I want to pursue continuing education, but I don’t have the time to leave my family and church and spend three to four years in seminary. What do I do?”
“I’m barraged with mail, e-mail, magazine ads and friendly advice to further my education, but I can’t see through the fog of accreditation, degrees, diplomas, certificates and all the rest. What’s real? What’s worthwhile?”
“Can I use my credit hours earned in college and life experience of 20 years in ministry toward a degree?”
“I want a doctorate. How do I get it? What does it cost?”
Increasingly, well-educated congregations, along with the tough questions raised by globalism, pluralism and secularism are driving many pastors and church leaders back to school to further their educations and more effectively face the challenges of ministry in the 21st century. For those engaged in full-time ministry, distance learning is often the most viable alternative to commuting to a seminary campus or taking time off for several years to finish an education.
All such correspondence programs are not created equal, however, and for every legitimate center of learning there is at least one diploma mill willing to take your hard-earned money in exchange for a fake degree. With a little investigative work on your part and some basic guidelines, you can avoid these scams and find a high-quality institution with flexibility, allowing you to pursue ministry and an education simultaneously.
Traditional approaches to classroom education have the advantage of live instruction, fellowship and community with other students, and on-site library and research facilities. But the technological advances of the Internet provide research capabilities through accredited distance-education programs such as OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) and GALILEO (Georgia Library Learning Online).
Additionally, with Web-based learning programs such as Blackboard, a student may view streaming video of course lectures, receive syllabi, schedules and assignments, and have a direct portal for communicating with faculty and academic counselors. In other words, everything is in place for distance education for undergraduate and graduate courses, in many instances, through doctoral levels. Anywhere you have a computer and broadband Web access, you can “go to school.”
But before you saddle up in search of another degree, take a quick reality check, and make sure you’re considering more education for the right reasons. If you need a title or think that having a diploma will give the recognition you’ve always longed for—get over it. From God’s perspective, information for information’s sake is essentially worthless (see 2 Tim. 3:7).
However, there are valid reasons for pursuing post-secondary training and equipping that need to be weighed. Higher education is a tool God can use in our lives to deepen us spiritually and equip us practically for more effective ministry.
From Institutes to Universities
The Bible-college movement received momentum in the days following World War II with GIs returning home and using the GI Bill of Rights to pursue an education. Many of those schools had no accreditation from an agency recognized by the federal government. Some moved toward accreditation and, in the process, became more and more like secular schools.
With the advent of the charismatic movement in the 1960s and the growth of independent churches in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of megachurches began to plant their own church-based schools.
The apostolic reformation and emerging apostolic networks brought us schools that churches could import and plant on their own campuses. Most of these schools had video courses with some form of student syllabi, texts, and even tests and transcripts. In states where allowed, degrees and diplomas were offered.
Also emerging were significant academic campuses having graduate programs within the Pentecostal and charismatic streams for equipping ministers with full accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education accrediting agencies—Oral Roberts University, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Lee University, Regent University and Beacon University, to name a few. These schools systematically developed their distance- and online-learning programs with the emerging technology and accompanying accreditation.
Some apostolic networks began developing nontraditional learning models and schools for imparting what their leaders wanted deposited into students’ lives. These networks formed an association of like-minded schools called the Apostolic Council for Educational Accountability led by C. Peter Wagner. Unlike accredited campuses that had students enroll in an academic program on-site, these schools offered distance education and short on-site seminars for equipping church leaders.
A quick survey of the Web sites of many distance-learning programs would indicate that many claim to be “accredited” in some form or another. Strictly speaking, however, accreditation is the license given to religious vocational schools by the federal government and some states (for example, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, to name a few) permitting them to grant degrees and diplomas.
Some states make offering such degrees without accreditation illegal, and every state has its own rules and regulations. Before enrolling in an unaccredited distance-education school or church-based school, make certain that it has proper state licensing.
Unaccredited education is usually less demanding and costly, easier to complete in a shorter time frame and more accessible to large groups of people. It is more rigorous than most church curriculum or programs and offers access to Spirit-filled faculty often on a personal level.
Accredited education conforms to exacting policies and procedures by accrediting agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Accredited education makes available federal financial aid, academically trained faculty, extensive library and research facilities, and accurate measures for student grading and transcripts, recording both student performance and hours earned that can be recognized by other accredited schools.
To be accredited, a school must be a member institution recognized and accredited by an accrediting agency within CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation). These agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) and can receive federal financial aid for students.
To learn if the school you are interested in is accredited, visit www.chea.org. Most schools recognized by CHEA transfer credits and accept transcripts of courses after reviewing both the reporting school’s accreditation and courses, plus reviewing the student’s transcript.
