Four Reflections on Receiving a Seminary/Master’s Degree Online Vs. the Traditional Setting

Last week I finished my seminary degree online through Liberty University (M.A. in Religion). I thought it may be helpful to some to who are considering seminary (or grad school in general) to share my experience and whether or not I wish I had done the traditional route compared to online.

Here are 4 things to consider when deciding what route to take:

1) What are your future plans?

The plan in the beginning for my wife and I was for us to move and for me to attend seminary in Texas. This changed about halfway through our senior year at UNC-Wilmington when the college pastor at the church we were a part of let us know he was going to plant a church.

The goal for us, since I knew pastoring was my desire, was to church plant. So when the opportunity arose for me to be able to be a part of the church planting process from the beginning, I knew it would be hard to pass up. So I had a few conversations with older guys who had been to seminary and explained the situation and asked for their advice.

This is where having an idea of what you want to do is helpful. My goal was not and still isn’t to be a professor or theologian, but a pastor. These are not the same things and require different training (along with God’s grace) to be successful. While I do not want to sound too simplistic, I came to the conclusion that I could either read and study about church planting in a classroom or actually have the opportunity to actually help plant a church.

Now hear me out, I know that you can (and should) involve yourself with a local church community while in traditional seminary route and learn much about practical ministry in that setting. However, being intimately connected with a church plant from the beginning and having the opportunity to see and learn first hand what does and does not work is not the same as trying to learn about it in a classroom.

Doing my degree online gave my schedule ample flexibility; especially since I was also working another job outside of the church in the beginning. Having work and classes to attend can make it difficult to have certain opportunities that completing your degree online allows.

That being said, I felt that the ability to be a part of a church plant from the beginning, since church-planting is what I want to do, and completing my degree online would give me the best combination of practical experience and theological, biblical, etc., knowledge possible.

2) Pros and cons of an online degree

Since I completed my entire degree online, I cannot compare the physical seminary experience to the online experience. I can however give some pros and cons of completing your degree online from my experience.

Pros

  • First and foremost a very flexible schedule, which was extremely beneficial for me
  • Save time driving to and from class and other school appointments
  • You are not tied down to any geographic location
  • You can complete your coursework anywhere at any time as long as it is done on time
  • It is much easier on your family life especially if you have kids or are in a particularly busy season of life

Cons

  • Let’s be real, I don’t really think you can learn as much intellectually completing your degree online as you can in a classroom
  • You don’t make very many, if any at all, connections with professors and fellow students. I know for many these connections have proven to be invaluable in future ministry settings.
  • Since you don’t physically attend class, there are times where you have various questions about things that don’t really get answered. I did wish I could have physical conversations with my professors at times about questions and thoughts I was having.

I would also say this, if you are not one that is very self-disciplined, an online degree may be difficult and ultimately unhelpful. It was my experience that if I wanted to, I could slack off in my work a bit more than I could if I wasn’t doing it online. However, my number one desire in getting a degree was not the degree itself, but learning. What good is a degree if you are still ill-equipped to handle tough biblical texts, difficult questions, etc.?

3) If I could do it all over, what would I do?

We all know that hindsight is 20/20, but the point of this post is to help anyone thinking through this decision. If I knew what I know now when I began my degree, there are certainly some things I would have done differently. However, I absolutely would have made the very same decision.

I certainly would have handled a few things differently in life and in general, but for me personally I know I made the right choice. I cannot put a value on the practical ministry experience of church planting that I would not have gotten had I not done my degree online. Some of these experiences will no doubt be invaluable to me in the future.

My experience also helped me balance what I was learning in school with what I was learning in real life. It was helpful to know that a couple of the classes I took really did not play out in the “real world” as I would assume had I only had the classroom knowledge and not the practical knowledge. For example, I took a class on discipleship that just did not “work” (for lack of better explanation) in real settings with real people. Being able to balance what I was learning in my studies with what worked in real life helped show me what was and was not as important to focus on in my schooling.

4) Is Seminary actually necessary?

My last point, which does not have as much to do with comparing types of schooling as it does with getting an advanced degree in general, is whether or not seminary is actually necessary.

Traditionally, most denominations had certain requirements to become ordained or a pastor/priest within the denominations, many of which included seminary. With the rise in church-planting, church networks, and non-demonitationalism, having any sort of seminary training is becoming anything but a “requirement” to becoming a pastor. And I get the whole “Jesus didn’t go to seminary and none of his disciples were theologically trained” yet they wrote the New Testament and grew the church.

So no, a seminary degree is absolutely not something that every pastor must have. Many can and have been very effective without it. That being said, I would still encourage most pastors to pursue some sort of advanced theological training if possible. Especially in the culture we live in today.

People have questions. Many people, including self-professing Christians, today don’t just assume that God is good, or that the Bible really is God’s word, etc. “You just need to have more faith,” or “we just cannot know these things” is not a sufficient answer to every tough question. Yes, that is the answer to some questions, but not having the ability to engage an increasingly unbelieving culture is something to concern yourself with.

Unless you are one who enjoys (and disciplines yourself) to read academic-like books and study even the “boring” stuff, then yes, I think an advanced degree is worth it. I firmly believe that knowing more about God helps grow our relationship with him. It has been in studying some of the most “boring” stuff that I have found my awe of God grow the most. My personal relationship with Christ has grown significantly from my studies, and that alone seems worth it to me.

In closing, my story is my story, and your story will be different. Even if you want to church plant, that doesn’t mean the traditional seminary route should not be heavily considered and eventually taken. My advice is to seek the counsel of others, I suggest older men whom you trust and respect; explain your thoughts and desires to them, and go from there.

A final note for those considering the online route; make sure the university/seminary you plan to attend is properly accredited. There are many online programs and schools, but not all are accredited equally. To ensure you are receiving a quality education/degree, be sure to check this out.

I am very thankful for the journey I took and can clearly see God’s faithfulness in it. To anyone who has any questions please let me know as I would love to help out in any way I can.

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