(RNS) Theological education has increasingly left brick-and-mortar schools and headed back to congregations and family homes as more seminarians study online.

Daniel O. Aleshire photo by Allison Shirreffs/courtesy The Association of Theological Schools

Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, an accreditation and membership organization of more than 270 graduate schools. Photo by Allison Shirreffs/courtesy the Association of Theological Schools

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“The old move — uproot your family, get a new job, move to the seminary — that model isn’t working for so many people today,” said Ronald Hawkins, vice provost at Liberty University, which has around 9,000 students in its online seminary.

“They are looking for a way to increase their biblical theological knowledge, to expand their ministry skills and to remain within the context of the ministry setting.”

Despite “huge” hesitancy to allow online theological degrees, online education is growing, said Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, the main accrediting body for more than 270 seminaries and graduate schools.

Until 2012, ATS did not allow any degrees to be offered fully online. Now ATS allows Master of Arts programs to be earned fully online; last February, ATS created a process for Master of Divinity programs to waive residency requirements.

So far, six schools — Anderson University School of Theology, Chicago Theological Seminary, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Pentecostal Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary — have been granted exceptions to residency requirements for either the Master of Arts or Master of Divinity degree.

Today, 103 ATS member schools (38 percent) offer at least six courses online.

“The schools have been learning more effective ways to provide online courses,” said Aleshire. “The door has been opened for schools that have particular expertise, particular information and a particular constituency that would benefit from this form of information.”

Still, there’s some fear that students unsuited to ministry — whether by lacking interpersonal skills or moral character — could walk away with an online degree, Aleshire said.

“The sense is that theological education is not just the transfer of certain types of information; it’s about the transformation of individuals who then have the intellectual and spiritual maturity to serve as leaders,” Aleshire said.

But seminaries are realizing that offering online degrees can allow older students to stay in established communities.

John Aukerman photo courtesy Dale Pickett

John Aukerman, director of distance learning at Anderson University, which recently received accreditation from ATS for its online Master of Arts program, said although he believes studying in a traditional model is best, the online model is the only option for many students. Photo courtesy Dale Pickett/Anderson University

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The average online student at Liberty University is 35 and married with children, Hawkins said. Moving to a traditional seminary means uprooting the family and, particularly for older students, leaving their church community.

John Aukerman, director of distance learning at Anderson University, said that although he believes studying in a traditional model is best, the online model is sometimes the only option for many students.

The Church of God, the denomination Anderson University is affiliated with, does not require a seminary degree for ordination, Aukerman said. Thus, many of the roughly 2,300 Church of God pastors lack graduate degrees and wish to improve their theological education without leaving their congregation.

“It’s kind of an uneasy compromise,” Aukerman said. “I want to offer what’s best, but if they can’t take what’s best, let’s offer them something that’s good anyway.”

But for Daryl Eldridge, president of Rockbridge Seminary, an online-only school with about 200 students, the online versus traditional seminary debate is not a matter of which is “best,” but which suits the individual student. When a student already has a ministry, online education is the best option, Eldridge said.

Dr. Daryl Eldridge photo courtesy Dr. Daryl Eldridge

Daryl Eldridge, president of Rockbridge Seminary, an online-only school with about 200 students, says the online versus traditional seminary debate is not a matter of which is “best,” but which suits the individual student. Photo courtesy Daryl Eldridge

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“It brings theological education back to the church, where I think it belongs, so students are learning ministry by being engaged in ministry,” Eldridge said.

At Liberty, online students watch videos of professors’ lectures and interact with each other through online forums. Professors are available by email or phone and must respond within 24 hours.

Sometimes the virtual interaction between students and professors may be greater than in a traditional environment, Hawkins said. In addition to receiving feedback from a credentialed professor, students often receive additional responses from pastors, elders and other members of their ministry.

Aleshire said online programs at ATS member schools must also have some “patterns of face to face interaction.”

“There’s real formational power in a community of students with teachers living and working together, and online students aren’t going to have that kind of experience,” Aleshire said. “There’s also real formational power in working with persons in a congregation and being engaged and embedded in a congregation.”



