By John Dyer
“HOW CAN I GET THE DEPTH I NEED WITHOUT LEAVING THE PEOPLE I LOVE?”
This was the question Cynthia Johnson, an energetic woman in her late 40s, asked me recently at a coffee shop in Nashville. She had a job she loved — running a battered women’s shelter nearby — but she began to feel the need for deeper training and equipping.
You, too, might have men and women on your staff with natural ministry ability and a love for God’s people. But maybe you sense that seminary training would equip them with the depth they’ll need for a lifetime of faithful ministry. You wonder: How do I develop my best leaders without losing them to a seminary in another state?
Online and distance programs can be a great option — but how can you choose a good program that’s affordable, realistic and actually helpful?
Here are the five criteria I’ve found are most important to students:
#1: A focus on Scripture
You hired your best people because they have proven godly character and understand the “how-to” of ministry. What they need is to be saturated in Scripture and given a perspective on the Church that will help them avoid the mistakes of the past. This means you need to look for degrees that devote a significant portion of the class time to Bible and theology.
One helpful tool is Seminary Comparison, which lets you see how various programs compare to one another. For example, our own distance-based, two-year ministry degrees offer more hours in Bible and theology than many on-campus, three-year M.Div. programs at other seminaries.
#2: A mix of online and face-to-face learning
Online classes are a great way to learn, and they offer far more faculty-to-student and student-to-student interaction than you might think. Even so, pursuing a degree entirely online, without ever being near another warm body, can be tiring — especially if it takes more than a few years.
I recommend looking for a seminary that offers weeklong intensives and hybrid degree programs that give your people flexibility to mix online and on-campus classes. At a recent “SuperWeek” in Dallas, students echoed this sentiment: “Meeting people from around the country facing the same challenges was so encouraging and challenging.”
#3: The ability to learn on the job
Many students find it helpful to be in programs in which a significant portion of the coursework is devoted to evaluating their current ministry roles. Theory courses are important and helpful, but some seminary degrees also have internship (or field education) options where mentors and other church leaders work with a professor to hone skills specific to the student’s job.
Our seminary, for example, allows students to earn up to 12 credit hours in a Ministry Residency Internship that enables them to learn the skills they need for their role and expand into new areas for the future.
#4: Counting the cost
Almost every day, we hear about the rising cost of education and the crushing weight of student loan debt. These problems can be multiplied for seminary students whose future earning potential is generally lower than other graduate degrees.
This means you need to help your staff find an affordable seminary with scholarship opportunities — not just for full-time, on-campus students but also for distance and online students. Again, SeminaryComparison.com compares the hourly rates of most seminaries and offers links to scholarship opportunities at each school.
#5: Investing the time
Finally, make no mistake: Seminary is a big upfront investment. It’s costly, both in terms of dollars and time. But, like any really good investment, it can pay back huge dividends.
Ben Stuart leads Breakaway, a ministry to more than 10,000 college students near Texas A&M University in College Station, TX. It took him more than five years — and a mixture of online and face-to-face courses — to finish his degree at our seminary. Now, he says: “What gets me out of bed in the morning is that I love to teach, I love the Bible, and I love college students. I chose DTS because they treasure the Word of God, and [every class helped me] articulate the Scriptures in a way college students can grasp.”
By God’s grace, Ben’s investment is now impacting an entire generation.
John Dyer is Executive Director of Communications and Educational Technology at Dallas Theological Seminary.