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Online pastoral training for international ministry networks

by Timothy Paul Westbrook, Ph.D., director, Center for Distance Education in Bible and Ministry,

Harding University, Searcy, Arkansas

Young Asian man working on laptop with open Bible

As we reach the two-year mark of America’s shut down, I look back at some of the concerns about how the pandemic would impact pastoral education. I personally had two fears when my institution, Harding University, switched to emergency remote and online courses. My first fear was that as the director of the Center for Distance in Bible and Ministry, and as one who had been in the online education sector for 15 years, my job would suddenly get a lot busier. My second fear was that the chaos of moving online overnight would lead to a much larger collection of negative experiences associated with online education, which the naysayers would use to dismiss online learning even more strongly than they had before.

Week after week, while campuses stayed closed and Zoom became a household term, my job did get a little busier, and everyone now had some kind of opinion about distance education. Some experiences were remarkable victories that salvaged a difficult situation. Other experiences were train wrecks. But no matter how one felt or what thoughts people had about online education before COVID, everyone around the world had to gain experience with teaching and learning at a distance.

When it comes to training leadership in the global church, the sudden emergency shift to online education has raised a new question. Before COVID, we debated whether or not pastoral training could or should include online training. As we now live through COVID, the question has become how should we do this?

Online education allows people worldwide to have access to knowledge, learn skills and be nurtured with Spirit-shaped attitudes towards ministry. Online education bypasses geographical limitations. If organized well, online learning can remove barriers and can increase accessibility. Online education connects the experts in an academic discipline with students in their own contexts who are hungering and thirsting for new ideas that will help them better live out their callings. The purpose of this article is to look more closely at some of the benefits of online education, specifically for international, pastoral training.

The world is your classroom

Over the last 30 years, the World Wide Web has truly become worldwide. From the old internet cafe model to handheld devices, most of the general public can now find ways to connect digitally. For example, an organization called World Bible School provides free basic Bible lessons to anyone who can make an online connection. Before the internet, WBS used printed literature. Now, with digital options, their reach has increased substantially. Through a blend of online courses, printable courses available online, and a faith-based social media platform, this ministry can claim nearly one million student participants for 2021.

Another example would be our work with Equip at Harding University. When we first started offering college-level Bible courses online in 2005, we envisioned this as a way to fulfill the university’s mission to reach students with Christian education regardless of where the students were located. Much has been developed since that time, and “regardless of location” quickly began to include international ministry students who had access to the internet but were unable to come to our campus in the United States.

About 10 years ago, a dream was born to create what we call the certificate of completion in Christian ministry. This certificate requires 25 hours of undergraduate courses online and takes three years to complete if students take one course a semester. Because U.S. tuition is high, generous donors have contributed funds to enable ministers from around the world to participate. To date, men and women from Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, Mozambique, India, China, Malaysia, Hungary, Romania, Albania, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago have successfully completed their certificates. These individuals received 100% of the academic experience via their online courses while remaining 100% on location and continuing to serve in their contexts. This type of solution is what I would call a win-win.

open Bible on table in front of world map

Not only are we able to gather learners from around the world into a single learning space, but by participating while still in context, people’s ministries become useful real-life laboratories for learning. In 2018, two colleagues and I explored how lived experiences impacted students who were learning online in a study abroad program. Survey results indicated students not only learned course materials and applied them to their experiences overseas, but they also gave evidence of how their overseas experiences, past and present, helped them learn course materials.

Education does not occur in a vacuum. John Dewey correctly suggested at the start of the previous century, “In critical moments we all realize that the only discipline that stands by us, the only training that becomes intuition, is that got through life itself.” Experiences are part of the educational process. Connecting people globally for pastoral education actually enriches the learning space as people share from their diverse experiences in order to apply abstract concepts and ministerial skills into a plethora of scenarios.

Accessible education

Accessibility is an important topic when considering online education. Themes range from audio and visual impairment to economic and sociological barriers. Lawrence Hopperton addresses this topic in his chapter entitled “Steps toward Equitable Access for Faculty New to Online Learning” in Teaching and Learning in the Age of COVID 19. Hopperton’s work serves as a great reminder of how what we create online needs to consider the wide range of sensory experiences learners bring with them to the online classroom.

