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Teaching theology... for profit?

Monks sitting at desks during a theology lesson, circa 1955.

For-profit colleges are not exactly known for leafy campuses or lofty philosophical discussions. Most of their marketing focuses on getting a practical degree — like business or medical assisting — in hopes of getting a better job.

But one for-profit university based in Savannah, Georgia, is venturing into new territory: offering theology degrees to aspiring clergy members.

At South University in Savannah, a handful of students are starting classes toward a new Doctor of Ministry degree. Among this pilot class of four students is Gregory Kinsey, of Green Pond, South Carolina.  Kinsey says he’s been a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church for 15 years — but that's not his only job.

"I’m bivocational," Kinsey says. "I do work in a school system as an administrator, and I just wanted to enhance my ministry."

Kinsey says he likes the fact that this theology program draws students from a variety of denominations.

Robb Redman is dean of the College of Theology at South University. He says this for-profit college can also operate more efficiently, with fewer faculty and more practical classes like counseling, rather than biblical Greek. Redman says most seminaries depend on the whims of donors.

"There’s something kind of ... broken in theological education," he says, "so it seems like now is a good time to try out a different model. And I think the for-profit model points the way forward."

At close to $50,000, the Doctor of Ministry degree at South University costs about the same as many better-known, non-profit seminaries. And it's not clear whether the for-profit model will take off.

"I don’t think there’s enough money in theological education for a whole lot of providers to be able to do it and make money at it," says Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada.

Aleshire is also skeptical about whether a largely online school can give pastors-in-training enough personal attention. But Aleshire acknowledges many seminaries are struggling with funding as church attendance declines - and that may create an opening for new models.

"There may be some niche programs and markets that might be able to work that out, as long as there aren’t too many competitors," he says.

South University is taking its theology program into several new markets. It launches online next month, and at campuses in five more cities in October.

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