NASHVILLE, Tenn. (GBHEM) – Students pursuing ordination in The United Methodist Church will be able to complete up to two-thirds of their seminary classes online, as long as those classes are offered by one of the 13 United Methodist theological schools or Asbury Theological Seminary.

A statement issued Jan. 27 by the University Senate and the Commission on Theological Education said that “online education is a growing opportunity for innovative teaching that will likely reduce the role that geography plays in all of higher education, including theological education.”

The University Senate, through the Commission on Theological Education, oversees approval of theological education programs and listing of non-United Methodist seminaries as acceptable choices for candidates for ordained ministry in the UMC.

“Because the number of students pursuing a M.Div. for ordained ministry has declined and the number of seminaries offering such degrees is growing, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain quality standards and educational excellence in any faith tradition – especially in the case of distance education,” said the Rev. Sharon Rubey, interim associate general secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Division of Ordained Ministry and staff liaison for the commission.

Bishop William H. Willimon, chair of the commission, said the commission is “moving with all deliberate speed to look at online education and embrace it as a way to make theological education more accessible, while making sure it is specific to our Wesleyan theological standards for educating clergy.”

“We don’t want United Methodist clergy trained only online, but we have to do a better job of making classes more accessible. I think this plan strikes a wonderful balance,” he said.

Willimon said Asbury Theological Seminary served as something of a pilot program for online classes. “We were impressed by what Asbury has done, and they have worked with some of the 13 UM theological schools. This is really an expansion of that,” he said.

“We have to do a better job of making classes more accessible.”

– William H. Willimon