Fall 2006

Vol. 14, No. 4


Does Post-Soviet Theological Training Need to Be Revamped?

Donald Marsden

I have been involved in theological education in Russia for eight years. While I have taught several courses at Moscow Baptist Theological Seminary, the majority of my work and experiences have involved the development of non-residential theological training programs in European Russia and Siberia.

Cultural Differences

First, we need to keep in mind the relationship of culture and theological education. During one of my first visits to a Russian Baptist church in the early 1990s, I was surprised after the worship service to be greeted by men kissing me on the lips. This is a biblical practice based on the Apostle Paul’s writing in II Corinthians 12:13: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” I have noticed that since 1993 this tradition, which is not practiced in American churches, has become somewhat less conspicuous in Russia. At the same time, when I visit Russian Orthodox churches, both men and women greet me by kissing me three times on the cheeks.

To cite another example, on a recent visit to a church in the Tula Region, I arrived at the home of a good friend who pastors a small church. Upon my departure, which occurred on my birthday, my friend presented me with bouquet of flowers from his garden. In my Anglo-American culture it is not considered appropriate for men to give men flowers. But I was grateful because I know that in Russia it is perfectly appropriate. I am glad to be included in these traditions, not because I particularly enjoy them, but because they indicate that my Russian friends at some level have accepted me into their culture.

At the same time, certain cultural practices are changing. For example, when I first visited Russia in 1993, it was common practice for Evangelicals to both begin and end meals with prayer. Today, through the influence of Western visitors, it seems the tradition of praying after meals has disappeared in many places. (This practice, by the way, is not only Russian, for in the Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin writes that prayer should be offered before and after meals.)

Visiting a Baptist church in Siberia, I noted that most, if not all, the songs in the service were translations of praise choruses frequently used in American churches. I no longer hear many of the Russian hymns that express the deep suffering of the people of God during times of trouble and persecution, hymns that express a deep longing for God in the darkness of this world.

Cultural Assumptions in Theological Education

I make these comments in order to emphasize that cultures differ, and that cultures a powerful influence on the way in which the gospel is preached and expressed. Culture also influences the process by which church leaders are educated and trained. This is as it should be. But cultural assumptions that are built into the training process need to be examined closely. The form of training common in Russia and Ukraine today has in large part been borrowed from the West. This training involves a number of cultural assumptions that have been imported from abroad, some of which are not helpful. Cultural assumptions appropriate in one context may not be appropriate at all in another cultural setting.

Do Jobs Await Seminary Graduates?

One of the major assumptions made in theological schools in the West, is that jobs await graduates. However, this is rarely the case in Russia and Ukraine. Though it is rarely if ever discussed, this understanding does affect the training process. In fact, all post-Soviet republics suffer from a widespread and persistent problem of low salaries. Doctors, nurses, coal miners, teachers, traffic policemen, pastors, and missionaries all receive salaries that are inadequate. Many must find ways to supplement their income.

Parents of children who attend public school often gather a collection to supplement the teachers’ salaries because they are so meager. Traffic policemen also receive a salary too low to live on. They supplement their income with contributions made by motorists whom they stop with their batons. Motorists make these contributions, whether they have broken the law or not, because they fear the inconvenience and further problems of having their car registration documents confiscated. The daughter of our driver, who gave birth to a child two years ago, may serve as a final example. Even though the mother was in private hospital and was paying for services, the nurse would not take her to the observation window to see her child until she was paid


Do Pastors Receive a Living Wage?

And what of Russian pastors and missionaries? They must live under the same conditions as nurses, teachers, and traffic policemen, but they are expected to live without resorting to questionable or dishonest practices.

Very few churches provide financial support that makes it possible for pastors to devote themselves to fulltime church ministry. Income cases, pastors refuse to accept any financial support from their congregations because they believe church money should be given for the needs of the poor, or because they do not want to face the complications in relationships that come with financial dependence on a congregation.

This leaves pastors with the following options:

1) Find a second job, preferably with flexible hours, such as taxi driving observing as a courier in order to maintain some flexibility in ministry and family commitments;

2) Depend upon extended family for support. Some receive support from relatives and friends who have emigrated to America or Germany;

3) Maintain a garden and livestock with chickens, cows, and other animals to supplement a low salary;

4) Have one’s spouse take outside employment;

5) Seek financial support from Western church or mission organizations which may come directly from Western Christians who visit from abroad;

6) Simply trust God that at the necessary time the needed financial support will be there.

I have seen all these options practiced. I sometimes ask myself, why do churches fail to provide adequate support for their pastors? Is it because they cannot afford to pay a reasonable salary? Is it because they believe the pastor should be as poor as they are? It is difficult to know for sure, but I suspect it is because Russians harbor deeply held beliefs that rich people are sinful and that the ideal Christian is poor. In this sense, the ideal of poverty in Orthodox Christianity as exemplified by monks who are dedicated to prayer and fasting has been carried over and applied to pastors in evangelical churches.

