Why residential training and not distance education

As we continue to speak about better use of resources in the matter of theological education, sooner or later we encounter another question: why residential training? Hasn’t it become obsolete by 21st-century standards? Couldn’t students perhaps stay at home instead, keep their jobs, and get superb pastoral training using the wonders of modern technology?

The question about the feasibility or practicality of a full-time residential program arose at the very beginning of our seminary. There were people who tried to convince me that short-term seminars would be a much more efficient and practical way to train church leaders. So it was a dilemma even before the technical revolution in the sphere of communication technology made distance communication widely accessible. 

I spoke on the subject of the use of communication technology in the sphere of Lutheran education at the International Lutheran Conference in Prague in October of 2011. Six years later my paper was published in the Journal of Lutheran Mission.

Here I’m going to state the core idea of why we need residential training in Siberia. There are 2 theological questions to consider: (1) the Incarnation, (2) the nature of the Church. 

God did not deal with the problem of sin and death in a distance mode. The Son of God became incarnate and literally spilled his blood on the cross. Likewise, the pastor does not engage in the ministry in a distance fashion. It is flesh-and-blood ministry: public preaching of Law and Gospel from the pulpit, baptizing people with real water, feeding them with the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. How adequate is education that by its very nature would have difficulties preparing people to do real-life incarnational ministry?

The second point has to do with the personal character of theological education. Christ personally taught his disciples. Likewise St Paul instructs the young bishop Timothy: “… and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). At the seminary the teacher imparts to the students not just knowledge as information, but also theological understanding and a proper hermeneutic of Scripture. In the distance mode this personal character of theological training is blurred at the very least. 

Let me quote from the aforementioned paper: “With the ever-increasing pace of the spread of information technologies, the problem of teaching authority becomes more acute than ever before. Anybody can teach anything and quickly share these ideas using modern equipment. If the seminaries or equivalent institutions are forced to close down and are replaced by alternative decentralized ways of providing education, then the level of competence among the clergy will dramatically decline. Therefore, the solution must be of an institutional nature: seminaries must be specially supported by the church even though it is a major undertaking, especially under present circumstances.”

Let me make one thing clear. I’m no luddite. I’m a modern person living in a modern world. The question is not about using elements of distance education: we do it on a number of levels in any case. The question is whether we need to preserve the classical model of theological education along with modern approaches, and whether in the case of pastoral training we need to keep the traditional model as the main one. Here is another quote from my paper: “… usage of modern technologies for the ultimate goal of pastoral formation may well begin before the official seminary course starts. Then it continues alongside the seminary classroom and does not stop after graduation either. But, in any case, there is neither need nor sense in replacing the traditional seminary with an alternative model just because of current missiological or educational conjecture. Even among current internet freelance-based companies, their staff meets in real life from time to time. We may consider seminary training as an instruction for several years in real life, even though online or similar advanced training and interaction may precede, go alongside, and follow the main education.”

I’m not being presumptuous in claiming that I offer a solution for everybody. I speak specifically on behalf of the people of Siberia. In our large chunk of land, with people and congregations isolated so much, we need to be sure that our pastors are thoroughly trained, because there will not be a pastor friend next door to consult and spend time with.