Rick Walston on Distance Learning & Seminary Education
Date: February 4th, 2013

How does someone who grew up in a religiously apathetic household and who was not interested in school become the president of a theological seminary?  And how does that same person challenge the typical norms of academia by promoting theological education via distance learning and online education?  We talk with Dr. Rick Walston, founder and president of Columbia Evangelical Seminary, as he discusses his history and the challenges associated with creating a seminary where students are not physically present on campus.  Rick starts by revealing his own upbringing, which suprisingly was not within a religious household.  Nor was he particularly interested in schooling.  He then discusses a “cataclysmic encounter” with Christianity that he had in his early adulthood that eventuallly set him down a path to earn two doctorates and several master’s degrees, as well as his experience in the pastorate.  We then turn to the issue of creating a seminary.  Rick reveals how the idea of Columbia Evangelical Seminary came about, talking about his experience working at a registrar’s office at a small college and how he encountered John Bear, an expert on distance learning and someone who was critical in busting “diploma mills.”  After writing a book with Mr. Bear, and investigating the problems with correspondence schools in the 1980s, the idea of setting up a distance learning seminary began to take shape.  Although Rick had felt called by God to start an educational institution for several years, he details the “eureka” moment of CES while on a vacation in Moss Beach, CA.  Our conversation then focuses on the process of establishing this new distance learning institution, including how to answer the question “Will any students show up?”  Through this discussion, we find out about the student body and faculty of CES, how the curriculum is determined, and then raise the important issue of accreditation.  CES is not accredited and Rick explains why noting how the personalized and flexible nature of CES’s model makes accreditation difficult.  The benefits and difficulties of online education are also discussed.  Not everyone, it turns out, is an ideal candidate for a distance learning program since it requires a great amount of self-discipline on the part of the student, which is why most students at CES are older and are often involved in ministry already.  Our interview closes with Rick’s thoughts on the usefulness of a theological education after Tony ruminates about whether or not seminaries over-intellectualize theology and creates a rift between the clergy and the common person in the pews.  Recorded: January 28, 2013.




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