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The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as the Coordinator, Preparation for Ministry/Exams for Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.

“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry/Examinations of the Presbyterian Church (USA). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.

For quick announcements about changes or developments in the preparation process, dates related to exams or other key events, discussion boards, surveys, etc., you can follow us on Facebook at “Preparing for Presbyterian Ministry.”

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January 24, 2013

MOOCs and Contextual Pastoral Formation

Cover of American Interest magazineI recently attended a meeting of colleagues from member communions of the National Council of Churches of Christ who work in support of professional church leadership, theological education, and support of candidacy for ordination to ministry. The focus of this year’s gathering was emerging trends in theological education.

One topic of discussion was the emergence of “MOOCs”—Massive Open Online Courses—that are now being offered by such prestigious educational institutions as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Literally tens of thousands of students participate in single courses taught by prominent members of the faculty, with much of evaluation of course assignments being carried out through peer review by course participants. Within the world of higher education, there is now wide discussion of how MOOCs will interface with ever increasing levels of specialization of knowledge in vocational fields. Is the day coming when traditional university degrees are a thing of the past, replaced by tightly-focused certifications of technical knowledge and competencies?

This morning a link to another blog post was shared with me that also brings this issue in to discussions about the future of seminaries, theological education, and formation for pastoral ministry. Writing for “The Missional Network” site, Alan Roxburgh discusses “Leadership Training” for ministry in response to an article in The American Interest on “The End of the University as We Know It” by Nathan Harden. Roxburgh is particularly interested in the question of whether these emerging educational technologies can be paired with keeping candidates for ministry rooted in their local contexts and continuing ministry practice as they obtain the classical knowledge and tools of theological study.

I would agree with both Roxburgh and Harden that there is both tremendous promise in these developments as well as what are as yet undiscovered pitfalls. But we also have to understand is that there were both benefits and liabilities in the seminary and broader higher education system that has been the norm for the past two centuries. What we now take for granted was an industrial-level response to the demands of the Industrial Age. The shift to the Digital Age both makes possible and will ultimately demand different responses.

As we prepare for tomorrow’s second round of online ordination examinations, I am very mindful of steps already underway to deal with changes in the preparation for ministry process to bring it into the Digital Age. More than just taking advantage of the ability to move “bits” over the Internet rather than papers and people across a transportation network, these changes are aimed at responding to the demands for more flexibility in the exams system for an age when more and more candidates take the exams outside a residential seminary program. How we administer exams has changed. What is examined will also certainly change as well.

What do you see as the benefits that can be gained through using technology to form pastoral leaders in their current communities? What do you think would be the trade-offs and costs? How do both these benefits and costs relate both to the period of preparation and to the understanding of the life of ministry as a teaching elder? I will be sharing my own ideas about this in coming blog posts here, but I and I am sure others would like to know your thoughts as well.

Categories: Education, Ordination Process


  1. I would be cautious about the juxtaposition of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Seminary preparation that occurs in context. MOOCs seem to fit the same role that introductory lecture courses at large universities have always filled. An expert addresses a passive audience in order to provide background knowledge. As education evolves, there is a continued need for close contact between teacher and student, a close community of learners and careful feedback from a master in the field of study. I'm not sure that contextualized seminary education would move away from any of these things.

    by Deborah Huggins- distance seminarian (in context)

    January 25, 2013

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