Protestant Theological Education in Central Asia: Embattled but Resilient

Insur Shamgunov

Editor’s note: The first part of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 17(Fall 2009): 5-8.

The political, religious, and economic situation in Central Asia is changing so rapidly that theological schools must constantly adapt their training programs. No one can predict whether some of these schools will even survive current pressures. As noted in the first portion of this article (Fall 2009), some of the challenges facing theological education are external: political pressure, growing materialism and indifference to Christianity, stagnation in church growth, and social ills in society. Other challenges come from within the institutions.

Declining Enrollments

Initially, one Kyrgyz institution under study sought to train pastors only. However, it eventually broadened its scope to include training for lay ministers as well. The principal admitted that the decision to broaden enrollment was influenced by the recent decline in church growth and the corresponding decrease in candidates for the ministry. After graduating three classes in a three-year, full-time program, this school changed to a modular format in 2004, consisting of two-week training sessions with breaks of two weeks between modules. Again, one of the main reasons for changing the program was the declining number of applicants willing to study full-time.

The principal related the enrollment decline to the unwillingness of local pastors to send their members to study, which, in turn, arose for several reasons. First, many pastors did not understand the importance of solid theological doctrine, believing that for regular church members, weekly sermons alone were sufficient for their spiritual nourishment. The principal was concerned that such narrowness and lack of theological education have already led many people in his denomination to construct false doctrines. Second, he felt that some pastors were afraid of competition, as younger leaders became more educated than themselves, a theme that will be developed in more detail shortly. Third, he was concerned that many pastors had a short-term, rather than long-term, vision for developing church leaders. Thus, pastors would not let their most talented and capable emerging leaders attend seminary because they needed their help in the church. Instead, some pastors sent church members to study who were not currently engaged in ministry and who were not motivated to do so, hoping perhaps that the school itself would motivate them for ministry.

In my most recent conversation with the principal of this Kyrgyz theological college (9 November 2008), I learned that only a handful of applications were received for the 2008-09 academic year. As a result, the school changed its training format to an evening program, with teaching decentralized in four main regions of Kyrgyzstan. The principal believed that interest in training in local churches still existed, but because they were no longer growing, they had exhausted the pool of candidates wishing to study full-time. He concluded, as a result, that training had to become locally based and run as evening modular classes. Another strategy this same principal was considering was the addition of secular subjects to the curriculum. He related that in many cases, parents of young Christians did not believe a theological education could offer their children a sustainable future.

Adapting to New Realities

A theological college in Kazakhstan also experienced a decline in applications and decided not to admit any new students in the 2007-2008 academic year. The principal was considering several ways of addressing the problem, including the introduction of a new program for social workers. According to this principal and his dean, one of the main challenges the college faced was strong opposition from senior denominational leaders. Many of the elder pastors were not theologically educated themselves and so were suspicious of younger church members receiving such an education. The pastors felt they were competing with seminary graduates, asking difficult questions that they could not answer. Some of them viewed theological education itself as “liberal,” although the institution would be considered very conservative by Western theological standards. For some pastors, the college was “liberal” simply because “some teachers were Americans and Calvinists.”

One graduate, a Kazakh pastor in his 50s, offered an insight into the older generation’s contempt for education: Older pastors had led the church through Soviet persecution and therefore did not have a chance to receive an education. They could only learn from each other, or attend occasional conferences, or read their one-and-only denominational journal. Therefore, the older generation felt that their own experiences proved that education was not necessary. They initially resisted the cultural contextualization of Kazakh churches, namely, using the Kazakh language and traditions during services, or using the word Allah for God. But they changed their views. Pastor Anton, who belonged to a denomination that existed during the Soviet era, complained that most senior leaders emigrated to the West soon after perestroika, being “seduced by money.”

A third institution in my study, a college in Kazakhstan, also suspended its main program in 2007 after having graduated over 250 pastors and other church leaders from its nine-month pastoral training program. Again, a decline in church growth led to a corresponding drop in enrollment. After enrollment began to fall, the college moved its training into the regions and opened ten satellite schools in four Central Asian countries. This program, called “Christian Education in the Regions,” consists of short training modules for leaders and active church members run by instructors coming from the central school. In response to falling fulltime enrollment, this institution, established to train church planters and pastors, re-oriented its program to train small group leaders. The principal pointed out that this change occurred not only because of a lack of students, but it also reflected the recent general shift in church-planting philosophy in Central Asia: from “classic” churches with one large Sunday gathering, to cell churches, replicating Korean, Chinese, and Latin American models.

In Kazakhstan in the spring of 2008 the government required all religious institutions to operate with an educational license. Not wanting to break the law, one school stopped offering its master’s of ministry degree. However, the school later realized that with its registration as a religious organization it could still offer small, informal seminars without offering any certification or degrees. The dean was considering a number of possibilities for moving forward, including relocating the program out of the country altogether, or trying to merge with an existing licensed university.

