How to Be Present Online amid COVID-19

In recent days, there’s been no shortage of announcements about plan changes and cancellations in the States due to increasing efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19.1 Education and biblical studies have been no exception.

The Society of Biblical Literature and Association of Theological Schools have both announced changes in plans or other advisories for upcoming meetings.

And a growing number of institutions have altered plans for spring classes. Many of these are at least temporarily moving online and away from the classroom.

Problems with Online Education?

Not least in theological education though, serious criticisms have sometimes been voiced about how appropriate online classes and programs are.

Do they adequately promote community? Do they adequately contribute to spiritual formation within that community?

Don’t they by definition run counter to what a formative community for theological education should really be?

Doesn’t the “online-ness” of online education necessarily involve the kind of absence that impoverishes theological education?

These questions bear serious and careful reflection, even and especially amid the need for appropriate and timely efforts to avoid fostering further spread of COVID-19.

Online and face-to-face education are obviously different. But the difference between the two isn’t a binary matter of presence or absence.

Instead, it’s a matter of different kinds of presence. And recognizing this fact paves the way for maintaining rich community—even when that community gathers online.

Thinking Differently about Presence

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas observes that “a thing is wherever it operates.”2

So, “incorporeal things are in place not by contact of dimensive quantity, as bodies are, but by contact of power.”3

That is, physical bodies occupy space and are said to be in a particular place because they occupy that place’s space.

But incorporeal entities (e.g., God, the soul) are said to be in a particular place not because they “take up space” but because they exert power within that space.4

As it happens, cognitive, emotional, and social presence are incorporeal realities as well.

They may, therefore, be genuinely present through “contact of power”—through using one’s ability to act. And that ability may play out physically or in some other way.

All of this means that robust, formative community doesn’t have to go out the window if and when you find yourself engaging with others more online in coming days.

How a community interacts online will obviously be different from how they will interaction if everyone is sitting around a table together.

But there are any number of intensely practical ways to foster community as something that genuinely is there online.

Resources for Thinking about Presence in Online Education

If you’d like additional resources to help you consider what this may mean in your context, drop your name and email in the form below. I’ll then send you a couple articles that you might find helpful.

One goes deeper analyzing presence as I’ve summarized above.5 The other discusses how you can foster formative community in online education.6

The coming weeks are sure to see further adjustments as institutions continue grappling with how they want to help restrict COVID-19.

If those shifts take you increasingly online, I hope you’ll find these thoughts helpful as you work to maintain meaningful and formative community amid those changes.


  1. Header image provided by Nathan Dumlao

  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 22 vols. (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1913), I.8.1. 

  3. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.2; see also Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.3. 

  4. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, A Summa of the Summa, ed. Peter Kreeft, trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 103n62. 

  5. J. David Stark, “Being Present at a Distance,” Didaktikos 1.2 (2018): 12–13. 

  6. J. David Stark, “Gaming the System: Online Spiritual Formation in Christian Higher Education,” TEd 52.2 (2019): 43–53. 

Online Spiritual Formation in Christian Higher Education

What is the nature of spiritual formation? How is it possible to work toward formation in online education? Or, is it?

Questions about Online Education

In recent years, questions like these have often been raised and discussed. Christian institutions of higher education have grappled with market forces. They’ve wrestled with an increasing presence of online initiatives.

In so doing, sometimes serious concerns have been raised. If online students are physically absent from their institutions, does not this absence negatively affect students’ spiritual formation?

Moving toward an Answer

The answer I’d like to give is, in short: “No, online education isn’t necessarily any more problematic than physically face-to-face education when it comes to fostering students’ spiritual formation.”

Each mode—whether online or face-to-face—includes challenges. Sometimes the challenges are common to both sides. Sometimes they’re unique to one or the other. But in neither case do the challenges necessarily make either mode inappropriate for institutions concerned with students’ spiritual formation.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but for about the past decade, I’ve primarily worked in online education in one way or another. This began from force of necessity—employment is a very good thing, especially when you have a family in the mix.

