During the first decades of the 21st century, two (apparently independent) schools of thought on seminary formation gained steam. The first school centered on holistic formation, on training the student as a whole person, as opposed to replicating traditional program designs that tacitly treated students like brains on sticks. As Christian theology and missions became more attentive to the integral nature of the gospel, of the imperative to care for emotions and bodies as well as souls, so the educational guild advocated all the more for curricula that systematically pursued affective and practical outcomes alongside cognitive ones.
The second school of thought related to online education, which seemed to offer unlimited scalability and reach. Financial exigencies made seminaries increasingly aware of the limits of their geographic influence and of the shifts in the educational appetites of prospective ministers. Online education, however, promised access to a global student body with a fraction of the overhead costs.
Like locomotives on seemingly independent tracks, each school of thought made modest initial progress. But with a bit of time, their respective merits fueled their acceleration. Each gained momentum and a sense of inevitable ascendency. Without seeing how the tracks ahead curved, few people realized that they were on a collision course.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic seized the globe. The commitment to provide students with holistic formation crashed into the imperative to offer non-residential education, as seminaries emptied and faculty scrambled to salvage their syllabi. In March of 2020, I was one of thousands of professors who had only ever lectured in person and yet suddenly had to learn to teach online. Happily, as the semesters of pandemic teaching wore on, some clarity emerged out of the initial chaos. I was surprised at the viability of achieving substantial learning outcomes while having recourse only to Zoom, Moodle, and PDFs. Nonetheless, at the end of the first year of the pandemic, I realized that my students’ formative experience was far more one-dimensional than ever. The watershed moment came for me when I grasped that over the course of my year of online teaching, none of my students had shed a tear. My way of teaching them was not reaching their hearts as effectively as their minds. Operating in this modality, at least for me, entailed trade-offs: I could be professor to students in more places, but I was not offering those remote students the same formative experience. I wondered to what extent this gap was inevitable.
Even though quarantines have been lifted and social distancing has relaxed, residential education has not recovered its previous market share, either in universities or in seminaries. We cannot dodge the question of how digitally mediated education can contribute to the integral formation of future ministers. So, to confront that question, Scholar Leaders convened several educators from leading Majority World institutions of theological education and put the matter to them. This issue of the InSights Journal shares reports from six of these scholars, disclosing how their institutions foster formation in the various modalities of their programs and synthesizing the insights that emerged from that group’s work.
This issue also includes an essay on “Theological Education in Wartime” by Ukrainian theologian Roman Soloviy. The topical pairing might appear incongruous. After all, Dr. Soloviy was not part of the consultation convened to address questions of how theological educators foster holistic formation in technologically enabled modalities. Nonetheless, his reflections on theologizing in the midst of war intersect substantially with the consultation’s insights on teaching during the pandemic. Consequently, the inclusion of that article in this volume is surprisingly felicitous.
I’d like to highlight a few of the lessons that cut across many of the articles in this issue, despite their varied provenances from Ghana, Brazil, Lebanon, Colombia, the Philippines, India, and indeed Ukraine.
Perhaps the most obvious of these lessons is the fact that diversity of modalities has allowed institutions to cope with pluriform challenges. However much popular parlance might reduce educational modalities to a binary between residential and non-residential education, the reality is far more variegated. Between the extremes of dorm-dwelling seminarians and international students who never interact live with a professor, there exist many options. Hybrid courses, for example, allow online students to visit campus for week-long residential intensives. Seminarians can also pick from synchronous and asynchronous classes. Alternatively, a single course can be taught live by a professor with students in the classroom and on a screen, as well as being viewed days later by students on the other side of the planet. Many accreditation bodies have updated policies to allow for levels of hybridity that previously were not contemplated, and these options permit schools to cater to a wider range of students in a single program or class. Such unprecedented flexibility allowed programs to stay on the rails during the pandemic.
What’s more, the things the pandemic taught us about educational modalities equipped Ukrainian seminaries to persevere in theological education, though the war yet rages. The mixture of in-person and online, synchronous and asynchronous, long-term and short-term courses have permitted our seminary partners in Ukraine to continue to cultivate a desperately needed new crop of pastors and chaplains, even after their campuses have been shelled or occupied by the enemy military. Little of that would have been possible through exclusively traditional educational modalities.
The past three years have bequeathed us a second lesson: they have given us clarity about the fact that not all modalities offer the same benefits. Some things are lost, and others are gained when education takes place in different ways. We are beginning to transcend the entrenched squabbles in which the advocates of online teaching trumpet its reach while glossing over its formative vulnerabilities, or conversely, in which partisans of traditional education refuse to adapt to non-residential modalities in order to meet the needs of the Church.
Our consultation repeatedly underscored the value of a candid assessment of what diverse modalities can and cannot offer, so that program designers can make honest decisions about what a given course or degree might realistically aim to achieve. The essays in this issue include frank admissions about what is lost when students don’t receive the gift of presence in their degree. Caleb Hutcherson’s article, for example, underscores with particular poignancy the difficulty of recreating the experience of “brokenness” in the online courses of Arab Baptist Theology Seminary. He reflects on the ways that dwelling in community discloses our vulnerability and thereby fosters a more honest Christian pilgrimage. Indeed, our own consultation bore that reality out. In early drafts of reports and initial verbal presentations, the participants were less forthcoming about the shortcomings of their institutional practices. Nevertheless, the few days spent face-to-face in our consultation bred trust, and that resulted in the level of candor on display in the articles of this volume.
A third recurring lesson of these essays is that missional consciousness guided these institutions’ pursuit of student formation amidst the challenges of the past few years. Even though our consultation didn’t inquire explicitly about missional matters, time and again we heard presenters speak of transformation and the holistic mission of the Church. The difficulties of online training and the strain of COVID-19 did not cause these educators to lose sight of what theological education is all about: serving the Kingdom of God. Likewise, even in the context of open war, the seminaries in Ukraine were not diverted from their Christian missional task. They have rallied heroically to provide rescue and shelter to the victims of the Russian invasion, notwithstanding ongoing missile attacks. Furthermore, they are digging into the deep theological questions forced upon them by the war: questions of evil, justice, peace, citizenship, and hope amidst despair.
It seems important to point out how this last thread runs through the articles in this edition of InSights, even if it seems topically tangential to this issue’s focus on holistic formation and diverse educational modalities. After all, they say that crisis reveals character. It’s no small thing, then, to underscore the Christian character of each of these global scholars, their missional fidelity that has been disclosed through plague and war. These theological leaders have showed their mettle, mettle formed in their home churches and indeed, in their years as seminarians. So, despite the perils of traversing a new world of theological education embedded in the old world of destruction, we have cause for hope, because Spirit-seeking theological leaders across the globe are helping us find our way.
Author Bio: Christopher joined ScholarLeaders as President in 2022 after serving as a missionary and professor of New Testament at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia in Medellín. A Biblical scholar committed to the transformation of theological knowledge into missional practice, he has worked in projects ranging from authoring scholarly volumes to establishing church-based ministries to victims of forced migration. He holds degrees from Wheaton and Oxford. His most recent book in English is Renouncing Everything. He and his wife Michelle have three children and live in North Carolina.