Dr. Lisa M. Hess
Associate Professor of Practical Theology
The new United is learning anew who it is becoming through new students rooted far and wide. This month marks the beginning of the hybrid Formation-Integration peer-group curriculum, made available to new voices in unexpected and some underserved areas. Not only will United graduates be able to aid churches’ fears of and struggles with witness to the Gospel in new ways, but the United learning community today is reminded of new things the Spirit encourages despite our fears of change and stubborn assumptions of privilege.
As a practical theological faculty, I am deeply suspicious of the integrity of formation and education possible with online or distance-learning technologies. Denominations show their communal fears as well, with strict limitations I used to support wholeheartedly. But now I’m not so sure, as I meet new students in carefully-intentional communities of discourse. As this venture has begun, I have learned two unexpected things. One, online theological resourcing meets more and more people who hunger for such communally rooted wisdom, now made available in ways like never before. Online students regularly express gratitude and blessing, as they are met where they are. Two, context finds its way into theological traditioning more fully when students live within their communities of service and refuse to sever themselves from their communities of primary relationship. Could it be that online students will be one way the Spirit brings highly literate scholars back to roots in relationship and primary community? Where such irony is, Spirit has often been. (Kierkegaard).
For now, we rejoice as a learning community, made more whole as we celebrate gifts and blessings received. In the words of some of the newest members to the United learning community, used with permission:
“I enjoy learning theology and coming to United is a dream come true.”
“I am working toward my MDiv and this program at United is a real blessing for me as I work to support my family as well as serve a church part-time as well as being “present” with my family and not having to be away 3 days at a time…”
One observation from an incoming student is particularly suited to theological learning communities:
“I can say a little bit about online learning and the value it can bring to a person. I have a dual Bachelor of Science degree from a school out west. What it brought was the chance to continue working while attending school. Often times we become afraid of technology and that is very understandable. Technology has brought with it a wealth, almost an overabundance of knowledge. For many people it overwhelms and interferes with values, morals, and norms (those traditions) that have long been held sacred. I see it as an opportunity to glean the best available knowledge for the present time. The question that would arise out of this is two-fold; Am I ready to embrace and acknowledge the fact that what I always held to be true may be only tentative? If I were to learn something that went so against what I always knew to be right how would I react?”
Will our future church leaders hide from today’s information overload, or will we learn and teach new ways to be within the global community as locally-rooted, theologically-trained ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? As a faculty person, I still do not feel comfortable within the distance-learning world, but do I think humanity has finally created a virtual space where God’s redemption and salvation cannot be received and offered? Of course not. Best to learn the new things Spirit is about, get better at the skills required for the world that is already upon us, and be faithful to assured uncertainties where the community will hold its future in God…whether we like it or not.