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New Degrees Reflect a Changing Church

A study by the U.S. Department of Education reports benefits that support hybrid theological education.

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