Distance Learning & The Ministry

Is distance education in every way inferior to a traditional "brick and mortar" education? Or are there some clear advantages that distance education can offer the ministerial student and the church? While we recognize that distance learning is not for everyone and acknowledge that there may be some advantages to a traditional residential form of education, we believe that there are also some clear advantages and benefits associated with distance learning.  So does Jerrold H. Lewis, Pastor of Lacombe Free Reformed Church.  He has written an excellent article which answers some of the common caveats against distance education and suggests several advantages to this format of learning as it applies to ministerial training. Pastor Lewis has granted me permission to post his article on our blog, and you may find it also on his personal blog at http://kerugma.solideogloria.com/. Read and enjoy.


Formal pedagogical forms is a fancy way of describing the science of teaching by way of lectures, written assignments, and examinations. Traditionally this has taken place in classrooms under the supervision of in-house professors under the auspice of a brick and mortar institution. The question that has arisen in the last 20 years is, “Can formal education be done properly at a distance, or is distance education a second rate substitute for a true education?”

As a minister who has spent several years in brick and mortar institutions and several years doing distance education, I would like to offer a few thoughts regarding the benefit of distance education.

First, let me begin by saying that distance education is not for everyone. Brick and mortar schools have their place and should be utilized when needed. Further, if you are not highly self motivated with a mature and realistic outlook on the criteria for completing a degree at home, it is better to stop before you begin, and head off to a good brink and mortar seminary. Distance Education should not be thought of as a shortcut to a degree. Any school worth its salt will require the same level of academic standards from its distance students as it will from its residents. This will eliminate many prospects right off the bat because most need the structure of the brick and mortar pedagogical method to complete their work.

There are several reasons that are presumed to be the best reasons for going to a brick and mortar school. I would like to take the top 3 and provide an alternate viewpoint from someone who has worked and has succeeded (in some measure) under both systems.

Fallacy #1: Brick and mortar schools are better because live lectures are better than recorded.

Live lectures are only as good as the lecturer. Not all brick and mortar schools have a John Murray, or a Joel Beeke to teach Systematic Theology. Countless schools have fair teachers, but the best are often far away in other parts of the world, or worse yet, deceased! A live lecture from a run of the mill teacher is no substitute for a taped lecture from Westminster’s late John Murray, Knox’s Robert L. Reymond, or Pittsburgh’s John Gerstner. To transcribe theological thought from the lectures of one of the Churches brightest lights is a far better way of learning than from any middling college professor. Besides, one can’t stop a live class, reflect on the professors’ words, rewind what the professor said and then run to your private library and cross reference the quotation just given. With distance education you can.

Fallacy #2: Brick and mortar schools offer personal interaction with the professor.

It has been my experience and the experience of many of my peers that this is simply not the case. With the high demands of the academic life in school, reading assignments, essays, labs, and examinations, coupled with the demands of a part time job (mine was full time!), and a family, personal interaction with a professor was a fairy-tale dream concocted by the marketing strategist of whatever school you are attending. Besides, most professors do not hang around after the class because of the great demand on their own schedule. In most schools the professor that just lectured needs to juggle his own very busy schedule to do justice to the demands on his life. This is why he never read your term paper on Barth's Theological Method in your Church History class and why a fourth year teachering assistant did. When he does have a free moment you are clamoring with 45 other students who also want his attention. Most people who speak of personal interaction with the profs are speaking idealistically, not realistically.

Fallacy #3: Brick and mortar schools offer a peer to peer atmosphere where students can sharpen each other.

In my three years of brick and mortar education here is a typical day. Up at 5:00 am to complete the homework I could not complete the night before. Next I rush out the door with a piece of dry toast and a juice box, fly down the married dorm stairs and cross over the campus to my first class. At 8:45 am I stop at the cafeteria for a snack and run to the other side of the campus for my next class. At 10:30 am, I race home to read the assignment for my afternoon class and sleep for 15 min before my 12:45 class, after which I stop by the library to pick up some text book only to find out that all 70 text books have been signed out by other students. I then quickly put my name down for a back order and slip off to my last class. At 3:30 pm I rush home, change my clothes and run once again across campus grounds to the Restaurant where I will spend the next 8 hours waiting tables. Fortunately I am home by eleven so I can spend at least the nest 4 hours doing homework. This was a typical day. Weekends were spent working and catching up from the week before. Anyone who thinks that a student can spend time with his peers is probably very rich and very smart. How one can pay for a $50,000 education, get good grades and spend time with peers discussing the finer points of eschatology is beyond me. Besides, any spare time I might have should be spent with my family not my peers.

There are more fallacies to debunk such as the benefit of a massive library, and the prestige of graduating from a "top school", but the ones I listed are the main ones. Now I would like to give you several reasons for student ministers to do their degree at home.

Advantage #1: You get true one-on-one training.

Under a proper distance education model the institution will require that the student have a mentor or tutor, preferably the student’s own Pastor or another local minister. Now the student gains the academic knowledge needed coupled with true beneficial interchange with an experienced pastor. In my situation my minister and mentor Rev. D. Beattie passed away during my training. But before he did I had the pleasure of learning at the feet of a masterful pastor/theologian who spent 25 years in one pulpit. I had hundreds of hours of one-on-one session where he poured out a quarter of a century of pastoral wisdom and knowledge. No seminary professor, no matter how efficient he is with his time, can compare to this model. Since his death I have found the next best thing in another local area minister.

