Bob Peterson is minister of Christian Formation at Crossroads Church in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. He has been in the position for two years. Prior to this, Bob was an active member of the congregation and a marketing analyst for a financial firm. At age 38, he felt God’s call to make a change in his life direction. With the support of his wife Kathy, a secondary education teacher, he accepted the invitation of his church to become its third staff member.
As part of his support package, Bob and the church’s Personnel Committee agreed that he would pursue a seminary degree. Bob wanted to be the best minister he could be and both the pastor and the Personnel Committee supported this desire. They knew that this would be good for the church.
The committed decided that tuition and expenses such as books (most available in a digital format) would be paid by the church with the understanding that Bob would continue to serve the church for at least five years after he completed his degree. If he leaves before then, he will reimburse the church half of the cost of his education prorated to reflect the amount of time he has been on staff.
Bob found a seminary that could provide the degree program that works for him. The main campus is located in a large Midwestern city, but that’s not a problem since all of the classes for the degree are offered in an online format. Most weeks, Bob will sit down in front of his computer one or two nights and participate in synchronous class time with other students in eight other states and one foreign country. There are always two or three students physically present with the professor who may be on the main campus or a satellite location of the seminary in two or three cities across the country. Many of the class assignments can be completed at any time. Bob can access video streaming lectures, podcasts, and other resources on the seminary’s online instructional platform. In addition, many courses require group collaboration at other times and this takes place through videoconferencing or online forums.
As a student at the seminary, Bob has full access to the online catalog of the seminary for research purposes. He can access digital resources immediately and can request that print materials be sent by mail.
In order to make sure that Bob is fully engaged, he has a mentor coach who meets with him a couple of times a month by videoconference. His mentor lives in another state, but he and Bob have established a good rapport. The mentor encourages Bob not only in his academic development but often spends time talking with him about Bob’s spiritual growth and the application of what he is learning in his classes to the church where he serves. It doesn’t hurt that the mentor coach is a Ravens fan!
The mentor coach, Bob’s pastor, and a member of the church’s personnel committee compose a support team that meets with Bob by teleconference or video conference at the end of each academic term to help him evaluate his progress, suggest ways to use his ministry and study time more effectively, provide accountability to the church, and give feedback to the seminary to make Bob’s experience more productive.
Bob is welcome to travel to the main campus to take intensive courses in person or attend conferences, but the only time he will probably be on campus is when he graduates and receives his degree. Even so, he has developed friendships with other students across the country and enjoys ready access to his professors.
Some of you may be shaking your heads and dismissing this as speculative fiction. Think again. All of this is available right now to those who wish to pursue a theological education. Churches can partner with seminaries to help staff members obtain an affordable, accessible, and applicable education while they are immersed in ministry. Formation for ministry has changed for present and prospective ministers. Welcome to a new day!