There are problems with the traditional model for preparing pastors but some of the proposed alternatives are worse. One of those is “Distributed Education” model.
The traditional model is that you have 20 professors on campus and all the students have to live there. That’s great for faculty—no night courses, no weekends, no travel. But it is extraordinarily expensive now to do it that way. And it eliminates candidates who have a day job or a family to support. Distributed instruction would also benefit lay leaders, Sunday School teachers, unconventional ministry candidates, and others.
The Distributed Ed model de-centralizes ministerial preparation by sending the profs to the churches and makes use of distance-ed technology. In some ways this Is a re-hash of the “Distance Ed” (DE) debate of the last 15 years. After the initial flurry of hype about the potential, the results are much less encouraging. Before churches plunge into this adventure, they would do well to take the time to assess the actual state of the question.
My experience is that students who have tried DE for pastoral ministry find residential education to provide a much richer educational experience. As I have been arguing for a number of years, there is a right way and a wrong way to educate pastors. Until parishioners are prepared to see physicians or surgeons who earned their medical degrees online, they should not accept ministers who have only an online degree. There is a reason why we send physicians to brick and mortar schools, because we know from experience that to do otherwise is to cut corners and we are not prepared to do that with our physical health. Why then are we willing to consider training the physicians of our souls with less care?
Night classes? At my school we offer night classes. I taught them for many years. Travel? Again, one has the sense one’s leg is being pulled. One of the more objectionable features of this caricature of the traditional seminary, however, is the way it plays to American anti-intellectualism. Anyone who has been engaged in ministerial education knows that there is a strong bias in the American evangelical culture against ministerial education. Though I disagreed with him at the time, Mark Noll was largely right in Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. My contention is that the DE and Keller’s “Distributed” model do little to address the fundamental problem and arguably contribute to it.
The basic question is whether Christians believe or should believe in an educated pastoral ministry (clergy). From the earliest post-Apostolic period pastors sought education, first in local catechetical schools (e.g., Alexandria’s famous catechetical school featured Origen as its teacher), then in regional cathedral schools such as that in which Anselm of Canterbury taught. Those were all found, for various reasons to be inadequate. The university developed as a collection of faculties, theology, law, medicine, and art for a reason. For a time scholars were able to teach arts and theology but by the 10th and 11th centuries they needed to choose between them. That need to focus eventually called for a degree of specialization. Arguably, in Modernity, we have given into hyper-specialization but the universities developed for a reason. Students traveled to them for a reason: education is not a consumer product that can be distributed by Amazon. Education is a process. It is a culture. It is a habit that is formed in community. It takes time in a community of scholars. In our late-modern age of deconstruction, we need to realize that not everything is a mere convention subject to deconstruction. Some things are actually rooted in the nature of things. Residential education is one of those things. We travel to study with scholars (rather than putting them on planes constantly) because we expect them to be learning all the time. They do that in residential school, amidst scholars (i.e., students and teachers).
Distributed education seeks to disconnect the outcome of education from the process: initiation into a culture and the formation of habits. It assumes that education is what happens when a prof travels to a church and delivers lectures thereby transmitting information. That is not itself education. The lecture is only a beginning of education for the student. Lectures are clues to a world of learning but they are rudiments, bread crumbs that invite the curious to continue learning.
The traditional university or seminary—the seminary faculty is nothing but a university department exiled by modernity—is centralized for good reasons: efficiency and community. Where will the decentralized student go to do research? It takes tens of thousands of dollars annually to keep together a respectable theological library. Relatively few of them exist. I have served on our library committee for 20 years. Our library is much better than it was but it is a constant struggle to keep up. The local university library will not do. Very few church libraries can begin to offer what a seminary demands nor should they try. Online library access is improving and online resources (e.g., Logos) are marvelous but they still only supplement a brick and mortar library.
The decentralized model lacks the other essential component: community. When my students ask questions that are beyond my professional competence, I send them to one or more of my colleagues who teach in other disciplines, biblical studies, systematic theology and apologetics, practical theology and they rely on us historians to do our jobs. On the decentralized model that aspect community does not exist, at least not in the same way. Again, there is a reason why the cathedral school model was replaced by the university model. The flying-prof approach pastoral education appears to be a de facto return to something like the cathedral school approach.
As to cost, why is it more efficient to fly faculty to students than to bring students to faculty? Perhaps the objection is true but that claim certainly cannot be accepted at face value without evidence. At my school generous donors subsidize not only most of the cost of education but a significant portion of their on-campus housing. An investment made in residential education will help to educate generations of pastors, elders, missionaries, writers, and teachers. Those facilities allow us to educate students properly to fulfill their high calling.
Asking students to move to school is asking much of the ministerial student but that is only the beginning of sacrifice. Churches will ask ministers to work for a lower salary and to accept a slightly lower standard of living than many of the members of the congregation are prepared to accept. There are other less tangible costs to pastoral ministry. Pastoral ministry means time away from family. It means answering the phone when others would let it go to voice mail. Ministry means service and self-sacrifice but seminary students are not alone. Faithful believers whom they will likely never know are praying for them and supporting them because they have seen the fruit of ministerial education done the right way.
Distributed education is an illusion. It looks like education but we may fairly ask whether that model is laying the sort of foundation for lifelong learning required by pastoral ministry. Is it preparing the student to fulfill the call to ministry in the most suitable way, in the way forged through centuries of experience? I say that, like its cousin Distance Ed, the temptation to replace brick and mortar schools with Distributed Education, ought to be resisted for the sake of the church and her people.