When considering pastoral training for people in international settings, accessibility may also manifest in different ways. For example, while the internet may be accessed globally, not all Wi-Fi connections and hotspots have equal bandwidth. Furthermore, what might be a free download for one person might cost data, which costs money, for another. PowerPoint slides with large image files could take more time to download than some people can afford. Video files could crash some systems if they require downloading rather than streaming. In some cases, due to legal policies, not all audio and video materials on the internet are available across online national borders. While all the flashing lights and bells and whistles look attractive and make us feel like cutting-edge educators, sometimes simple is better. Written documents continue to be the easiest medium for online learning systems.

While written media proves to be the most accessible standard, video media can still be used. If you include videos in a course for an international audience, consider these ideas:

  1. Load the video on YouTube or some site that allows for streaming rather than downloading.

  2. Add closed captions. Not only does this comply with ADA requirements, but it also helps those whose mother tongue is different from the video’s language.

  3. Locate rather than create. Producing a high-quality video takes time and money. See if a good resource has already been produced that might suit your needs.

As we imagine what international pastoral training might look like online, it is also important to keep in mind how culture impacts online interaction. Just as culture influences every aspect of the human experience, culture and sociological factors extend into how people use technology, including how they use the internet.

Remember that each online classroom represents the culture of the institution that created it. Students coming from various cultural backgrounds may have different inherent expectations of the course, of their teachers and of themselves. Therefore, course facilitators might need to spend a little more effort working with their diverse participants to help them grasp the culture of the course design, online social space and the host institution. When done well, a blend of cultures in an online learning environment can result in powerfully enriching cross-cultural exchanges.

Creating a new community of learners

In the adult and online learning guild, it is often said that the educator is the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.” This hackneyed rhyme stems philosophically from constructivism, that is, the idea that the creation and ownership of knowledge is community-based rather than in the hands of the academic elite.

I have observed and sometimes engaged in this debate of epistemology for 15 years. Regardless of where one might find oneself in this philosophical discussion, we cannot deny that the internet democratizes information in the sense that anyone who has access to the internet has access to more information than ever before in human history. Whether one knows what to do with that information is another matter, but for the sake of creating learning spaces for pastoral training, the internet offers many ready-made resources just waiting to be harnessed for good use.

Normally, when I describe how to design a course, I like to encourage people to think with a dream team mentality. No course designer, facilitator or institution is alone when teaching online. Experts may be brought into a course easily through open-access resources that already exist online. In some cases, content experts and teachers may be willing to make a guest appearance live over Zoom or in asynchronous discussion boards. Church leaders in one country may collaborate with pastors in another country to share advice, troubleshoot problem scenarios and even to pray for contextual struggles being faced. What we find online is a new kind of learning space that simply cannot be replicated in a face-to-face meeting. Worlds are brought together, information can be shared, skills can be emulated and the oneness of the body of Christ may be enjoyed.

The time has passed for us to ask whether or not online education should be used for pastoral training. It does happen, and it should happen. As followers of Jesus who embrace the “teaching” part of Jesus’ mandate to “go into all the world,” we accept the innovations that God has provided, and we exploit the technology for good and in ways that are useful for the kingdom in every corner of God’s creation.

Dr. Timothy Paul Westbrook

Dr. Timothy Paul Westbrook


Dewey, John. The School and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1900.

Hopperton, Lawrence. “Steps toward Equitable Access for Faculty New to Online Learning.” In Teaching and Learning in the Age of COVID 19: Faith-Based, Online and Emergency Remote, edited by S. Mahfood, T. Westbrook, and V. Dunnam, 159-166. St. Louis: En Route Books & Media, 2021.

Thompson, Melinda, and Meri MacLeod. “To the Ends of the Earth: Cultural Considerations for Global Online Theological Education.” Theological Education, 49(2) (2015): 113-125.

Toprak, Elif, and Evrim G. Kumtepe (eds.). Supporting Multiculturalism in Open and Distance Learning Spaces. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2018.

Westbrook, Timothy Paul. “Global Contexts for Learning: Exploring the Relationship between Low-Context Online Learning and High-Context Learners.” Christian Higher Education, 13(4) (2014): 281-294.

------. “eQuity: Considering “Otherness” in the Online Classroom.” In Teaching and Learning in the Age of COVID 19: Faith-Based, Online and Emergency Remote, edited by S. Mahfood, T. Westbrook, & V. Dunnam, 217-243. St. Louis: En Route Books & Media, 2021.

Westbrook, Timothy Paul, Morgan McGaughy, and Jordan McDonald. An Investigation into the Implications of Dewey’s “Learning Situation” for Online Education. Net: An eJournal of Faith-Based Distance Learning, 2 (2018): 8-22.

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