Not long ago, Craig Hill met a promising young woman interested in a career in youth ministry. She was bright and eager to use her academic gifts in service to the church. Because of family commitments, however, there was no way she could pursue a traditional residential theological degree. It was an “impossible choice,” says Hill, research professor of theological pedagogy.
The Divinity School now provides an option for her and similar students, the new master of arts in Christian practice (M.A.C.P.) degree, which will prepare them for youth ministry or a role in their church’s diaconate.
“This degree program will meet the needs of such students without requiring that they quit jobs and move their families to Durham,” says Hill.
He was hired last July as executive director of two new degree programs—the M.A.C.P. and the doctor of ministry (D.Min.)—that make specialized forms of graduate theological education at Duke more accessible to students who live and work at a distance from the Durham, N.C., campus.
Duke asked Hill to lead the two hybrid programs in part because of his long experience in applying new technologies to the task of education.
“I’ve always had a technological bent,” he says. “I bought my first computer in 1982, and I taught myself to write educational software.” That software was used at Oxford (U.K.), where Hill was a doctoral student, and Yale, where he later served as a Henry R. Luce Fellow.
Hill has long been interested in how technology can facilitate learning. “There is a need in the church for more substantive, high-quality theological education,” he says. “And there are not enough vehicles to meet that need.”
By incorporating online learning into the M.A.C.P., the school hopes to deepen professional and lay church members’ theological preparation for service to the church. At the same time, the D.Min. degree will provide pastors and ministry leaders with robust and formative academic training that will expand the Divinity School’s ability to prepare leaders for the church and other Christian institutions.
“These new degrees will expand the way in which the Divinity School’s resources are accessible to those currently working in the church and the wider public,” says Richard Hays, dean of the Divinity School and George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament.
New educational model
While online and other forms of distance education have been part of graduate education for years, they’re new to the Divinity School as well as to most major research schools.
These programs fit the needs of today’s theological students. More students today are either older than 50 or younger than 30, according to Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools.
“Younger students are more likely to have attained academic honors as undergraduates,” Aleshire says, “but to have had less background in the church and less initial interest in congregational forms of ministry.”
On the other hand, older students have a church background, but are looking to enter congregational ministry for the first time.
In addition, today’s students reflect the broader culture in that they have less theological grounding in the faith than previous generations. Aleshire recognizes that while many applicants have more background with service and mission engagement, “there is often less vocational clarity.”
Even those already serving in churches often lack theological education. Studies have shown that 70 percent of those in full-time youth ministry have no theological education. While they have a passion for the gospel and for kids, they are missing deeper reflection on their faith. “That was a trigger for these programs,” says Hays. “There’s a real need here.”
Degree programs that blend Web-based and residential learning reflect broad trends affecting both students and the church. “Students are being asked to bear more of the cost of theological education,” Aleshire says. “Distance programs reduce costs for them because they do not have to leave jobs and move.” At the same time, innovative technologies and broad Internet access allow for the delivery of a range of new multimedia education options.
After more than a decade of experience, schools have learned what works. “All of these factors contribute to the increase of these programs and the ability of an accrediting agency to evaluate and approve them,” says Aleshire. “There are still questions, big questions for many: Can online models provide the personal and spiritual formation that we have assumed residential models have provided? Can online models provide the kind of professional socialization that residential models have provided in the past?”
A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found that strictly online classes were actually more effective in getting students to learn their material than were traditional face-to-face classes. The study also found that the most effective learning environment—more so than either online or residential programs—was one that combined real and virtual classrooms. This is the approach taken by Duke’s new D.Min. and M.A.C.P. programs.
For Ellen Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology, this hybrid approach shows promise, though she wants to see it in action. “Through the years of my teaching, I have greatly enjoyed settings where I could work intensively with a class for a week,” she says. The response that she receives from those students confirms that intensive sessions have a long-lasting effect. The combination of intensive study at Duke with continued Web-based learning “seems to offer even more potential,” Davis says.
