University Senate Approves Online Education Plan

Date Posted: 2/9/2011

Students pursuing ordination in The United Methodist Church will be able to complete up to two-thirds of their seminary classes online, as long as those classes are offered by one of the 13 United Methodist theological schools or Asbury Theological Seminary.


A statement issued on January 27 by the University Senate and the Commission on Theological Education said that “online education is a growing opportunity for innovative teaching that will likely reduce the role that geography plays in all of higher education, including theological education.” The University Senate, through the Commission on Theological Education, oversees approval of theological education programs and listing of non-United Methodist seminaries as acceptable choices for candidates for ordained ministry in the UMC.


“Because the number of students pursuing an M.Div. for ordained ministry has declined and the number of seminaries offering such degrees is growing, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain quality standards and educational excellence in any faith tradition – especially in the case of distance education. The commission extended the opportunity for online education to the United Methodist schools and the closely affiliated Asbury Seminary with their proven track record in their online program so that quality and excellence in the expanding area of distance education could be better watched and examined as we move to new and increasing ways of education delivery,” said the Rev. Sharon Rubey, interim associate general secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Division of Ordained Ministry and staff liaison for the commission.


Bishop William H. Willimon, chair of the commission, said the commission is “moving with all deliberate speed to look at online education and embrace it as a way to make theological education more accessible while making sure it is specific to our Wesleyan theological standards for educating clergy.”


“We don’t want United Methodist clergy trained only online, but we have to do a better job of making classes more accessible. I think this plan strikes a wonderful balance,” he said.


Willimon said Asbury Theological Seminary served as something of a pilot program for online classes. “We were impressed by what Asbury has done, and they have worked with some of the 13 UM theological schools. This is really an expansion of that,” he said.


The Senate reconfirmed its June 2010 decision that transcripts must identify which courses were taken online, including those that offer some instruction on campus. The 13 UM schools of theology are: Boston University School of Theology; Candler School of Theology, Emory University; Claremont School of Theology; Drew University, The Theological School; Duke Divinity School; Gammon Theological Seminary; Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary; Iliff School of Theology; Methodist Theological School in Ohio; Perkins School of Theology; Saint Paul School of Theology; United Theological Seminary, and Wesley Theological Seminary.


“The Senate’s desire is to clarify its position in this time of rapid transition and technological advancement in a way that makes theological education more accessible on the one hand, and on the other hand also continues the Senate mandate to ensure academic excellence and integrity in theological education,” said Dr. Gerald Lord, associate general secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Division of Higher Education, and executive secretary to the University Senate.


Rubey said that Asbury officials reported their progress, results, what they have learned, and how they have improved their online program during the January meeting of the commission. “This excellent report provided new information to the commission as they deliberated a policy statement for going forward,” Rubey said.


Both Willimon and Rubey said the success Asbury has demonstrated is the reason the theology school’s online program was approved to continue offering classes to candidates for ordained ministry in the UMC. “We hope to make United Methodist theological education available and accessible to the largest number of United Methodist students as possible,” Rubey said.


*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.


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