When I originally entered seminary, it was in a pretty traditional setting. A walled-in, ivy-laden campus with bearded men roaming the grounds, coffee-in-hand. We had a set schedule of classes that we dutifully went to, staring at Powerpoint presentations of varying quality, accompanied by live lecture and in-the-moment Q&A. My classmates and I would spend all our free hours together debating, arguing, refining, and sharing all our theological growth and such.
But after one year there, circumstance and convictions led me to leave that school. I worked for several years, but now I’m back in seminary, in a distance program. These two schools have similar doctrinal convictions, professorial pedigree, institutional history, and such. Therefore, I feel that I’ve been able to experience distance seminary education in a way that hopefully can give insight to anyone out there considering what sort of program to enter.
I’ll write more specifically about in-residence seminary education another time, as well as the disadvantages of distance education. For now, though, here are five advantages of distance seminary education.
1. You make your own schedule.
This—by far—is the greatest practical advantage of distance education. If you need to continue working, or if your schedule is a little disjointed, distance education can do wonders. Most online courses have a weekly rhythm—days of the week by which you have to have certain tasks done. And so it’s not a matter of having to hear a certain lecture or taking an exam at a certain time and place. There’s a deadline by which to have something done, and you get to decide when you do that.
This has allowed me to maintain a full-time job, hobbies, as well as get engaged and start planning a wedding. All while I’m a full-time seminarian. Yeah, pretty cool.
2. You can stay invested in your church community and ministry
This, in my opinion, is the greatest spiritual advantage of seminary education over distance. In my one in-residence year at my other seminary, it would astound you how many students had moved to the area for seminary, and then never really found a church. Or if they did, they never really got involved at that church in any meaningful way. They were new to the area, and so their classmates became their primary spiritual family—doing the hard work of finding a church community to also serve and live life with just seemed overwhelming in the midst of all the other duties of seminary.
And so, they were essentially removed out of communities of faith and the work of ministry, had their heads filled with a bunch of theological ideas and lived life exclusively around an already-odd and niche part of the population, and then thrown back into churches after graduation as if they would know what to do.
Distance education allows you to stay in your existing relationships and communities, letting “real life” and relationships shape and inform your seminary training. While going through the difficulty of seminary, you don’t also have to be building up new primary relationships and service opportunities.
3. It’s often more thoughtful and grace-filled
Okay, hear me out on this one. As I was doing my in-residence seminary education, theological talk dominated our every waking moment. And this isn’t a fault of seminary—it’s a feature. For those of us drawn and “called” to seminary, having these talks, debates, and discussions with others that share a similar interest and passion is so freeing and, perhaps, even fun.
But here’s the thing about distance education. Those talks still happen, but they’re often online in message boards. At first, the anonymity of this might appeal to our baser, less gracious instincts, but as you get to know these classmates, you start appreciating the time in between responses. It gives room for more grace, reflection, and thought before you continue the conversation. This leads to theological conversations that are often more fruitful to our hearts, souls, and communities.
4. The depth and diversity of community
This one deserves its own post another time. But for now, let me tell you that the concerns about “community” in a distance seminary program are largely untrue, at least as far as I’ve experienced it. Most distance seminary programs require some face-to-face time to be accredited.
For those in a distance program, these face-to-face times are amazingly powerful and deep, as you get to add flesh and blood to these others who are the only ones who really know the specifics of your seminary existence. The people in my distance cohort are some of my closest friends, and I only see them in person a few times a year.
Also, and perhaps even more importantly, distance education tends to draw people from a greater diversity of theological views, regions of the country, personal experience, and different socioeconomic and racial experiences. This tends to sharpen and refine you as a seminarian and pastor more deeply than spending years splitting hairs with people that look and think just like you.
5. It’s Incarnational and humbling
In my view, distance seminary education mirrors the “direction” of faith as a whole. The way we come to know God is not by removing ourselves from “real life” in order to attain knowledge of God. Rather, God himself brings this education into our everyday lives. This is the Incarnation, and distance seminary education has given me a greater sense of it.
Distance education allows you to gain a greater grasp on one’s knowledge and service of God while still in the midst of real, mundane life. This is incredibly humbling. You’re not just surrounded by seminarians all the time. You still have your friends, loved ones, children, churches, jobs, etc. that demand your time, attention, and care.
Yes, your increasing theological knowledge and competency can impress your fellow seminarians, and give you a sense of pride in the work you’re doing. But these “new” “exciting” theological discoveries are not the whole and substance of your lived life in a distance program. Your mind might be blown by what you’re learning, but before you can take yourself too seriously, your long-time friend experiences a break-up, someone in your small group gets cancer, a work deadline gets pushed up, housework needs to be done. In those moments, your theological depth is impressing no one.
And just like with Christ himself, distance seminary education doesn’t pull us out of mundane, everyday life and suffering, but it encounters us as we press all the more deeply into it. It forces us to get our noses out of the books and papers and language flashcards in order to see a broken world that needs healing, justice, and grace now. Not when you’re done with your degree. Not when you leave the campus grounds. Not once you receive a church call. Not after the next exam. But now. And, in my experience, distance seminary education facilitates this.
What are some of your lingering questions about distance seminary education?
By Paul Burkhart – Paul Burkhart lives in Philadelphia, PA. He is a deacon at Liberti Church and is currently working on his M.Div. through the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He works in social work, mainly in the areas of mental health and street homelessness. He blogs at The Long Way Home.