In an article at Christianity Today, the following breathtaking news was reported in July, 2017: “The influential US evangelical institution Fuller Theological Seminary is closing several of its locations and ‘retooling for a different world’ because of the growing demand for online education and the increase in online enrollment.” The Church, it seems is going online. The camel’s nose that was Internet Seminary Education has, in a matter of a few years, fully entered the tent and upended pastoral formation as we know it. Sirens should be heard and lights should be flashing in your mind. You should be alarmed.
Seminaries and church bodies have officially and irrevocably caved to financial and convenience pressures of maintaining brick and mortar locations. And now, all the blessings of such locations – observation of a student’s character, forming their spiritual habits, having honest discussions that can only be had in-person – will soon be a thing of the past. I am, to be blunt, disturbed by this trend.
Of course, the Internet has many wonderful uses and can ably be used for instruction. I even know people who change out their automobile’s brake pads after watching a DIYer do it on YouTube! While I am barely keeping up with technological innovation, I am not opposed to Internet instruction in theory, even for many professional fields. But for heavens sake: if there is one calling in life that ought to be permanently immune from online instruction, it is the pastorate. Somewhere along the way, a confederacy of every seminary and church body around the globe should have been formed that permanently forbade this camel from the grounds, much less the tents. The seminary marketplace being what it is, however, rendered such a fantasy fantastic.
But consider: with what do we trust our pastors? We trust them to at the very least do the “basics” of handling God’s Word and administering the Sacraments. Shouldn’t that alone be enough to convince church bodies that serious and intensive personal time is mandatory for all would-be pastors? Hello! These are the precious things of God! And while traditional seminaries do not weed out all unfit candidates for ministry, surely they stand a better chance than a few online interactions.
But to what else do we trust pastors? They enter hospital rooms and nursing homes at vulnerable and heart-breaking times. They counsel grieving and distraught people. They hear confidential confessions of sin. They frequently have access to money. They are afforded private time with children. They are the face of congregations and need to be tactful, discreet, and passionate about its goings-on. They are evangelists who need to be good apologists for the faith. They need to be good in meetings and work well with staff. Those are the kinds of invaluable interactions that pastors will need to be effective in ministry. And seminaries ought to be places that evaluates the whole person, be it their professional, personal and spiritual readiness. If I’m right that seminaries ought to do all of the above, do we really believe online schools can achieve that?
Consider this my screed against online theological education. We first allowed it to be a choice; within a few years it will be the norm. And then there will probably be a death spiral for brick and mortar schools in the same way the death spiral comes for churches: expensive properties, not enough people, and the problems compound from there. The online classes have become a financial lifeline for cash-strapped seminaries in the last decade. But soon they will cripple the seminary. The model worked okay as an addendum to a brick and mortar structure. But when we gave people the convenient option and they chose it, the brick and mortar schools will find it difficult or unnecessary to have a building at all! Soon, there may not even be the option to “go to seminary.” Again: how in the world can we train people for ministry among people when we don’t require that their formative years, well, be among people?
But what is equally troubling is the convenience we allow to future pastors as they approach their time of study and ordination. Far be it from me to sound like the bitter curmudgeon, but in my day, those who wanted to be pastors actually pulled up stakes and dared to study away from home for a few years. You know, A DECADE AGO. Sounds crazy right? But that was just the beginning of the commitment to the ministry: you left home as a matter of course, as a matter of the calling. You served the flock by moving, by becoming a nomad, a pilgrim of sorts. It’s part of “the life”.
Since when did we decide to give future pastors the choice of convenience while they study? What kind of tone does that set? “Oh, you don’t want to quit your job or move while you study to serve Christ’s Church? No problem! Stay where you are and study at your convenience! All that is lost with in-person instruction will just be the price we all pay for your convenience.”
“But Pastor McClanahan,” you may be saying, “what about all of those second-career pastors who have families and can’t uproot to go to a brick and mortar seminary? Doesn’t online education offer them a solution?” Good point. Now that I think about it, why in the world are we pushing so many second-call pastors through? It seems this should be a serious wake-up call to start locating young men (and/or women) for the ministry no later than Confirmation and working with their parents on a plan for seminary. Why are we so bashful? The Church needs these servants. All of those second-career folks say things like, “You know I always felt called, I just put it off.” They put it off because we let them. That needs to change.
Or perhaps – just go ahead and get the tar and feathers ready now – we just don’t accept second-call candidates for the ministry if they can’t or won’t relocate for seminary. Again, relocating to the Church for service is a bedrock reality of ministry. If you can’t do it for seminary, what is so magical about your first call?
The Bonhoeffer House is an attempt to offer the best of all worlds: students can get their academic credentials online while living in an intensive community. But unless a church body or other seminaries support that vision, it will never happen. So long as we allow a convenient option for students to stay where they are, there is no reason for them to uproot to a community like it. What is so disappointing is that seminaries and church bodies allow this convenient option. If anyone wanted to know what I would do were I in charge (perish the thought!), I would demand that all seminary students attend or live in a brick and mortar setting so that a full assessment of their gifts can be made.
And in the long run, avoiding that will do serious damage to the Church. Pastors who have sacrificed to be trained will become more rare; pastors who have had serious mentoring and oversight during their formative years will be rare; pastors who understand that their formation is about much more than getting the requisite degree will be rare. And that means that true pastors will become more and more rare. The seminaries, in adopting the Internet model and not demanding in-person formation, are sealing their own fate. The solution to church contraction is surely not giving in to Internet conveniences. Rather, it is raising up pastors who are uniquely qualified, ready, willing and able to lead the church in a sacrificial manner. Nothing speaks less of that kind of sacrificial leadership than Internet training for the pastorate.