Unaccredited schools may be licensed in some states with religious exemptions to offer religious vocational degrees, certificates and/or diplomas. Any unaccredited school that you consider should be able to report to you in writing the license or religious-exemption relationship they have in your state. This way you are certain that your school is in compliance with state laws and regulation through your state’s department of education.
Is an unaccredited program of study right for you? It depends on your calling and needs, but certain benefits and drawbacks do exist. You as both a Christian leader and a “consumer” need to know what you are really getting for your hard work, studying, time and money.What to look for:
The founder and president of the school. Is this a person of integrity? Is he or she highly esteemed by peers in ministry?
The courses or curriculum. Are they video/DVD or audio? Do they have accompanying resources such as syllabi, bibliographies, textbooks, student note-taking guides and supplemental resources?
The faculty, teachers and instructors. Who are they and what are their credentials? Are they Spirit-filled? What information is available on them and their ministries? Is there a standing faculty available to teach live courses?
The costs. What is the cost per course, seminar or program of study? Are videos/DVDs/CDs/tapes, texts or supplemental course materials included? What is the total investment you must make to earn a particular certificate, diploma or degree from the institution or school?
The licensing. Is the school required to be registered with the state in which you live? An unaccredited school may be properly licensed in the state in which it is chartered. However, it may not be properly registered or licensed in your state.
Any educational courses for which money crosses state lines and which can lead to granting a diploma, degree or certificate may be regulated by state laws, and each state is different. Don’t assume that you know; get it in writing from the school regarding your state.
The degrees, diplomas and certificates. What transcripts are kept? Are tests given and grades recorded? How many hours, credits, units or courses need to be taken to earn a particular diploma?
If you hope to have any of your work considered for advance academic standing at any accredited school in which you may wish to enroll in the future, then the more comprehensive the record-keeping and the more your performance is measured (for example, tests, papers, grades, and so on), the better your future opportunities are for your work to be considered by an accredited institution.
Consumer beware. What’s cheaply earned isn’t worth much. Saving money and time isn’t always the best course of action. Stay away from e-mails promising you degrees or credentials.
The benefits from unaccredited educational programs are personal growth, specific skill training, continuing education, spiritual impartation and connection with specific leaders whose ministries you value.
The liabilities include not being able to use whatever you have earned for future study in an accredited institution or use on your résumé as part of your job application. Also, if the school doesn’t have proper state licensing or exemption, then what you have received may be illegal.
Accredited programs of study are more rigorous. More classroom hours online through distance education are required than in unaccredited programs. Of course, papers, assignments, tests and semester schedules are a part of accredited online distance education. Bachelor’s through M.Div. (Master of Divinity) degrees can be pursued online, but accredited D.Min. (Doctor of Ministry) programs all require some on-site, face-to-face instruction. This is often done in seminars held at an approved site or on campus.
Here are some questions often asked:
1. Can unaccredited academic studies or life experience be counted in my application for a degree program at an accredited institution?
All accredited institutions have some policies for considering unaccredited work for “advanced academic standing.” Although some general principles apply, each institution has a set policy regarding advanced standing that has been worked out with its accreditation provider. Ask the question while you are in the process of applying.
Some pastors have a mixture of accredited and unaccredited academic hours, but documented ministry or work experience that may be considered for advanced standing into graduate level work. Again, the admissions director of the school you are considering can help you apply.
Note: Don’t pressure someone in a school’s administration office to tell you verbally if “such and such” counts or can be transferred. You must apply and have everything considered in writing with your application in order to know accurately what your academic standing will be.
2. Do I have to take Greek and Hebrew? Most accredited M. Div. programs require original-language study. Greek and/or Hebrew opens up wonderful revelation in Scripture. It’s not a burden; it’s a joy and privilege to study scriptures in their original languages! It’s worth the effort, cost and time.
3. Is financial aid available? Accredited schools do have federal loans and grants available to them for undergraduate and some graduate programs. The financial aid officer at the school you are considering can tell you how to apply.
Finish what you start
Lifelong learning and continuing your education as a pastor or church leader really isn’t an option. It’s an obligation to yourself and your congregation to continue to learn. Conferences, watching Christian television, teaching denominational or selected curriculum, reading Christian books and listening to the teachingand messages of others just isn’t enough. Systematic study can reap a wonderful harvest of truth and practical ministry tools for equipping both yourself and your saints.
Listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit within you. He may be encouraging you to enter into a course of study in either an unaccredited or accredited school. God may be leading you to plant a school in your own church. Discipling your people with excellent resources can empower them to become more effective and bold in their own workplace and family settings of ministry.
Ronald E. Cottle, Ed.D., Ph.D., is founder and chancellor of Beacon University, author, apostolic leader and internationally recognized teacher. Larry Keefauver, D.Min., is a senior editorial adviser for Ministries Today, executive director of advancement at Beacon University, and a prolific Christian author and international teacher and speaker.
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