Closing the Distance

On March 13, 2020, students and employees received an ominous text message:

“As of 11:00 AM today, the WTS campus (including the library) will be closed. Prayer group and remaining classes for the day are cancelled. More information will be forthcoming. Please be on the lookout for a communications [sic] from our Academic Dean and Dean of Students.

       In the hours and days that followed international travel was halted, the President of the United States declared a National Emergency, churches canceled worship services, gun sales skyrocketed, and the once obscure website a of freeze-dried food manufacturer crashed due to unprecedented demand.

       Suddenly, nothing felt certain. Yet, as faculty and students scrambled to complete the semester via Zoom, Westminster’s leadership team was already meeting holding late-into-the-night meetings, working to prayerfully discern how to pilot Westminster through uncharted waters into the next academic year.

       Along with other of institutions of higher learning around the United States, Westminster decided in early summer not to hold in-person classes through the 2020–2021 academic year. It was a difficult decision, and a bold one. There was no question that Westminster’s most critical degree, the Master of Divinity, would need to be provided online. Ideally the effort to produce a learning experience that would complement Westminster’s MDiv would be measured in years, not months and weeks.

       As you read this, the fall semester at Westminster is coming to a close. The grass is growing back from 2019’s campus revitalization project, but there aren’t many loiterers to shoo off it. Somehow, through an astonishing effort by a small team of talented and committed men and women, Westminster’s students, though they aren’t returning to Glenside, aren’t returning to the emergency video conference classrooms of the Spring semester either. They’re returning to a state-of-the-art theological learning space, accessed via homes and churches around the world.

       Now that the initial challenge of launching the program is finished, Westminster Magazine had the chance to talk with Peter Lillback, David Garner, Iain Duguid, and John Kim about the seminary’s vision for the Online MDiv.

       Our conversations have been lightly edited for clarity.

Can you tell us just a little bit just about your background in online education, and how your interests have developed there?

Iain Duguid: My interest in online learning was really sparked when my son, Wayne, did an Executive MBA through Temple University. And as I watched over his shoulder and looked at the educational experience he was getting, it was clear that my perception of online education was way out of date. . . I suddenly realized we could do this in a theological setting. And if we could, then we could really serve the kingdom in a tremendous way.

John Kim: I have very little formal background in online education, but I have been an interested observer and participant in online learning for over a decade. Those who know me know that I love learning and exploring new technologies. As a missionary kid, a WTS alumnus, and former Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the seminary, I was particularly excited to see us expand our online programs and make Westminster accessible to a new group of students.

David Garner: My experience with online education was actually born out of longing for it not experience. I was on the mission field, and paid a visit back to Philadelphia, had lunch with Pete Lillback. This was probably 15 years ago, maybe more than that. And I said, Pete, I cannot tell you how badly they need Westminster's education in Eastern Europe. What are we going to do to get Westminster to Eastern Europe? We've got to figure out a way. And so that was the, the kind of the early discussions of, okay, how does Westminster really become global?

Peter Lillback: And so, I said, that's something we need to dream about and trust the Lord to be able to have that come about. I remember that I met with various groups that were starting to do online education to try to understand what they were doing. I met with representatives of Gordon-Conwell, also Covenant Seminary, and RTS, trying to understand what they were seeking to do with online education. And so I was always hoping the day might come. That was part of the backdrop, but it never really became a viable opportunity for us because the technology requirements were high, and the personnel skills were not present at that time.

Garner: My wife had, some years ago, worked on a degree at a university online. The platform and delivery mechanism were. .. well, I just thought there's got to be a better way to do it. And, through a convergence of factors, including the arrival of people with the expertise, with the will, with zeal for excellence. . . It was through the work of John, Laura Leon, Iain, and Mike Halpin, and others in the IT department. This online MDiv is reaching a threshold that I never envisioned when I sat with Pete 15 years ago for lunch.

So, if you can, take us back to March of this year. How did the seminary leadership come to this decision, to green light an Online MDiv for the 2020–2021 academic year? 

Garner: The first point of conversation on the Online MDiv was actually not March. March was an accelerator. It was not an innovator of a month, as it were. . . We had already been discussing ways that we can expand Westminster's influence. We began in serious discussions about that in January, as a senior team.

Lillback: I remember telling our faculty then why I didn't envision a Master of Divinity online happening at Westminster in my Presidential time. I said I would be prepared to move forward with it to preserve our faculty in an economic downturn. But I didn't envision that happening because there's not a real sense that it’s the best way to do theological education at this time. I didn’t see it as a pressing opportunity. We were doing the other programs. Well, that was all said about six weeks before COVID-19hit the stage and we were forced to shut down. So I was suddenly facing the reality: We're going to have to go online. We're going to protect the very scarce national treasure of Westminster we call our faculty. Two-thirds of them are in the high-risk zone, either because of preexisting conditions or age.

