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Traditional Seminary vs. Online Seminary – which is right for you?

Today, persons called to ministry have many options for their training. With more than 500 seminaries, 1200 Bible colleges, and several hundred Christian Colleges that offer ministry tracks, the choices are daunting. How do you sort through the various opportunities and simplify your decision-making process? The following examines the pros and cons of two of these options: traditional and online seminaries.

Traditional Seminaries

By far the most typical form of seminary training is residential. The advantage of a residential campus experience is face-to-face interaction with colleagues and faculty. Residential programs also provide extracurricular activities, hard-copy libraries, recreational facilities, and other amenities you would expect from living on or near a campus.

The disadvantages of this approach are that students usually have to leave home, bear the costs of moving to a campus, and work in secular employment or live in poverty in order to acquire a seminary degree. The sacrifices can be great, particularly for older students. Often students are disengaged from ministry for 3-6 years because local churches see them as drifters who won’t be there long, or the opportunities for vocational ministry positions are scarce. Students may find there is less interaction with peers than expected. Married graduate students hustle from class, to work, to church, with little margin for hanging out and discussing theology with friends.

Critics say that residential seminary training is not practical, but that is dependent more upon the curriculum than the location. Some students find they are not disciplined enough to study on their own, and don’t do well in online studies. They need the structure that physical classes provide.

Fully Online Seminaries

The fastest growing form of seminary education is online studies. The advantage of online seminaries is that students can remain in their ministry field or secular employment and obtain theological and ministry training at lower costs to their family. They don’t have to uproot their family to acquire the education they seek.

The disadvantage of online learning is much the same as shopping online. Amazon is convenient and cheaper, but some want to visit a store where they can touch the fabric and talk face-to-face to a salesperson. Others prefer to save time and money, by reading reviews and ordering the product online, with the knowledge they can send the product back if it doesn’t fulfill their expectations. The risk and cost for attending a fully online program are less than residential programs. While some online students are engaged in their course work and in interactions with fellow students, they can feel disconnected from their school because of this lack of physical presence.

As with residential programs, there is a wide range of online seminary programs. Some are nothing more than self-paced correspondence courses with video lectures and tests. The best online communities require high interaction and engagement through chats, forums, and audio/video conferencing. Twenty years ago, critics claimed that the learning outcomes of online classes were less robust than those of residential classes, but recent research shows just the opposite: students engaged in online learning achieve learning outcomes that are at least as good as, or better than, those achieved by students engaged in residential studies. Once skeptical of online learning, churches, employers, and society have accepted this form of education.

As our society has discovered, lifelong friendships and supportive networks can be developed online. Online doesn’t have to mean non-relational. Some students who have attended both residential and online seminaries say they know their online colleagues and professors better than they did fellow students and faculty in residential programs. Students who do well with email and staying in touch with family and friends through social media adapt well to this learning environment.

Prospective students should be aware that graduate-level education, regardless of its form, requires discipline, time management, and effort. Online courses, though convenient, require as much time and energy, if not more, than residential programs.

We’d be honored to help you determine which approach is best for you. To set up an appointment with an academic coach, call 866-931-4300 or email academics@rockbridge.edu.

About the Writer: Dr. Daryl Eldridge has served as Dean at one of the largest residential theological seminaries, served on staff at several churches helping to develop the ministry skills of leaders, taught in blended programs, and is now the president of Rockbridge Seminary, a fully online accredited seminary.