When I was sixteen, I inexplicably got a job as a mechanic. I was assigned to tires and batteries—the kindergarten of the automotive world. Even in the department in which I could do the least damage, I was a problem. Flat tires I repaired came back flat. New batteries I put in acted like old batteries. (Diehards died easily in my hands.) I installed one muffler that did not muffle. I was not trusted around brakes. I pray that I did not hurt anyone.
After a week of other mechanics repairing my repairs, the manager took me aside: “Brett, we don’t want bad things to happen, so you’re now a student in our automotive repair correspondence program. You get a ten cent an hour raise for each test you pass. You make more money and the customers stay alive. Everybody wins.”
A week later I was making sixty cents more an hour, but I still could not work a pair of pliers. I learned to fix cars when the manager ordered real mechanics to work with me. They stuck their head under the same hood, showed me how to do it, and answered my questions. We do not want mechanics, doctors, firefighters, police officers, or ministers who do all of their preparation with a workbook.
Seminaries are dealing with difficult questions about how to prepare ministers. The number of Master of Divinity students in the United States decreased 6% last year. When seminaries struggle financially they are tempted to offer online versions of correspondence courses. The majority of the small number of seminaries that are growing are doing so by offering online degrees. New degree programs and new delivery systems are attempts to meet the demand for cheaper diplomas, fewer classes, and less sacrifice. Many students who study online are juggling work and family responsibilities, but for others it is about expediency.
We need to recognize what we give up when we whittle down requirements. Degrees that cost less to obtain may cost more in the long run.
Financial challenges make it difficult for seminaries to keep asking important questions: What kind of teaching will best serve Christ’s church? How can we give students the kind of learning experience they can share in their ministries? Where is the Spirit leading? What would God have us do?
Reading books and taking quizzes is a fine way to learn facts, but we need relationships to learn to live as the church. Even when the technology is amazing, the teachers are not sticking their heads under the same hood. Students sit at their computers watching lectures that the professors delivered to previous students. The professors miss the confused look on the student’s face as well as the “aha” moment of shared discovery.
Many students complain about online classes. They recognize that this is not the best preparation to serve. Students who attend classes in person find it hard not to resent those who receive the same degree without paying the same price. Students who wish they could meet with their professor and other students are denied the opportunity when the class they need is only offered online. The trend in theological education to require less of students will, in time, hurt the church. Is it really a seminary education if we are not worshipping together, praying with one another, or talking about Jesus between classes?
My experience as a seminary student was less about memorizing content than about being transformed by teachers who shared themselves. I do not remember many dates from church history, but I remember Bill Leonard working hard to convince us that the history of the church could lead us to love the church. I am fuzzy about whether Karl Barth was from Switzerland or Germany, but I remember when Frank Tupper talked about the problem of evil with a heart so broken that our hearts broke, too. I cannot tell you the name of every textbook Raymond Bailey assigned, but when my wife Carol suffered a miscarriage, Raymond and his wife Pat drove an hour to pray with us.
When people argue for online education they often say, “It’s almost like being in the same room,” but almost is not as good. Some students and young professors will never know how good a seminary education can be.
Students can learn online. Friendships can form on line. God can be heard through computer speakers, but it is hard to imagine the Lord’s Supper as a Skype meeting.