Story Magazine - Second Quarter, 2002

Ministry in context: Distance Learning

by Sheri Booms, director of publications

A Lilly Grant allows Luther Seminary to research and implement innovative ways for people to experience theological learning in many environments.

Rod Maeker has logged a lot of frequent flyer miles in the past year. Maeker is director of cross-cultural studies and also the coordinator of the Lilly Contextual Leadership Grant's distance learning sites. As the distance learning coordinator, he has traversed the western half of the U.S. (including Hawaii), along with several Luther Seminary colleagues, with the goal of establishing working relationships with synods, congregations and other religious institutions.

By creating these distance learning sites, Luther Seminary is able to offer theological education to individuals who would not otherwise have the opportunity to attend by traditional means. "The whole idea of the project is in the title of the grant: to learn congregational leadership in context. That means students would engage in theological education within the context of congregations," Maeker said.

In short, courses would be taught within a particular framework: rural, urban, cultural, etc. By clustering congregations, students would be exposed to a wider range of experiences within that context.

The results of Maeker's and his colleagues' work are promising and already bearing fruit.

Rural context: Shalom Hill Farm

A lot has been written in Story magazine about this experiential rural ministry laboratory in southwestern Minnesota. That's because Luther and Shalom Hill have developed a close working relationship that is changing the way students learn about rural life and issues. "Shalom Hill Farm is a very important site because 60-75 percent of Luther Seminary graduates receive calls to rural congregations," Maeker said.

For the past few years, many Luther Seminary students have come to Shalom Hill as part of their required cross-cultural experience. They visit farms, small businesses, hospitals, schools and more. They have roundtable discussions with rural pastors and town leaders. They reflect on the issues and the culture that shapes who and what makes up the rural/small town community.

Now, Luther Seminary and Shalom Hill Farm, in cooperation with Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS), are teaming up in a new way. They are offering a pilot program in graduate theological education within the small town and rural context of southwestern Minnesota. A variety of class formats help students complete a master of divinity or master of arts degree: online, interactive video, independent study, and concentrated on-site seminars.

The teachers are faculty members or designated adjunct faculty of Luther and PLTS. Mentors provide support to students participating at distant sites. During the interactive video courses--through the use of monitors, cameras and phone lines--students at Shalom Hill Farm are connected with classmates attending the same course, at the same time, on campus. Both sites are able to participate in the lectures and discussions.

This spring, eight students from rural Minnesota and Iowa gathered at Shalom Hill once a week to attend the Reading the Audience class taught by Luther Seminary professors Craig Van Gelder, Paul Sponheim and Alvin Luedke.

"Basically, these are eight new students who would not have been able to take theological graduate courses otherwise. Almost all are second career people, gainfully employed, who could not have moved to a seminary," Maeker said.

The program is not simply for Lutherans. Students from all churches and denominations may register once they are officially admitted to studies at Luther Seminary or PLTS.

Urban context: Phoenix

After Shalom Hill Farm, the site that is moving most quickly toward establishing a distance learning program is Phoenix, Arizona. It will be structured in a format similar to that of Shalom Hill, offering interactive video, online courses and a series of concentrated on-site classes. With more than 3 million people, the Phoenix area is the eighth largest urban area in the United States, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. As with any large metropolitan area, it has a diverse make-up. About a quarter of the inhabitants are Hispanic or Latino. There is also a large Native American population, and a growing number of Asian and African Americans.

The Phoenix area continues to expand greatly. Urban flight is a reality as more and more families move to the suburbs and into increasingly more common gated communities--changing what a sense of community is all about.

How one ministers to a fast-growing, racially and economically diverse area, and how one prepares people for ministry in this particular context, are two reasons why Luther Seminary and PLTS are developing this distance learning site.

Cultural context: Chinese congregations

For the past year, Luther Seminary and PLTS have been in conversation with a group of Chinese American pastors to develop courses specifically relating to ministry in Chinese communities. This fall, Luther Seminary, in cooperation with PLTS and the Center for Chinese Ministry of San Diego will offer its first class specifically for Chinese church leaders. Professor Emeritus Paul Varo Martinson has agreed to teach a half course in the Los Angeles area.

To make this happen, Maeker, Randy Nelson, director of contextual education, Sarah Henrich, assistant professor of New Testament and associate dean--missional pastors, and Susan Granata, PLTS director of contextual education, worked with David Chen, director of the Center for Chinese Ministry in San Diego, Simon Lee, pastor of Chinese Lutheran Church in Honolulu, Hawaii, and representatives of the Chinese community.

In the works

In addition to the programs already mentioned, more initiatives are underway: ¥ Luther Seminary is looking at developing Spanish language online courses for Hispanic students, in cooperation with Hispanic leaders and the ELCA's TEEM (Theological Education for Emerging Ministries) Project.

Some students from the Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta have begun taking Luther Seminary online courses. The Center has a particular emphasis on African- Americans and others seeking to serve the Church in the African- American community.

Luther Seminary and PLTS are in discussion with synods and congregations about additional opportunities in the ELCA's Western Mission Cluster area (the Western half of the United States).

A unique study opportunity for students

The Otto Bremer Foundation wants to take learning in a rural context to another level. Scholarship money is available to pay a full semester's tuition to live at Shalom Hill Farm or the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The student would take courses there while participating in community life. For more information, contact Rod Maeker at 651-641-3223 or via e-mail at rmaeker@luthersem.edu