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Gonzaga begins online theology and leadership program

By Mary Stamp

Gonzaga University’s new Master of Arts in Theology and Leadership (MATL) is a graduate program designed to use innovative online technologies to teach, engage and connectstudents.

Joe Mudd, GU Religious Studies facultyAnastasia Wendlinder
Joe Mudd and Anastasia Wendlinder, GU Religious Studies faculty

Joe Mudd and Anastasia Wendlinder, faculty in Gonzaga University’s Religious Studies program, are co-directors of the new online Master of Arts in Theology and Leadership program.

The MATL program begins in the summer of 2015 and is now accepting applications through the virtual campus.  The classes will be online.  It will take two and a half years to complete.

Since coming to Gonzaga’s Religious Studies department in 2007, Anastasia has taught undergraduate  courses in Catholicism, Christian doctrine, Vatican II and Christian diversity, along with graduate courses in christology and ecclesiology.

When she came, Gonzaga had a traditional master of arts in religious studies program with evening courses.

When Sr. Joy Milos stepped down as graduate director in 2010, Anastasia stepped in, sharing the role with Cate Siejck. 

Between the economic crash in 2008 and 2011, the number of graduate theological students declined nationally, as well as at Gonzaga.  When Cate stepped down as co-director, Joe stepped in.  He and Anastasia began developing the MATL program.  The former master’s in religious studies program has been phased out.

Given the needs for church leadership, Gonzaga recognized that distance learning might fill people’s schedules.

The church and nonprofits need theologically grounded leaders, Joe said.  Leadership programs were emerging.

“We wanted a Jesuit program that would speak to the whole person and be pastoral in focus but in a broader sense than pastoral care,” he said. “Theology should be practical, because not everyone will go into ecclesial ministries or pastoral counseling.”

At one time, Gonzaga’s Religious Studies Department offered four graduate degrees, including an accredited master of divinity program, which ran until Leonard Doohan retired as dean of the graduate school and chair of the department in 2001.  The graduate school then dissolved. 

With the economic downturn, there was less support for a graduate program.  Gonzaga offered only a master’s in religious studies, but few went on to doctoral studies required for teaching.  Some went into chaplaincies, and others into ordained ministries in different denominations.

“We want to serve people who would take spirituality and theology into different fields in the world and church,” said Anastasia.

So they decided to partner with the Organizational Leadership program, which offers master’s and doctoral degrees, and use the model in theological studies. 

Anastasia and Joe are collaborating with Organizational Leadership, drawing on the expertise of faculty and considering how the approach applies to theology and its practical use.

The opening session of the MATL program will be a three-day orientation and retreat in Christian leadership in August 2015 at Gonzaga, so participating students gain a sense of place and meet each other face-to-face.

It’s a cohort style program, not a self-guided online program, so students will be each other’s companions through the program.  Cohorts will include the same 20 to 24 students working together through the program, taking classes together and learning from each other as a community.

None of the classes will be physically at Gonzaga.  Courses will run eight weeks online, with discussions by Skype and blogging.

“Being online adds flexibility so we can reach more people who cannot come to Spokane,” Joe said.  “We will create community online, and students come here for intensive, bonding experiences.”

“There are now online tools for building community,” said Anastasia, “such as virtual lounge spaces for conversations related or not related to classes, and virtual prayer spaces.  There are many ways to interact online.”

The second summer, there will be a week of immersion-style workshops focusing on ministry or mission-related work, such as in chaplaincy, teaching, nonprofits and other vocations. 

Speakers will include people with practical experiences, such as mission leaders in health care, exploring how to bring complex theological ideas into the lives of people who are not in ordained ministries.

For example, they will help a doctor work in a way that reflects the mission of a hospital, especially one such as Sacred Heart and other Providence health care religious institutions now that the Sisters of Providence have turned operations over to lay leaders.

“If an organization’s mission is to survive, its theological basis needs to be translated into the context of the work.  For example, a Jewish cardiologist can participate in the mission of a Catholic hospital,” Joe said.  “Or someone teaching in a Catholic school system may help faculty and staff think of the mission in a way that goes beyond theological formulaic responses.”

“We also want to form people to go into ministry and be leaders in their church communities in any denomination,” Anastasia said.

“We will bring leaders to help students think about what skills they need to be effective in the church context,” Joe said.

The goal is to broaden the conversation on ministry beyond the walls of churches—where most people live their lives, he said.

“We will form leaders but not just for life within the church,” Joe said.

“We need good leaders both inside and outside the church,” Anastasia said.

Most programs on leadership are not theological and many theological programs do not provide skills in leadership.

“Because GU is a highly regarded educational institution, it will put into the program the best technology and teaching for online learning,” she said.

Each year the MATL program will add a new cohort group.  There will be two eight-week courses each semester.  Students will focus on one class.  The program has a strong core theological curriculum with built-in flexibility to develop student interest and vocational skills.

Two classes will be geared to individual interests: one in contemporary issues and one in faith and dialogue.  Students will customize their programs based on their interests with classmates to maintain a strong community and maintain individual interests and vocational emphases.

Anastasia said they will seek diversity in ages, culture and religion. It’s an academic program, requiring academic credentials, but will include people in the prime of their careers, starting out, changing careers or retired.

The Virtual Campus has a course designer and producer to present the class with the best online technology, she said.

Some people may initially be scared of taking online courses, but they are developed by the Virtual Campus to be user friendly, with training and continual support offered by staff, she said.

The introduction to Christian Leadership, the first required course in the first summer, includes foundational skills for graduate-level research, writing and basic concepts, principles and methods in theology and leadership studies.

Joe and Anastasia will continue to direct the program and will teach systematic theology.

Gonzaga’s other Religious Studies Department faculty will share their areas of expertise as it fits the courses.

For information, visit online.gonzaga.edu/masters-theology-leadership




Copyright © January 2015- The Fig Tree