirds: 1/3 modular format (short, intensive, face-to-face instruction); 1/3 online format (preferably in some kind of cohort); and 1/3 independent reading/research.

    Benefits: Retains a face-to-face component, but reduces expense of being away from ministry/work, and maintains better possibility of getting involved in ministry sooner (or maintaining more easily a current ministry position).

    Others?

    • R Nolan

      The division into thirds probably works as a rough outline (though, if it’s Trinitarian, do I detect a whiff of modalism?) but I think this calls for a great deal of flexibility–for example, I can see a lot of value in off-site courses, perhaps even streamed back for on-campus students.
      I, too, appreciated greatly the residential component of my seminary education, but even while on campus was faced with the difficulty of creating/maintaining a community of learners.

  5. RougueMonk

    David, I think there really needs to be a greater appreciation for the difference between the student preparing for ministry in the church and the student preparing for some other work (whether further academic study, another career, etc.). There are always exceptions, but traditional seminary programming seems to make good scholars more often than it makes good pastors. I do not question the need for rigour, careful thinking, good learning and academic preparation, but I think it could be better provided in an apprenticeship/cohort model than in a traditional seminary model.

    Not only do I think this serves the student better, but it also serves the church better by keeping its gifting in the local setting. Too often good leaders or good potential leaders are shipped away and the church suffers. Any time we can integrate the learning into the practise of ministry, I think the church is better served.

    Of course there are always exceptions. These are simply some general thoughts.

  6. Tyler

    Technology provides a medium of decentralized communication. While Canada has third-world levels of broadband penetration, it’s still sufficient to handle voice and video chat between metropolitan centers, and wireless internet business are rapidly covering rural areas to handle the same. Applications already exist for video chat rooms; recall that the communication between people is partially words, but much more tone of voice and physical expression. A group video chat, while not as immersive an experience as a coffee table, permits a substantial amount of the communication without requiring the travel. An adequately provisioned server- which doesn’t have to have any particular physical location- can handle the load from a student body fairly easily.

    In other words, while there may be a need for physical presence, the internet can not only provide substitutes for much of the “shop talk” talk that happens in hallways, but can expand the collective experience from the week-long modular courses into a year-round medium. However, it requires buy-in to be useful. That is, users have to flock to it (which requires testing and scaling, both tough but doable). It could exist separately of the existing institution’s physical buildings, or, with some displays and cameras, could be integrated with the existing campus so that people walking through hallways are invited to join the online conversations. Ditto for classrooms; virtual presence could substitute for students’ presence in term-long courses, and with a couple of display-and-camera units set up in a coffee shop they could interact not only with each other online but with campus students.

    Allowing the technological medium to substitute for what hacker-types call “meatspace” will ruffle feathers, but recall that the coming generation of seminary students grew up with cell phones, smartphones, voice and video chat, Google, and Wikipedia; what a 40-year-old student may find unnatural and uncomfortable (and reasonably so), a 22-year-old student- or 22-year-old students in five years- will find as natural as breathing. And, of course, the benefits of ubiquitous internet are obvious; practicing leaders in local churches can spend their evenings and weekends in the theology courses, and informal conversations, they need, getting both practical experience and education without having to sacrifice either because of the restrictions of the physical medium. Potential leaders in the church, with families to feed, won’t have to sacrifice their existing career for 3 years in order to start working on their education.

    A side benefit is that as courses are recorded and streamed, they can also be saved and presented online for anyone to use in a non-interactive mode. Churches in poor areas can be presented with a $400 laptop, a $200 storage drive, and the educational content of an entire college and seminary education.

    Finally, if a physical location feels the need to invest in more of a long-term net connection, a full telepresence rig is fairly expensive, used by major companies for executive meetings, but usually gets nicknamed “the holodeck” by its users. Lots of bandwidth, lots of screens, streaming video of a whole room back and forth.

    All of this is doable right now, by the way. Server costs will be a consideration, but check out
    http://bigbluebutton.org/ (open-source, built for education, unlimited streams/room)
    http://www.red5server.org/ (open-source, flash-based, seems limited to 4 users per room; not necessarily a bad thing for coffee shop tables)
    http://www.camfrog.com/ (closed-source, software-as-a-service billing, handles multiple users)
    While it’s probably a little more intense, technically, Ekiga (http://ekiga.org/) and openMCU (http://sourceforge.net/projects/openh323/files/) uses some strong technologies. Probably a good place to use GNU Gatekeeper (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_Gatekeeper), from what I understand.
    And of course, if you want to wait a couple years, odds are good that Google will have multipoint video chat upgraded to the point that it’s trivially simple.

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