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Four Trends in Theological Education for the 21st Century

By Natasha Kolar

21st century theological education providers are challenged to adapt to rapidly evolving “cultural norms, educational models, international tensions, business practices, and religious presence.” A review of literature on the subject uncovered four key methods that U.S. theological institutions are using to adapt to the religious, educational, economic, technological and social realities of the 21st century.

1) Distance Learning and Technology

Although tuition costs for online programs are often the same as residential programs, distance learning has the potential to significantly reduce the costs associated with a theological education. By taking courses online at their own convenience and through infrequent short-term residencies (ranging from several days to several weeks in length), students are able to avoid quitting their jobs and moving to a home on or near campus. For example, the Bethel Seminary InMinistry M.Div. program is designed to support rather than interfere with participants’ current ministries and communities. In fact, a growing number of new theological institutions are opening their doors entirely online, such as Rockbridge Seminary. Other institutions facing financial difficulties are closing the doors of their brick-and-mortar campuses (or regional branches) and maintaining only their online program offerings.

2) Student Debt Assistance

Students at theological institutions face rising tuition costs and steep interest rates on student loans. Many enrolled in ministry-related degree programs expect to earn a relatively low salary upon graduation, making it that much harder to repay mounting student loan debts. Some institutions, like Huntington University, are creating loan repayment assistance programs for graduates demonstrating significant financial need. Institutions can also direct students to external organizations, such as MedSend, which helps medical missionaries re-pay student loans.

3) Dual-Degree Programs and Bi-Vocational Ministry

While some graduate programs result in a certificate or degree in lay ministry, dual degree programs have the potential to attract students interested in bi-vocational or “tentmaking” ministry pathways. These programs also appeal to students who may be concerned about repaying student loan debt or being unable to find a well-paying job in full-time ministry upon graduation. A dual degree program featuring a Master of Divinity and Master of Business Administration, for example, facilitates a broad variety of career options, as well as a firm foundation in theological education. North Park University is one of many institutions that offer this opportunity to graduate students. Theology degrees can also be combined with degrees in economics or political science, such as Wesley Seminary’s dual master’s degree program in Theological Studies and International Development.

Social work is a common degree program for pairing with theological programs, but with a rising number of job openings in the field of health care, there is also significant potential for dual seminary degree programs in fields such as bioethics and nursing. Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Nursing are among several institutions to offer a joint degree resulting in an M.A. in Religion or an M.Div. as well as an M.S. in Nursing. Wake Forest University offers a joint program resulting in both an M.A. in Bioethics and an M.Div.

4) Bilingual Degree Programs

As ethnic minority and immigrant populations grow in the United States, some seminaries have developed special programs for specific groups to accommodate cultural and linguistic differences. Azusa Pacific University is one such institution, having developed bilingual graduate theological programs for both Hispanic and Korean student populations. The Programa Hispano results in either an M.A. in Pastoral Studies or an M.Div. The Asian Program offers various courses within the Graduate School of Theology using a bilingual delivery method in English and Korean. Similarly, Dallas Theological Seminary has combined distance learning and bilingual education to offer a graduate certificate to Chinese-language students, including those studying from China.