Thanks to online learning tools like Blackboard, Seminary is no longer out of reach to missionaries who are out in the field. Whether you are a home missionary or an overseas one, a Seminary education is now within your reach without having to abandon the ministry, as was the case with those who went out before us, in the days prior to online learning.
However, missionaries must know that online learning does not make seminary a walk in the park. The demands on the student’s finances and time are still enormous. In many cases, these demands are even greater, as online learning requires that students have even more reading material to go through and their distance from the school may put a burden on their finances associated not only with shipping costs but also with the lack of available financial aid and scholarships. Moreover, some unexpected hardships that do not overcome resident students might take you by surprise, mainly the lack of source availability for completing research papers as well as the lack of relevant courses. However, these difficulties may be avoided or diminished if precautions are taken.
If you are serving the Lord overseas, be prepared to face some hardships when a paper is due. As stated above, online learning demands more reading, but it also demands more writing. Professors must, after all, have a way to ascertain whether or not students are grasping the class content. The best way to do that is by way of research papers, open ended questions, and class discussions. If you took online classes during your undergraduate years, forget all that you have encountered. Seminary is much more intense and you will now have to cite sources even in informal class discussion boards. However, your access to sources is significantly less than that of your classmates. They have all of their books, which they have accumulated all throughout their lives, with them; you might have left most of yours back home. Also, they have the campus library and even local public libraries to look through when they are one book short of the 15 citations from different sources that might be required in a research paper while you can only call on a fellow missionary 100 miles from you and hope that he has something you might borrow. Because of this, you are strongly advised to become familiar with your seminary’s online library. Seminaries have access to an almost limitless amount of scholarly articles in an online database, but finding them takes some getting used to. Don’t be afraid to call your seminary’s librarian the minute you find out about a paper due. Don’t ever assume that, just because you can search through Google, you can search through the Religion ATLA database. These scholarly articles are extremely focused. If you need an article, for instance, on the Calvinist order of salvation, typing in the search fields, “Calvinist, order of salvation” might get you nothing. Begin to play around with those words and you are looking at wasting an entire evening for no good purpose. A librarian might be able to let you know that you should really type in “supralapsarianism” or “Calvin, ordo salutis”, which would land you dozens of excellently useful articles. Therefore, before embarking on your first course, do find out how to navigate the online library and how to call the librarian.
Another tip on sources: You will certainly need books for all of those classes that you will sign up for. If you order books from the US, especially stores that you were once accustomed to buying from, (i.e., the seminary’s bookstore, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon), be prepared to pay double the total price for books because international shipping fees are brutal. Search instead for an international online bookstore. One such bookstore is www.bookdepository.com, which ships free out of the UK anywhere in the world. Also, do find out if the country you are in will charge custom duty. Many do not charge for books, and if you are in Europe, anything that ships from the UK is duty free, but if you are in a place where they will charge you an arm and a leg for books shipped, or where packages tend to mysteriously disappear in the mail (such as Africa and South America), investing in a Kindle might be your best and only option.
Another peculiarity of being a missionary seminary student is that not many classes are tailored to your ministry needs. Your seminary will probably give you a choice of more than one course in evangelism, church planting, and missions that you may take. Do not just look at the course title or take the word of your admissions counselor. Do read the syllabus carefully and then take the extra step of analyzing the required reading online before enrolling on a course you are not required to take. This is because, fairly enough, most American Seminary courses that focus on the many areas of ministry are tailored to those who minister in America, to an American audience. As such, you might find yourself investing time and money on an extremely interesting course that will give you zero practical teaching on your own calling. Unfortunately, even some theology courses require students to read books that look at particular doctrines as they are perceived by the American audience. While home missionaries are encouraged to take these, those of us who are in foreign countries will find the information completely useless.
It is our prayer that you will be not only academically successful in Seminary, but that in it you will also find encouragement, spiritual growth, and even the right tools to make your mission flourish. Do make the best out of it, and don’t be afraid to take some outside courses as a visiting student at other institutions, if those are best for you.
Written by Luciana Damascena. Luciana is a student at Liberty Baptist Seminary, currently in the M. Divinity program. She is a full time career missionary with BCM International and is serving in Portugal along with her husband and two children.