Reflecting on the stories of MDivX and looking to the future
When Emillie Binja ’22 M.Div. immigrated from Africa to Tacoma, Washington, in 2017, she never imagined that she’d one day be attending seminary to become a Lutheran pastor.
Although she had been a lifelong Christian, Binja’s first experiences with the Lutheran church came shortly after she arrived in Tacoma, when she began attending St. Mark’s Lutheran Church by The Narrows. Binja connected with the pastor there, and he eventually was the person who first mentioned Luther Seminary to her in 2019.
“The strange thing about being a pastor, for me, is that it’s something I just never saw for myself,” said Binja, who graduated from Luther Seminary’s MDivX program in 2022 and is now the pastor at Creator Lutheran Church in Clackamas, Oregon.
“The moment my pastor said ‘seminary,’ I said, ‘Absolutely not. What is seminary?’” Binja recalled.
But the more she thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. Binja reflected on her faith journey and her relationship with God. “I had to accept that I was capable of becoming a pastor or capable of at least trying,” she said. “I did the MDivX application almost last-minute because it took me a while to make peace with the fact that I was going to go to school to become a pastor.”
In that process of discernment and applying, Binja took her first steps into the rigorous and fulfilling education that came with MDivX, Luther Seminary’s accelerated program that allowed students to obtain a Master of Divinity in two years. This innovative, experimental program ran from June 2019 to May 2023, funded by a transformative investment from The Buntrock Foundation for Leadership.
Following the successful conclusion of MDivX, Luther Seminary is implementing key learnings from the program as part of a continued commitment to innovation that lifts up future leaders for the church.
“Overall, the MDivX holy experiment was a success,” said Professor Rolf Jacobson ’91 M.Div., dean of the faculty, who originated MDivX and served as the program’s director.
“We know from our assessment data that the two-year pathway for the M.Div. works,” Jacobson said. “At some things, it was actually better than a traditional pathway. At some things, it was worse. But we do think, in the longterm, that the intensive nature of this program will always be right for some people and that Luther Seminary should offer a pathway like MDivX.”
Evaluating success and applying key learnings
MDivX students entered and moved through the program in three cohorts. Each of these groups took all of their classes together in a prescribed sequence, adhering to a year-round, distance-learning curriculum that involved simultaneous coursework and internship work. This structure was a departure from Luther Seminary’s standard M.Div. pathway, in which students have traditionally completed coursework in approximately two to three years with summers off, followed by an internship at the end.
Of the 85 students who enrolled in MDivX, 82 will have graduated by the end of this year, resulting in a 96% graduation rate.
Furthermore, most graduates have successfully gone on to work as pastors. Of the 51 graduates in the first two cohorts, 47 are working in ministry.
The seminary plans to follow MDivX alumni for at least five years after their graduation in order to gather more data and continue learning from their experiences.
“We are committed to assessing the effectiveness of our graduates in ministry, for the overall improvement of the seminary,” Jacobson said. “For instance, if there was a particular ministry skill set of which they all said, ‘We weren’t trained to do this,’ or ‘You trained us wrong,’ that would be good to know.”
Although the work of evaluating alumni outcomes is in its early stages, seminary leadership has already thoroughly assessed the student experience during MDivX and is working on applying key learnings from those assessments to the seminary as a whole.
One way this has come to fruition is with the M.Div. curriculum refresh, which was approved by the seminary’s faculty and Board of Directors earlier this year. While several forms of evaluation and information-gathering from across campus went into shaping the new M.Div. curriculum, MDivX heavily influenced the development of a forthcoming two-year M.Div. pathway. This accelerated option, modeled after MDivX, will be one of three programs in the regular M.Div. curriculum. The other two M.Div. options—a traditional pathway and a part-time pathway—launched this semester.
MDivX also emphasized the effectiveness of cohorts in the seminary’s academic programs. “We’ve known at Luther Seminary and in higher education for many years that cohorts work,” Jacobson said. “When we put MDivX together, we tried to incorporate as many of the known high-impact pedagogical practices for higher education as we could. These included internships, cohort education, international travel, and more.”
Innovation from the start
From the beginning, MDivX was an attempt to learn and grow by doing things differently. “The MDivX experiment was born when I tried to imagine what it would look like if we educated M.Div. candidates in the same way that most other professional master’s degree students are educated,” Jacobson said. “Namely, to go year-round in a very tight cohort model with field experience happening throughout rather than in a separate 12-month internship.”
The program would not have been possible without the largest gift in Luther Seminary’s history—$21.4 million. This generous investment from the Buntrock Foundation shouldered the risk the seminary was taking in order to try something new and provided students with full-tuition scholarships and stipends.
After many months of careful planning, the seminary opened enrollment for MDivX in 2018.
