In the early days of American Protestantism, the training of ministerial candidates was carried on by pastors of churches. A young man feeling a call of God to the ministry would associate himself with a church pastor, receive training from him, participate in the work of the parish, perhaps even live in the pastor’s home. I’m not sure why, but eventually this system was felt to be inadequate … for some reason or other, theological training was institutionalized, and at the same time academicized. The use of the academic model was almost inevitable.”
These words begin John Frame’s essay, “Proposal for a New Seminary,” the basic premise of which is that the traditional, academic seminary model produces poorly trained ministers, and poorly uses the Church’s leaders in training those ministers.
At first glance, one might assume that online seminary will only make this worse. Where the old academic model uprooted families and dropped them in a new place with guarantees only of classes and expectations for church participation, there was at least some likelihood of community amongst other student families. Remove the move and leave people taking courses in basements and coffee shops, and who will be there for them? Even worse, the academic element itself is often assumed to be compromised by studies disconnected from campuses, students, and faculty.
While this is possible, it’s not inevitable. The reality is that online seminary courses provide the opportunity to fulfill exactly the sort of vision Dr. Frame was seeking. If seminaries are willing to be less important, and if churches are willing to reclaim the responsibility to train pastors, then the online seminary becomes a powerful tool to reform the whole model of training pastors, teachers, elders, deacons, and lay leaders in the church and for the church.
Consider the normal course of events for a young (or not) person sensing a call to ministry. For many, the immediate questions will regard training. How do they get prepared? The questions of how to afford the time, money, and personal expense of seminary will follow. Tuition is merely part of an equation often involving three years of dedicated studies and moving away from home churches and relationships—away from the very context in which students realize that call toward ministry. These burdens are heavy even for those who can afford it. For many, they are insurmountable, and calls go unanswered.
Engaged, intentional online seminary training makes it possible for individuals sensing a call to begin their training right away, in their vocational ministry context, and in their familiar relationships. It allows them the flexibility to continue serving in their ministries. But notice … only online seminary makes this possible. To truly revolutionize the churches’ approach to pastoral training, home churches will need to embrace this model as a way for each of them to become, essentially, their own seminaries. That is, churches who see themselves as fertile ground for training future pastors can offer ministry opportunities, guidance, mentoring, discipleship, and accountability. This is true regardless of whether a person’s calling is in the pastorate or not.
At Knox Seminary, our students’ churches provide ministerial and spiritual formation to students who mature in their vocational and ministerial callings as pastors, yes, but also as plumbers, lawyers, small group leaders, nurses, and professional athletes.
Online seminary programs—like the ones at Knox—allow leaders and churches to provide a richer and more complete academic training program to their trainees while they serve. This would not be possible with a traditional seminary model.
The reality is that online education allows the church to recapture priority in the training of its own leaders. As a result, seminary loses some of its former glory. It becomes a servant to the church instead of a center of its own. But the purpose of seminary was never seminary. It was always meant to equip leaders for service in the kingdom of God; the seminary serving the church, not the other way around.
Online seminary programs empower churches to train up future leaders within their communities while providing them with a rich and balanced theological education. Knox Seminary recognizes this opportunity to reshape the church-seminary-student ecosystem in ways that are more efficient and effective. That’s why Knox is committed to online education in the church and for the church as an excellent and even necessary model for 21st-century seminary education.