Over that time, as both an online professor and an online administrator, I’ve made (and still make) plenty of mistakes. I’ve seen spiritual formation both grow out of this online context and fail to do so. Yet for all intents and purposes, this has looked to me an awfully lot like what we might experience also if we’re working at formation physically face-to-face.

“Play” as an Approach to Spiritual Formation

But why and how does this happen? And how can Christian educators can move toward doing better at online spiritual formation?

As an attempt at answering these questions, I’m grateful to Theological Education for carrying my essay “Gaming the System: Online Spiritual Formation in Christian Higher Education” (52.2 [2019]: 43–53).

If you’d like a copy of this essay, just drop your name and email into the form below, and I’ll send it along. With it, I’ll also include another related article that expands on a point about presence I was only just able to mention in “Gaming the System.”

My main argument in “Gaming the System” is that the to-and-fro movement of “play” lies at the heart of what enables spiritual formation. And that’s true whether this formation happens online or onground.

If you’re in Christian higher education in whatever capacity (e.g., students, faculty, administration), I hope you find the essay helpful in framing how we might approach spiritual formation online. And as always, I welcome your comments and further discussion below.

For faculty, staff, and administrators, what have you found to be effective “moves” for you to make to encourage online students’ spiritual formation?

For students, what “moves” have your faculty, staff, or administration made that you felt particularly encouraged your spiritual formation?

Header image provided by Ben White

Presence at a Distance at theLAB

The Logos Academic Blog has reposted there my essay from January’s issue of Didaktikos on presence in online education. Received wisdom says that presence is harder to achieve online. Physically, this is hardly disputable … but there also seems to be quite a bit more to the question than is often brought out.

For the full essay, see theLAB’s post. See also Didaktikos 1Presence in Online Education.

Presence in Online Education

Didaktikos has kindly published a short essay of mine about presence in online higher education.

I’m grateful to the folks at Faithlife for their permission to distribute the essay here, the essence of which is that presence is completely possible online—it’s just different than it is on campus.

If you’d like to read this short essay, just drop your name and email in the form below, and I’ll be happy to send it along. With this essay, I’ll also include a longer article of mine that discusses presence in online education a bit more fully than I was able to do in my Didaktikos essay.

For additional information about Didaktikos, see the journal’s website and this prior post.

Didaktikos 1

https://didaktikosjournal.com/Faithlife has launched a new journal specifically for faculty, Didaktikos, which focuses on issues related to theological education. The primary editor is Douglas Estes, and the editorial board includes Karen Jobes, Randolph Richards, Beth Stovell, and Douglas Sweeney. The inaugural issue includes authors and topics of broad interest:

• Mark Noll talks about teaching with expertise and empathy.
• Craig Evans, Jennifer Powell McNutt, and Fred Sanders write about recent trends in biblical archaeology, church history, and theology (respectively).
• Grant Osborne shares wisdom from his 40-year teaching career.
• Craig Keener writes about writing.
• Jan Verbruggen covers some fascinating research into the earliest alphabet (and it’s not Phoenician).
• Joanne Jung has written a helpful article on how to write effective prompts for online discussions.
• Darrell Bock discusses an overlooked area of NT studies.
• Stephen Witmer, an adjunct at Gordon-Conwell, shares solid insights about the synergy between teaching and pastoring.

Interested faculty can find more information and subscribe on the Didaktikos website or the journal’s announcement on the Logos Academic Blog.

ATS webinars for new faculty

The Association of Theological Schools has several helpful webinars archived for new faculty. Topics include:

  • Self-promotion and humility
  • Online teaching
  • Introduction to publishing
  • Publishing your dissertation
  • Promotion and tenure
  • Establishing a research agenda

For more information on each of the webinars or to view the recordings, please see the ATS website.