       It is an utter miracle that Westminster—we’re not quite a Luddite school, but we’re nearly one—we're in the vanguard of delivering the world's best MDiv online. God let us do that.

Duguid: Because of my experience with online education, I've been convinced for a long time that there were people around the world who we would be able to serve on an online capacity who were not able to serve residentially. But, yeah, that was really spring-boarded with the COVID-19 crisis. We had the immediate sense that we have students who are here in the US, or need to need to return to their countries, and we're going to need to provide support for them.

Garner: Recent data indicates that, in the United States, there is one theologically trained pastor for every 230Americans. Outside of the United States, that number can jump to 450,000. That's the difference. And as you look at the field of global mission, the number one challenge on the field is a lack of training of pastors and leaders in the church and where they get any sort of training at all. There are increasing numbers of students who know English, but know not grace, know not Christ, and ministers who know English, but are only able to get the resources they get from a search on Google.

What did the first online courses at Westminster look like?

Lillback: As I recall, there came about the opportunity about four years ago or so. A grant given to the seminary that was intended to begin to help us to do online education. It was proposed to be a matching gift. It was a $500,000 gift, and I was thrilled with that. And I had an opportunity to share the vision of this with another international donor who instantly saw the wisdom of it and said, “I will match that $500,000 gift.” That meant we now had a million dollars to work with. So, we began the process and unbeknownst to me, two or three months later, the international donor decided to make another gift. He called me up and said, you know, if you have a vision for a Mandarin language version of an online degree, I will give another$500,000. So, from a grant, from within the board, and then two grants from outside the United States, we had enough funding to begin to dream about doing an online degree program of some sort.

Duguid: The first foray into online learning was an MA in Counseling, and that was triggered by a certain level of frustration, I think, at CCEF, that they weren't reaching the kind of people that they really wanted to help. They really wanted to help people serving in churches who needed counseling training. Whereas in the residential program, often the people that were coming were younger and inexperienced—not equipped in life experience to handle a couple 25 years into a dysfunctional marriage. So online, I think, gave us a chance to reach out to people have been actively involved in ministry for 7 to 10 years, and realizing that counseling is a lot of what they're doing and that they weren't equipped properly for it. Now they were realizing that they really needed the training, but didn’t want to quit their jobs and their churches. That was sort of a 1.0 version. It gave us a chance to get started and see what it would look like to start to do online theological education.

Are there strengths inherent in the technology behind online learning, pedagogically or otherwise?

Duguid: Oh, absolutely. Think of the notorious hour-after-lunch class. That's famously hard to teach because it's just a down time. Or students who come from working at UPS from 4:00 AM until they show up in a class at 9:00 AM, exhausted. That's not ideal. Whereas with a recorded class online, you get to pick [your class time]. One of the challenges that some of our residential students have is that they're pulled in so many different directions. They’re involved in ministry in their church, they have families, and they're trying to study. So it's really hard for them to juggle all of those roles.

Kim: Our goal is to leverage innovative online learning tools and thoughtful pedagogy to deliver Westminster’s biblically grounded, theologically faithful, and rigorous training to those committed to staying in their local contexts. We are not watering down our curriculum nor making courses easier simply because it’s online. At a basic level, students can expect to experience Westminster’s distinct and rigorous programs online. So, our online programs are for students who are serious about their theological education and training but can’t uproot their lives, jobs, and ministries to relocate to Philadelphia. We’ve also designed our courses to maximize scheduling flexibility. Most lectures are pre-recorded and available on-demand. Live, face-to-face meetings are typically reserved for small group interactions. This is particularly helpful for international students living in different time zones and for part-time students who need to juggle their studies along with other responsibilities.

How has the launch of the new Online MDiv program compared to the start of that first MAC program? What kind of challenges did you face?

Kim: The task of launching a new online program in four and half months, in the midst of a global pandemic, has been incredibly challenging. Since the project began toward the end of April, we not only had to restructure our teams and hire for gaps, but we had to learn new ways of working and communicating. Thankfully, we had most of the tools we needed to be effective, and many on staff had some experience working from home. I’d say we are still learning and figuring out more effective ways of doing our work. The key has been to stay adaptable, to not be surprised by the challenges, and roll with the punches.

Duguid: I think languages are one of the hardest pieces of an online MDiv to do. You know, there are a million-and-one programs out on the internet that claim to teach you any language you want. And there are a million people who started one of those programs, and after a week they've quit. Language learning requires a lot of handholding in the beginning, a lot of encouragements, a lot of direction, a lot of help. It’s much more interactive than a classic lecture class. And I think it's fair to say it proved to be one of the biggest challenges for us. But we’re really blessed with Libbie Groves as a Hebrew instructor, who is a constant fountain of innovation and inspiration. She has taught us a lot.