“We knew at the onset that this rigorous program was not the right fit for every candidate who would apply,” said Jody Nyenhuis, senior manager of academic achievement and associate director of MDivX.
The application process included a very detailed interview to help students feel confident they were making the right decision.
“Because of the intense nature of the program, we knew that students needed to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy,” Jacobson said.
The first cohort—27 students—began classes in June 2019. From the start, they were supported by an interdepartmental guiding team of faculty and staff members who regularly met to discuss the new program and ensure that everything ran smoothly. Nyenhuis served as a liaison between the students and this guiding team, offering ongoing support that proved to be especially important as education shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I do think the only way for innovation to really work is through cross-departmental collaboration like we did here with the guiding team,” Nyenhuis said. “We really tried to adjust as we were going along, listening to the students in an experimental nature. We tried to be nimble enough to change, and that is a hard thing for an institution to do. But that’s what we set out to do.”
The program went on to enroll 26 students in 2020 for the second cohort. In 2021, the third and final cohort began with 32 students. As that last cohort was still finishing the program, seminary leadership had already begun to follow up with graduates from the first two cohorts.
“I’m really grateful that I get to know the 80-plus pastors who are out there in their own unique settings, doing the work of the gospel,” Nyenhuis said. “When I see them, there’s just a deep gratitude and deep knowing that they’ve been given something very unique, and that is going to empower them, I believe, to minister well and give generously to others because they were generously given to.”
Ready for a change
When Emily Dalen ’22 M.Div. first learned about MDivX, she was eager to try something new. After working in faith formation at churches for about 20 years, Dalen felt that God was calling her to use those skills in a different way. She desired to advocate for these ministries with a different voice. MDivX turned out to be just what she needed.
“I had all sorts of reasons why I wasn’t going to seminary,” Dalen said. The two main ones were that she didn’t want to have to move away from Iowa and uproot her family, and she didn’t want to have to take on student debt to attend seminary.
“When the MDivX program came up, it was like those last two things, God just took them away,” she recalled. “It just felt like God was saying, ‘Here you go. Just go.’”
Dalen was already familiar with Luther Seminary because her husband, Scott Dalen ’13 M.Div., is an alumnus. As she continued to think about applying to MDivX, it simply felt right.
“I was at a point where, in my congregation, I just wanted more. There were some days when it was like, if something doesn’t change, I’m out of ministry completely. So, MDivX felt like this opportunity to just take a step back and learn some new things and have some opportunities to grow,” Dalen said.
The program was difficult, but Dalen said she had a lot of integral support from her cohort, professors, and Luther staff members. Additionally, MDivX’s focus on faithful innovation kept Dalen feeling inspired and motivated.
“It was Luther trying something out of the box, and that’s always something I want to be a part of,” she said. “We were trying to learn how to do ministry in new ways, and I loved that.”
Dalen added that the concurrent coursework and internship felt like a good fit for her experience and learning style. She enjoyed working in a congregation while simultaneously expanding her theological knowledge in seminary courses. Like many MDivX graduates, Dalen said this aspect of the program helped her apply her new knowledge right away.
“The accelerated thing was really good for me,” she said. “There were definitely days of being stressed out. But overall, I tell people all the time: I wouldn’t have done seminary any other way. God just knew that this was the time and the thing.”
MDivX in ministry
Both Dalen and Binja are among the majority of MDivX graduates who have been able to put their studies into practice by becoming pastors.
Dalen has been the pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Treynor, Iowa, for a little more than a year.
“So far, I’ve found my congregation to be just gracious with letting me try some different things, and I’m really thankful for that,” Dalen said. She’s included some hands-on activities and short discussion questions during worship services. “I’m figuring out how to add in that hands-on and experiential kind of stuff,” she said.
Binja only recently became the pastor at Creator Lutheran Church, but her education from Luther Seminary has already helped her navigate this new role. She said her experience in MDivX made her feel prepared by showing her what it was really like to work in ministry.
“The best thing about doing internship and classes at the same time was that I got to learn very quickly and experience what I was really good at in church ministry,” Binja said. “Now, being at my church, I feel like I already know when I’m burning out and I immediately can recognize when I have not been doing the things that really give me joy about ministry. I know when I have to kind of put down everything else and take time to do the things that give me life about ministry, and then come back to these other things and not let them overwhelm me.”
Like Dalen, Binja said MDivX’s focus on innovation in ministry has influenced her work today.
“The classes were inviting us to be innovative,” she said. “Those classes were very, very important for me, just as a reminder that church doesn’t have to be what it is right now. Your church can be so many things.”
That sense of leading faithful innovation stretches far beyond MDivX. The seminary plans to continue to learn from alumni, listen deeply to the church, and try new things.
Featured Image: The cross on top of Olson Campus Center (photo by Courtney Perry)
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