Southern Seminary online students are embracing virtual community


Seminary training has always been more than taking classes. Formation for ministry has always been as important as the content of the curriculum.

But the global pandemic in 2020 forged a new era in virtual education. Could the intangible qualities of seminary translate into an increasingly digital education space?

Joe Harrod, associate professor of Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary leads a virtual shepherding group at the school. Shepherding groups originated to connect students to one another and the faculty outside of the classroom. Since 2020, some shepherding groups have started meeting virtually, which has proved helpful for online students to experience outside-of-classroom conversations and mentoring that naturally occur on campus.

One distance student experiencing the benefit of virtual Shepherding Groups is Jay, a member of Harrod’s group training for pastoral ministry. Jay lives in Florida and served in the United States military before beginning his M.Div.

“As an online student, this shepherding group makes the experience more personal and helps me feel more at home,” Jay said. “Being an online student can really make you feel distant and disconnected, but our Shepherding Group makes me feel like I’m part of Southern Seminary, not just an observer taking classes online and alone. It gives me the opportunity to fellowship with my brothers as we go through our seminary journeys together.”

The meetings open with pleasantries as the students log in from Florida, California, Nairobi, Kenya, and an undisclosed location in North Africa. Harrod and the students are familiar with each other at this point. They ask about family members by name and check in on each other’s coursework. Like all seminary friend groups, they discuss the challenge of balancing home, church, and seminary life. They laugh about inside jokes. They share in their suffering while learning Greek participles. They comment on the objects and toddlers running around in the background of their webcams. But most of all, they really are a community.

“I think it’s incredible that we can come together from different places, cultures, and ministry contexts, but we all share in a love for Christ and a hunger to teach his message to the world,” Jay said. “Our virtual and diverse community is truly a testament to how universally powerful the gospel is.”

It’s obvious that none of the students take these relationships for granted. The Shepherding Group has helped these students establish a network of friends who can encourage them, pray for them, and check in on them throughout their studies. Classmates might change from course to course, but the Shepherding Group stays consistent.

In Shepherding Groups, there’s no scripted curriculum to follow. Instead, time is spent praying, getting to know one another, and answering questions about topics that don’t often fit in the classroom time frame.

On this occasion, Harrod spoke about the God-glorifying gift of memory, but they have previously conversed about topics like the role of parachurch ministries, discerning the call of doctoral studies, and how to encourage young men to pursue believers’ baptism in a culture that is hostile toward conversion.

The faces in boxes on the screen looked down at their open Bibles. They listened, learned, and then applied. This mentor relationship fills a gap so prevalent in ministry circles—the shepherds need shepherds.

“I’ve come to learn that discipleship is so critical to a faithful Christian life,” Jay said. “My life has put me in a position of mentorship out of necessity. I’ve been a mentor to many because my life has been riddled with challenges and struggles that have given me valuable experience and insight to help others. I realized, however, that I never had a mentor. The Shepherding Group is like a “shepherd school” of sorts where aspiring shepherds learn from a more experienced shepherd.”

Harrod understands the purpose of the group the same way and is committed to offering distance students the same level of intentionality and mentorship he does on campus.

“I would have jumped at the opportunity to spend deliberate and uninterrupted time with my professors outside of the classroom,” Harrod said. “Shepherding groups help form a more personal connection than is possible in the classroom. In class, there’s time to pray and perhaps talk briefly about a message we have heard in Chapel, but there’s a lot of material to cover. The more personal interactions typically happen before and after a class, in brief conversations in the hallway or around the lectern.”

Harrod’s group is one of many that meet regularly during the semester, and each reveals the unity and diversity of Southern Seminary’s community. Southern Online is still Southern Seminary. The professors, content, and, most notably, the students are still the same. The context and cultures look different, but the same drive to fulfill the Great Commission saturates the student body for the life of the church.

“It has been a humbling experience to see the sacrifices these students are making to study at Southern Seminary,” Harrod said. Each member of my group has a unique calling, gifting, and story. Our Shepherding Group conversations have helped me better understand the strengths and challenges of the church in different parts of my own country and around the globe. Speaking with a member serving in the United States military, a missionary, an associate pastor, and a brother who has been a believer for only a few years helped me realize how diverse our students really are.”

Diverse in calling and time zones, but united in fellowship.

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” – Psalm 133:1