Trudy Betts, an associate pastor at Tropical Sands Christian Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., gets up each morning and works on her master's degree in divinity at the Lexington Theological Seminary.
Betts, one of the seminary's new online students, says that if the Lexington school had not moved to computer-based classes, she probably would have had to move to Lexington or some other seminary to study, leaving her family behind, or even give up her dream of completing an advanced degree and being ordained.
"It has been the best of both worlds for me," she said. "I get to have classes with really great professors, remain at home and stay connected with my church."
Lexington Theological Seminary launched its online program in September as the centerpiece of a plan to reinvent itself in the wake of the 2008 national economic downturn, which threatened the school's future.
About two-thirds of the seminary's master of divinity classes are now taught online, while some students are still attending classes on campus. After May's graduation, almost all classes will be taught online, although students will still come to campus for short intensive educational sessions. It's a big change for an institution that traces its origins back to 1836 and traditionally taught its students in the classroom.
Faculty member Wes Allen, who taught at the seminary before the change and now continues to teach online, said teachers initially worried about losing the immediacy of direct, classroom give-and-take.
"I think we all came into this wondering, 'Can we really teach this way?' " Allen said. "But now there is much more excitement about the potential."
Lexington Theological Seminary President James Johnson said the new program is going well and that, other than minor modifications, online theological education will be the future of the school.
It's good for the seminary, but it's also good for many of today's students, such as Betts, who want a seminary education but often can't move long distances to get it, he said.
Johnson said seminary students now increasingly are people starting second or third careers, feeling the call to ministry at a time in their lives when picking up and moving would be difficult, if not impossible.
"These are individuals who have been dealing with some call to ministry, but haven't been able to respond because they don't live near a seminary," Johnson said. "It's too inconvenient for them to move. But this program gives them an option to respond to that call without having to pick up and move their families or leave their jobs."
Johnson acknowledges, however, that instituting the new program involved "a large degree of necessity" as well as creativity.
By late 2008, the Lexington seminary had been devastated by the national economic crunch, its endowment having shrunk by more than a third. To save money, the seminary cut faculty and staff by about half. Enrollment, which was 101 in 2008-09, fell to 69 the next year.
The school already had discussed putting some classes online, but talk intensified because of the worsening economy. In January 2009, the seminary board of trustees directed faculty members to prepare a new model of education and curriculum, emphasizing online education. An outline of the plan was ready by spring 2009, and it was put in effect last fall.
"As you'd guess, with anything that involves such a significant departure from what had been here before, there have been some glitches," Johnson said. "But we have made remarkable progress."
Enrollment has climbed to 88 students, nearly half of whom are enrolled in the online classes, seminary officials say. And those online students are scattered across the country, far beyond the seminary's traditional base.
"We went from being a small, regional seminary when we started this program, and almost immediately became a national seminary," Allen said. "Our racial diversity also increased almost immediately."
The school has added many adjunct teachers, most living far from Lexington, to help teach the new online classes.
Allen admits that online courses might sacrifice some of the benefits of direct classroom discussion. Also, students living far from the campus can't take part in the weekly chapel services that were a key part of the traditional program.
But the seminary is working hard to provide community and dialogue among students. For example, the school uses a video conferencing system called MegaMeeting that allows students to see each other and interact online. Also, online students will come to the seminary's Lexington campus for two 10-day "intensives" each year, studying in regular classrooms and attending chapel daily.
While the campus and library will remain busy for now, Johnson says seminary officials are evaluating what to do with the physical facility as the seminary's focus shifts to online education.
"We know that for some of our alumni, this is a little further than they can go in imagining a new era," he said. "But this is a new era. It's a program that has begun to prepare people for leadership in the church who might never had that opportunity without this program. It's pretty exciting."