The Crisis in Evangelical Christian-Baptist Theological Education in the Former Soviet Union

Oleg P. Turlac

Admissions Shortfall

In the last several years theological schools in the former Soviet Union have been confronted with a shortage of applicants. Many seminary leaders have been taken by surprise. As one asked, “Why don’t young people come to study? There is such freedom and a great opportunity to learn the Bible! Why don’t they take advantage of this freedom?” The trustees of one well-known institution were so concerned over the low number of entering students they called on a consulting team from the Euro-Asian Accrediting Association to assist in overcoming the enrollment crisis. Changes in the seminary’s leadership followed.

Why do schools in the former Soviet Union lack applicants while the need for pastors and Bible teachers is still great? According to figures provided by the Baptist World Alliance (September, 2006), the 1,776 Baptist churches in the Russian Federation are served by only 700 pastors (roughly 2.5 churches per pastor). In the past year alone, 66 new Baptist churches were founded in Russia, yet no appropriate placement service is in place to match graduates with church openings (“BWA News,” 6 September 2006, electronic mailing).

The low number of applicants to the College of Theology and Education (CTE), the leading Baptist school in Moldova, can be explained by looking at the country-wide situation. Moldova faces a crisis in its educational system as a whole. In 2006-07 many state scholarships provided for secular institutions of higher education went unused for lack of applicants. Many young people are dissatisfied with the huge investment of time and money that higher education requires in return for a low quality of instruction and poor job prospects for graduates. Many choose instead to be employed in other European countries, where most jobs that do not require prior education pay much more than jobs at home that require higher education. Tatyana, a 25-year-old graduate of the state university in Kishinev, Moldova, said, “I worked hard for my teaching degree, yet when I was looking for employment, nothing was available but a low-paying teaching job in a village school. It is much easier for me to go to Italy to make a living there.” The same outlook may be found among graduates of seminaries and Bible colleges: “Why should I invest time and money in training if theological education is not required for ordination and church ministry?” In spite of the fact that CTE averages 30 graduates per year, close to 100 Baptist churches in Moldova still lack pastors.

The crisis in theological education in the former Soviet Union could have been anticipated. A meeting of the Consulting Committee on Theological Education of the Russian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Union in March, 2005, noted the lack of applicants, the non-involvement of many graduates in church ministry, and the lack of interest of local churches in hiring seminary graduates (Minutes of the Consulting Committee on Theological Education of the Russian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Union, Moscow, Russia, 25 March seminaries to be “Western business enterprises.” In the past 15 years, only a few schools have emerged based on local initiative and financial support. Also, many Baptist churches and associations still do not have a sense of ownership of theological institutions, because they usually are not involved in the financial support of the schools. Quite often a local minister’s involvement in the life of a seminary is limited to writing a letter of reference for a potential candidate for admission. Finally, in spite of the graduation of hundreds of students with degrees in theology and ministry, many churches prefer to ordain uneducated laymen because they are more “like them.” Such ministers do not ask for financial support because they hold a job, unlike seminary graduates. Churches fear theological education and often associate it with atheistic training which led people away from God. They still prefer “simplicity and authenticity” in preaching and Bible teaching instead of complicated theological terms and exegesis of a text. Unfortunately, having a theological degree quite often serves as a disadvantage when a church considers a person for ordination.

The Way Forward

What steps should be taken to confront the crisis? First, theological schools should reevaluate their mission and vision. Each school should meet with its association or union of churches to discuss the purpose for the existence of the school and the issue of ministry placement. Second, the curriculum should be revised to offer more courses dealing directly with preparation for ministry. Third, church unions should establish placement committees and databases that would match churches seeking pastors with graduates of Bible colleges and seminaries. Fourth, seminary and union leaders should exert every effort to connect schools to churches, inviting pastors to special educational events and chapel services and assigning pastors as mentors to students who desire to acquire pastoral experience. Fifth, theological schools should not wait passively for the arrival of new students, but should design programs to reach out to would-be seminary students. This requires strengthening the admissions, recruitment, and public relations departments, which in many schools are poorly funded or are nonexistent. Finally, schools should consider directing their focus not only to the training of future pastors, but also to training for those already in ministry. This will require change in academic requirements and the transfer of some programs from full-time to part-time status. Such a shift would likely entail a reevaluation of graduation requirements, tailoring instruction for the benefit of more part-time students, and more non-residential instruction.

If decisive steps are not taken, it is likely that the number of applicants will continue to decline and that only a few schools will survive the crisis. No theological school in the former USSR today should be satisfied with the status quo. Reevaluation of the state of theological education is an absolute necessity.

Oleg P. Turlac is dean of extension studies and instructor of theology and spiritual formation at the College of Theology and Education, Kishinev, Moldova. He holds a doctor of ministry degree from Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A.