       The second challenge is just that the sheer scale of the MDiv. That’s a lot of classes to roll out in a relatively short time. And when working with, in many cases, faculty who've never done an online class before, we have to provide the supports and help to them to take the things that they know that they're familiar with and turn that into an online class. One of the things that we've been forced to think through is what does a good online class look like? You know, it's not simply a professor talking for 35 hours. And maybe in a good residential class the professor isn't talking for 35 hours either!

Garner: Then there’s a larger philosophical question—one of the things we're thinking about is if people take our MDiv online, there's a certain necessity for them to be under the mentorship and tutorship of a local church and pastor for the life-on-life training, the assessment of sermons. Is there a way that we can, for example, do some homiletics training on the ground with people. And there may be certain things we learn from online, about the successes of using that technology, that will actually make our residential program better. I think there's going to be mutual learning there.

One criticism of online education is that it can lack tactile and intangible learning opportunities—going out to a pub with a professor, relationships with other students, etc. How is Westminster’s Online MDiv addresses that?

Kim: I think that’s a fair critique of online education. For many people, online education means watching recorded lectures by yourself with very little support and minimal engagement with students and faculty. But that’s a far cry from what Westminster is doing. Our faculty do an amazing job substantively engaging and supporting students in their courses. I’d argue that the level of engagement and support is superior to what students experience in most residential programs. And students meet synchronously in small groups. We require face-to-face small groups because learning is richer in the context of relationships and community.


Duguid: We can idealize residential education and imagine it to be this idyllic setting. One of the reasons I know this is because my four-year MDiv here was divided into two. The first two years I was here, my wife was working full-time. I was not working. I was able to be a full-time student and take advantage of all of those opportunities. Then we had a child, and in order for my wife to stay home with our child, I worked full-time and I studied full-time, and I had no time to, you know, to go out the pub with a professor or to have lunch with anybody. I was just frantically trying to get through it. And I think for some students it is wonderful that they are able to spend time with professors and with each other and really get that great experience. Residential is absolutely the way to go. But there are a lot of students for whom their residential experience is different. They are juggling family, ministry, work, and they're not having those experiences. Some of those students would be better served with an online program.

       So then, to the question you actually asked, is, okay, how do we, how do we facilitate relationships in an online program? Well, relationships are multifaceted to begin with. We haven't disrupted students’ home relationships. So those relationships continue in away that isn't the case for the residential students. In some of our classes there'll be small groups where students will meet together in a chat room with other students working on assignments together. We have coffee houses where professors will be available for an hour and a half or whatever, in the course of a semester for students to drop in and ask questions.

       One thing I haven't talked about so far is the quality of our adjunct professors. That's a key part of the design. A lot of programs aren't willing to spend much money on adjuncts, and so your adjuncts are basically people who don't know much more than you. We've chosen to really raise the bar on our adjuncts—typically people who have PhDs or are getting PhDs or D.Min. degrees. They're involved in ministry. They're involved in churches.

What are your future hopes for Westminster’s MDiv program as it grows in the coming years? 

Lillback: Once once we made that decision[to pursue the Online MDiv, we also had the concern of how to renew our residential program. While we've said there will be no residential programs this year, next year we will be residential again, and also online. So I'm very honored that our board leader, Dr. Harry Reeder and the head of our Pastoral Theology program, Dr. John Currie, have teamed up to create a task force to develop the renewed residential MDiv program.

Duguid: I'd love to see the global reach of the program really develop and the potential that has for providing networking experiences among students. Obviously an online program can easily support hybrid elements. Either students coming to campus here in Philadelphia, or potentially us taking classes to different parts of the world. Whether that's the UK or Korea or Australia, so that we can offer those hybrid elements close to where students are. I’d love to see us be able to do that. And supporting students who are actively involved in ministry, who could never afford to come residentially to Westminster to receive the benefits of a Westminster education.

Garner: I would love to see our ministry expand into places like the Middle East. There are opportunities now with this [Online MDiv] that are historically unprecedented. We have some pathways to that end. Many, many, many Middle Eastern ministers have no theological training, but do speak English, and to be able to involve them into our program now. . . what a thrill to be able to reach the world in ways we wouldn't have been able to otherwise. I think of Latin America too, with its growing longing for rich Reformed, theological teaching. It's absolutely incredible what's happening in Central and South America in that regard.

Kim: I’m most excited that students across the globe, committed to staying in their local church and ministry contexts, are now able to access Westminster’s distinct curriculum. I think it will have an amazing Kingdom impact and be instrumental in bringing many people to Christ. So my earnest hope and prayer is that the Lord would use these programs to equip hundreds and thousands of saints for gospel ministry.

With the addition of the Master of Divinity, General Ministry track, Westminster now offers four degree options online: Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS), Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) offered in partnership with CCEF, Master of Arts in Religion (MAR), and the Master of Divinity (MDiv) General Ministry track. 

To learn more about Westminster’s online and residential offerings, visit, or email today.

Partner with Westminster Theological Seminary and our mission 


Get Westminster Magazine delivered to your inbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.