Many of the ministries I’ve featured in this series of articles have existed for decades, easily pre-dating the Digital Revolution. They have had to adapt, to change, to respond to the newly available power and the emerging dangers of new technologies. The ministry I’m featuring today is different. It was founded in the midst of the Internet Revolution, with the Mobile/Social Revolution just over the horizon. Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS) began life as the Midwest Center for Theological Studies in 2005 using the traditional model of in-person education. In 2011 the school embraced digital technology, shifting to a primarily online teaching model. That shift has enabled CBTS to accomplish three primary goals: partnering with local churches in preparing men with a pastoral calling, serving churches and students around the world, and making a seminary education affordable. In 2014 the school changed its name to reflect its broader reach and more focused purpose.
I spoke with Brice Bigham, director of development and marketing for CBTS to better understand how they see the digital revolution transforming seminary education.
The Importance of the Local Church
Bigham had originally started as a student at a traditional residential seminary. He found the education to be sound, but the separation from his local church was tangible. Brice got married and the various duties of life caused him to put his seminary education on hold. Although no longer a seminary student, he continued as a student of the Word, and especially was growing in his understanding of ecclesiology — the study of the church. He grew in his conviction that the local church is where a person’s gifts and calling are most clearly discerned and developed. The traditional seminary model can have a tendency to minimize the role of the local church in favor of the discernment of the seminary. Then Bigham heard about Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary.
Bigham was thrilled to hear that he could continue to grow and be mentored by his own pastor, while gaining the strong theological training of a confessional reformed baptist seminary. He restarted his seminary training. In time, as CBTS continued to grow, he was called to join the leadership team and he moved his family to Owensboro, Kentucky where the seminary is based.
Prior to the switch to the online model, the Midwest Center for Theological Studies had fewer than 50 students, all of them primarily taking classes in person in Owensboro. Today, Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary has about 300 students, with 20% being outside the United States, and only 1% primarily attending classes in person in Owensboro. Depending on the degree being pursued, students are required to attend one or two classes in person during their degree program. CBTS makes this easy by offering intensive courses a few times a year, often concentrated around a holiday to make it easy for students to take that time away from their other responsibilities at home. Although students only need to take one or two of these in-person classes, many students attend as many as they can to strengthen their relationships with fellow students and professors.
The technology stack that Covenant Baptist uses also helps in developing these relationships. Students can take self-paced classes using recorded video lectures, but many prefer the live teaching option via Zoom video conference where they can interact with their fellow classmates and the professor. In addition to the Neo online learning platform, the seminary runs a Discord server where student interaction and debate remains lively. Students also keep discussions going in the school’s Facebook groups.
While the threat of isolation is real in online learning, most students stay actively engaged. More importantly, while technology enables the benefit from academic relationships, the online model means that students continue to actively develop relationships within their local church and with other churches with whom theirs associate. Most important is the relationship between the student and his pastor, who serves to mentor the student in how to truly be a pastor, a shepherd, to the local flock.
The Global Opportunity
Naturally, Covenant Baptist’s online model works over any distance. A growing share of the seminary’s students are outside the United States. This has been helped by the establishment of the William Carey Scholarship Fund to cover the costs for pastors and church planters around the world. CBTS currently has students from 24 different countries.
Another element of the school’s technology stack has proven especially helpful in countries where it is difficult to get the books and resources necessary for a seminary education. Through a partnership with Logos Bible Software, students build their own library of hundreds or thousands of titles. Through Logos, students also have access to the kind of rich theological library that seminary students have traditionally found on campus, and the opportunity to engage with professors over those materials.
Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary – Meeting the Need
One of the strongest benefits of Covenant Baptist’s model is how affordable a seminary education can become. Students pay $375 per semester plus $75 per credit hour. For comparison’s sake, in-state neighbor the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky charges $275-$475 per credit hour depending on whether the student is from a member church in the Southern Baptist Convention. Other seminaries are even more expensive (Dallas Theological Seminary: $309-$619/hour, Fuller Seminary $450-$820/unit, Regent $500–650/hour, Gordon-Conwell $575–750/hour).