Advantage #2: You never leave your local Church.

Most men who are pursuing the ministry leave for seminary and never return to their local body. So often the cream rises to the top and is whisked away never to be seen again. Instead of the local congregation benefiting form the gifting of the individual, they are left with a real void. Often, the same gifts that caused the church and student to look toward the ministry in the first place became a true benefit to the local body in zeal, evangelism, dedication, etc. Now, many of the very best prospects in the local church community are somewhere in Delaware!

Advantage #3: You get to experience in reality what the school teaches theoretically.

Isn't it is strange that we think that to gain a true understanding of the Church we must leave it. Isn't the Church the best place to learn about the Church? Spiritual maturity, godly humility, tending to the flock, experiential preaching, mature governance, and care of souls cannot be taught on a blackboard or overhead projector. I can learn what John Murray said on the Covenant of Works just as well in my study as any classroom. Putting to memory the Shorter Catechism, the WCF, the doctrine of John Calvin, and John Owen is the easy part. The hard part is self sacrifice, love for the brethren, spiritual discernment, etc. What I am saying is while at seminary one may learn how to identify the objective genitive Greek noun and be able to display how Warfield’s position on textual variants differs from Hort’s, one will never learn the intangible spiritual qualification of a minister in such an artificial environment. John Frame suggests that more often than not this artificial environment does not prepare the new graduated scholar for the spiritual duty of shepherding God’s flock. “Seminaries not only ‘frequently refuse to do the work of the church’; they also tend to undo it”, by making scholars not shepherds (Frame. “A Proposal for a New Seminary." Journal of Pastoral Practice 2:1 (1978): 10).

Advantage #4: You gain hands-on training.

John Frame said in the same essay,

In the early days of American Protestantism, the training of ministerial candidates was carried out by pastors of churches. A young man feeling a call of God to the ministry would associate himself with a church pastor, receive training from him, participate in the work of the parish, and perhaps even live in the minister’s home. I’m not sure why, but eventually this system was felt to be inadequate. (Ibid.)

Frame goes on to remind the reader that seminaries are a convention of the church, created to fill in the gap created by churches that are not fulfilling their Biblical mandate of discipleship. He sites “old” Princeton Seminary board member Rev. Gardiner Spring who contends that in his day the parish-trained minister far surpassed the seminary trained scholar. That is quite a statement from both Frame and Spring - two seminarians. (Ibid., 11.)

The truth is the training of a minister is a ministry of the Church, not the seminary. How a Ph.D. who has spent little to no time labouring in the pulpit of a congregation, catechizing the young, visiting the sick, and comforting the widowed, deserves the honor of teaching the intricate details of tending to the Vineyard of Christ is hard to understand. Even though there are some outstanding professional teachers in some seminaries, it seems to me that the qualified teachers of the Word are the teachers of the Church. However in our day, pastoral experience has given way to “wall worshiping” men who are not seasoned pastors, but Ph.D.’s, D.Min’s and Th.D’s. Frame comments, “Over the years, however, it has become less and less possible for a man to be an outstanding pastor and an outstanding scholar; thus seminaries, forced to choose, have inevitably picked the latter.” (Ibid.)

Distance Education plus an active Presbytery/Session/Consistory is the best model of training in my estimation. Are we the best scholars? Perhaps not. However, before I was ordained I preached on the Lord's Day over 350 times (in my church and others), to members of Presbytery 7 times, conducted 96 catechism classes, conducted 134 Bible studies, stood at 3 death beds, did two funerals, and dozens of visitations. Had I gone away to complete my training I would have missed out on 3-4 years of hands-on training before ordination, and I would spend the first 5 years of my ministry gaining the experience I would have had as a student under the Distance Education model.

Advantage #5: You are under you Presbytery's supervision.

Who better to know your greatest strengths and weaknesses than your presbytery? If the Lord has deemed fit for the Church to train its ministers then why not utilize technology and the presbytery’s experience together? When it is time to go to your first charge as a pastor the recommendation does not come from a seminary professor who only has a limited knowledge of your ability, but a session and presbytery who are intimately conversant with you as a student.

Advantage #6: You develop a strict and proper use of time.

Imagine 3 or 4 courses sitting on your desk ranging from Logic to Church History. There are no time tables, no class bells, no deadlines for papers or exams. How quickly would you get these courses done? Now the phone is ringing, your kids are calling, and you have a midweek meeting to prepare for before your Lord’s Day Sermon. Would you have the personal dedication to do the work that is required of you? The greatest personal benefit to distance education is not the information you assimilate, it is the discipline of self regulation and control. It is far easier to follow the conventions of a brick and mortar timetable created to regulate you time for you than it is to do it out of sheer self discipline. What the distance educated student may lose in the benefits of brick and mortar training he gains in self sacrifice and self discipline. I have learned something during my time as a distance student that could be taught nowhere else; I learned how to use my time wisely without outside pressure. This is, in my opinion, invaluable to one who would be a minister entrusted to study, pray, visit, and teach by his own timetable.


There are certain detractions to distance education. The dropout rate is greater, there is a sense of isolation, no competitive atmosphere, too much flexibility, etc, but as far as I am concerned this system works. When the local church and the student are equally concerned with the task of training ministers, we come closer to a biblical model of educating those who are seeking the ministry.

Jerrold H. Lewis