Church executives find quality, convenience in online education programs

By Cooper Nelson

CONT.-EDU-ICONWhen Barrington Goldson founded Calvary Tabernacle in Hempstead, NY, nearly 25 years ago, there were 19 congregants worshipping in a motel room. Now, Calvary hosts nearly 800 members in a 12,000-square-foot building every Sunday and supports two K-8 charter schools and 27 churches in five countries.

Getting from Point A to Point B required Goldson to further his education. So, in 2011, he enrolled in an online MBA degree program at Phoenix-based Grand Canyon University to learn to meet the demands of his growing church.

A busy pastor, Goldson finished his program in a year, cramming homework into the early mornings and late evenings of his 50-plus-hour work weeks.
“Pastors need advanced degrees in ministry or other competencies to extend their church’s work,” says Goldson, Calvary’s bishop and senior pastor. “I pastor 20 hours a week, and the rest is running the church. That doesn’t leave much time to study.” To this end, Goldson says, the flexibility of what was offered fit well with what he needed.
Most pastors work between 55 and 75 hours each week, according to a study by Barna Group. Moreover, their responsibilities extend beyond preaching: Today’s pastors handle church finances, daily operations and other obligations such as funerals, Bible studies and baptisms.
As such, online degree programs are ideal for adult learners looking to pursue advanced degrees while fulfilling daily work or leadership responsibilities. While many seminaries and other universities require students to leave their parishes for extended periods to attend classes on campus, online learning opportunities bring academics into students’ homes or offices.
At Grand Canyon, online programs for church leaders include:
• Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership with an Emphasis in Christian Ministry
• Master of Divinity
• Master of Divinity with an Emphasis in Global Ministry
• Master of Divinity with an Emphasis in Worship Leadership
• Master of Arts in Christian Studies with emphases in Christian Leadership, Pastoral Ministry, Urban Ministry Education or Youth Ministry

During his 20 years as an executive pastor, Dr. Jeff Jibben — now a theology professor at Grand Canyon — took online and on-campus classes, but says online study worked better with his schedule
During his 20 years as an executive pastor, Dr. Jeff Jibben — now a theology professor at Grand Canyon — took online and on-campus classes, but says online study worked better with his schedule

The university’s online learning environment provides students access to full-time online instructors, counselors, tutoring and other tools to aid success. Most online classes have professor-narrated PowerPoint presentations, video walk-throughs and opportunities for satellite study groups.
This all-in-one nature is unique among universities, says Anna Faith Smith, assistant dean of the College of Theology at GCU. Smith says the university is known for its leadership in online learning, and its faculty often are sought out to present best practices at online education conferences.

“Adult learners don’t get that sense that this is distance learning,” she explains. “We’ve designed our programs so that pastors don’t have to pull up stakes and leave their churches or move their families, but can pursue an education where they are.”
Dr. Jeff Jibben took both online and ground classes during his 20-year tenure as an executive pastor at multiple Arizona churches. Studying online worked better with his schedule, he says.
Now a theology professor at Grand Canyon, Jibben contacts his online students each week to replicate the personal connection that is typical of a traditional classroom setting. The myriad tools available to students, along with the flexibility of the asynchronous learning style, are favored by many of his learners.
Billy Thrall, GCU’s director of church relations, says the university’s curriculum meets and exceeds the changes that he has observed in the roles of today’s pastors.
“What GCU is doing is redefining what ministry is and creating a different kind of pastor,” says Thrall, a former pastor. “Pastors can’t go to a campus every day, but they know how to serve and they’re smart. We’re developing world-changers, and our online programs allow us to do that.”
To learn more about GCU’s online programs for church leaders, visit

Cooper Nelson is a staff writer at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Grand Canyon University is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission

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