As a result, many graduates from traditional seminaries have built up significant student debt. That means that graduates must find a job that will pay enough to cover their debt obligations. Students aren’t free to go anywhere God is calling them, but rather can only consider churches large enough, and in prosperous enough cities, to cover their financial needs. CBTS graduates, on the other hand, pay thousands or tens of thousands less over their seminary program, and many students are able to continue to work while pursuing their degree, eliminating the need to take on any student debt.
As Bigham described it “When online education is done right, the value is tremendous. Students gain all the benefits of rigorous academic study, while learning practical shepherding skills at the side of their local pastor, all at a fraction of the cost of residential seminary programs. That makes them available to go where God needs them.”
Networks and Beyond
As we’ve moved into the Connected Intelligence Revolution, one of the key shifts that business have had to grasp is to think in terms of networks or platforms. Traditionally, companies focused on delivering a solution — a product or a service — which had standalone value. Today, such value “nodes” still deliver value to customers, but the value they can create, both for customers and the business is limited. In the Connected Intelligence Revolution, organizations are much more focused on creating “networks” that connect nodes made up of products/services, consumers, and providers. Value is created for all participants in the network as they interact with each other, but the one operating the network gains the most value as they observe and learn from all the interactions in the network.
Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary has built two networks as part of achieving their mission of helping “the church to prepare men to undertake the full range of pastoral responsibilities they will face in serving Christ and His kingdom, and to equip Christians for effective service in the church.” For both networks, it’s important to understand the different potential participants in a CBTS-enabled network. Of course, there are the seminary’s students, professors, and alumni. Note that most of the school’s professors and alumni are also pastors in their local churches. The local pastors of current and former students are also natural participants. Other members of student’s and alumni’s churches likely also have an awareness of and appreciation for Covenant Baptist. Finally, there are other likeminded pastors and churches that haven’t yet sent students to CBTS, but may in the future.
The simplest of the two networks is “The Man of God Network” — a podcast network connecting the seminary, its professors, and associated pastors as content providers to students, alumni, potential students, and other church members as content consumers. As primarily a broadcast network, this platform is naturally rich in content, but poor in interaction. Listeners benefit greatly from what they hear; broadcasters benefit from gaining an audience; and CBTS gains in learning what shows and episodes are popular and well received.
The second network is Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary ‘s Church Partner Program. Churches financially support CBTS and, in exchange, their members save money on tuition. But the power of the network is in the deeper and broader relationships that are fostered. All of the online course materials are available to the church’s pastor and members. Church staff and members can audit classes, and class lectures can be used in a variety of settings, including Sunday School classes and small groups. While a seminary degree really makes sense for a man called by God to the ministry, the Church Partner Program enables many people in the church to grow and be better equipped for service in the church. More than that, as more in the local body are learning alongside their called brethren, their encouragement, support, and accountability for those men grows. Contrast that with a man who leaves his church, moves to a distant city to study theology, and years later accepts a call from another church that knows little about him other than the fact that he’s earned a prestigious degree.
I asked Bigham about how Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary is approaching other potential developments in the Connected Intelligence era. He described how the fact that the leadership team is made up of men in their 30’s, their 40’s, their 50’s (and beyond) is a source of strength in marrying technology with mission. The young leaders may have a better idea of what is technically possible, but the more mature have learned what may be more wise and God-honoring. “We are also paying close attention to the development of virtual reality technologies to understand how this will transform higher education.”
While I’m confident that Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary will continue to wisely leverage digital technologies in achieving their mission, I doubt they will be alone. So much of what they have learned (and are still learning) will eventually be embraced by many, so that our children’s seminary may be of much greater value to Christ’s church.
This profile of Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary originally appeared here, and is used by permission.