Surprising interest grows for new resource

Published: May 24, 2013

Mary E. Klassen

Anabaptist Short Courses, a new series of non-credit online courses offered by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, generated so much interest this spring that some potential students must wait until they are again offered in the future.

AMBS needed to adjust the maximum number for one course and close registration for the second, so when registration was complete, there were 16 students in Anabaptist History and Theology and 19 in Anabaptist Approaches to Scripture. Lois Barrett, professor of Anabaptist history and theology; and Loren Johns, professor of New Testament, are the instructors for the six-week courses.

AMBS has long heard calls for “Anabaptist identity” courses in a distance-friendly format, Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, associate dean for leadership education, said. This new resource—online courses, shorter than regular seminary classes but taught at a master’s level—emerged as a way to respond. Longenecker, who coordinates the AMBS Church Leadership Center, hopes the short courses meet the need for people who want to know more about Anabaptist beliefs but who do not want to pursue a seminary degree at this time.

“I thought there was interest,” Longenecker said, “but what surprised me was interest from such a wide range of participants. Many in these classes are people who have not participated in anything AMBS has offered before.”

Dallas Burkholder, an engineer living in Ypsilanti, Mich., said, “I saw these short courses as a great way to help me consider whether or not future theological studies might be something I am interested in pursuing.” He added, “The knowledge I have gained through these courses has helped me to be more confident in some of my own beliefs and will allow me to speak more intelligently with others unfamiliar with my faith tradition.”

Howard Wideman, from Sudbury, Ont., who has been a deacon for 30 years, said, “The non-credit course appeals as it is less expensive and enables interactive distance education. This is more crucial the further one is from the seminary in Elkhart.”

Loren Johns, who is teaching the approaches to Scripture course, posts weekly assignments for participants that include four to six readings on specific topics. Participants then share online their reflections on those readings and respond to what other students have posted.

The students come with a wide range of experiences, knowledge and perspectives, including different denominational backgrounds. The ages range from 30s to 70s and the settings range from Ohio to Alberta, with more than half of this second class living in Canada. That diversity has enriched the course, Johns noted. “They have done a good job of teaching each other—and teaching me.”

Johns is teaching a regular three-credit-hour seminary course on the same subject this spring, also online. Students in that course have about three times as many assigned readings and also must write a research paper and a sermon. The short-course students have fewer readings and their written assignments are limited to reflections and responses. However, he’s considering assigning one more activity that the regular class does: choosing a discipline, such as memorizing Scripture or practicing a form of praying the Scriptures, and then reflecting with fellow students on what they experienced.

Initial interest in these courses promises that the features, including the online format, six-week length and cost of $200, will invite a wide audience to theological education. Longenecker explained that the expectation was that the courses would be for pastors who earned a degree at a non-Mennonite seminary and want better understanding of Anabaptism and for congregational leaders who want to enhance their knowledge for roles in their congregations.

Johns noted another reason to participate: “I keep hearing that seminary or the idea of seminary is intimidating. A non-credit course is a safe way to dip in a toe and see if this is interesting and whether I can do it.”

Melissa Atchison from Manhattan, Kan., concurred, but noted additional benefits: “I may pursue an advanced degree through AMBS in the future and these courses have helped me understand what that might be like. But what I’m learning is already enriching my experience as a church participant, as a Bible study attendee, as an education committee member, and as someone who came to the Mennonite Church as an adult and has been picking up bits and pieces of historical perspective over the years and likes filling in some of the gaps between those.”

A series of six courses is planned, with two set for fall. Gayle Gerber Koontz, professor of theology and ethics, will teach John Howard Yoder’s Theological Legacy in September and October. Perry Yoder, professor emeritus of Old Testament, will teach Biblical Foundations of Peace and Justice in October and November. In spring 2014, Jamie Pitts, assistant professor of Anabaptist studies, will teach La Historia y Teología de Anabautismo, the Spanish-language history and theology course. Two new courses also are planned for next spring: Mennonite Polity, taught by David Boshart and Janeen Bertsche Johnson; and Congregational Conflict, taught by David Miller.

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