Candler’s mission is to educate faithful and creative leaders for the church’s ministries throughout the world. Now, through the school’s new Remote Teaching Parish (RTP) program, faithful and creative leaders throughout the country are training for their ministries—while staying in them.
Remote Teaching Parish is an innovative expansion of Candler’s Teaching Parish program, which allows Master of Divinity students to fulfill their Contextual Education requirement and gain ministerial experience by serving as pastors-in-charge in local churches or as assistant pastors in larger churches.
The original Teaching Parish program had been in place for many years by fall 2020—with student pastors primarily based in the Southeast, within an easy drive of Candler—when Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Samuel J. Martinez got a call after hours from a prospective student in Kansas.
Her father had attended Candler, and she worked for a United Methodist church in Wichita. With three children and a spouse whose business was based in their community, could Candler accommodate her with virtual learning?
“How do we make this happen?” Martinez recalls asking himself. “Students want to come, but for a variety of reasons—personal and familial and work-related—they can’t get here on a full-time basis.”
Innovating to meet student needs
Enter RTP, which expands the Teaching Parish program to include those who live well beyond campus. Through the combination of RTP and online courses, those who serve in ecclesial settings outside the Southeast can pursue their MDiv remotely while continuing to serve their local congregation. Now the caller who sparked the initial idea— Heidi K. Greenwood Doell—is a first-year MDiv/RTP student taking part from 920 miles northwest of campus.
“Candler has always been my dream school and part of that is because of the experience my dad enjoyed,” says Doell, who was born the year Larry Greenwood 71T, an elder in the Great Plains Conference of The United Methodist Church, graduated. “But I wasn’t going to leave my family.”
Candler’s inaugural Remote Teaching Parish cohort launched in Fall 2021, made up of 11 students whose locations stretch from Wichita to Orlando and whose denominations include United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Baptist, and non-denominational. Student pastors work a minimum of 10 hours per week at their ecclesial site and manage the ins and outs of parish ministry, while also taking their MDiv core courses online.
In addition, they meet weekly as a cohort over Zoom to practice their sermons, explore theology and spiritual disciplines, and share their struggles and breakthroughs as they merge their seminary studies with their daily ministry. The reflection group is led by Jordan Thrasher 08T 17T, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Embry Hills UMC, so they benefit from the guidance of an experienced pastor.
Thrasher says the experience so far has been rewarding and illuminating. “It’s helpful to bring our struggles and successes to the group, because chances are that someone else has been through it before. The collaboration across the country and across denominations has enriched all of us, and the remote cohort has allowed for that to happen.”
For most of these students, seminary would not be possible any other way, especially during the pandemic.
Kris Wise logs in from Orlando, pursuing his MDiv with the goal of becoming a United Methodist deacon. Serving at The Neighborhood Co-Op, a ministry of First UMC of Sanford, Florida, Wise explains that the pandemic is teaching him that the Holy Spirit can move in ways beyond what the church has traditionally offered. And the husband of a minister and father of a kindergartner says he enjoys being part of a pioneering effort that stretches the meaning of diversity at Candler.
“Remote options make Candler accessible to people who wouldn’t normally even be able to look at it,” Wise says. “For many of us, this is the only way we could attend seminary, so the level of commitment is inspiring. We also choose to connect from the communities we have been serving. There’s just a different energy when my classmates bring both their incredible desire to learn and their personal experience in their unique community.”
For Myra Flemister of Haymarket, Virginia, decades of considering seminary led to a now-or-never moment during the pandemic. Remote Teaching Parish reconnected her to Emory, where she attended precollege classes in the 1970s.
As minister of sacrament and reconciliation at Wellspring United Church of Christ, Flemister has two degrees from online universities and wanted seminary to offer synchronous learning and community building. She and others have found that the beauty of RTP stems from being able to stay rooted in their local communities and ministries, while also connecting with others on the same seminary journey. As Flemister puts it, “Jesus and the disciples had jobs too.”
For Doell, the program has deepened her view of her ministry as director of youth and young adult discipleship at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita. To bring her best self to those she serves, she used to ask herself whether her inner pond was filling or draining.
“This last semester, I realized I am not a pond,” says Doell. “I am a deep, clear reservoir.”
“I experience the feeling of people being very invested in my success more at Candler than anywhere besides my family,” she adds. In her Old Testament course, “we learned about God’s steadfast love for a people without a place, and being at Candler even at a great distance offers the instruction, care, and community that is like God’s love.”
An expansive outcome
A second Remote Teaching Parish cohort will begin in Fall 2022. Teaching Parish Program Director Thomas W. Elliott, Jr. says the development of this new version of Teaching Parish has been a bright spot as the Candler community, the church, and the world have adapted to learn and serve during COVID-19.
“Because the model and idea for this was inspired in the midst of the pandemic, Remote Teaching Parish is a positive takeaway from a really hard time in the world,” he says. “We are leaning into something new, and this group of students is developing their own sense of connectivity to Candler and each other.”
Doell agrees. “This whole Zoom room thing is pretty great,” she says. “We come from such diverse ecumenical traditions, and we’re so scattered around the country. We are just beginning to weave our lives together.”
Candler is recruiting students for the Remote Teaching Parish cohort that begins fall 2022. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Top photo: Candler’s Remote Teaching Parish cohort connects regularly via Zoom from all around the country: Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Atlanta, Georgia; Broxton, Georgia; Wichita, Kansas; Bluemont, Virginia; Haymarket, Virginia; Columbus, Wisconsin; Orlando, Florida; Detroit, Michigan; Seiverville, Tennessee; and Muncie, Indiana.