Episcopal seminaries adapt to COVID-19’s persistence

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Sep 1, 2020

Lindsey Ardrey, a master of divinity student from Louisiana, leads an outdoor worship service on the Austin, Texas, campus of Seminary of the Southwest. Photo: Eric Scott/Seminary of the Southwest

[Episcopal News Service] As the 2020-21 academic year begins and the coronavirus pandemic continues, the nine U.S.-based Episcopal Church-affiliated seminaries are taking a variety of approaches to safely educating and housing students.

Classes have already begun at some of the seminaries, while others begin the day after Labor Day and one on Oct. 5. For details on each school’s plans, click here.

Higher-educational institutions nationwide are seeing thousands of positive COVID-19 cases as students and professors return to campuses. They, seminaries included, also face questions about how to keep residential students safe when they are not in class.

The seminaries’ traditional goal of formation-through-life-in-close-community is being challenged, too, even among those that offered “distributed education,” a mix of in-person, online and electronic options long before the pandemic. Add in the fluctuating number of positive COVID-19 cases, inconsistent public health policies and the politicization of mask-wearing, and it leaves colleges, universities and seminaries scrambling to implement their own virus prevention and containment strategies, all while providing students with a supportive learning environment.

“The spiritual challenge is really to try to accept and adapt to what’s happening, and it’s so hard,” the Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, recently told Episcopal News Service. “I just find myself protesting emotionally against the changes but then being forced to accept them and adapt. I think our students who are back on campus are going to have a very vital and robust formation experience. It’s just not going to look like it did last year.”

The Rev. William F. Brosend presides at Eucharist Aug. 26 on the field between the University of the South School of Theology’s buildings in Sewanee, Tennessee. This was the term’s first Wednesday service. All other Wednesday services will be in All Saints’ Chapel for a limited number of people and will be livestreamed. Photo: Malcolm McLaurin/University of the South School of Theology

Texas’ summertime spike in cases made for “a lot of fear” among students still on campus and those contemplating returning in the fall, Kittredge said. Some are very cautious, and some are eager to get back to in-person learning, she explained.

“Since we’re going to be living with this virus for quite a while, it’s a matter of figuring out how to gather with as much safety as is reasonable. That takes practice for the faculty and staff and students,” she said.

The Rev. Altagracia Pérez-Bullard, assistant professor of practical theology, announces an award recipient during Virginia Theological Seminary’s 197th commencement and its first “virtual commencement” May 14, as Duane Lomis records her from the Chapel Garden. Photo: Virginia Theological Seminary

Meanwhile, student behavior can be unpredictable, as the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, recently learned.

On Aug. 18, the Very Rev. James F. Turrell, dean of the university’s School of Theology, told ENS that the seminary’s plans for classes and worship have been made in the context of the university’s schoolwide testing and contact tracing program. Social distancing and/or mask-wearing are required in public areas and buildings, and students are encouraged to limit their contacts outside of the somewhat-remote mountaintop campus.

Then, on Aug. 24, University of the South Vice-Chancellor and President Reuben E. Brigety reported that unauthorized undergraduate student gatherings on the university soccer field the previous Friday and Saturday nights were potentially classic “superspreader” events, which can lead to high rates of viral transmission, even with few infected people present. Brigety said those gatherings undermined the university’s attempt “to provide in-person education to students in the context of a deadly pandemic.” The university invested millions of dollars in its attempt to protect students and faculty from contracting the virus, he said. Before classes even began, one-third of the faculty (not seminary faculty) had declined to teach in-person classes because they feared such behavior would spread the coronavirus.

On Aug. 19, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in a Eucharist in his driveway in suburban Raleigh, North Carolina, consecrated an outdoor altar that has since been installed in Chelsea Square on the close of The General Theological Seminary in New York, New York. The altar, which was handcrafted in Jacksonville, Florida, by Jeff Wilder, a lifelong Episcopalian, is meant to facilitate outdoor worship in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, right, who transported the altar from Jacksonville to New York via Raleigh, joined the presiding bishop in his driveway along with the Rev. Charles K. Robertson, left, a distinguished visiting professor at General Seminary and canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond The Episcopal Church. Photo: The General Theological Seminary

Overall, the seminaries’ ease at moving classes online to keep faculty and students safe has somewhat depended on their previous experiences with online learning. For instance, Bexley Seabury Seminary’s decision to move to complete online teaching for the rest of the spring 2020 semester and for all of the 2020-21 academic year was made easier by the fact that faculty and students were used to distributed learning. The Rev. Micah Jackson, president of the Chicago, Illinois-based seminary, said the early decision was aimed at minimizing disruptions to students’ progress. The school also knew that such a move required plenty of time for planning and preparation, he said.

