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Do You Really Want a Mail Order Pastor?

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Distance Education, Distant Doctrine, Distant Church, Soi Disant Pastors: Distance education is becoming a crowded field, and now even churches and their seminaries are getting into the act. But the very things that make distance education appealing might be the same things that make it disastrous for pastoral education.

The wonders of technology have met the far older force of human dreams and aspirations, giving birth to what we now call Distance Education. In years gone by, mail order education was largely populated by body builders and art schools, whose ads asked seductive questions like, Do you like to draw? or, Tired of being a 98 pound weakling? Then came the punch line, the thing that fired the imaginations of millions: You can become an artist in your own spare time while studying at home! For so many people, whose hopes and dreams had been crushed, or at least stifled, by the reality of their everyday lives, these ads offered a way to a much better future. Who, after all, wanted to remain a 98 pound weakling (today we see the reverse in the miracle diet ads, which promise to return us to our previous 98 pound state)? And, not surprisingly, a number of people did learn to draw, and did develop a muscular physique, and some accomplished the other amazing things the ads promised. The question is what did the mail order education really accomplish? Was it the catalog from Charles Atlas, the will power of the individual, or somehow a combination of both?

This question is, of course, not easily answered, but it points to something deeper in human nature. Individuals can be motivated - sometimes incredibly so - by any number and combination of factors and motives. Given a particular context, these factors and motives can be either good, bad or indifferent. The individual who craves the respect, authority, and power that comes from accomplishing their dream may seek it for good ends, or for evil. Some believe that they just aren't getting the respect they deserve. Some actually are ignored or mistreated by co-workers, friends, family and society at large. And some simply want to better themselves, and make a contribution and help others.

In years past, educational institutions tended to frown on mail order education, as did other institutions, many churches among them. The reasons for this were sometimes good, sometimes bad. Among the good reasons was the fear of the many defects of the self made man. This was not as crucial in some fields as in others. There is a long and honorable tradition of reading for the law, or reading for the bar, where an eager student would not attend law school (or attend very little of it), but instead study the great volumes of law, perhaps watch or apprentice to a lawyer, and then attempt to pass the bar, the series of exams required for lawyers in different jurisdictions. This worked for some very simple reasons: the student would eventually have to demonstrate his ability by a series of rigorous tests, regardless of the educational background. Courts used to have effective methods of correcting and educating attorneys. And, of course, there was always the possibility (hope on the part of some) that an incompetent attorney would either improve, starve, or go into politics (no system is perfect).

But the limitations of such a system become apparent when we consider phrases like self-taught brain surgeon or You too can learn to fly a jumbo jet in your spare time in the comfort of your own living room! This is not to say that those who go to Law School, or Medical School, or Flight School, are necessarily more competent or educated than those who don't. But the odds of them being so, at least in their field, usually improve when they do. The many failures of our educational institutions do not change the fact that there are also many successes. The odds of competence also increase the longer someone practices their craft. This doesn't surprise us, and we all long for the skill, knowledge and wisdom that experience brings. We just don't want to put in the effort or get old doing it.

The truth of the matter may be that everyone is, ultimately, self-taught, but they are self-taught in a context, an environment, and with people and institutions that form them. Parents used to know this about children, and in years past picked not just their schools, but also their friends (smart ones still do). People tend to rise (or fall) according the to standards and expectations of their environment. The increasing interest in what is called classical education (and the associated parts of the home school movement) recognizes this as part of the brilliance of past educational systems. The ideal is a motivated, disciplined, eager student surrounded by an environment that can ultimately form them to the point where they can teach themselves, and teach others.

For all of its potential, and even successes, in other disciplines, churches and seminaries may want to re-think the use of distance education to educate and form pastors. One of the strengths of distance education, its convenience, becomes one of its great weaknesses in the formation of pastors. Whether intended or not, students cannot help but perceive that distance education is a way to avoid moving away from their homes to a campus and becoming part of a community of future pastors at a seminary. This is because distance education is, well, convenient, no matter what terms are used to describe this quality. For churches which believe that God has ordained the Office of the Holy Ministry, such convenience could prove to be ultimately fatal. If a church does not require a certain level of sacrifice, dedication and obedience on the part of its seminarians, how can it then ask the same of its parishioners, members, and officers? Distance students are no doubt capable of great things, but will they come to a deeper understanding of the Office of the Holy Ministry by avoiding the environment that can best teach and form that understanding? Will they value what distance students can only experience in part: a community of learners, living under the cross, being shaped and formed into pastors?

Distance education is commonly perceived to be a less expensive alternative to residential education. This assessment depends on what factors are considered, but it is a conclusion frequently reached by excluding the consideration of ultimate and long term goals. Desperation (real or imagined) breeds hast. Churches and seminaries would be far better off by setting their goals and programs as a whole, and only after that evaluate what role distance education would play. Students may think that the expense avoided in moving from their present location far outweighs the benefits of being on campus. What is often overlooked is that the money and resources expended on distance education could be used for on campus student tuition and housing. If the institution is devoting a significant amount of money and resources to their distance education infrastructure - which it must, in order to do such a program well - that money could be used for tuition fellowships, housing, library, etc., all the things that make for a viable campus.

