I have never been a traditional college student.

I’ve earned three degrees but never once lived on a college or seminary campus, and I’ve worked forty hours a week or more while earning every one of my degrees. In the process, I’ve witnessed a momentous shift in higher education—a movement from on-campus education in fall and spring semesters to an increasingly-complex mixture of online and on-campus components scattered across every corner of the calendar. Now, I am privileged to lead the global campus at one of the largest seminaries in the world and to oversee the research of doctoral students in the field of online theological education.

My circuitous pathway to this position began with a badly bungled telephone call.

Colleges, Catalogs, and Correspondence Courses

Sometime in my early teenage years, I discovered that everything I had any interest in doing—law, military history, and political science were piquing my interest at that time—would require a college degree. Halfway through high school, it occurred to me that I might need to find out more about what was required to go to college. No one in my immediate family had ever earned a college degree; so, even though my parents encouraged me every step of the way, their capacity to provide direction was limited. The high school I attended was a tiny fundamentalist school where most of the faculty’s qualifications were, at best, certificates from unaccredited Bible institutes; so, they weren’t much help when it came to a legitimate college education.

In the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I went to the library, located the toll-free telephone numbers for a handful of colleges, and began making calls. I don’t recall which college I called first, but I do recall the awkward conversation that followed. As soon as someone answered the telephone, I announced, “I need to know how people go to your college”—because I didn’t know what else to say.

“Well, if you’ll provide me with your address, I’ll be glad to send you a college catalog,” said the young woman on the other end of the line.

When I heard the word “catalog,” what crossed my mind were the only catalogs I knew—department store catalogs, filled with products for sale—and I was certain she’d misunderstood what I needed.

“I don’t want to buy anything,” I replied. “I just need to know how to take classes so I can get a college degree.”

“If you’ll give me your address, I’ll send a catalog so you can do that,” she repeated.

After a couple more confused exchanges, I finally gave her my address, reasoning that I could simply throw their catalog in the trash once it arrived. A few days later, I was surprised to discover that a college catalog wasn’t a colorful magazine filled with products for sale at all! It was exactly what I needed to figure out how to earn a college degree—a small book that explained the college’s degree programs, tuition rates, and scholarships.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had sensed a calling to vocational ministry, but my resolve to find a way to earn a college degree was stronger than ever. My ACT scores had qualified me as a State Scholar, which covered much of my tuition, and my family’s income level qualified me for a federal supplemental educational opportunity grant. Still, I didn’t have the resources to cover room and board in addition to the cost of tuition and books. And so, I lived at home, about a half-hour drive from campus, and I worked one part-time job at the library and another part-time job at a Christian bookstore, in addition to serving as a worship minister on weekends. Since I couldn’t always fit the courses I needed around my work schedule and since the college didn’t offer summer or winter sessions, I took three or four correspondence courses every summer. Each of these courses came with a syllabus, sometimes supplemented with audiocassette tapes, and a list of textbooks. I completed the assignments and mailed them to a teacher with a self-addressed stamped envelope. A few weeks after sending off each assignment, I received my graded work back in the mail.

One of my tasks in the library was assigning call numbers to new books and cataloging them. Near the end of my first year as a college student, a new step was added to the process. I became responsible to verify the accuracy of each call number by accessing records at the Library of Congress through a computer connected to a network known as UUNET Alternet. I saw nothing but text on a blue screen, but I was in awe. Here I was, in a library in Kansas, looking directly at records that were located in Washington, D.C.! Little did I know that this same technology was in the process of revolutionizing education in a way that would change the future direction of my life.

‘A Better Way to Do This’

During my last summer of college, a small-town church in Missouri called me as their pastor, and I moved into a parsonage next door to the church building. By this time, I had recognized that I needed seminary training—but the nearest seminary to my church was nearly two hours away. At this particular seminary, no courses were available via distance education, and no classes were offered in any format other than four days per week. And so, once again, I found myself driving back and forth to get an education—except that I was now driving almost four hours each day, four days per week, and a congregation of believers in a small town was looking to me for leadership and pastoral care.

I tried to make the best of those hours in the car, listening to audiocassettes of the Scriptures and to lecture series from Ligonier Ministries. Sometimes, I spent a night or two in Kansas City instead of making the long haul home. Yet the fact that I was missing from the church most of the week took a toll on my effectiveness as a pastor. Over and over during those many long hours on the highway, I found myself thinking, “Surely, there’s a better way to do this.”

After graduating from seminary, I began seeking some way to complete a research doctorate, and it was my quest for a doctoral program that opened the door to experiencing a “better way.”