A third new degree, the one-year master of arts in Christian studies (M.A.C.S.), requires two semesters of traditional classroom study at the Divinity School, which remains committed to the residential model for its M.Div., M.T.S., and Th.M. degrees.
Hays says Duke will maintain a strong focus on residential education for the M.Div., the basic credential for ordination in the United Methodist Church. “We don’t plan to offer an online M.Div. It is crucial to be in residence here to receive the personal and spiritual formation necessary for ordained ministry.”
However, the experience of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business convinced him and his colleagues at the Divinity School that online education can be of high quality. “The outcomes in terms of student learning are at least as good as traditional programs,” Hays says. “Some skeptics, myself included, have become convinced that this is a viable way to create communities of learning.”
Extending Duke’s Vision
Associate Dean for Academic Formation and Programs Laceye Warner, who is also associate professor of the practice of evangelism and Methodist studies, chaired the task force that led to the creation of the new degree programs. While there was unanimity among the faculty to pursue the new degree programs, the group also agreed on some non negotiables.
“We must maintain our commitment to scholarship, community, and to the Christian church,” says Warner. But there is room to explore how Duke could expand its impact in the church and the world.
The D.Min., a professional degree for career church leaders and a staple of theological education, has come under fire at some schools where boosting enrollment supplanted academic rigor. “Duke’s degree will look different,” says Dean Hays. “Our degree program will be more engaging, and involve serious and enhanced study.”
According to Warner, the D.Min. will provide pastors an opportunity to think through problems in practical and theological ways and “will offer tangible steps and a network of other students to provide assistance.”
For Ron Hall, who graduated from Duke’s Trinity College in 1956 and from the Divinity School in 1959, having a doctor of ministry program at Duke is an exciting prospect. Hall said his own D.Min. from Emory University was a life- and career-changing experience.
“I was on the staff at Peachtree Road UMC (Atlanta, Ga.) and later at Myers Park UMC in Charlotte (N.C.),” says Hall. “The doctoral program revitalized my ministry in both theory and in practice in those mid-career days. I will always be grateful for that opportunity, and I’m very happy that it will be offered at Duke for others.”
Like the D.Min., the M.A.C.P. is a hybrid program that combines online coursework with intensive residency. The first cohort is designed for those engaged or interested in professional or lay ministry with youth, but who do not plan to seek ordination. Future sections of the M.A.C.P. are expected to attract other professionals, such as lawyers or health care workers.
The master of arts in Christian studies is a one-year residential program for students who seek a general, interdisciplinary approach to theological education. Not intended for those seeking the Ph.D. or ordination, the M.A.C.S. is for professionals and other students interested in theological education, and also for graduate students who seek to bring theological reflection into their vocational lives.
“I have been a New Testament professor for the past 20 years and have taught well over a thousand students in that period,” Craig Hill says. “I have deep respect for the model of residential theological education, especially for those entering ordained full-time pastoral ministry. But I have become aware of the need for a better-educated laity, especially as lay professionals have become increasingly important to the life of many denominations.”
Hill said that no educational model is perfect. “For full-time ordained ministry, Duke’s current model—residential full-time education—is one of the best. However, if that’s all we do, we narrow our impact. My reason for being here is to help Duke Divinity to extend its mission.”
The impact of these programs, Hays says, could be vast. “Ideally, they will produce a wave of energy and renewal in the church.”
There are lay and professional ministers with high levels of sophistication and expertise in their professional fields who are hungry for a deeper, fuller, and more nuanced understanding of the Bible and theology, says Hays. “There’s a nagging hunger for meatier study.”
Warner describes the ideal outcome as bringing Duke “closer to the energy and momentum of church renewal.”
For Hill, who worked in United Methodist churches for a decade, the new degrees will provide immediate benefits for those serving on the front lines of faith communities, which in turn will be more likely to flourish.
“It’s hard to maintain an active intellectual and spiritual life in those positions,” says Hill. “But it is enlivening to come into a situation surrounded by first-rate scholars and students in a structure that requires you to think and write. Many people long for such an opportunity, and we are grateful to be in a position to provide it.”
Rob Moll is author of The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (IVP Books, 2010).