Online courses make MB history, theology accessible


Internet option attracting pastors, MB church members

By Kathy Heinrichs Wiest

Sidebar: Eight courses offered for certificate in Mennonite Brethren Studies

Sidebar: Tabor inaugurates online degree program

It was already Thursday of the week before Easter. Southern District Minister Tim Sullivan hadn’t started on the week’s classwork for the Evangelical Anabaptist Confessions of Faith class he was enrolled in. But he wasn’t worried about how he would fit the required class discussion into his busy Easter schedule.

Even if he couldn’t get to it until late Saturday evening, he could just plop down in his overstuffed recliner with his laptop computer and open up the website to catch up on the online conversation with classmates.

The online class Sullivan is enrolled in is part of an effort to make theological education more accessible to Mennonite Brethren leaders. Board of Faith and Life Chair Larry Nikkel calls it “a new day for our denomination.”

Evangelical Anabaptist Confessions of Faith is one of eight online classes that cover the essentials of Mennonite Brethren theology and practice (see sidebar below). Both Tabor College and Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary (FPBS) are offering these courses, accessible from an Internet-connected computer anywhere in the world.


Online courses attracting MB pastors, those training for ministry

Offered since fall semester 2012, the courses have been attracting Mennonite Brethren pastors and those training for ministry, especially people whose locations or schedules don’t allow them to be physically present for a class.

Jordan Ringhofer, associate pastor of youth and worship at Kingsburg  (Calif.) MB Church, is working toward a master of divinity degree, but between his church responsibilities and various conference involvements his schedule is packed. Taking FPBS’s Evangelical Anabaptist Confessions of Faith last fall, the online format allowed him to fit the class in, working on it late at night or making use of a few moments waiting for an appointment.

“It was incredibly flexible. I did posts from home, from Starbucks and even during the Pacific District Conference convention,” he says. “The weekly deadlines helped me not to procrastinate, but (working online) allowed me to do the posts on my own schedule.”


Tuition-free credit available thanks to subsidy

Another attractive feature of the online MB courses is that they are being offered free of charge. Through a tuition subsidy, any pastor or member of a Mennonite Brethren church can earn the credits tuition-free.

A discount of 75 percent of tuition costs is funded by monies set aside at the divestiture of MB Biblical Seminary. Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and Tabor College each provide their MB students with a 25 percent scholarship so that the tuition cost is fully covered for those who complete the course for credit.

But don’t let free tuition or the mental pictures of Ringhofer at Starbucks and Sullivan in his recliner fool you. These are rigorous, graduate-level courses that require students to do extensive reading, research and analysis. 

Professor Valerie Rempel of FPBS, who taught Evangelical Anabaptist Confessions of Faith, was concerned that it might be too rigorous. “I thought it was a ton of reading,” she says, “but students engaged and I was amazed at how much they liked the course.”

At FPBS students earn three units of graduate credit in the semester-long courses. Tabor’s program packs the same course material into a 10-week intensive schedule.


Online faculty-student interaction

How does all this happen online? Under the attentive view and constant evaluation of the two institutions’ graduate-level faculty. Some have taught these same courses in a live classroom setting. Others teach only online.

Faculty-student interaction all takes place on the Internet. Students can contact faculty via email with direct questions, but most of the dialog happens in online discussion forums where interactions between students take place over a period of hours or days. Students’ posts in the forums demonstrate their familiarity with the assigned reading or activity.

As students read each other’s posts and write responses, the result is a long string of dialog—a written version of the kind of oral discussion students typically have in the classroom. As in a classroom, the professor moderates and stimulates the discussion with additional questions or comments.

“It’s interesting to watch people who are in church ministry in various contexts have conversation around these topics,” Rempel says. “People can process their experiences in ministry in an online forum with a certain degree of freedom because the other person isn’t your fellow church member or sitting next to you in a classroom.”

Students’ experience of the material is enriched by interaction with people living and ministering in diverse settings. The online format has brought together students from different states and even different countries. “The cross-fertilization between locations and cultures adds a richness you can’t duplicate in a classroom setting,” Rempel says.

So while Sullivan may be sitting in his recliner finishing up this week’s assignments, he is not coasting through an easy course of study. A graduate of Tabor College and MB Biblical Seminary with 35 years as part of the MB church, Sullivan says he has never dealt with MB history and theology in such a focused way as in the two core courses he has taken.

“I can’t say enough about how I’ve benefitted and learned. I’m really glad I took them,” he says.


Eight courses offered for certificate in Mennonite Brethren Studies

Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary offers a nine-unit certificate in Mennonite Brethren Studies made up of two required courses—The Evangelical Anabaptist Story and Evangelical Anabaptist Confessions—plus one elective selected from the following six offerings:

  • The Church and God’s Mission
  • Discipleship and Ethics
  • Biblical Theology 1 and 2
  • Evangelical Anabaptist Mission and Evangelism
  • Cultural Hermeneutics and Contextualization.

Tabor College offers the same set of courses as a credentialing requirement for pastors in the Southern District.—KHW

Tabor College inaugurates online degree program

If someone addicted to alcohol is an alcoholic, Rick Bartlett says he must be a MOOC-aholic—someone addicted to the thrill of learning online via MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses.

Bartlett is Tabor College’s director of theological education. His love for online learning makes him the perfect candidate to inaugurate Tabor College’s new master’s-level Entrepreneurial Ministry Leadership (EML) degree, the first online graduate degree offered by a U.S. Mennonite Brethren institution.

Under Bartlett’s direction, Tabor will enroll its first class of students for the EML program this fall. Based out of Tabor Wichita, Bartlett expects to draw students from across the U.S. and beyond because all coursework will be online except for a one-week class in Wichita and 10 days of international study in Thailand.

The program is targeted to people in ministry roles who want to explore creative ways to serve their communities—to “see a need and fill a need,” Bartlett says. The course includes a customized study focus for each student and is suitable for people involved in church ministry as well as community-based and nonprofit work.

He is looking forward to implementing many of the unique possibilities that web-based study allows, from the creation of online learning communities he calls “guilds” to accessing live interaction with experienced leaders such as MB Mission Executive Director Randy Friesen in Canada and Mennonite World Conference General Secretary Cesar Garcia in Colombia.—KHW


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