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What about Community in Distance Education?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve all heard it before: “distance education might be convenient, but what you really miss is the community!” I’m here to tell you that—at least in my experience—this is hogwash.

The community life of my distance program has been incredible. If you are in America, and you’re pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree—the typical pastoral theological degree—then accreditation requirements insist that even distance programs have a certain amount of hours of face-to-face, in-person time. Different programs accomplish this different ways. For my school, in May and October I spend a week in Michigan, and in August I have a week in San Francisco, doing classes from 9-to-5 for six days straight. So, three weeks every year I’m out of town. Sure, that eats into my works’ vacation time, but not too bad.

So, imagine this. You are doing distance seminary education. No one else in your immediate life is also doing seminary. It’s an experience that is largely individual and isolated to yourself. You are reading books and learning things no one else around can relate to. Yet in your program there are these people that you interact with on message boards and maybe the occasional video, and they are the only ones that really understand all that is going on in your seminary existence—all the readings, the lectures, the frustrations, and questions. And then, you get to spend a week living life incredibly deeply with them in person. The bond and level of kinship there is so deep and develops really quickly.

And so after these “intensives”, we now have a whole other depth to our online seminary experience. These are real people with flesh and blood. You know where they are coming from in their questions. You know their stories. The people in my online cohort are some of the closest people to me in my life, and I only see them in person three times a year.

We have a private Facebook page on which we interact all the time. Prayer requests, frustrations about school, theological questions and debates, updates on our lives—anything goes. This fills in the gaps of our life together. We interact online in the classes, we keep up on the Facebook page, and we spend all our time together during those intensives. You’d be surprised how deep the relationships can get, even with this set up. We really do feel like a family.

My first year of seminary was an in-residence program. I spent a year staying on campus and living my daily life with nothing but seminarians. I can tell you that, yes, we had a bond. Heck, we still have that bond years later. But it’s more of a “brothers-in-arms in the trenches” sort of bond more than that familial, affectionate bond I have with my current classmates. I feel more invested in the lives of my distance program classmates than in my in-residence classmates, with whom my primary connection was theology.

Further—and this is huge—I’ve found that distance programs often attract a wider diversity of people. I know I’m generalizing, but in-residence programs, much of the time, pull from a much more homogenous group of people. They are usually from the same theological ilk, and of similar socio-economic (and therefore racial) groups. It’s a unique set of privileged individuals in our society that can afford the financial, emotional, and family resources to full-time, in-residence seminary education.

Distance education, however, facilitates a remarkable breadth of people that simply could never do in-residence education, even if they wanted. They are full-time pastors, church planters, husbands, wives, employees, or those in poverty or overseas. These are people that you would never get to learn from and be shaped by in a residential seminary program. This has been one of the most powerful aspects of my current seminary experience.

And so, if you’re trying to decide between in-residence and distance programs there are many things to take into account and many factors that could determine which one is best for you. But, if my experience is worth learning from, I’d say that the concern of no community isn’t nearly as legitimate as we sometimes fear it might be. Happy choosing!

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.

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