Unstable or irregular financial support is a problem for pastors ministering in most Russian, Ukrainian, and Moldovan churches. The impact is wide ranging, but it is not discussed in theological schools. It is as if the schools are not concerned with such “minor “questions as how graduates will feed their children. Nevertheless, low pay is a major problem. As one theology teacher seeking work told me a number of years ago, “My children have a bad habit. They like to eat.”

Admissions Shortfall

Recently, some of the best-equipped theological schools in Russia, with excellent buildings, libraries, and teachers, have had difficulties finding students. It seems to me that one of the reasons is that graduates have discovered that they have few opportunities for ministry related to their training that will also provide a living for themselves and their families. Some have begun to raise the question, “Why should I invest three to five years in fulltime study so that I can remain poor?”

Are There Ways Around Western Aid?

Another widely held assumption is that theological education in the former Soviet Union cannot be conducted without a high percentage of financial support from the West. We need to examine this assumption. I do not doubt that at this time financial support is needed. But we must look at the form of theological education being provided and ask whether or not it is the optimal form for the post-Soviet context. We must also consider what forms of theological education might be possible if they were developed to fit the post-Soviet reality. To that end, the following questions should be addressed.

1) For those entering fulltime theological study for a period of one to five years, how will they support themselves after they complete their program of study?

2) Young people who leave small provincial towns to study in fulltime residential programs in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kyiv, Odessa, or other large urban centers will become accustomed to life in the big city.

Having entered into the intellectual and cultural stimulation of urban living, larger churches, and challenging classes, how often will graduates return to serve the people of God in out-of-the-way places?

3) What are the cultural assumptions included in American and West European theological literature translated into Russian? Do these cultural assumptions apply to the post-Soviet world? We need to bear in mind that the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation occurred in Western Europe in response to Roman Catholicism under circumstances far different from those in tsarist, Soviet, or post-Soviet contexts.

 The Evangelical movement in Russia arose in the nineteenth century in an environment deeply shaped by Byzantine Orthodox Christianity. This heritage profoundly affects, in both positive and negative ways, the worldview of Slavic peoples, including not only Orthodox believers, but nonbelievers and Evangelicals as well. If Slavic Evangelicals do not seriously study the history, traditions, practice, and culture of Orthodoxy, they will be doomed to a kind of intellectual vacuum in the midst of their own culture and history.

Evangelicals, so blinded, will not be able to seriously engage in evangelizing the intellectual, cultural, and political leaders in the Slavic world who consider themselves to be Orthodox. If Jesus died for all people, love for all should motivate our interest in learning about the beliefs and practices of the Orthodox as well and about folk beliefs passed down from Russia’s pagan past, so that we can lovingly preach the gospel to all.


Having raised difficult questions, a number of recommendations are in order.

1) Theological educators need to think seriously about the fact that only a small number of graduates will be able to support themselves in fulltime ministry according to the Western pattern. The great majority of graduates in ministry will obtain their daily bread by some means other than the support of their congregations. This fact needs to be taken into consideration in theological education.

2) Theological educators in large cities, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kyiv, and Odessa, need to consider how they can be part of the training process for those in isolated provincial and rural regions who desire further training. High quality theological education needs to be delivered far and wide where potential students are currently active in ministry.

3) To this end, theological educators should take into account:

• A challenging social context that may include collective farms, high levels of unemployment, and poverty.

• A challenging academic context in which students may not be able to read at the same level of difficulty as students in fulltime residential seminaries. Many provincial students may have problems with dyslexia without even knowing it. Many may feel ashamed of their weak academic abilities. In such cases students need to be helped and encouraged. Attention needs to be given to the development of study skills and habits that will allow them to become better students of the Word of God. They need to be given assignments that they are in fact capable of completing.

 To summarize, teaching methods need to be adapted to student abilities. Seminaries with the best qualified teachers and the best libraries should be concerned not only about students on their campuses, but also about those who desire training in remote places.

4) Ways need to be found to underwrite theological training in isolated areas through local resources. Keep in mind that during Soviet times Slavic Evangelicals developed methods for training pastors even though they had little in the way of formal theological education. It can be done, and we should give our attention to ways formal theological institutions can be partners in training pastors in the provinces. In order to extend effective training beyond the large cities, pastors in remote areas need to develop their teaching abilities as preachers and evangelists.

In summary, we must keep in mind that culture has an enormous impact on the training of pastors. Culture is not uniform from place to place, and it is always in flux. If these facts are ignored, the message of the gospel will not be relevant and it will not be embraced. Theological educators must strive to preserve what is valuable in Slavic culture that is consistent with the gospel and be ready to abandon whatever runs counter to the gospel.