Story Magazine - Third Quarter, 2004

Youth and Family Distributive Learning Program Lets Students Throughout U.S. Stay in Ministry While Attending Seminary

by Sheri Booms Holm, director of publications; student profiles by Margaret Beste

Youth and family ministry has grown up.

In his nearly three decades of work in youth and family ministry, Hal Weldin, '94, has seen it mature and evolve, with a significant number of youth ministers having seven or more years' experience serving congregations. "Even 15 years ago we didn't have folks with that kind of tenure. Now we do," he said. But, most have no theological training, he added, and that concerns him.

While Luther has offered its M.A. in Youth and Family Ministry for 27 years, the program usually meant that students who lived outside the Twin Cities had to relocate in order to attend seminary. "I look out at the Lutheran Church and see people with all this experience who want a master's level education but aren't able or willing to leave their ministry," Weldin said.

How to provide graduate theological education to these ministers and allow them to stay in the ministry to which they are called has been a priority for Luther Seminary, and a personal vision for Weldin. The result of their planning is the three-year-old Master of Arts in Youth and Family Distributive Learning Program.

Weldin is an adjunct faculty member and coordinator of the program. "When I was hired, we had a vision for distributive learning to create a program and lay it against ATS (Association of Theological Schools) standards and start the approval process," he said. He is pleased that it is meeting the rigorous standards of ATS accreditation and has been provisionally approved until further examination next spring.

What is Distributive Learning?

"The traditional seminary model is primarily preparatory. You learn theology, then you go out to your first ministry experience. It doesn't apply to those with several years of ministerial experience,"Weldin said.

The distributive learning program is a "both/and model," he continued. "We will always need a residential program. But we need to explore how to teach preparatory education when the primary place of education is the parish rather than the seminary."

Students take half their 18 required courses online. The remaining nine are on-campus in short-term "intensives": a one-week course in the summer, and a two-week January Term course. The program is currently working on a week-long fall course, as well.

The intensives are a time for distributive learners to meet their classmates and instructors face to face, and to experience campus life. "When they get here for intensives, there's great camaraderie,"Weldin said. "Intensives are part of honing relationships. They get to know the student body, just with less incidental contact."

There's a reason these courses are called "intensive." Students meet eight hours a day for five days. Additionally, there are reading assignments before the course and projects due afterwards.

The program also partners with the para-church organization Youth Leadership to assist in some of the training. Courses have included: Communicating Gospel to Teens, Pastoral Care of Youth and Families, Home and Congregation, and Outreach to the Unchurched.

Students are not required to be oncampus more than four weeks out of the year, and are able to graduate in three-and-a-half years,Weldin said. They continue working, and develop a formal or informal contract with their parish so that they are able to attend the intensives each year. Some involve their congregations greatly and receive financial support for their studies.

Online students know it's not always easy carving out study time when your course has no set place or time--unless you yourself set them.

"We send a box of Luther Seminary items to new students, including a sweatshirt and a mug. The joke is, when it's study time you wear your sweatshirt and tell your family and congregation that you are now a student," Weldin said, adding that students who are successful do create that kind of culture in their lives. For example, Debbie Amato and Beckie Fingland of St. Louis, Mo., serve different churches but have found studying together extremely effective for learning. In addition, they meet with their pastors on a weekly basis in order to collaborate with the parishes on their studies.

Weldin sees himself as an advocate for the distributive learners in terms of what curriculum Luther offers and develops for general online study and for the concentration. "I think the computer-aided online learning experience is a new science and folks are just learning now what technology can provide."

Changes and Challenges

Weldin has witnessed the changes advanced theological education has brought to the distributive learners' ministries.

"The great thing is, when students learn something new, they use it in their Wednesday Bible study. They are teaching differently because of greater understanding of the gospel," he said.

He told the story of one student who took the online Foundations of Pastoral Care course developed by Weldin and Roland Martinson, Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Children, Youth and Family Ministry. "We have a requirement for students to make a contract with their pastors to supervise their pastoral care. One student was making hospital visits. At the end of her course and visits, her congregation came to view her in a completely different way. She provided significant theological care. She wasn't just 'hanging out with the kids' anymore, but a part of the staff. This is one way theological education transforms how the person is viewed as a resource in his or her congregation."

The distributive learning program celebrated a milestone this past May when Amy Daniels, director of family ministries at Christ Lutheran Church, Charlotte, N.C., became the first full program graduate. She was nominated by her classmates to be one of the readers at commencement.

There are now 26 active students in the distributive learning program, with eight more on the waiting list. Weldin would like to see the number grow.

"We need to discover what our limits are. I think after ATS [accreditation] the challenge is to strategize how to service 100 students."

In addition, Weldin expresses hope that the program will be an impetus for more distributive education that will serve the whole church. "My Lutheran hope is to bump up theological thinking and care for folks in ministry in general."

Five Reasons Your Congregation's Youth and Family Minister (Maybe that's You) Should Receive a Theological Education

Hal Weldin explains why advanced theological training is so important for those ministering to adolescents and their families.

1. The vocation of youth and family ministry has come into adulthood. Congregations need both skilled and theologically trained people. For many of our M.A. grads, they and the church's pastors are the only ones with formal theological training.

2. In our North American culture, entering adulthood has become increasingly more difficult. For one thing, adolescence lasts longer -- some say 11 to 24.We need new thinking, and skilled practitioners to care for and nurture the spiritual needs of these young people, especially those in the later adolescent years.

3. The family structure has changed drastically. Moms and dads need spiritual nurturing, too.We need trained ministers who can be there for whole families.

4. For those called to serve youth and families in congregations, teaching one's own stuff gets old after a few years. Theological education changes how you look at everything, bringing new insights.Youth and family ministers are so hungry to learn. They are looking for deep theological reflection.

5. This program is a great way for congregations to invest not just in their youth and family director, but in their entire youth and family ministry program. The longer a director stays, the greater the chances of having a more established and stronger ministry.