Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

The East West Church &  Ministry Report has issued a special theme edition examining the impact of the current Ukrainian crisis on the church and ministries in Ukraine and Russia.

This theme issue is now available in pdf format in English,  Russian, and Ukrainian.

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Doctoral Studies for East European Evangelicals

One of the exciting developments in the post-Soviet Evangelical movement is the growing recognition of the need for well-educated teacher-scholars who can serve as resource for the Protestant churches of the region. The advantages of developing such teacher-scholars are many. They are not affected by changes in visa requirements that so hamper Western missionaries in some countries. They are better able than Western missionaries to adapt their learning to their own cultural and religious context. They are less likely to be perceived as importing a “foreign” Christianity. And their presence enables the region’s fledgling theological schools to teach in local languages, rather than through translators.

Because of these obvious advantages, and in light of the increasing number of East European students who desire doctoral degrees, the question naturally arises: How and where should a doctoral degree be pursued? This article will first describe ingredients of an “ideal” doctoral program for East Europeans, followed by an evaluation of some of the existing options in light of recommended key ingredients.

An Ideal Doctoral Program

One obvious ingredient of an ideal program would be the presence of committed Christians, preferably Evangelicals, on theological faculty. Unlike most master’s degrees, doctoral degrees focus primarily on independent research, and the value of the program depends heavily on the relationship between students and supervisors. This relationship is so important that many doctoral students change supervisors during the course of their study. Unfortunately, students who do not have, or cannot find, supervisors with whom they can relate well often flounder for years without finishing their degrees. The more Evangelicals on given faculty, the more likely East European Evangelical students will be able to find compatible supervisors. Or if the faculty does not include Evangelicals, it should at least include professors who are sympathetic toward Evangelicals.

A second ingredient of an ideal program would be its ability to allow students to studying their own country, or at least in a country where the same language is spoken. Obviously, the less students are uprooted(culturally, linguistically, and geographically)for a doctoral program, the better. Some of the reasons for this are well known. Students who Donald Fairbairn travel far to study face difficult cultural adjustments. And, these adjustments are often more difficult for their families (who are usually less accomplished in English and less familiar with Western culture), than for the students themselves. Sadly, many students who travel faro study never return home. And if they do return, they often do not succeed in re-adapting to their native culture. Other reasons are more subtle, but still important. Successful completion of a doctoral program should give students a life-long thirst for study, research, and learning. But if the way they have learned to do research requires vast resources in, say, English and German, then new graduates beginning their careers teaching in small, perhaps isolated theological schools in Eastern Europe, are likely to be very frustrated with limited libraries. In contrast, if students are accustomed to research with more modest resources, or with more locally available resources, then their chances of success at continued scholarship are much higher.

A third ingredient of an ideal program would be the provision of an environment conducive to fulltime study and research. The process of research, reflection, and writing/teaching is an ongoing one. Budding scholars need to cultivate a lifestyle of the mind if they are to become intellectual resources for the church. Such a lifestyle is very difficult cultivate if study is confined to a few brief, exhausting periods a year, with little time to carry out research or reflect on its implication the rest of the year. It is much better for students to have an ongoing program of research and reflection that forms a part of their overall responsibilities and daily life.

The Ideal and the Reality

In contrast to these ideal ingredients, the most common realistic options for East European students fall basically into three categories.

Study Fulltime at an Orthodox or Roman Catholic Institution in One’s Home Country or Region

This option clearly satisfies the second and third ingredients described above. It reduces cultural and geographic uprooting to minimum. (Still, one should never forget, for example, that Moscow and St. Petersburg are very different worlds from the Russian Far East.)Also, this option usually does not involve linguistic difficulties. And it enables students to hone their research skills using local resources.

Perhaps more important, the types of resources available encourage students to focus their research on topics closely related to their cultural context.

Conversely, this option often creates great problems with respect to the first ingredient. It is quite possible that in a Roman Catholic or Orthodox institution in Eastern Europe the animosity toward Evangelicals might be even higher than it would be at a secular, state-run institution. Finding an appropriate supervisor could be a huge problem, and even surviving in a hostile environment could be difficult. At the same time, it should be mentioned that this problem depends largely on the institution and the student. For example, institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate, are likely to be vastly more hospitable toward Evangelicals than institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate. Also, students who are willing to work respectfully with Catholic or Orthodox scholars will have much less difficulty than students who are more stridently sectarian.