“The quicker we could make a clear decision, the better the education and formation we offer would be,” Jackson told ENS.

Shawn Rutledge, Virginia Theological Seminary class of 2022 member from the Diocese of Arizona, participates this past spring in the seminary’s “Biblical Preaching” class taught by Professors Stephen Cook and Mark Jefferson. Photo: Josh Paget/Virginia Theological Seminary

In Berkeley, California, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, which has offered online training since 1995, has twice had to change its plans for the fall. Leaders decided in late spring, in consultation with medical professionals, to restart 2020-21 classes and worship in person, with health and safety protocols in place. On June 29, they moved to a hybrid residential model, offering all classes both in person and remotely. A month later, plans changed again as cases in the state spiked. Now the semester will begin Sept. 8 with all remote learning while continuing to allow students to live in campus housing.

“We will decide by mid-October whether to resume in-person classes for the January term and spring semester,” said the Rev. Ruth Meyers, the school’s academic dean.

Both Meyers and the Rev. Andrew Hybl, dean of students, told ENS that CDSP will invite residential students and low-residency/online students into “creative ways of forming community.” The school will draw on its formation experiences in its pre-existing low-residency master of divinity program, which combines periodic intensive in-person instruction with online study.

Garwood Anderson, president and provost of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, told ENS that the school, 30 miles west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will continue to offer in-person classes, with an online option available for every course.

“The biggest challenge for our faculty and community is that Nashotah House is on the far end of a highly communal and highly interpersonal model of education and formation,” Anderson wrote in an email. “Thus, for us, it is less challenging to adopt new technologies and instructional methods (although there is a challenge there!) than it is to make up for our deep investment in informal and non-formal modes of education and formation.”

He said that Nashotah leaders “don’t believe that we can ultimately replace that kind of priceless interaction” and so they “pray for the vaccine and for a ‘new normal’ that is more ‘normal’ than ‘new’ in God’s time.”

Sewanee’s Turrell told ENS that the seminary would be “flipping the classroom” with recorded lectures matched with smaller, in-person discussion sections, and by holding some classes outdoors in tents. “Faculty and staff have worked hard over the summer to adapt their courses, and we are also prepared to switch to all-remote teaching on short notice if conditions change,” he said.

Sewanee faculty who plan to teach entirely online say that, while it is a different environment, there are some advantages. The Rev. William F. Brosend is teaching a new, entirely online course titled “Leadership, Innovation and Outreach: Reshaping Ministry for the 2020s.” The authors of two books assigned to students will join the online class to discuss their work and answer questions. Other experts and Sewanee graduates engaged in innovative ministry also will join.

“That’s something that we would not ordinarily be able to do,” Turrell said.

Not all educators are sure that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the church. Nashotah House’s Anderson noted that most seminary students are one to three years from ordained ministry and the faculty do not envision “online church” as an indefinite reality. “Yes, theological questions are raised and addressed, but I suspect our students are learning more from practitioners than academics as it concerns doing ministry in the season of the pandemic,” he said.

Meyers of CDSP and the Rev. Melody Knowles, vice president of academic affairs at Virginia Theological Seminary, agree that those questions are bubbling up. Faculty “are asking [and being asked about] new questions concerning the Eucharist, music in the liturgy, the role of the church in the education of youth as schools move online,” Knowles told ENS in an email. She predicted that the pandemic will affect theological education long after it is over.

Kittredge’s introduction to preaching class this fall will work on “how to be embodied preachers when you are not embodied.”

“We’re not replacing our emphasis on embodiment with an emphasis on virtual, although it’s unavoidable and it’s affecting what we do,” she said.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired in July 2019 as senior editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.