By this time, I was serving a church in Oklahoma, far away from any opportunity to complete a doctorate in any area in which I was interested. During my first year in that church, I learned about a new doctoral program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dial-up Internet was available almost everywhere in the United States by this point, and Southern Seminary was experimenting with doctoral courses that blended Internet-based discussions with on-campus seminars that were packed into intensive one-week and two-week formats. Students pursued their degrees in cohorts and completed their coursework together. Now, instead of making dozens of trips to campus every semester, I made only three trips per year.

When I was on campus in Louisville, I was able to spend focused time researching and writing with a community of fellow doctoral students. When I was at home in Oklahoma, I interacted with my cohort and our professors in online discussion forums. There, we wrestled with content that we were reading and related our readings to our ministry contexts. This was, by far, the most enriching educational experience of my life. But not everyone finds online learning to be helpful.

The Problem and the Promise of Online Theological Education

Perspectives vary widely on whether online courses are a suitable medium for the training of God-called ministers. Some have suggested that:

…online discussion forums are a perfect opportunity for seminarians to realize that the knowledge they are acquiring is meant to be shared, and the forums themselves provide them with the venue in which to practice skills of communication related to the evangelization of others. These skills, along with the human formation skills also acquired online, will be invaluable to seminarians who will use them when reaching out to their parishioners in face-to-face encounters and through various communicative media. (Mahfood and Barbeau 2012, 34)

Others have taken an opposite perspective, declaring that “online education for credit does not aid, much less enrich, theological education. It dehumanizes it. It takes us too far from a biblical pattern of theological education” (House 2010, 4).

My perspective is somewhere in between. I’m thankful for the flexibility that online education has made possible. I know from past experience the deep struggle of desiring an education but never having the resources to quit work and move to a campus. Today, I am privileged to work with students from around the globe in online courses, facilitating their assimilation of new knowledge. Right now, in one online course with about twenty students, I’m teaching ministers scattered across twelve different states and three different continents, and there’s one student whose location I don’t even know because he’s serving in a country that’s closed to the gospel. For many of these students, online theological education is the only means that’s available to equip them for ministry.

At the same time, I’m also cautious about training pastors and other ministers from a distance. I have no doubt that online education can produce the same test scores as on-campus education. But preparation for ministry is far more than mere movement of data from the professor’s mind to a student’s memory. Ministry preparation requires the intentional formation of  God-called men and women for the faithful practice of ministry among persons who are collectively the beloved Bride of Christ. Intentional formation for ministry requires personal care and interaction.

As I watch the rapid growth of online learning, my most pressing concern is that theological seminaries may transition their training to online formats for purely pragmatic reasons—recruitment, retention, the pursuit of profitability. What can quickly be forgotten in this rush toward online education is that the Scriptures and our theological confessions should shape not only the content of our courses but also their design and delivery. If the Scriptures and our theological confessions don’t determine the design and delivery of courses, preparation for ministry can be reduced from the pursuit of Christ-centered formation to a bare transfer of theological information.

Over the final few weeks of 2015, I spent a lot of time looking at the history and future of online learning as I develop my goals for the upcoming year, and this post is an outgrowth of my evaluation. Looking at the landscape of theological education in my own institution and elsewhere with these concerns in mind, I find myself repeatedly returning to three key questions as I work through these issues:

(1) How will we teach students to value place if students and faculty are never together in the same space?

The locations where we live and serve, eat and play, make friendships and make love are not holding tanks where we await the cosmic salvation of our spirits. These locations are pregnant with rhythms of life and relationships that reflect the splendor of humanity’s creation in God’s image. God did not design us to live as disembodied avatars in virtual worlds but as bundles of bone and flesh and soul interwoven in place and space. Particularly for pastors in training, it is essential to develop the discipline of learning the story of a particular place and participating deeply in the life of that place. When seminary faculty and students live and learn together in the same location, their shared love for that location can cultivate the students’ capacity to value  locales where they will serve in the future.

In online learning, faculty and institutions are faced with the far more difficult task of simultaneously shaping the student’s love for his or her own context and for the seminary community when the two contexts may never overlap. If a student never values the seminary as a community woven in time and place, the institution will be perceived as nothing more than an educational vending machine from which the student receives a credential after inserting the appropriate amounts of cash and effort. A degree earned with this attitude serves not as a marker of the student’s formation for ministry but as a commodity that’s necessary for advancement. Merely living in the same location doesn’t guarantee a student’s formation by the faculty, of course—but living apart certainly makes such formation more complex.

