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The Current Crisis in Protestant Theological Education in the Former Soviet Union

Mark R. Elliott

Falling Enrollment…

From 1993 to 2007 New Life Bible College in Moscow graduated more than 200 students in a program focused on evangelism, missions, and pastoral ministry. However, this Campus Crusade-sponsored seminary closed its doors following its May 2007 commencement.1 In 2009 two other Moscow seminaries, one headed by Gennady Sergienko and another headed by Vladimir Lee, also ceased operations.2 Across the former Soviet Union many residential seminary buildings, built at great expense, are now nearly bereft of full-time students. From the Baltic to the Pacific one finds Protestant schools struggling with an enrollment shortfall that threatens their survival. Making matters worse, beleaguered Protestant seminaries from Moscow to Siberia report increasing pressures from local authorities, the mafia, and Russian Orthodox.3 Because conditions are so difficult for Bible colleges in Central Asia, several are contemplating closure or a move to a less hostile environment.4

…Following Dramatic Growth

The current phenomenon of Protestant seminaries under siege stands in stark contrast to the earlier dramatic flowering of formal pastoral training programs as the Soviet regime tottered and then collapsed. Programs grew from not a single Protestant residential seminary in 1986 to 42 programs by 1992, to well over 100 by the end of the 1990s.5 A 1999 directory of theological institutions listed 137 Protestant, 57 Orthodox, and 4 Catholic schools.6 Growth appears to have continued into the new century. Even today, the Assemblies of God report 135 Pentecostal Bible schools in Russia and Ukraine7 and the Evangelical Christian-Baptist (ECB) press service estimates 150 ECB-related seminaries and Bible schools across the former Soviet Union.8

Overbuilding

In accounting for the current troubles in theological education, however, the large number of Protestant institutions looms large. “Over-saturation of evangelical schools,” as David Hoehner, former academic dean at Donetsk Christian University, calls it,9 stems from many decades of pent-up demand, a “time is short” mentality, willing Western donors, and the preference of myriads of Western churches and ministries for “their own independent training programs.”10 Duplication and overbuilding would appear to be the consequence. For example, can Donetsk, Ukraine, with a predominantly secular or Orthodox population, sustain five evangelical pastoral training programs?11

The Waning of Church Growth

Initially, new Protestant seminaries benefitted from growing numbers of converts and new churches opening their doors. But denominational reports and mission newsletters have been better at counting those coming in through front doors than in counting those leaving through back doors. Perhaps a half million Evangelicals have emigrated to the West from the former Soviet Union; in addition, some worshippers only darkened church doors temporarily out of short-lived curiosity.12 With overall church growth waning, enrollments naturally suffer.13 On the other hand, where church growth continues, as with Pentecostals in Ukraine, Siberia, and the Russian Far East, seminary enrollments have not declined as much, or they continue to rise.14

Shortcomings in Seminary Candidates

Charley Warner, an advisor to the Euro-Asian Accrediting Association (E-AAA), traces the origin of the current enrollment crisis as far back as 1993. At fault, at least in part, he argues, has been competition for students undermining the ability of programs to graduate mature, capable pastors.15 Peter Mitskevich, now president of the Moscow ECB Theological Seminary, and Western missionary Mark Harris have noted various shortcomings in some seminary candidates whom they have observed firsthand. Some students:

• are too young to fully absorb instruction;

• are too inexperienced to apply their learning;

• lack a clear call to ministry and lack direction in their lives;

• require elementary discipleship;

• lack vital connections with home churches;

• are less concerned with an education than with a diploma;

• are fascinated with the West, seek to practice English, obtain scholarships to study abroad, and/or emigrate to the West; and

• have no interest in pastoring, aspiring instead to careers in teaching.16

With all the pitfalls in student selection, it nevertheless should be emphasized that many godly students have enrolled, have taken their studies to heart, have learned, have been faithfully mentored by their teachers, and have gone on to labor successfully in the Lord’s vineyard. However, with so many students uncertain of their call to ministry and lacking strong ties with a local church, it is no wonder that a seminary-church disconnect exists. For missiologist Walter Sawatsky it is a case of “free floating” schools lacking substantive relationships with the churches they seek to serve.17

The Church-School Divide

The church-school divide has been especially pronounced in those seminaries that have emphasized or have been perceived to emphasize, academics over practical, pastoral training. Thus, Jason Ferenczi, vice-president of Overseas Council International (OCI), links the enrollment crisis, in part, to inappropriate curricula lacking relevance to ministerial practice.18 Likewise, Anatoly Prokopchuk (Kyiv Evangelical Christian-Baptist Seminary) speaks of the danger of “the exclusively academic approach” to theological education.19 Too often in Orthodox seminaries as well, a tragic “divorce between Christian theory and praxis” prevails, according to Archbishop Hilarion.20

