No Mountain High Enough: Pursuing Theological Education in Unlikely Circumstances
May 8, 2020
They Make the Valley of Tears a Place of Springs
April 15, 2020

Distance Learning at a Time of Social Distancing

Halls have never been emptier. Streets have never been quieter. Who imagined that we would one day behold such a global sight? This sudden stillness is unsettling to many, and uncertainty seems to hover everywhere. Yet, this is not the time to shrink back in fear wishing for the trial to go away, but, in the words of Tolkien, we have to decide “what to do with the time that is given us”. Now, more than ever, we are called to live in such a way that others see our works and glorify our Father in heaven.

For decades, God has been using us to train Arab Church leaders for effective service. Never once had He left us to do the work alone, for the work was never ours to start. Time and again, He proved that He provides the resources to carry out the work to which He has called us – enough for every day’s work – as we learn to trust in Him. As we do our part, we regularly hear reports of our graduates’ ministries across the region and praise the God we serve. However, this is a first for us – that the lively noise in our halls and classes is suddenly hushed. It certainly is not a surprise to Him.

Our residential students come from various Arab countries. They share a busy life together on campus as part of the larger ABTS community. Their presence here allows for a concentrated formational experience as they become family to us, and we become family to them; and then, we part at graduation. Many Arab ministry workers, however, do not have the freedom of putting the ministry on hold to receive training in Lebanon. Therefore, to increase our impact and reach potential leaders who are unable to study in the residential program, we launched the Certificate in Ministry online program in 2015, which is comparable to our one-year Certificate in Theology program and which was recently accredited by the European Council for Theological Education (ECTE). We have 95 registered online students for this term.

We are thankful for the possibility of online theological education, especially now, as we go through a period of physical distancing. We are thankful that God is walking us through as we are working towards a full distance learning online program, which allows online students to go for a two-year or a three-year degree. Because of this, we are now able to move our residential students’ education online for the balance of this academic year. In turn, this will accelerate the launch of a complete Bachelor of Theology through the distance-learning program.

“COVID-19 has accelerated the process, not more,” Walid Zailaa, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Leader of Academic Programs and Head Librarian, shares,
Because we believe in the local church, ABTS has been training faithful men and women in theological education for effective service in the Arab world. Our next move is to launch the full Bachelor of Theology distance-leaning online program by 2021. The current crisis has forced us in that direction earlier than expected. Faculty will be teaching our residential students online using the platform we have been developing. It is, indeed, a great privilege to work with ABTS faculty who are one step ahead of the crisis.
On April 8, our residential students officially resumed their academic year online. They are currently taking courses and non-formal components including theological reflections over a period of 12 weeks. At the same time, prior to the start of every week, each faculty member reviews the online unit he/she is teaching. This becomes part of a review plan for the online program, which is a tremendously significant step, as we plan to launch the whole Bachelor of Theology program online.

This transition certainly hasn’t been easy for our students, but they are grateful to resume their training in such circumstances. Those who could not return home remain confined to their dorm rooms after having gotten used to the busy community life on campus and in their individual ministries. The abrupt shift hasn’t been easy for those who made it home as well. They have had to resettle once more and to alter their lifestyles. In all this, they have been hopeful, looking unto God who is in control.

A third-year student from Egypt shares that his trip back home was smooth. He is in quarantine with his family as he resumes his online ministry.
I am ready and excited to resume my studies online and to take my remaining credits. We have already learned the basics of online learning, and our module courses have begun. This is my final year. Of course, I would have preferred closure rather than an abrupt goodbye to the people on campus, but truly, the seminary made the right decision in sending us back home. I am currently confined to my house; the upside is I have more time to study.
A second-year student from Morocco is currently on campus with his wife because airports shut down before they could fly home. He says,
Online education is perfect for such times. The courses allow for discussion and interaction, which in turn, allows us to benefit from one another’s experiences. Things are not exactly easy for us as we face lockdown away from our loved ones. At the same time, God is broadening our perspective as we try to serve Him online.
We praise God for allowing our residential students to meet again as a community through the online platforms. We pray that both, our students and our faculty members, cope well with this migration! We know God has already been preparing us for today, and He will certainly teach us to do things differently as we continue to partake in His mission. The work is plentiful in the region, even more so now. As the world comes out of this pandemic, it will be facing challenges of a new order. This makes the role of our churches, and consequently the leaders we are training, even more crucial.