Presentation by Melinda Thompson

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Hello, all – thank you for taking the time to join this conversation about technology and spiritual formation. I don’t know that I would call the following a “presentation” per se, but instead a simple report on how God is at work in our distance community and an invitation to chime in where you would like with questions, comments, or ideas. (Especially ideas… we want to provide the best possible experience for our distance students!)

A bit of clarification may be in order here. The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary received preliminary accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools in 2007 to offer a Distance Master of Divinity degree. While we offer other online learning opportunities (check those out at our website: http://www.udtslearning.net), my comments below will focus solely on the Distance M.Div. program.

1) What is meant by formation in your context?

While recognizing that formation encompasses much more than one area of the curriculum, my comments will center on Spiritual Formation Groups as a key component in the overall formation of our students. Our seminary catalog defines Spiritual Formation as follows: “As part of its curriculum, UDTS has a vision of unifying a life of prayer, study and service. This means seeking to inhabit, both personally and communally, the spiritual practices that have shaped the life of the church over the centuries. Students and faculty at the seminary meet together regularly in Spiritual Formation Groups. Here they covenant together to practice and encourage each other to grow in corporate and individual spiritual disciplines. The objective is to provide a community of trust for sharing spiritual concerns and accountability for growth.”

Practically speaking, Spiritual Formation Groups are integrated into our curriculum as a year-long course for Junior students (1 credit earned each semester on a pass/fail basis) and another semester-long course for graduating Seniors (1 credit). These courses are set up as small groups (8-10 students) and are facilitated by faculty and administrative staff, allowing students to get to know their professors as fellow travelers on the journey. The courses focus on spiritual practices that have long been recognized by the Church as beneficial to spiritual growth: worship, prayer, fasting, lectio divina, service, etc. Residential students have commented that these weekly times gathered in covenant community provide a much-needed balance to the academic rigors of their seminary studies.

2) Are you using current technology to share your message? Why and how?

When we began developing the curriculum for the Distance M.Div. program, we wanted to provide as much of the UDTS experience as possible. To this end, we require the year-long Spiritual Formation Group courses for our first-year distance students. Students read the same materials and practice the same spiritual disciplines, but in a different format due to the nature of their program. While students are on campus for the required two-week residencies in August and January, they participate in intensive classroom time reading and discussing and (where possible) practicing spiritual disciplines. They also have opportunity to create a group covenant, outlining their commitment to God and each other as they study and grow together. Yet we recognize that it would be foolish to think that after just 12-hours of contact time our students are spiritually formed. To further develop these practices, we also incorporate an online discussion format to allow students to continue their dialogue in covenant community. Upon completion of their residencies, students are invited to select one or two of the disciplines studied during the residency for further practice during the coming semester of online course work. Students participate in weekly check-ins on a secure course site, answering questions posted by the faculty facilitator or a student in the group. Accountability and prayer support are offered as students share their joys and struggles in maintaining their chosen discipline(s).

This has been the practice for the first two years of the Distance M.Div. program. As we are gaining more experience in distance theological education, it has been interesting to see how different students respond to this required spiritual formation. Some students embrace it wholeheartedly, especially as a welcome counterpoint to the rigors of the academic course work they are completing. Others have viewed it with suspicion as another “hoop” to jump through in order to complete their requirements for the degree. (These two extremes of response, by the way, are also indicative of our residential students’ reactions to this element of the curriculum.) Overall, we have been quite pleased with the powerful Christian community which has emerged in the distance program. Students are well-connected to each other, sharing at a deep level and supporting one another with empathy and humor. To be sure, these students know best what it is like to be a distance student: they understand what the others are experiencing, especially when they return home to family, work, or congregations that might not quite “get it.”

As we move forward with the distance program, we are becoming more and more aware that these students aren’t just members of our UDTS community. They are members of local communities, too: congregations large and small, rural and urban, with a wide variety of needs and ministry contexts. While we celebrate this diversity in the Kingdom of God, we also are seeking ways to include these various congregational settings more intentionally in the spiritual formation of our students. To begin with, next year’s Spiritual Formation Groups for the first-year students will reduce the number of required online check-ins. This change is motivated by different hopes. First, we hope that students will view the check-ins with more importance rather than something else to check off a very busy to-do list each week. We plan to offer different ways to conduct these check-ins (live chat, web conferencing, etc.) to allow for more in-depth interaction with their brothers and sisters in Christ. More importantly, we hope that students will be freed to place more of their focus on spiritual growth in their local congregation, be that participating in a small group setting or leading their own small group. Online support is great, but gathering a few close friends to practice a chosen discipline together helps not only the student but the friends, as well. I welcome suggestions or comments from others who are using current technology as we continue to seek ways to equip these women and men for faithful, effective ministry. - MT
Thanks for your thoughtful response, Alan. I'm sorry I was out of town over the weekend so wasn't able to reply before now.

We're learning a lot with this program: one of the most interesting aspects for me is this continued connection to a local faith community. I guess I hadn't thought much about it before now, as our residential students for the most part are in the same boat attending local congregations in the Dubuque area. Those congregations have experience supporting seminary students in various ways. Now other congregations not in proximity to a residential seminary campus are learning how to support a student preparing for ministry.

I'm trying to create open avenues for dialogue with these congregations to learn how they view this new situation and perhaps find ways we can encourage them as they encourage their (and our!) students. - MT

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