Calvin Theological Seminary’s new Distance M.Div. program is bringing high-quality theological education to a neighborhood near you.
Students in the Distance M.Div. program at CTS will be able to earn their degree from wherever they are.
Even a year ago, some of the individuals joining the first cohort of the program would have had a hard time imagining the journey they are about to embark on this fall. They include
- a student who had to leave seminary partway through because her husband’s new job meant relocating to Canada;
- an associate pastor of a nondenominational mega-church who wants to deepen his understanding of Reformed theology;
- a recent Calvin College graduate who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to serve as an intern at a church in New York City; and
- someone who had never heard of the Christian Reformed Church but has long felt God’s leading toward theological education.
Participants in the new program are a diverse group of people with a wide range of life experiences sharing one common predicament: the right seminary was, or would have been, out of reach from where God was calling them to live and serve.
Recognizing that there are a variety of good reasons for prospective Master of Divinity students to remain where they are, CTS is bringing seminary education to students in the context of their life and ministry.
From Dream to Reality
“When I was first introduced to the distance learning option at Calvin, my heart skipped a beat,” says Cari Fydirchuk, a full-time mother and active volunteer at her church who will be attending CTS from Canada this fall.
“The call from God to go into ministry has been on my heart for years, but I never understood how it would be feasible for me to go to seminary.” For students like Cari, the distance program is helping turn seminary education from a dream into reality.
Many years in the making, the distance learning initiative has received widespread support from within the seminary community and across the denomination.
The program is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and aims to provide the same quality of education as the residential program.
Since the seminary officially announced the Distance Learning M.Div. in the spring of this year, inquiries by prospective students have poured in from across North America and all over the globe.
Grounded in the Local Church
In large part, the synergy around this program arises out of the shared mission of the seminary and the church. Theological education that is grounded in the local church will more effectively prepare ministers to touch and transform lives.
For many students preparing for ministry, getting their feet wet in the work of ministry as they receive their seminary education presents exciting opportunities.
It may be that the exegetical work a student does in a biblical course contributes to the sermon prep they’re doing during a particular week. Or reading a primary source in a church history course leads to a lesson they share with lay leaders. Or a paper they write may turn into theological reflection on how their church can more actively engage their urban context.
In other words, much of the work a student does for seminary courses can cross over into the rhythms of day-to-day ministry.
By bringing theological education into a variety of contexts, both in and far beyond West Michigan, the distance program paves the way toward these kinds of possibilities.
Integrating Faith and Work
Distance theological education also opens up new possibilities for the integration of faith and work. For instance, a seminary student who works in the corporate world by day will have the opportunity to think deeply about how his or her Reformed worldview speaks to complex issues in the marketplace.
For Timothy Sipols, managing director at a Michigan-based public relations firm who will be joining the first distance M.Div. cohort this fall, the “potential to bridge the gap between my current professional commitments and a rigorous seminary experience” is especially appealing.
“I think it has the potential to enable a very dynamic exchange,” says Sipols of the distance program, “where my professional experience informs my training, and my training can begin to find practical application in the ‘ministry microcosm’ of my professional life.”
By taking virtual classrooms to cities and towns in other parts of North America and the world, CTS hopes that a broader conversation will emerge and encourage more effective forms of ministry in a changing world.
Reimagining Theological Education
As the program launches, the Distance Learning team is working with faculty to reimagine and reinvigorate the teaching of their courses. The aim is to innovate not just technologically but also pedagogically—not only adding new tools but asking new questions about teaching and learning at Calvin seminary, both in residential and distance courses.
A key principle guiding the seminary is that students are not passive recipients of information but rather active participants in the learning process. Studies show that student participation and interaction is crucial to meaningful learning. This is true at any level of education, but is especially important for future leaders in churches and communities.
As a result, video presentations by professors are only one component of distance courses, along with various ways of getting students involved, including online discussions, collaborations, peer review, and video conferencing.
New tools for online learning are helping to implement these pedagogical strategies. The seminary’s new course management system, Canvas, is a completely web-based system that presents each course as a website that integrates links, videos, social media and other online learning tools.
Canvas is gaining exposure among educators as a user-friendly system that enables quality student engagement. A confusing and complicated course management system could ruin the online learning experience. By contrast, Canvas has proven to be smooth and intuitive to use, easily integrating a variety of multimedia features. Because it is a website and not a software application, it’s easy to learn to use, easing students’ fears as they embark on distance learning.
The capabilities of Canvas make it a tool not just for facilitating tasks, but ultimately contributing to students’ formation for ministry—the key objective of a CTS education. As students use Canvas to communicate and collaborate, they will cultivate community, provide accountability, navigate group dynamics and discern the wise use of technology.
Just as the apostle Paul used letters––the leading mass communication technology of his day––to nourish Christian communities, CTS sees technology as extending the reach and life together of a community of learners.
Seminary Where You Are
The central theme of this exciting new venture is that distance learning is first and foremost about serving and equipping churches to do the work of ministry. It is about bridging the distance, geographical or other, between the seminary and the churches of the CRC.
This is seminary in your context, in your neighborhood—a high-quality theological education you can receive in a coffee shop down the street from where you live. It is seminary “where you are.”
Both churches and seminaries face many challenges in our culture today. The distance program can be one way of tapping into the rich array of opportunities out there as well.