A Look at Accessible Theological Education

A Look at Accessible Theological Education

May 23, 2016

Many of the historic universities in the United States were founded with the purpose of developing pastors to fill the need for educated clergy.  Fast forward to 2016, and there is still a need to educate clergy.

At the same time, however, the wider church is facing significant challenges.  In this season of change, some would say that while clergy need to be educated, there is an even greater need for followers of Christ to understand and articulate their faith.  Indeed, post-Christendom, a name given to current period of time in which the church is on the margin of society, requires of us a robust knowledge of what it means to be a Christian and how our beliefs are lived out in practice.  Put simply, we must renew our passion for making disciples who can make disciples.

At Sioux Falls Seminary, we believe theological education is an important aspect of being a disciple.  The Great Commission calls us to: “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).  Later, in Ephesians, we see Paul urging us to “. . . equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (4:12) which requires the knowledge to recognize our gifts, the competence to practice those gifts, and a character rooted in the person of Christ.

Clearly, we are to spend time learning the word of God so that it might guide our actions and shape our being.  It is for this reason that we believe every follower of Christ is called to engage in theological education.  Unfortunately, most of us have a very narrow vision of theological education.  Many feel that such education is only for pastors and those who want to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree.  Not to mention that, in many cases, it tends to be exorbitantly expensive, often inaccessible, and sometimes seems to be disconnected from our day-to-day lives.

Last week, we looked at how Sioux Falls Seminary is combating the affordability issue.  This week, allow me to address accessibility.

For us, accessibility refers to both level and location.  I will begin with level.  For too long theological education has been seen as something that only exists at the graduate level, meaning someone must pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in order to engage in theological education. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and we are doing everything we can to combat that belief and create opportunities for theological education at various educational levels.

Yes, we have master’s degrees, doctoral degrees, and graduate certificates.  During fall 2015 and spring 2016, about 66% of the students at the seminary engaged in those programs.  We also have non-degree certificates, programs for people who only want to audit a course, and partnerships with local churches and organizations to provide other types of theological education.

Our non-degree certificate programs mirror our graduate degrees, but students do not need to enroll at the master’s level. These programs, the Certificate in Christian Ministry and Training in Spiritual Direction, are affordable, flexible, and designed to enhance personal and professional development.  Also, each semester a number of people choose to audit a course at the seminary, which allows them to sit in the classroom and learn alongside a community of believers.  Partnerships with churches bring theological education back into the local church, which is where it is most at home.  Our faculty teach at several churches throughout the year.  In addition, we are working to develop a church-based program wherein students can earn a certificate while engaging in theological education at their local churches.  Finally, we are working with the All Nations City Church Training Institute in Sioux Falls to offer training for immigrant pastors.  Accessibility means making theological education available to people at the level that most fits their callings and needs.

It also means making education available to people regardless of their location.  Did you know that Sioux Falls Seminary has students in three continents, five countries, and ten different states?  Through online courses, in-context courses, extension sites, and live-stream technology, the seminary is able to offer a model of education that meets students where they are.  Location should not deter followers of Christ from engaging in theological education.

When education doesn’t reside in one location, and it is offered at levels that are consistent with the particular needs of individuals, it becomes truly accessible.  If that type of accessibility is combined with affordable prices and built on sustainable economic models then I believe the foundation will be laid for education to become more relevant.  And that’s exactly what we will talk more about next week!