  1. I understand contemporary pressures; however, when I attended Bangor Theological Seminary in the early Eighties, huge amounts of my learning took place through personal contact with other students, teachers, visiting clergy and judicatory heads, speakers and–let’s remember what we’re doing here–chapel! Seminary is less about transferring blocks of information from A to B than it is about ministerial formation and discernment. Even with all of that, and denominational oversight, a few people that had no business in ministry attained degrees and were inflicted on unsuspecting churches, to mutual pain. On-line only is not a good idea! The Rev. Stephen Cook

  2. We provide education with some of the foremost instructors in the country – both for Continuing Professional Education for Ministers and Education for Ministerial Competency. We are happy to partner with institutions seeking ways to advance the ONLINE EDUCATION you desire while providing the highest quality of instruction, student interaction, learning and outcomes measurement, and records management – and our mission is about TRANSFORMING THE CHURCH for God’s Future for us.

  3. The Rev John Hartman

    I can’t help but wonder about “formation.” How does that happen online?

    Being part of both a learning and worshiping community in seminary was invaluable in my formation as an Episcopal priest. I’m sure it can be done, but I’m so grateful that i was afforded the opportunity to live in a faith community for three years, sharing closely my discernment with others.

  4. Forgive me if my suggestion misses the mark of dealing with the concern directly, but I wonder if there isn’t a methodology available that would deal with the concerns that I’m seeing voiced here regarding the individual character and spiritual growth of students. If established pastors with live congregations were willing to act as “character sponsors” for applicants to participate in online study, it would be possible to gain some measure of accountability by establishing required goals for these students in local bodies. Applicants to these study programs could be required to gain mentoring and congregational participation oversight commitments from local pastors with a requirement to maintain them throughout the education process. They could act as the local “Paul” to monitor the “Timothys” within their congregation and report their observations as required by online educators in order to receive credit for their studies.

  5. One aspect that is very much a part of this debate is cost. We expect priests to get heavily burdened with enormous debt and then pay them poorly. Not only is that immoral, it adds undo stress into their lives that reduce the power of their ministry.

    An online degree allows them to pursue the education slower while paying as they go.

    If we collectively as Christians believe residency is important, we need to bring the costs dramatically down.

  6. It is easy to find criticisms to dole out to online education. But it is just as easy to find praise for those who seek online education (and those who provide it). Can you find examples of students who did not grow or learn yet still received a degree? Undoubtably yes. Will you find online programs that are not worth their salt? Again, undoubtably yes.
    As technology changes, we have to have faith and look for what is good and can be good: the opportunity for those who are unable, for what ever reason, to grow spiritually. These individuals are in a position to pass on their wisdom immediately to the communities that they serve–that is, they are immediately teaching rather than remaining absent from their community.
    These individuals also come to know the digital landscape and thus position themselves to bring Christ to others who communicate primarily through online technologies. We are here to teach about Jesus’s love to those who haven’t heard of it as much as remind those who have of its power. There are so many who can be reached through the web and we need experienced individuals to reach them. We cannot pretend that there are not opportunities to save at least one person through the web. Likewise, if an online education only adequately prepares one person and that person only brings one soul to know Jesus, then isn’t it worth it?

    Am I biased? Yes, but no more so than those who have studied at a brick and mortar location who argue for a brick and mortar education. I love the education that I am getting at through Colorado Theological Seminary (http://www.seminary.ws). The biggest challenges that I face are that I must hold myself accountable–no one will come knock on my dorm room door if I stop turning in assignments. I have to come to terms, in a very real way, that I have to chose to complete my degree and I have to ask God for the help, strength, and wisdom to do it. I have to trust that He will lead me and reveal Himself to me in the world and life that I think I already know so well.
    I also have to get comfortable learning from individuals whom I may never meet during my life time–I have to have faith that they will come through. It helps me to get more comfortable with a similar learning situation that all of us live everyday. No, I don’t meet all of my classmates, but even during my brick and mortar undergraduate days, though I may have known all 200 of my classmates by face, I did not have intimate relationships with all of them. God gives us the friends we need when we need them–and sometimes we have to trust that He can do it even in an environment that we are unsure about.

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