I am fully convinced that situated learning, or learning in context, is the way to prepare ministers. I was dubious about whether learning that depended a great deal on online delivery would work toward these ends. I was particularly concerned about the relational aspects of learning, which I consider to be essential to ministerial formation. Online delivery allows us to keep students in their ministry contexts. Could it deliver a robust learning community?
(We all know a lot of ministry students who write great papers but have zero people skills. In fact, the way we have conceived of ministry preparation in an academic setting has probably encouraged some who should have never considered ministry to pursue it, and discouraged others who would make great ministers).
Let me say a few things about the importance of a learning community.
Ministry training should be done in a learning community because that’s how good ministry ultimately will be accomplished. Ministry is not just about imparting information to passive auditors. It’s about creating and maintaining spiritual communities who live together in the pursuit of God and God’s mission. We want our students to experience that through a learning community.
Cohort learning also promotes a sense of apprenticeship, the main way ministerial leadership is learned. We are learning together by looking over each other’s shoulders. Remember, our students are doing things for their courses in their ministry contexts. They are dwelling in the word, doing appreciative inquiry, interviewing members, reflecting with members on new experiences, and a host of other things. They bring these experiences to course discussion and content. They are not only learning from the teacher, but from each other and participants in their ministry context, creating an enriched environment for reflection.
Finally, and probably most importantly, at the center of our degree is a desire for our students to participate in the life of the Triune God. When we pursue the mission of God, we do so in the context of the divine life which is always making room for the other. We cannot, in turn, experience this in isolation or as an autonomous learner. We need a community for this.
But could online, which seems so distant and individualistic, deliver on this? Consider me a convert. I want to say this with conviction. Online is for us, not an option of convenience that allows us to attract more students who can’t attend regular classes, but the preferred way of delivering ministry training. I would find it difficult now to go back to the more traditional way of doing things.
Let me be clear here. Online or not online is not the point. Creating meaningful learning communities is the point. And online has not only not been a hindrance to that goal, but has enhanced it.
Our degree is a cohort degree. Our students take the same 12 courses in the same sequence with the same 10-15 persons. Each semester, they spend one week face-to-face in a retreat/intensive format. Because our students come from various locations (Currently we have students from Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, even Brazil), it doesn’t matter where we hold the intensives. So, we go places where they can see unique or exemplary church settings, or where they can sit at the feet of the best we can find. To this point, we have traveled as a group to Minneapolis to study with Tony Jones, and Durham, NC, to experience what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the Rutba House (new monastic community) have to teach us. We will travel soon to Portland, OR. The variety of things we have witnessed and experienced together is pretty remarkable.
These week long settings have proved invaluable in creating meaningful relationships. Apart from these times together, the online experience might not produce the kind of learning communities we want. Now, when our students log on to their online course, they are having discussions with people they have worshipped with and played with and laughed and cried with.
I knew we were on to something early in our program. Our first year students spend a week with each me in August. I saw them again in January. They had not spend time with each other in the interim except online. They had inside jokes that I knew nothing about. They cared for each other in ways that I found surprising, new things about each other’s lives and ministries that I found remarkable given the short time they had known each other. Most of this happened through their online interaction.
So, we have found a way of delivering a degree that keeps students in their ministry contexts and creates a robust learning community.