The forces that some churches believe are driving them to distance education may also be forces worth resisting. The distantly educated pastor will, no doubt, encounter numerous parishioners who distance themselves from the divine service and the worship of his church. Many of those parishioners will tell that pastor, with all honesty and sincerity, that they don't believe it necessary to attend the divine service in person because they do the same thing by distance education, that is, they watched a church service on television. Should this pastor object, his parishioner could very effectively respond, But pastor, didn't you do the same thing instead of attending seminary in person? If it was too inconvenient for the pastor to attend seminary in person, why should his members feel differently about attending worship in person?

The force of this argument does not stop at this example. Churches of all types often complain about a shortage of clergy, and many of their congregations need pastors. But what appears to be a shortage may actually be a problem of distribution. Some parishes are more difficult to fill than others. This is why churches need not just faithful and trained pastors, but pastors who will faithfully live out their vocation of the public ministry by going places they would rather not. If someone is unwilling to relocate in order to attend seminary, would they not be equally unwilling to relocate in order to accept a call or assignment elsewhere? When does that immobile percentage of an entire clergy roster (which exists even in churches without distance education) become so high as to make overseas missions and new congregations difficult, if not impossible? Advocates of distance education might say that distance education solves this very problem that it might create, by educating individuals in those places most difficult to serve. But would a church body not rather have all their clergy as mobile as possible, especially when one considers the tremendous contribution that could be made by having pastors from different continents and countries serve in all corners of their church? If distance education creates two classes of clergy, and leaves those in certain parts of the country and world limited to only their region, would this not be an instance of the new post-modern tribalism and soft racism of the left?

Like other vocations, the vocation of the pastoral ministry is also carried out, shaped and formed by intensive contact with other people, especially those with that same vocation. Bonhoeffer's essay known in English as Life Together (the work is almost a reflection on psalms) makes the case wonderfully that the Christian life is never lived alone, a point that Luther himself echoes forcefully in his works on vocation. Does distance education not delay or prevent what should be inevitable, that is, that time when a pastor experiences the daily crucifixion of his Old Adam at the hands of God's instruments, that is, other people?

All of the above assumes, of course, that both advocates and critics of distance education within a church truly wish to have a body of pastors faithful to the historic doctrine and practice of their church, and a unity of faith in their teaching, preaching and administration of the Word and the Sacraments. Sadly, this may not be the case. Within Lutheranism, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has created the Distance Education Leading To Ordination (of DELTO) program, and other Lutherans are also heading in that direction. DELTO appears to be (at least when the seminaries are involved) about as good as this kind of Distance Education can get, in so far as the instructors actually do meet with their Distance Students. Indications are, however, that individual districts (dioceses) and even pressure groups claiming expertise in leadership and growth (within the Missouri Synod and elsewhere) are attempting to educate their own pastors apart from the church's seminaries. Individual congregations as well have expressed a desire to educate their own clergy, apart from what their church body has decided will be the standards for pastoral education. Time will tell, but the desire for education distant from the seminaries of their own church may indicate a desire for pastors who, like distance education itself, have a theology that is more convenient and to the liking of these congregations and groups, and more distant from the historical doctrine and practice of their synod. If so, it would be more honest to admit disagreement with their own church body, and look to join a more like minded group.

The DELTO program mentioned above was initially intended to be for a very small number of individuals, perhaps those who could not leave a particular congregation in which they were already serving in some capacity. DELTO is described as a means for providing off-campus education to seminary students who have been admitted to a certificate program... The DELTO program seeks to address needs and opportunities for pastoral ministry in specialized situations... It provides contextual theological education leading to ordination for men who provide pastoral service to congregations or in situations that cannot support a full-time pastor or missionary.*
*Such descriptions can be found on the websites of the seminaries and brochures from the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, for example, at www.csl.edu under the topic Distance Education Programs.
But a cursory search reveals that DELTO already has company, including the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT), the Deaf Institute of Theology (DIT) the Hispanic Institute of Theology (which may have been a predecessor to DELTO), and the Ethnic/Multi-cultural Pastoral Certification Program. Apparently, contextual theological education has many contexts, but the one context common to the vast number of pastors (four years of a seminary education which includes a year of supervised Vicarage) is not one of them.

Churches ought to be very, very careful when they in effect put out the advertisement Do you like to preach? You too can be a pastor by studying at your own pace in your spare time in the convenience of your own living room! Those who respond should not be blamed for thinking their convenience is more important than the doctrine and practice of the church, and more valued than the willingness to serve congregations wherever they may be. They should also not be blamed for the mistaken impression that their own decision or private call to become a pastor makes them, soi disant, a pastor already. And they may find congregations who agree with them, even though the Augsburg Confession clearly tells us that no one calls himself, even when - especially when - they claim the call to be from God.*
*Articles XIV and V.
Their own church has, as it were, deprived them of something like the picture of Charles Atlas for the 98 pound weakling, and the bar exam for the self-read lawyer. The truth (as pointed out above) is that individuals who can successfully complete mail order or distance education are extraordinary people. Imagine how great they would be if they attended seminary for four years. To encourage them otherwise is clerical and doctrinal malpractice.