E-lert - April 2011

Distributed Learning program brings seminary to the students

For many people called to ordained ministry, relocating to seminary just isn't possible. With steady jobs and families to care for, these would-be students once had no other choice but to forgo seminary studies.

That is until Luther Seminary debuted the Master of Divinity Distributed Learning program in fall 2007. Though Luther had offered online classes before, this new program was tailored specifically for students called to pursue a Master of Divinity degree but unable to attend classes in St. Paul, Minn., full time.

"Nearly three-fourths of our (Distributed Learning) students say that, apart from this program, they would not be able to attend seminary at all, either now or in the foreseeable future," said Arland Hultgren, interim associate dean for first theological degrees. "That is a powerful testimony about the significance of the program and how much it is needed."

That certainly was the case for Christina Auch, an M.Div. middler.

"Because I have children in school, because my husband is a teacher and because we live more than three hours from the nearest seminary, it isn't possible for me to commute to seminary, nor is it possible to move to a campus and be a full-time student," Auch said. "The DL program has given us the flexibility of place and of time."

The DL program gives students the opportunity to work toward their M.Div. degrees through a combination of online courses and intensive classes on campus twice a year. Unlike full-time students who go through three years of courses and one year of internship, DL students typically take about six years and have several options for internship. They also become immersed in a teaching congregation, where they can directly apply what they learn.

"Guiding Bible studies, teaching classes, preaching sermons, leading worship: these students have an opportunity to directly connect their course work to their context," said Joy Aarsvold, program coordinator for M.Div. DL.

And DL students still find ways to make connections with fellow students and teachers, both online and during intensive courses.

"They form great friendships with each other, which is gratifying for me to watch," said Walter Sundberg, professor of church history, who has taught DL classes for four years. "The students are also eager to get to know me. Conversations in class are easy to get going. This program is one of the best we have, in my opinion. We are fortunate as a school to have such committed students."

Each student is also a member of a cohort, or a group of about 20 students. These cohorts provide students with a forum for theological discussions as well as encouragement throughout the program. Students have also found support among DL program staff, which Lynne Ogren, an M.Div. junior, finds particularly helpful given her distance from campus life.

"The administration, especially those working directly with the DL program, is exceptionally attentive to the needs and logistics of what it takes to be an online student," Ogren said. "I am grateful for the commitment Luther has to the DL students, helping us feel as much a part of the seminary community as possible."

With 76 students currently enrolled in the M.Div. DL program, Aarsvold anticipates that the program will continue to grow, which is good for everyone involved.

"We're discovering that this program works, for the students, for the faculty, for the students' teaching congregations, and for the broader church," she said.

Interested in the M.Div. DL program at Luther Seminary? Visit www.luthersem.edu/mdiv_distributed for more information.

The Children, Youth and Family program at Luther Seminary has offered a distributed learning option for its Master of Arts students since 2000. To find out more, visit www.luthersem.edu/cyf.