A Lack of Practical Emphasis

In Insur Shamgunov’s 2008 dissertation, based on interviews and surveys of graduates and administrators of four Protestant schools in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, respondents “gave generally positive appraisals of their training, but they noted little connection between their studies and the capabilities needed to succeed in ministry.”21 Central Asian church leaders as well noted “a disconnect between current theological training and real-life vocational skills…need[ed] in church ministry.”22

One of Shamgunov’s most surprising findings was that Only a quarter of 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.23

Furthermore, the majority of 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….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.24

Church Distrust of Graduates

Lax admission standards and tenuous church-school ties thus have produced many graduates whom churches and church leaders often deem too young, too inexperienced, too headstrong, and too uncertain of their ministerial call to be trusted in the pulpit. Exacerbating the generation gap and the problem of placement has been an often deep-seated wariness of theological education among pastors and denominational leaders who typically had no chance for formal training in the Soviet era.25 Further alienating seminary graduates from those they are trained to serve has been the suspicion of churches and church leaders that the new seminaries harbor the pox of theological liberalism and Calvinism.26 The fear has been that graduates might infect mostly conservative Arminian congregations with one or the other contagion of Western origin.

The Disadvantages of Western Funding

Protestant church leaders also frequently distrust seminaries because the schools have been financed overwhelmingly from Western sources. Paradoxically, Western funding has increased the church-school gap, resulting in fewer church placements for graduates, which in turn has meant fewer students enrolling in programs that may not lead to employment.

Except for some small, church-based Bible schools, the vast majority of residential training facilities have been underwritten by Western and Korean denominations and missions. Likewise, operating budgets have been heavily dependent upon outside funding. Fortunately, Jason Ferenczi of Overseas Council sees “considerable progress” in the past 12 years in schools developing indigenous sources of support.27 Similarly, Ray Prigodich, former academic dean at Donetsk Christian University, estimated in early 2008 that local funding had advanced to account for some 12 percent of the operating budget at the Moscow Evangelical Christian-Baptist Theological Seminary, 30 percent at Donetsk Christian University, and over 50 percent at Zaoksky Adventist University.28 Nevertheless, despite some progress, the great majority of Protestant seminaries in the former Soviet Union would quickly close if shorn of Western or Korean support.29

Sadly, with outside dependency comes outside control, even if the language of partnership is employed by funders. Theological educators Cheryl and Wesley Brown cite the case of an American mission withdrawing its funds and faculty from a fledgling East European seminary because the school could not in good faith subscribe to its benefactor’s doctrinal position on eschatology. The Browns characterize such heavy-handed control as “Western theological imperialism.”30 But even outside funders who strive not to be overbearing still exercise a quiet, sometimes even unconscious, check on the prerogatives of indigenous seminary leaders. Unfortunately, what might be termed missiological, rather than Marxist, economic determinism is at work. One East European church leader, observing the power of Western aid in the wake of failed Soviet rule, called to mind a perversion of the Golden Rule: “He who holds the gold, makes the rules.”31

In sum, church distrust of seminaries jeopardizes their existence because it undermines their ability to recruit students. That distrust, in turn, is partially a function of seminaries answering ultimately to Western donors, rather than to the churches they exist to serve. Respected educational specialist Ted Ward writes, when the program is treated as if it were property of the outsiders, local ”ownership” and true contextualization become highly unlikely. Westerners in general and Americans in particular seem to prefer high-control management….But we must find ways to encourage those with whom we serve to share in the responsibilities and initiatives of decision-making. To do less is not Christian; it is colonial.32

Seminary Degrees and Unemployment

Protestant residential training programs, then, face an uncertain future because of their overabundance, declining church growth, and weak church-school ties exacerbated by lax admission policies, curricula that appear to be insufficiently practical, and church distrust and lack of ownership of seminaries.33 Finally, schools are at risk because fewer and fewer prospective students and their parents see reason to invest years of study in programs that rarely lead to self-sustaining employment. More and more, those considering seminary are asking, “Why should I invest three to five years in full-time study so that I can remain poor?”

 Notes:

1 Matthew Miller, former missionary to Russia, email to author, 29 November 2009.

2 William Yoder, “The Future of Theological Education in Euro-Asia,” news release, Department for External Church Relations of Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, 22 August 2009; meeting with Ekaterina Smyslova, Haggai Institute, 5 December 2009.

3 Jason Ferenczi, Overseas Council International, phone interview, 27 October 2009; Anthony Rybarczk, Assemblies of God, phone interview, 3 November 2009; Harold Brown, OMS International, phone interview, 17 November 2009.

4 Insur Shamgunov, “Listening to the Voice of the Graduate: An Analysis of Professional Practice and Training for Ministry in Central Asia,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oxford, 2009, pp. 19, 29, 34, and 36.

