Why “Distributed” Pastoral Education Is Not The Solution

The Distributed Ed model de-centralizes ministerial preparation by sending the profs to the churches and makes use of distance-ed technology.

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 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).

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