Tuesday, April 7, 2020

With the transition to online learning happening across Duke University programs, field education at Duke Divinity School has also shifted to remote experiences, in a move that parallels how churches are responding in a period of stay-at-home orders and fears about the spread of coronavirus. 

Field education, a central part of the M.Div. program, gives students the opportunity to pursue contextual learning in churches and organizations across the country and world, practice the skills of ministry, discern God’s call on their life and vocation, and reflect theologically with an experienced supervisor.

“This is akin to flying a plane while you build it,” said Rhonda Parker, senior director of ministerial formation and student life. “Like everybody else, we had to make a pivot and, while the ways we minister have had to change, our call to be the Church for the world has not changed. I think our students and supervisors are stepping up to the opportunities that this situation has afforded. They're really thinking about how to do ministry when you can't be face to face. I see students offering online Bible study groups, helping to create virtual worship groups. They're calling and checking up on people. They're doing grocery deliveries for people. They've resourced each other in really beautiful ways.”

For Michael Larbi, an M.Div. student who is currently engaged in field education at Pleasant Green United Methodist Church in Orange County, N.C., his work leading youth ministry has continued throughout the crisis in the form of online meetings.

“We tried our weekly youth meeting online and it worked well, with 10 youth and one parent joining the online meeting,” he said. “It was a welcome addition to life in lockdown. The youth and I have agreed to continue to meet this way each Sunday.  We are still able to connect with each other, and the teaching and Bible study component of the youth meetings are still easy to do online together.”

He said he was also working with his field education supervisor at Pleasant Green UMC to see if they could introduce virtual small group discipleship groups in the church during this period. “Hopefully these groups can continue as a vital part of pastoral care and support beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

An overhead shot of a student using a computerDaniel Corpening, director of field education at Duke Divinity, noted that while technologies like Zoom are helpful for some, students and community and church leaders have needed to look beyond more technology-driven ways to connect.

“For some our students, something like Zoom works really well for their congregations,” he said. “But some are in communities where folks don't have reliable Internet access or access at all. People are on the phone or writing letters. People are patient and persistent in trying to find ways to be faithful. It's been a gift.”

“I had one conversation with a student-pastor who shared that the first Sunday that all Methodist services were encouraged to go virtual, he felt he connected more deeply than he had in three years,” Corpening said. The sincerity and vulnerability of the phone calls people were sharing was really beautiful. The church doesn't stop being the church when everyone has to shelter-in-place.”

M.Div. student Micah Latimer-Dennis is serving his current field education at Durham Congregations in Action (DCIA), a cooperative, multi-faith network offering care and support for vulnerable members of the Durham community. He said the organization is working to organize churches and get accurate, up-to-date information to congregational leaders. “I’m helping sift through information and then assembling that information to send out to churches about the pandemic through a weekly newsletter, Facebook page, and personal communication,” he said. “I’ve also helped host a few Zoom calls with pastors and community leaders responding to the pandemic. Fortunately, those are things I can do and am doing from my home.”

“In many cases, our interns have been gifts to the church because so many of them are digital natives,” said Parker. “The technology piece is something our students are pretty comfortable with. They're not afraid to have worship on Facebook Live or create a Zoom session. All these tools—it's a natural part of their lives. They are adapting and responding to the context in which they find themselves. They are learning and they are serving.”