Diverging from Online Education: A Better Way

“Are your classes available online?” This is probably the question I get most when sharing the vision of Ohio Theological Institute. It is an understandable question considering our emphases of being local, accessible, and affordable. Surely, online courses would aid in those goals. Seminaries at large have been forced into online markets over the past two decades to keep up. Yet, at OTI, we are intentionally skirting the idea of online classes. 

There is something backward, it seems, in a culture where everything around us is moving increasingly to the seemingly more accessible screens in our homes and workplaces. I personally account for approximately one-third of all of Amazon’s deliveries, and fully understand the heart behind the question. Schedules are busy and often immovable. Responsibilities are pressing and tug further at those schedules. You may have even seen Abby Perry’s phenomenal Christianity Today article, “Non-Traditional Seminary Students Are Changing the Church.”⁠1 It makes sense to want greater flexibility in our training. Here is why we don’t. 

In addition to the pile of Amazon cardboard in the mudroom of my home, there sits the broken vestige of my last laptop charger. Torn and dirty, split from an attempted quick exit from an outlet in the wall of one of my last seminary classes, it sits in part because I am a hoarder and never know when I might need something. *Note to self, I should probably throw that away* It is still a reminder of my education journey. 

After finishing my M.Div. at Southwestern, my wife and I packed up our 500 square foot apartment and drove a thousand miles north-ish to Cleveland, Ohio. We felt called to this city and would not delay our obedience. That meant I would complete the majority of my Ph.D. coursework online. That charger became a metaphor for my connectedness to the program. While it got the job done, it is safe to say it was hardly ideal. 

There is an aspect of theological education often overlooked when considering the purpose of training. It is not found on the syllabus, in the required reading, or heard in the lectures.  It is the formative community which grounds all instruction.

OTI was founded by three pastors, each serving in distinct contexts of Northeast Ohio— urban, suburban, and rural. When we first sat down in an industrial coffee shop, as equidistant to our churches as possible, the united vision was one which echoed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time in Finkenwalde.⁠2 We wanted life together to be that driving force in our students’ experience, and we wanted to it because of the underserved market in which we minister. 

Frankly, the existing options in our region because of cost and social location have either been to move to a residential program (from which they may not return to the region, or is never an option because of active ministry), or get training where they can through conferences, books, and online classes. To adapt another idea from our German influencer, this is the difference between cheap and costly grace- it is cheap education. OTI wants to be in the business of costly education. We want to do it at a price point that cannot be touched in our region, but we want the experience and product itself to be formative and weighty. 

Part of this comes from our emphasis on the priority of the local church. We are not displacing or replacing the church. We are seeking to serve it. Like a good bridesmaid, we are not trying to upstage the bride, but to make her more beautiful. OTI aims to be a good bridesmaid of Christ’s bride, the church. We believe this is achieved best through formative community, made accessible through lectures, seminars, workshops, and cutting our costs as far as it is feasible to still exist in 2 years or 20. We are not trying to be the greatest seminary or institute in the world, but we are trying to be the best one in our community and for our community. And that is good enough for me. 

Paul J. Morrison (Ph.D., Southwestern Seminary) is the Director and Co-founder of Ohio Theological Institute, where he teaches in the fields of Christian Ethics and Biblical Theology. Paul also serves as Theologian in Residence at City Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Paul and his wife Sarah have called Northeast Ohio home since 2015 and have one daughter. 

1Perry, Abby, “Non-Traditional Seminary Students Are Changing the Church,” Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/partners/higher-education/non-traditional-seminary-students-are-changing-church.html

2Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Gerhard Ludwig Mèuller, Albrecht Schèonherr, and Geffrey B. Kelly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Vol. 5, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.