Since 1807, when Andover Theological Seminary became the first graduate school of theology in America, nearly every seminary student followed the same educational path: Uproot the family, move to the seminary’s home city, and immerse yourself in academic study, pursuing the master of divinity (M.Div.) degree needed to receive a call.
After three or four years, depending on one’s course load, graduates would circulate their résumés, seeking a call to a church that matched their personality and skills.
But in the past 10 to 15 years, several alternative models for theological training have emerged. Chris Vogel, director of NxtGen Pastors, notes, “We are at a wonderful cultural nexus in which we have been afforded the opportunity to rethink pastoral formation.”
Factors Impacting Seminary Training
According to Vogel, a number of factors have recently converged. The first is financial. As traditional theological education has grown more expensive, seminary student debt has skyrocketed. According to a 2014 report by Dallas Theological Seminary, just under a third of seminary graduates were more than $40,000 in debt, and 17% had amassed at least $60,000 in debt. To repay their loans, most graduates need a higher salary than an average-sized church can pay an entry-level pastor.
Traditional seminaries, while maintaining their commitment to residential education, have made several adjustments, including the creation of a “hybrid” M.Div. program.
A second factor is technology. Innovations we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago have opened a range of new options. Videoconferencing, in particular, now allows seminaries, churches, and parachurch groups to offer real-time interaction between students and first-rate professors.
A third factor is the reality that more and more ministerial candidates sense the call to ministry later in life, after their families have been established in their communities, which makes relocating, at best, impractical. Selling a home, leaving a stable job and a church home, severing supportive relationships, and removing children from school and friends — such changes are not only counterproductive, but they also exact a burdensome toll.
These factors have motivated church and seminary leaders to come up with creative alternatives for delivering first-rate training. The result has been an explosion of new models.
Seminaries and Churches Adjust for Changing Needs
Traditional seminaries, while maintaining their commitment to residential education, have made several adjustments, including the creation of a “hybrid” M.Div. program. This program allows students to complete their studies through a combination of online “hybrid” courses — combining online preparation with a one-week residential course — and “intensive” courses, which include a full term of lectures delivered in one week’s residence with preparatory and follow-up assignments. Reformed Theological Seminary has offered a hybrid degree program since 2014. Covenant Seminary has offered a hybrid since 2018; Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary has offered a hybrid program since 2000.
Some larger churches have also established seminaries. In 1972, PCA Pastors Frank Barker and Bill Hay saw a need to provide affordable, accessible, and convenient graduate-level education, prompting them to found Birmingham Theological Seminary (BTS), which meets at Briarwood Presbyterian Church. Low-cost classes are offered mornings and evenings to accommodate working students. BTS now offers 75% of its courses online and has expanded its reach via learning centers throughout Alabama.
Given the “grassroots” nature of these innovations, there are likely other new models within the PCA.
Ten years ago, Perimeter Church, just outside Atlanta, started a similar venture under the auspices of Metro Atlanta Presbytery. Metro Atlanta Seminary (MAS) offers B.Th. and M.Div. professional ministry degrees with a mix of credit hours in academics, mentoring, and practicum. Its affiliate campuses in Augusta and Baltimore are preparing to become independent institutions, and MAS has more affiliates in the works.
BRITE (Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education) is another seminary designed to enable students to “stay and study” rather than “go away to study.” Started through the joint efforts of several churches in southwest Virginia, BRITE serves a largely rural constituency. Classes built around a traditional Reformed curriculum are led by local pastors with advanced degrees and meet on nights and weekends in area churches.
While these bear at least some marks of the more traditional seminaries, other alternatives have moved farther outside the box.
LAMP Theological Seminary was developed by Brian Kelso, pastor of Christ Covenant PCA in Southwest Ranches, Florida, for three of his key leaders. Instead of a central campus, LAMP has certified 35 learning sites around the country where a seminary education can be tailored to each student’s schedule and pace. Lessons involve readings, audio lectures, writing, and memorization, which are supplemented by a two-hour discussion with a class facilitator. Upon completing the program, students have fulfilled the requirements of the PCA’s Uniform Curriculum required for ordination and receive a B.Div.
Thirdmill Seminary, a recent venture of Third Millennium Ministries, has used technology to provide graduate-level instruction, primarily for the majority world, for 20 years. The seminary is designed to provide training primarily for “co-vocational” ministers in working-class, immigrant, and minority communities. It combines Thirdmill’s already established video curriculum with local on-the-job supervision. Though Thirdmill doesn’t offer an M.Div., the seminary works with PCA presbyteries to supplement its Master’s in Christian Studies degree to fulfill the Uniform Curriculum.
Nxtgen, a program initially developed by Wisconsin Presbytery’s On Wisconsin church-planting network, combines existing programs, such as Covenant and RTS’ hybrid M.Div., with cohorts led by an experienced mentor. The cohorts work though “modules” that center around “soft skills” such as spiritual formation and cultural intelligence. RTS offers a 50% discount to NxtGen students in its hybrid program; Covenant offers six credits to students participating in a NxtGen cohort.
Tates Creek Presbyterian Church (TCPC) in Lexington, Kentucky, has applied a similar approach on a smaller scale to prepare TCPC and Campus Outreach staff for ordained ministry.
Given the “grassroots” nature of these innovations, there are likely other new models within the PCA. Watch byFaith for a more complete description of these and other options.