Study Through a Program Administered from Abroad but in Which Most of the Work is Done In-Country

Programs that fit into this category actually exhibit a fair degree of diversity. Some, such as the Oxford Center for Missions Studies in England, are run completely by institutions outside the European mainland. Others, such as programs at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, are validated by institutions outside Europe but run in-country. And still others, such as the Evangelical Theological Faculty, Leuven, Belgium, are fully accredited and recognized by the European Union. In spite of this variety, what these programs have in common is their requirement that students complete most of their work independently, at home, on research topic clearly related to the religious situation in their native land. At the same time, they require periodic visits to the host institution for supervision, exams, and more technical research.

These programs are an attempt to provide the best of both worlds: A strong indigenous “flavor” and competent supervision by faculty members who are Evangelicals themselves, or who are at least open to Evangelicalism. And they tend to succeed well at blending these strengths. At the same time, however, they raise the thorny issue of whom, if anyone will recognize their degrees. If a person holds unearned doctorate from an in-country institution, there should be no problem with the appropriate authorities recognizing that degree. But if one studies at a school whose available encourage students to focus their research on topics closely related to their cultural context.

Conversely, this option often creates great problems with respect to the first ingredient. It is quite possible that in a Roman Catholic or Orthodox institution in Eastern Europe the animosity toward Evangelicals might be even higher than it would be at a secular, state-run institution. Finding an appropriate supervisor could be a huge problem, and even surviving in a hostile environment could be difficult. At the same time, it should be mentioned that this problem depends largely on the institution and the student. For example, institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate, are likely to be vastly more hospitable toward Evangelicals than institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate. Also, students who are willing to work respectfully with Catholic or Orthodox scholars will have much less difficulty than students who are more stridently sectarian.

Study through a Program Administered from Abroad but in Which Most of the Work is Done In-Country

Programs that fit into this category actually exhibit a fair degree of diversity. Some, such as the Oxford Center for Missions Studies in England, are run completely by institutions outside the European mainland. Others, such as programs at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, are validated by institutions outside Europe but run in-country. And still others, such as the Evangelical Theological Faculty, Leuven, Belgium, are fully accredited and recognized by the European Union. In spite of this variety, what these programs have in common is their requirement that students complete most of their work independently, at home, on research topic clearly related to the religious situation in their native land. At the same time, they require periodic visits to the host institution for supervision, exams, and more technical research.

These programs are an attempt to provide the best of both worlds: A strong indigenous “flavor” and competent supervision by faculty members who are Evangelicals themselves, or who are at least open to Evangelicalism. And they tend to succeed well at blending these strengths. At the same time, however, they raise the thorny issue of whom, if anyone, will recognize their degrees. If a person holds unearned doctorate from an in-country institution, there should be no problem with the appropriate authorities recognizing that degree. But if one studies at a school whose well be valuable for them to study there. If local institutions have credible academic standing, students should at least give them serious consideration.

Second, resist the temptation to study in America. Since I myself am American, I should not be accused of “Yankee-bashing.” But the fact is that American Evangelical culture is both very different from East European Evangelicalism and much more insular than European culture. American theological institutions reflect that insularity to some degree, although some of them reflect significantly more cultural diversity today than they did a generation ago. If students decide that they cannot remain in their own culture to-do doctoral work, then they should try to find a truly international Christian scholarly community in which to study. In fact, such an international community in which scholars in all fields work cross culturally, could actually Bethe most beneficial environment in which to study theology at the doctoral level. And I believe that, in general, one is more likely to find that kind of community in a European, or even African or Asian, institution than in an American Evangelical seminary.

Third, recognize that doctoral study is not alone-size-fits-all endeavor. Which programs will be most suitable, or even suitable at all, for particular students depends on many factors, all of which should be carefully identified and weighed. New Evangelical schools in Eastern Europe should work together with their faculty who seek doctoral training, taking into consideration their personalities, cultural and linguistic skills, and desired topics of research. East European seminaries do not need faculty members who are all graduates of the same institutions. Instead, these institutions need to be enriched by the insights their faculty have gleaned from various places of study, both in country and abroad.