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Setting the Believers an Example: Strategy and Tactics in Online Seminary Education

By Hannah W. Matis

I appreciated Kirk Smith’s recent piece, published on this blog, on his tenure as the interim dean of CDSP and the several directions in which he senses that seminary education is heading. Alongside my fellow medievalist, I agree entirely that to be engaged in the formation of seminarians is an incredible privilege, an opportunity to see the future of the church taking shape before your eyes. I echo his cri de cœur for bishops and the wider church to be engaged with, and to invest in, this future, to work and to hope for the next generation even while — in fact, because — we live amid radical environmental and social change. Seminaries are not an optional extra, nor a luxury we can no longer afford. If the future of the Episcopal Church includes more laypeople, as Bishop Smith argues, so be it — as a layperson myself I can only applaud — but that will require strategic planning and investment in lay education, which seminaries are actually best placed to provide.

In particular, I would like to respond to and somewhat nuance Bishop Smith’s call for the church to embrace online education. I have been engaged in online teaching in a variety of forms since I entered graduate school 20 years ago; throughout my nine years teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary, I taught both online courses and in-person courses with online components. And like virtually all faculty and clergy I know, my teaching and service moved online during the COVID pandemic, while we had to make do as best we could. I have continued to teach students online in classes beyond the Episcopal Church, precisely because I have been curious about the experience and how to improve online pedagogy in my particular subject area. I am very aware that this does not make me an expert in online education and technology. The following, however, are some observations I offer regarding the nature of the online formation of seminarians for the Episcopal Church, including some warnings and cautionary tales.

In one fell swoop, online seminary promises to eliminate many of the challenges faced by residential seminary education: the necessity of asking seminarians (and faculty and staff) to move with their families, the expense of maintaining residential institutions with nationally recognized accreditation, and on a more general level, the promise of more “practical” and “applied” learning. But online education is not the same thing as formation, a distinction that Bishop Smith explicitly notes, when he describes the hollowing out of a solid grounding in the core disciplines of seminary education at the expense of tangential, of-the-moment electives.

It is very easy and natural for online education in particular to become piecemeal, and very difficult to make all the different bits join up in a disciplinarily cohesive whole — particularly when faculty with different disciplinary and academic backgrounds are living in different states and have little personal contact with one another beyond the odd Zoom meeting (and most Zoom meetings are very odd). In sacrificing residential seminary formation for the sake of cost-effective “education,” the Episcopal Church, always a regional and diverse body, risks losing one of its most effective organs for creating and maintaining its identity as a denomination.

Simultaneously one of the most beautiful and most difficult things about seminary education, from a faculty perspective, is that it is almost never what any of us actually got our Ph.D. in: as faculty, we come to seminary with a highly specialized training that, as teachers and colleagues, we have to broaden, adjust, and adapt to the needs of our students and the wider church, alongside our fellow faculty. After many years of the intensive, narrowing drive to specialize, we have to open ourselves out again. Seminary education is inevitably integrative as a result, interdisciplinary in nature, involving the whole person of both faculty and students. In that sense it is a healthy model of education in ways that, I would argue, conventional academia is not. It is also an extremely difficult thing to achieve, for that exact same reason, and requires both faculty and students to be all in to reap its deepest and greatest benefits.

My hunch is that online seminary will be very efficient at offering individual courses or seminars on isolated topics, such as courses on reading spreadsheets, filing taxes, or the basics of church administration that Bishop Smith suggests that clergy need. I am less confident that online seminary will be able to offer, for example, a sustained and cohesive understanding of the New Testament from an Episcopal perspective. I am even less confident that students will develop theologically formed and informed habits of pastoral ministry.

And that begins, or should begin, at the beginning, in the introductory, basic, core period, exactly the moment when an in-person experience is most valuable and necessary. I am hesitant about online education’s capacity to form from scratch effective and lasting habits of worship and prayer, in either churches or seminaries. Introductory should mean in-person, wherever possible.

