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Reimagining Seminary Education

As online enrollment grows and face-to-face students decrease, Bethel Seminary will shift investments from brick and mortar to endow seminary operations to make seminary education more affordable to students by lowering the operating costs.

By Suzanne McInroy, director of communications

October 10, 2018 | 8 a.m.

Reimagining Seminary Education

Bethel University will close the Bethel Seminary San Diego (BSSD) campus at the end of the 2018-19 academic year. The proceeds from selling the building will be put into an endowment to support the future of Bethel Seminary.

The President’s Cabinet, with support from the Board of Trustees, continues to reimagine seminary education. As part of this vision, Cabinet will strengthen the global focus and extend the reach of the seminary by expanding online education.

“Bethel Seminary was a leader in adopting distance education in the 1990s and we recently launched the first fully-accredited, entirely online Doctor of Ministry program in the country. We want to continue to lead in online seminary education,” says Randy Bergen, associate provost of the College of Adult & Professional Studies, Bethel Seminary, and Graduate School. “More students are choosing to complete their seminary degrees online. We need to expand online education to make seminary education more sustainable and affordable.”

The vision to expand online seminary education has led Cabinet to announce the university will close the Bethel Seminary San Diego (BSSD) campus and move students in face-to-face programs at BSSD to the seminary’s online offerings. The proceeds from selling the building will be put into an endowment to support the future of Bethel Seminary.

“Coming to the decision to close the San Diego campus was not easy, but we strongly believe it is the best plan for the future of Bethel Seminary,” says Bethel University President Jay Barnes. “Our world needs church leaders educated at Bethel Seminary. That is why we are taking money invested in buildings and reinvesting it to take Bethel Seminary from a regional focus to a global focus.”

“Although we began this discussion from an economic perspective, we have realized that this is truly a vision decision about who we are going to be in seminary education—financially stronger, innovative, and more accessible in building tomorrow’s leaders for kingdom work. This decision allows us the opportunity to embrace what our students are telling us in terms of access to seminary education—the future will be more-and-more online and less face-to-face.”

— Julie White, chair of the Bethel University Board of the Trustees

For a number of years, the cost to operate the San Diego campus has increased while the interest in ministry and theological education in the San Diego area has gone down. Bethel Seminary San Diego (BSSD) has seen declining enrollment in ministry face-to-face programs while enrollment in Bethel Seminary online programs has increased.

In the last year, Bethel Seminary made five programs available to students in a fully online format, including the Master of Divinity. In the first year, 96 new students enrolled in those five online programs compared to the 87 total new students enrolled in the same programs offered face-to-face in St. Paul and San Diego combined.

“Although we began this discussion from an economic perspective, we have realized that this is truly a vision decision about who we are going to be in seminary education—financially stronger, innovative, and more accessible in building tomorrow’s leaders for kingdom work,” says Julie White, chair of the Bethel University Board of the Trustees. “This decision allows us the opportunity to embrace what our students are telling us in terms of access to seminary education—the future will be more-and-more online and less face-to-face.”

The executive director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), an accrediting commission for more than 270 graduate schools of theology in the United States and Canada, recently reflected on changes within theological education. “Institutions are changing (from freestanding to embedded), the educational models and practices are shifting, and the student bodies of theological schools are increasingly diverse, regionally local, and part-time,” Frank Yamada, executive director of ATS, wrote in an article for ATS.

In the next few years, Bethel Seminary will work to make all programs available in an online or “hybrid” format (online courses with week-long, in-person classes) to ensure a Bethel Seminary education is accessible to church leaders, wherever they are located for their ministry.

“I have taught both face-to-face and online, and online is my favorite because I find the student engagement to be higher in the online environment,” says Joel Johnson, senior pastor at Westwood Community Church and a member of the Bethel Seminary Advisory Board. “Clearly the online format is the wave of the future. This investment in Bethel Seminary will allow us to continue to have quality engagement with ministry leaders from around the world and offer a quality product that will compete in today’s seminary education marketplace.”

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