Causes for the Enrollment Decline: In Summary

All colleges under study are currently facing very significant challenges, above all, declining enrollment. Explanations include Central Asia’s dramatic societal, economic, and political changes, the general decline in church growth, emigration, the poor financial prospects for pastors, the low value of a theological diploma in a secular job market, as well as the bias of some church leaders against theological education.

Guidelines for Evaluating Theological Education

Donald Aleshire, executive director of the U.S. Association of Theological Schools, rightly draws the attention of theological educators to the importance of not only assessing student learning, but evaluating the educational program itself: “It is altogether possible that students could graduate knowing everything they were taught, but because they were taught all the wrong things, not function well in ministry.”1 This warning is particularly important since theological programs in the former Soviet Union are mostly aping standard, well-established Western theological curricula.

Moreover, the region’s most influential policymaker in the area of evangelical theological education, the Euro-Asian Accrediting Association (E-AAA), seems to have made little attempt to take into account what graduates themselves are actually getting out of the programs, the main emphasis being academic recognition for its member schools. Thus, in 1998, one of the leaders emphasized that the standards for the theological programs’ assessment would not be based on the graduates, but on various aspects of the “academic process,” such as “hours in class, testing methods, pages read, organizational stability, organizational legality, office management, program leadership and administration, [and] student activities.”2 National church leaders express concerns about the inadequacy of an un-contextualized and uncritical transfer of Western theological curriculum into a very different cultural and social setting

A Classroom-Ministry Disconnect

Graduates interviewed generally shared a positive view of their training: They believed that it had positively influenced their character formation and that it had provided them with helpful biblical knowledge, certain ministry skills, and a desire to continue learning. Strikingly, however, most graduates could not articulate links between the training they had received and their ability to deal with their current professional problems. The majority of graduates pointed to the particular value of the knowledge they received from experienced practitioners, or the knowledge they acquired while involved in practical ministry during their studies. In many cases training failed to equip students to integrate classroom studies with practical ministry; it also lacked spiritual mentoring and it placed a disproportionate emphasis upon subjects that had few obvious links to practice.

In most cases Western theological education in Central Asia has not been contextualized. Culturally adapted training means translating a theological curriculum into the local language, substituting nationals for foreign teachers, and finding local examples to illustrate subject matter. Better yet, nationals write their own curriculum and develop their own indigenous theologies. This is the point of view that I heard from both national leaders and from many expatriate missionaries involved in church development and theological education in the region. This much I expected.

However, one of my most surprising findings was that only a quarter (nine) of the graduates interviewed pointed to cross-cultural issues as bearing any significance for effective learning. Rather, the majority were more concerned with the practical application of what their teachers taught, which in turn was linked not to their teachers’ cultural background, but primarily to their practical experience, personal spiritual maturity, and teaching expertise. Although graduates did praise a few talented and experienced national teachers, many pointed out that it was better to have experienced, seasoned foreign teachers than young, inexperienced national teachers. Even worse was to have foreign teachers with no serious ministry or teaching experience. Moreover, counter to my initial assumptions, many graduates commended and used ideas they borrowed from popular Western Christian authors to develop their own thinking and practice, including Larry Crabb, Philip Yancey, Rick Warren, and John Maxwell. Graduates were intelligent and reflective enough to be able to contextualize these ideas to their local situations for themselves.

Graduates who believed they received the most benefit from their training for their later professional practice were the ones who were either actively involved in a local church ministry or who actively participated in student mission activities during their training. The theory-practice gap was minimal for them, as they were able to quickly transfer the learning that they needed and to rapidly contextualize information for immediate use. At the same time, the majority of the criticisms from graduates were directed not at culturally un-contextualized theological training, but at the larger issue of the theory-practice divide, which is relevant not only to Central Asia, but to theological education everywhere.3

Theological education in Central Asia seems to have inherited the common flaws of theological education elsewhere. The major concerns are the same as in the United States: the applicability of theological knowledge, the lack of practical ministry, and the need for spiritual formation. In other words, the challenge seems to be not so much contextualizing theological education for Central Asia, but contextualizing theological education to real-life ministerial practice, regardless of the locale.

Faculty Modeling and Mentoring: Incidental Versus Intentional

Although the Central Asian institutions studied were relatively successful in the spiritual formation of their students, it was the incidental outcome of the personal influence of their teachers, rather than the formal content of their training. Instructors who are experienced and spiritually mature practitioners serve as models, mentors, and sources of authoritative practical knowledge for students. The importance of modeling and mentoring for the training of ministers was confirmed by another finding: about a third of the pastors found mentoring support essential for their further professional and personal development after graduation.

 The importance of mentoring for professional development is widely discussed in the literature on professional training, and in many cases is accepted as an integral part of professional development.4 Unfortunately, this is not the case in theological education in general, where mentoring is often viewed as “nice,” but not essential. As my findings show, theological institutions in Central Asia are not an exception to the general rule. While one Kyrgyz institution took mentoring seriously through its “curator” (spiritual supervisor) of students, most of the modeling and mentoring that occurred in the schools under review happened informally and was virtually a by-product of the training experience.