5 Mark R. Elliott, “Protestant Theological Education in the Former Soviet Union,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 18 (January 1994), 14; Mark R. Elliott, “Theological Education after Communism: The Mixed Blessing of Western Assistance,” The Asbury Theological Journal 50 (Spring 1995), 67-73.

6 Alla Tikhonova, ed., Spravochnik bogoslovskie uchebnye zavedeniya v stranakh SNG i Baltii (Moscow: Assotsiatsiya Dukhovnoe Vozrozhdenie, 1999).

7 Anthony Rybarczk, phone interview, 3 November 2009.

8 Yoder, “Future,” 1.

9 David Hoehner, “Letter to the Editor,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 15 (Winter 2007), 6.

10 Mark Harris, “Needed: A Revolution in Pastoral Training; Pitfalls of Western-Created Leadership Training in Russia,”International Journal of Frontier Missions 20 (Fall 2003), 82.

11 Peter Mitskevich, “Problems I See with Theological Education,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 12 (Fall 2004), 6.

12 Wally C. Schoon, “The Lure of the West,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 4 (Spring 1996), 1-2; Susan W. Hardwick, Russian Refuge: Religion, Migration, and Settlement on the North American Pacific Rim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

13 Shamgunov, “Listening,” 23, 26, 29, 31, and 35; Jason Ferenczi, phone interview, 27 October 2009.

14 Anthony Rybarcszk, phone interview, 3 November 2009; Jason Ferenczi, phone interview, 27 October 2009; Yoder, “Future,”2.

15 Charley Warner, Euro-Asian Accrediting Association, email to author, 27 October 2009. See also Harris, “Needed,” 83.

16 Mitskevich, “Problems,” 5-6; Sergei Golovin, “On Hopping Caterpillars, Spiritual Gastarbeiter, and Theological Education in Former Soviet Union Countries,” 28 October 2009; http://www.scienceandapologetics.com/engl/g15.html; Harris, “Needed,” 83; Mark R. Elliott, “Recent Research on Evangelical Theological Education in Post-Soviet Societies,” Religion in Eastern Europe 19 (February 1999), 33 and 35.

17 Walter Sawatsky, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, phone interview, 26 October 2009.

18 Jason Ferenczi, phone interview, 27 October 2009.

19 Mitskevich, “Problems,” 6.

20 Archbishop Hilarion Alveyev, “Theological Education in the 21st Century,” http://en.hilarion.orthodoxia.org/print, p. 4.

21 Shamgunov, “Protestant Theological Education in Central Asia: Embattled but Resilient,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 17 (Fall 2009), 5.

22 Ibid., 6.

23 Ibid., 274.

24 Ibid., 275.

25 Ibid., 25, 149-50, and 152; Elliott, “Protestant,” 19; Cheryl and Wes Brown, “Progress and Challenge in Theological Education in Central and Eastern Europe,” Transformation 20 (January 2003), 2; Jason Ferenczi, phone interview, 27 October 2009; I.P., email to author, 8 September 2005; Mark Harris, “Proposal for a Contextualized Educational Program for the Training of Russian Spiritual Leaders,” www.markharris.us.

26 Shamgunov, “Listening,” 28, 150, and 286; Linda Eilers, “When Calvinist and Arminian Beliefs Collide: Facilitating Communication between North American Professors and Russian Bible Students,” master’s thesis, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1998; Nicholas Holovaty, “A Moscow Case Study: Mixed Reviews for the Korean Pastor’s School,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 8 (Fall 2000), 8.

27 Jason Ferenczi, phone interview, 27 October 2009.

28 Meeting with Ray Prigodich, former dean, Donetsk Christian University, 2 February 2008.

29 Ted Rodgers, Russian Leadership Ministries, phone interview, 26 October 2009; Elliott, “Recent Research,” 32, quoting David P. Bohn, “A Comparative Study of the Perspectives of Evangelical Church Leaders in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Russia on Theological Education,” Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1997, 193; Jason Ferenczi, phone interview, 27 October 2009; Dieumeme Noelliste, “Theological Education in the Context of Socio-Economic Deprivation,” Evangelical Review of Theology 29 October 2005), 276.

30 Brown, “Progress,” 10. See also Ibid., 8-9.

31 Mark R. Elliott, “The New, Non-Western Chapter in Christian History,” Prism 8 (November/December 2001), 10.

32 Ted Ward, “Effective Development of Intercultural Leadership,” Maclellan Foundation Policy and Position Document, 4 May 2003, 8. See also Oleg Turlac, “The Crisis in Evangelical Christian-Baptist Theological Education in the Former Soviet Union,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 15 (Winter 2007), 19.

33 Hoehner, “Letter,” 6.

34 Marsden, “Post-Soviet,” 1-3.

Editor’s note: The remaining portions of this article will be published in the following two issues of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18(Spring 2010) and 18 (Summer 2010).

Mark R. Elliott is editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, Asbury College, Wilmore, Kentucky.