Creating community

Michael Junkroski was a church musician and a full-time business owner/operator in Florida when voices within–and without–began urging him to consider going to seminary.

“People in the congregation and my pastor approached me and said, ‘You’d make a good minister.’  The idea of going to a school where I could learn more about that and become someone who could minister to the ills of the world was extremely appealing,” Junkroski said. “But I have a business with my brother that we’ve had for 15 years, I was already implanted in my town, and leaving to go to seminary was impossible.”

Because there was no seminary close to his Florida home, he wasn’t sure when or how he would take that step.

Learning of the new program at Lexington Theological Seminary, with 2/3 of classes online, “was obviously a Godsend,” Junkroski said.

But the next part of the journey was a surprise. Junkroski expected to be largely on his own with 2/3 of the classes online. However, he quickly found that LTS students have a tight-knit community.

“My attachment to the people here has been pretty surprising,” he said. “We’re a very close group of people, really. We communicate with each other all the time, … through email and text chats and calls. We’re in touch with each other and supporting each other.”

That support is an important part of spiritual formation at LTS, he noted.  “Seminary pushes your buttons, and it needs to push your buttons, sometimes in profound ways,” Junkroski said. “Not only are we in the student body there for each other, but I found the faculty to be extremely accessible.” He noted that faculty often will have face-to-face chats via MegaMeeting, which “is a big, big help. It’s a very supportive environment. The biggest reason for the success of this program is the faculty. If we were left just doing the assignments online, it would be very cold and impersonal, but I feel I’m really involved in a community of caring people who  have my best interests in mind.”
IT Director Ben Wyatt says that the technology used by LTS (Edvance 360, Megameeting, PowerPoint and others) are used to enhance, not replace, interpersonal relationships. For example, online discussion boards within the LTS Online system give students a place to post prayer requests. Students also communicate offline.

“Technology is the medium we use at LTS to bring students together,” Wyatt said.
“At the same time, students are learning the concepts associated with ministry as well as these technological tools which, once they graduate, they could definitely integrate within their own church if they wish.”

M.Div. student Vernie Bolden of Virginia said he was “somewhat apprehensive” about the technological aspect of the new Seminary model when he enrolled last year. His father is a D.Min. alumnus of LTS, but “things have changed a lot,” since his father, Vernie Bolden Sr., graduated in 1975, said Bolden. He had sensed a call to ministry for several years but was working full time as a manager at a hotel in Roanoke and had family who needed him, as well as being involved in ministry at Loudon Ave. Christian Church. “There was no Seminary close by, so when I heard about the program at LTS and it was affiliated with the Disciples of Christ…it seemed the opportunity to pursue my call, and it has worked out very well.”

As with others beginning the new program, “I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I might be on my own,” he said. Instead, he found the technology easy to navigate and the gateway to a community of students and faculty.

“We support one another. We care for each other,” Bolden said. “I’m finding my faith is being burnished, in essenence. I’m learning about my strengths and areas where I need to grow. … I take it back (to my church), even if it’s just because I’m not the same person,” he said.

Clifford “Rip” Rippetoe is associate minister at First Christian Church of Las Vegas, co-owns a consulting company which oversees accessibility issues for the Miracle League, a baseball league for physically challenged children. He also works full time for a trade show company based in Las Vegas. He wanted to pursue an M.Div. but couldn’t leave his job, his church, and most importantly, his family. LTS offered the flexibility he needed.

However, Rippetoe worried that there would be no sense of community because of the online format and limited time together on campus; students attend on-site intensives in January and June. Those fears were quickly set aside as he bonded with his fellow students, faculty and staff.
“We didn’t form a community when we came together on campus. We were already a community. We are a community because we have a sense of being so grateful that we can be here to begin with,” Rippetoe said. “We come together with a sense of community and know enough about each other to have that mutal respect. This program is designed for people like us.”

It brings “more people to a Seminary experience so that we can lead more people to God and serve humanity,” Rippetoe said. Seminary leadership “stepped outside the comfort zone, changed the shape of their box, and created something that works…for the universal Church.”