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Story Magazine

Fall 2018

MDivX: An accelerated M.Div. track

by Kelly O'Hara Dyer and Rebecca John

Luther Seminary student

In July, Luther Seminary announced the largest philanthropic gift in its history: a $21.4 million commitment to pilot an accelerated Master of Divinity program.

The program is known as MDivX—“X for exceptional, excellent, accelerated,” says Luther Seminary President Robin Steinke—and “is designed to prepare pastors to help lead in new and innovative ways.”

The MDivX is a fully funded, 24-month, year-round pathway through Luther Seminary’s M.Div. degree. It’s an ambitious five-year pilot project that will enroll its first cohort of 30 students in June 2019.

“This is an experiment in which we are working very closely with all of our ELCA partners—churchwide, synods, congregations, and other seminaries and colleges,” says Rolf Jacobson ’91 M.Div., professor of Old Testament and Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Scripture, Theology, and Ministry, who serves as director of the MDivX pilot project. “By putting the needs of congregations and students first in theological education, Luther Seminary will be part of finding a solution for raising up a new generation of leaders.

“I’m not aware of another seminary that’s trying this now or that has tried it recently, although I am already fielding inquiries from other schools that are thinking along the same lines,” says Jacobson.

With its accelerated schedule, the MDivX offers a more efficient path to ordination. Students in the program take courses and participate in internships concurrently throughout the calendar year—including summers— allowing them to complete the seminary’s full 30-course M.Div. degree in 24 months.

“The program uses our existing curriculum, delivered differently,” says Jacobson. The MDivX has the same number of courses and adheres to Luther Seminary’s rigorous academic standards, but will be offered in a variety of formats—including in-person intensive classes, online classes, and traditional courses delivered both to in-person students and distance learners attending via remote access technology. And because students participate in internships from day one, they are able to immediately apply concepts and material from the classroom in a ministry practice and bring reflections from those real-world experiences back into the classroom, Jacobson says.

Another unique feature of MDivX is that it is designed in a cohort model, where students progress together throughout their seminary education. Faith formation, comprehension of academic material, and reflection on real-world experiences are all enhanced by a strong learning community, which a cohort model fosters. “In addition to cohort-based learning, we will employ the best high-impact practices that higher education has developed,” says Jacobson.

The MDivX program also attends to students’ financial wellness. It offers full-tuition scholarships as well as living stipends. Additionally, by reducing the number of months that students are in the program, it shrinks students’ total costs of pursuing divinity degrees. As a result, students will begin their ministries without onerous financial debt. The students who will come forward to express their interest in this program are innovators, says ELCA Southwestern Minnesota Synod Bishop Jon Anderson ’85 M.Div. The type of students who are willing to take a risk themselves are the faith leaders who will be able to do the work that needs to be done in our changing world.

The MDivX program will help them “grow deep in the faith in terms of knowing the faith well,” Anderson says, “and wide in the faith in terms of inviting people to live out the faith of their baptism as disciples in God’s world.”

In this way, the program will benefit both students and congregations. But the ultimate impact of MDivX will be even more far-reaching, says Heidi Droegemueller, vice president for seminary relations.

“This project is really about creating systemic change,” she says. “It starts with the seminary’s vision: leading faithful innovation for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a rapidly changing world. The MDivX is visible proof of the seminary’s commitment to finding ways to change while remaining a faithful steward of Jesus Christ.

“Luther Seminary is committed to making sure we don’t just keep doing things the way we’ve always done them,” Droegemueller adds. “We’re not certain this experiment is going to work, but we’re willing to take the risk for the greater church.”

Also critical to the far-reaching impact of the program is Luther Seminary’s commitment to sharing the knowledge garnered from this experiment with others throughout theological education.

“We’re going to be assessing in real time and making iterative changes as we go,” says Jacobson. “And we’re going to share those changes far and wide across the entire system of theological education.”

This broader, systemic impact is a critical goal for Dean Buntrock, the donor supporting this ambitious project. Buntrock, a founder and former chairman and CEO of Waste Management, Inc., is a longtime donor to Lutheran education.

“Mr. Buntrock has been a supporter of the seminary for a number of years,” Droegemueller says. “In our conversations, he has always been clear about what he wanted to accomplish through his investments in Lutheran education. The seminary also has been engaged in deep discernment about the current state of theological education and the challenges facing the church.

“Through a continuous dialogue among Mr. Buntrock, our president, Robin Steinke, and key faculty and staff members, we formed the idea of this pilot for an accelerated M.Div. program,” she says. “We had the right people around the table and, led by the Holy Spirit, we developed this exciting opportunity.”

Droegemueller adds that MDivX is only part of the solution to ensure that the next generation of leaders can be faithfully raised up in the church.

“Mr. Buntrock wants his gift to be a catalyst to inspire all of us to actively support theological education,” Droegemueller says. “We all have a role to play—every single one of us—in lifting up future church leaders.”

“There will be transformative outcomes,” Steinke says, “and we’re committed to doing that, together with the church.”

In his own words

Dean Buntrock talked about the MDivX program in a recent interview facilitated by President Robin Steinke. A video excerpt from that conversation is posted at luthersem.edu/gifts/mdivx, so you can hear Buntrock’s perspectives in his own words.

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