In the classroom and out of it, students inevitably learn from one another as well as from faculty — one of the reasons that most residential seminaries rely on cohort learning. Seminarians come from a bewildering variety of backgrounds — one of the reasons I most enjoy teaching them. With one another, they learn, not least, that the Episcopal Church is diverse and complicated and contains multitudes of different experiences different than the one they know or take for granted: “This is not how we do it at my home parish!” is a common refrain. Particularly when our seminarians are increasingly not themselves cradle Episcopalians, how will they learn about the broader church they are joining — never mind how their church relates to the broader ecology of the Anglican Communion — except through one another and listening to one another’s stories? For us within the church truly to honor and promote the kind of diversity we say we honor, that has to be reflected in the learning experiences of the seminarian.

Not long ago and still in the shadow of COVID, I wrote a piece concerned about the fate of what I called “the church social”; I was, and remain, worried that we as a society are forgetting how to be with one another on a very basic level. Quite rightly, Bishop Smith points to the problem of the newly ordained dropping out of ministry, perhaps because, as he argues, not enough care was taken in choosing ordinands in the first place.

To some extent, I think there will always be those who find ministry harder than seminary; I do not always think my most academically gifted students will make the best seasoned all-round priests. However, I would frame the problem in slightly different terms than Bishop Smith does: I would argue that church is, and always was, inescapably social. Extravert or introvert, to be a priest is to enter a highly social vocation, requiring developed interpersonal and communication skills and real emotional resilience. This won’t come simply through CPE, however rigorously reformed. To believe that is to outsource what should be the major goal of seminary: forming priests. This is why I defend the social nature of residential seminary as a necessary precursor to future ministry.

Residential seminary at its best offers both necessary challenge and support, neither of which can exist in the same way in an online experience, even at its best. Seminaries can be stressful and challenging communities in which to live, but a seminarian who is a good citizen of a residential seminary community and who participates regularly in a field education placement site by and large has had a taste, if only a taste, of what it means to be in a visible position of authority and responsibility in a parish church.

For many of our younger seminarians in particular, the persona they must necessarily create to do effective ministry grows and develops as they watch their mentors and one another do the job, grounded in the core disciplines of their shared academic formation. The parish priests I know who have worked in the parish for 30 years and more — often without recognition, promotion, or honor from the wider church — have survived and continued to do ministry by being connected people, and in part, by building networks and relationships with fellow clergy.

In a world desperate for meaningful connection and community, these are the people who can model, and form in turn, the Christ-centered communities in which we find our God-given end. How can we expect them, the ministers of the gospel, to do that if we don’t allow them the experience and the formation in the first place?

3 COMMENTS

  1. Brava Hannah! Six years as prof of pastoral theology & parish ministry (‘97-‘03) confirms every word of this fine post, summed up well here:
    “I am less confident that online seminary will be able to offer, for example, a sustained and cohesive understanding of the New Testament from an Episcopal perspective. I am even less confident that students will develop theologically formed and informed habits of pastoral ministry.”
    Residential, face-to-face, in person, day-to-day; call it what you will! A seminary is literally and figuratively eviscerated of “body & blood … incarnatus es” if and when essential elements of life in community are optional. Yes, not every course, nor every degree offering, must be taught entirely “in house” yet no “distance learning” module can substitute for sacrificial “life together” (Bonhoeffer).
    If the church is serious about pastoral formation and discernment of vocation (lay & clergy) then prohibitive costs – financial and otherwise – must be counted, equalized and reduced so as not to fall as heavy burdens on those to whom Jesus says “my yoke is easy, my burden light.”

  2. Hannah & others,

    Thanks for the wonderful comments.

    Students in their 20s (or later) need help whether online or in person. In-person is absolutely necessary at some crucial points.

  3. Much of the Seminary experience takes place, not in the classroom, but in the Refectory, the Student Lounge, the Laundromat, conversations on the Close. The shared experience that cannot fully be experienced online. Now I have been a member of several “User Groups.” I have made deep online friendships. But I would love to be able to meet each and every one of them and put a face to the names. I mourn for those who will not experience the 3 years of a residential Seminary,

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