 Addressing the Crisis in Theological Education: Four Options

Evangelical theological education in Central Asia is at a critical stage because of weak ties with local churches, the severe shortage of students, the increase of government pressure, and the oversupply of various training courses which affects the quality of teaching. Several graduates considered the sheer number of theological institutions detrimental to the quality of ministry training. The supply of training opportunities has outgrown the demand. Church leaders often have chosen schools for their ministerial candidates based on free tuition. This has created a problem through negative competition: institutions with higher admission standards have been losing applicants because many Western-funded programs charge no fees. It would appear that to avoid extinction, major changes must be undertaken. Fortunately, theological colleges in Central Asia should be able to adapt more easily than their Western counterparts since these institutions are very young, are small in size, and are not yet burdened by traditionalism. They are, in fact, willing to change and are actively looking for ways forward.

The schools may consider several options. They may attempt to tap a new market, targeting the desire of younger Christians for a good general higher education, similar to the education provided by Christian liberal arts colleges in the United States. Some elements of this vision were being considered by two of the colleges studied. However, this approach might also create significant tensions with the expectations of all major stakeholders, including local churches, denominational leaders, Western financial sponsors, and even the staff of the colleges.

Another option might be to move in the direction of more generic professional training, for example, to offer degrees in leadership development that could be used both in ministry and in the business world. Alongside courses in biblical knowledge and ministry skills, courses could be offered in counseling, social psychology, leadership, management, organizational development, strategic planning, time management, financial planning, starting a business, and possibly even some vocational programs such as heating systems and welding.

A third option might be for the colleges to shift their emphasis entirely from leadership development to educating lay people by providing short-term training courses in churches. This seems to be the direction at least two colleges in my study are heading. In this case, they will remain within the “schooling” model, primarily providing the transfer of biblical knowledge, which is in itself valuable in the context of Central Asia. Finally, theological training colleges could retain their major emphasis on ministerial training, but dramatically revise the curricula stressing practical applications of training, problem-based learning, and learner-centered instruction (to be described below).

From a Schooling to a Missional Model

I suspect that today’s preoccupation with contextualizing Western theological education for the non-Western world might be obscuring a much more significant systemic issue in theological education. While efforts directed towards encouraging national churches to develop their own indigenous theologies are commendable, in themselves they are not likely to initiate the much-needed systemic paradigm shift in national seminaries from a schooling model to a greater praxis orientation. Instead, these efforts may result in the development of national theological faculties with their own indigenous contextual theology, but who fundamentally retain the same academic approach to training. Instead of reading Calvin, they might start reading non-Western theologians. But without constant, carefully supervised and reflective involvement with ministerial praxis, these institutions are as likely as ever to produce the phenomenon that Elliott refers to as a “trained incapacity to deal with the real problems of actual living persons in their daily lives.”5

The findings of this study support R. Banks and A.G. Harkness in their insistence on a paradigm shift in theological education from a schooling model, still prevalent today, to a missional model.6 Along with Harkness, I question the traditional framework of ministerial training with its fourfold divisions of biblical studies, systemic theology, church history, and practical theology. Instead, what is needed today is a more holistic model, centered on the actual ministry of the church.


1Donald O. Aleshire, “The Character and Assessment of Learning for Religious Vocation: M. Div. Education and Numbering the Levites,” Theological Education 39 (2003), 11.

2Mark R. Elliott, “Recent Research on Evangelical Education in Post-Soviet Societies,” Religion in Eastern Europe 19 (February 1999), 51.

3R. Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999); A. G. Harkness, “De-schooling the Theological Seminary: An Appropriate Paradigm for Effective Ministerial Formation,” Teaching Theology and Religion 4 (2001), 141-54; L. M. Cannell, “Theological Education in the 21st Century, [manuscript draft] (Deerfield, IL: 2003).

4T. Maynard and J. Furlong, “Learning to Teach and Models of Mentoring” in D. McIntyre, H. Hagger, and M. Wilkin, eds., Mentoring: Perspectives on School-Based Teacher Education (London: Kogan Page, 1993); V. Brooks and P. Sikes, The Good Mentor Guide. Initial Teacher Education in Secondary Schools (Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 1997).

5Mark R. Elliott, “Theological Education After Communism: The Mixed Blessing of Western Assistance,” Asbury Theological Journal 50 (Spring 1995), 70.

6R. Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999); A. G. Harkness, “De-schooling the Theological Seminary: An Appropriate Paradigm for Effective Ministerial Formation,” Teaching Theology and Religion 4 (2001), 141-54.

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Spring 2010).

Insur Shamgunov currently works as a management consultant for a human relations firm in London, England.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Insur Shamgunov, “Listening to the Voice of the Graduate: An Analysis of Professional Practice and Training for Ministry in Central Asia,” Ph.D. dissertation, Oxford University, 2009.