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Web used for preaching classes
By G. JEFFREY MACDONALD
The Albany Times Union
April 04, 2009
SOUTH HAMILTON, Mass. — For 18 years, Haddon Robinson has taught preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary by having students give sermons and then reflect on feedback from classmates.
But this fall, students seeking insightful feedback will turn to "congregants" they've likely never met, including Robinson. Through a pilot online course, they'll preach into the lenses of video cameras, upload sermons to the Web and seek feedback via e-mail or online discussion forums.
"My hunch is that the quality of feedback is going to be quite good," says Robinson, a professor of preaching at evangelical Gordon-Conwell. "Afterward, I think I could say to my colleagues who are teaching in other areas, 'Look, this worked with (preaching), which is difficult to conceive of teaching on the Web. So you should be able to teach any other subject on the Web.'"
Welcome to the experimental frontier of clergy training.
Seminary educators, under pressure to expand enrollment and cuts costs, are racing to find alternatives to the quasi-cloistered, academic environments that have trained generations of pastors. But they're also being cautious not to compromise on quality when shaping a holy cohort set apart for ministry.
This year, Gordon-Conwell and four other evangelical seminaries are embarking on experiments to test the limits of what's doable in ministerial education. With $2.5 million in Kern Family Foundation grants, they'll explore how technology, congregations and clergy networks might deliver — often in a student's hometown setting — a level of training that's long been the province of campus-based classrooms and professors.
What evangelical schools discover by the time the pilots end in 2013 could have implications for clergy training across the board, observers say, because evangelical institutions tend to be early adopters of methods that later become mainstream. Mainline Protestant seminaries, such as the Disciples of Christ's cash-strapped Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky., have increasingly replicated evangelical innovations such as satellite campuses for commuters and online courses to expand enrollments.
"Schools are adapting to the needs of students, many of whom are overcoming an economic barrier," says Anthony Ruger, a seminary financing expert at Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for the Study of Theological Education. "The most expensive way to go to school is to quit your job and go full-time as a student for three years and then go into the ministry."
Pressures to adapt are mounting for theological schools of all stripes. America's recent economic woes have hit seminaries hard, especially since most aren't tied to a university with an endowment to cushion them. Of these 175 "freestanding" institutions in the Association of Theological Schools, 39 percent were "financially stressed" according to a report last fall, meaning they had less than a year's worth of spendable assets. That's up from 26 percent a year earlier — and the data still don't reflect fallout from the stock market freefall in late 2008.
Combined with a 4 percent drop in enrollment since 2006 at ATS schools, educators say funding for experimentation is needed.
"Theological education is the most conservative industry in the country," says Howard Loewen, dean of Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Theology in Pasadena, Calif. "It is perhaps motivated now, particularly by the financial crisis, to engage in adaptive change in a way that wasn't the case even five years ago."
Some experimentation will involve information technology. Fuller, for instance, plans to explore the possibility of using an online tool to do spiritual formation among ministry students. Gordon-Conwell will explore whether online students learn best under certain conditions, such as when they have opportunities for Web-based conferencing in real time.
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