With community needs rising in economically tough times, many pastors find themselves unequipped and unprepared for dire situations. Here’s how online education can change that anytime, anywhere.
Job losses and tanking stock portfolios. Mortgage crises, foreclosures and mounting bills. Divorces, addictions, affairs and other scandals. What used to be a staple only in news headlines and tabloid magazines made its way into almost every church this past year, as congregants and communities alike struggled with an unraveling culture. Pastors across the nation found themselves face to face with a surging tsunami of needs, to which they responded and continue to respond.
In the process, however, many church leaders discovered an equally pressing need for them to be educated, equipped and trained. A growing number are realizing the important role that practical, applicable knowledge plays when combined with Holy Spirit impartation and raw life experience.
Enter online education. An anomaly only a few years ago, it is now an essential for every Bible college, seminary, university and theological institute. And that’s great news for pastors who don’t have the option of putting life on hold to pursue a degree on campus. Online education can offer the perfect solution for “on the go” lifelong learning. But since not all distance-learning programs are created equal, here are a few things to consider when deciding where to go for your schooling.
Accredited vs. Unaccredited
Accreditation is the license given to religious vocational schools by the federal government and some states permitting them to grant degrees and diplomas. To be accredited, a school must be approved by an accrediting agency within CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation). These agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. To find out if the school you’re interested in is accredited, visit chea.org.
Unaccredited schools may be licensed in some states to offer religious vocational degrees, certificates and/or diplomas. All of them should be able to report to you in writing the licensing or religious-exemption relation they have with your state. This way, you can be certain your school complies with state laws and regulations through your state’s department of education.
What are the major differences between accredited and unaccredited? Accredited schools can provide 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.
Accredited programs of study are more rigorous than unaccredited ones. They require more online “classroom” hours, and some involve more direct interaction. 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 or on-campus instruction.
Unaccredited education is usually less demanding and costly, easier to complete in a short time and more accessible to large groups of people. It’s a great option for pastors who want skill training or spiritual impartation from leaders whose ministries they value. It’s also a step up from most church curriculum.
There are a few negatives to going this route, however. You can’t use what you have earned for future study in an accredited institution or on your résumé as part of your job application. If the school doesn’t have proper state licensing or exemption, then what you have received may be illegal.
Whether you opt for accredited or unaccredited, consider these factors:
- School leadership. Is the current president a person of integrity? Is he or she highly esteemed by peers in ministry?
- Courses or curriculum. Do classes use streaming video, downloadable videos, live feeds or video conferencing? If so, what are the technical requirements (e.g., DSL vs. cable, webcam)? Do courses include resources such as syllabi, bibliographies, textbooks and student note-taking guides?
- Faculty. Who are the instructors and what are their credentials? Are they Spirit-filled? Is there a standing faculty available to teach live courses?
- Costs. What is the cost per course, seminar or program of study? Are videos, audio files, DVDs, CDs, texts or supplemental course materials included? What is the total investment you must make to earn a particular certificate, diploma or degree?
- Licensing. Is the school required to be registered in your state? An unaccredited school may be properly licensed in the state in which it is chartered—but not in your state. Before enrolling, have the school confirm its status in writing.
- 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? The more comprehensive the record-keeping and the more your performance is measured (tests, papers, grades), the better your future opportunities will be to have your work considered by accredited schools.
- Long-term value. What’s cheaply earned isn’t worth much. Saving money and time isn’t always the best course. Stay away from those unsolicited e-mails promising you a quick route to a degree.
Here are three popular questions about online ministry education:
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.” 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 never consider that their documented ministry or work experience may be considered for advanced standing at the graduate level.
Note: Don’t call a school’s administrative office and ask if “such and such” can count for credits. You must apply, and everything must be in writing, before a school will determine your academic standing.
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 worth the effort, cost and time.
3. Is financial aid available? Yes. Accredited schools have federal loans and grants available for undergraduate and some graduate programs. The financial aid officer can tell you how to apply.
As a pastor, lifelong learning and continuing your education isn’t an option but an obligation to those you serve. Even when it’s done online, systematic study can reap a wonderful harvest of truth and practical ministry tools for equipping both you and those you lead.
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