Online seminary education must be designed and delivered so that students simultaneously develop deep appreciation for the institution and deep love for the place where God has called them to serve

(2) How will we select, value, and equip faculty for a task that requires more time and engagement than an on-campus class?

In an on-campus course, a student gleans much information informally through a professor’s unscripted digressions in class, in comments overheard in hallways, and through conversations with fellow students in the cafe. Online student can’t pick up this informal information as easily as on-campus students. The result is that online learning requires greater effort and engagement from the faculty than on-campus education, which in turn calls for smaller class sizes and more faculty. In some instances, an online course may be developed using an on-campus professor’s video content and then delivered to students under the guidance of an adjunct instructor. If these adjunct instructors are under-compensated or under-equipped, such a system exploits the instructors and provides students with subpar education. However, when adjuncts are well-equipped and well-valued, they can provide an equivalent or even superior experience for students—-especially in theological education, where many of these adjuncts are active and faithful pastors with research doctorates.

Effective online theological education requires a corps of fairly compensated and highly trained adjunct faculty who are appropriately credentialed and actively engaged in ministry.

(3) How will we effectively partner with the student’s local church so that this congregation becomes the student’s primary context for formation as a minister?

Many expressions of online learning focus on the development of virtual learning communities in online environments. Online discussion forums and video chats are helpful pedagogical practices that should be part of every online course design. And yet, I’m increasingly convinced that the assumption that such tools can provide a platform for the formation of authentic community may be misguided. Fellowship is primarily physical and face-to-face, and God has designed the local church to fulfill this purpose in the lives of his people. When it comes to ministers in training, perhaps the primary locus of the online student’s community of learning should be the local church.

What this would mean practically is that mentoring partnerships and projects pursued in the student’s local church would become an essential part of the curriculum. More important, it would require mentors in the local church to provide guidance for the student and feedback for the professor, so that the congregation joins forces with the seminary to create a thriving context for the student’s formation as a minister.

These three concerns have formed the foundation for my plans as a professor and as an administrator for the upcoming year. My goals are (1) to develop learning experiences in online courses that guide students to grow in valuing and understanding both the place where God has placed them and the place where God has placed Southern Seminary, (2) to deepen the ways in which we value and equip faculty, and (3) to create innovative pathways for online theological education that work with local churches so that these congregations become the student’s community of learning.

Should I Earn My Degree Online?

So what do I tell students who are thinking about pursuing ministry training fully online? I try to help them to see that an all-online degree is an option—but it’s far from their only option! Here are three pathways that I would urge you to consider if you’re called to ministry:

(1) Online learning can be your entrance ramp.

Maybe you can’t move to a seminary campus right now—but you could begin planning now to relocate later. Set a date when you’ll move to seminary and begin looking now at housing and jobs. Start preparing your family for the move. Until that date rolls around, complete as many online courses as possible.

(2) You can combine online learning with rich and rewarding on-campus experiences.

Nearly every seminary offers one-week courses, particularly in the summers. At Southern Seminary, we’ve pioneered an outstanding array of hybrid modular courses that require only two days on campus per course. If you chose to pursue this blended approach, you might set aside spacific weeks in the summer to take as many classes on campus as possible, in addition to online courses throughout the rest of the year. While on campus, make deliberate efforts to build relationships with faculty and fellow students. If you’re attending seminary in a city or on a campus that has plenty to do, consider bundling these modular course weeks with a family trip. If you happened to come to Southern Seminary, for example, your family could spend a week swimming in the recreation center, catching a minor-league baseball game, visiting the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, touring Churchill Downs, or enjoying a day of play at the science museum—or eating ice cream at Comfy Cow in the pink house on Frankfort Avenue, all while you’re in class.

(3) Online learning can prepare you for effective ministry.

Some students simply can’t come to campus—I know that. And, even though I urge students to spend as much time on a campus as possible, I sincerely believe that it’s possible to prepare students for ministry through the medium of online learning. If your circumstances exclude any possibility of relocating, look for a seminary that’s known for an outstanding faculty, that’s constantly improving the online learning experience, and that’s pursuing innovative pathways for partnerships with local churches. Don’t settle for the easiest or cheapest education, and don’t settle for training that’s nothing more than a transfer of information from a talking head to you. Your Master of Divinity degree should not be a mark of certification achieved in isolation but an evidence of preparation pursued in community. Perhaps most important of all, root your life deeply in a local church and constantly test what you’re learning in that blood-bought community of men and women in union with Christ.