Communities of learners develop in many ways, though every community has obstacles. Even when students are not all in the same location, participants find new pathways to form bonds as a community of learners (Richardson, Huyah, and Sotto 2019). Even through Zoom (teleconference app), students bond together. Sometimes those bonds run deep.
Several months ago, the Churches of God General Conference Regional Directors discussed ways to train new ministers. Several of the regions asked Winebrenner Seminary to try a pilot program. Students would take a class where they all met online at the same time. It would be part of the new Institute for Christian Studies at Winebrenner Seminary. If students were unable to make it to class, they would be able to listen to a recording of the session. It was designed to be conveniently accessible. The goal was to raise leaders.
There are now fourteen students in that class. They represent four of the regions and originate from nine states.
The students were identified and recommended by the Regional Directors. They applied through a streamlined process now used for first-course-students in the Institute for Christian Studies (formerly Pastoral Training Institute).
Traditionally, seminaries think that students must learn in the same geographical space to be mentored and to grow into effective ministers. Even today, that attitude pervades some conversations. Over distance, students not only learn together but also willingly build intimate bonds, share life experiences, explain their cognitive perspectives, experiment with ideas, and reflect on their own situation. Sometimes it is easier to reflect while sitting in a comfortable room in one’s own house, participating in a Zoom session, and letting God speak. Mentoring can be done by experienced ministers involved in the students’ lives.
Richardson, Huyah, and Sotto (2019) describe an approach to community building “as progressive acts of collaboration – doing more with others every step of the way” (emphasis original). They go on to expand with community building activities such as doing things together (Studying), talking (class discussions), and cultivating an identity. From learning each other’s names to discussion groups to conversations before class, the students are forming a community by engaging each other by the normal means used by students in other class settings. They stay in the context of their local environments. They simply use the medium of the internet to go to class.
While we can be mesmerized by distance learning communities, we should realize that it is not new. The Apostle Peter wrote to “those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). The church has always been united across space and time, learning from each other, dwelling together as one body in our Lord Jesus Christ. Technology has simply provided a new expression for following the ancient way.
Richardson, Bailey, Kevin Huynh and Kai Elmer Sotto. Get Together: How to build a community with your people. San Francisco: Stripe Press, 2019. Kindle Edition.
– Dr. Bruce Coats, Academic Dean, Winebrenner Theological Seminary
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