Protestant Theological Education in Central Asia:
Embattled but Resilient
Editor’s notes: The first two portions of this article were published in previous issues of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 17 (Fall 2009): 5-8; and 18 (Winter 2010): 10-13.
Changes should be made without sacrificing fundamental biblical and theological knowledge and exegetical skills, which are particularly important in a region that has little evangelical theological tradition. But instead of following the traditional, fragmented formula of a theological encyclopedia, schools could integrate the academic element of theological study with the development of students’ skills in exegeting biblical texts, research, and preaching. To do so, faculty could use the problem-based learning (PBL) approach, advocated for use in theological education by Toivo Pilli.1 For instance, students could start by describing a certain problem arising in their ministry, discussing possible reasons, and looking for solutions. They could proceed by researching biblical texts, reading the relevant literature, and discussing it with their teachers and other students. They could conclude the process by writing a paper, developing a sermon, and preaching it to their congregation, or by developing material for a small group study. In this process students could learn a number of important skills in an integrated way: understanding a biblical text, applying exegetical and hermeneutical principles, learning critical and reflective skills, learning to do research, communicating ideas in writing and preaching, and devising and implementing practical strategies in ministry.
Residential Versus Non-Traditional Training
One theological college did attempt to redesign its master’s of ministry degree curriculum in line with contemporary adult learning models. It provided short residential courses and required most of the subsequent learning to be done by the students off-campus, by corresponding with their mentors. However, graduates both praised and criticized this approach, and much is to be learned from their comments. The first point of criticism was that this method placed a significant level of responsibility on the learner, which is simply not to be taken for granted in the post-Soviet Central Asian educational environment. As a result, as the current dean of the program explained to me (22 September 2008), many students dropped out of the course because they did not have enough diligence and skills for doing independent study. I suggest that this problem might be solved by changing the training format: teachers should be in much more frequent physical contact with their students, both helping students to think through their issues and holding them accountable. For instance, they could adopt a format in which students spend a half week in class, and another half doing actual part-time ministry, as is the case with ministerial training at Regent’s Park, Oxford University.
Another graduate expressed a second criticism, pointing out that in an evangelical context it might be dangerous to encourage students with little prior theological and exegetical training to construct their own “little theologies,” which could be methodologically undisciplined and biblically incorrect. This is a valid warning. Therefore, such a program might begin with several introductory courses in systematic theology, exegetics, and hermeneutics.
Recommendation: Strengthen Practical Training
Although this research shows that graduates were mainly positive in their evaluation of the instruction they received, they considered practical ministry involvement to be one of the most important factors in their learning. Unfortunately, instead of strengthening this key aspect of their training, most colleges are currently moving in the opposite direction – relaxing practical requirements in the hope of attracting more applicants. In response, I would recommend that the colleges dramatically increase the amount and quality of practical training. It should become an indispensable part of the curriculum, and this should be reflected by a significant increase in the proportion of time allotted for practice, mentoring, and supervision by staff. As M. Eraut and W. Hirsh maintain, the rule of thumb for effective professional training is that every hour of formal training requires two hours of intensive coaching for the effective transfer of knowledge in the workplace, and seven hours to implement that learning in actual performance.2 Although such a proportion of formal training, coaching, and practice is very far from the current practice of ministerial training, significant changes in that direction should be undertaken. Closer links with local churches could provide institutions with better opportunities for developing such models of training.
Recommendation: Stress Mentoring
Teachers played a pivotal role in the graduates’ learning, serving as models to imitate, providing practical wisdom, and, as mentors, helping graduates deal with current issues they faced in their personal lives and ministry. However, this influence was unintended, happening, so to speak, at the margins of the educational process. Therefore, I suggest that institutions develop appropriate learning opportunities involving modeling and mentoring as an integral element in the curriculum. For instance, some of the teaching staff could work with designated small groups of three to five students throughout the duration of the training program. Mentors could help their students to reflect on their learning, help them to make connections with actual practice, and participate in ministry together with students. Mentoring should move from the outskirts to the center of a missional model of training.
For example in the Eurasian College, Kazan, Russia, where I worked from 1999-2004, the one-year residential program consisted of four cycles of six weeks “in-the-class” followed by three weeks “in-the-field.” During the three-week modules, mentors spent a significant amount of time with their designated teams of students on the mission field, both participating in ministry and helping students reflect on their experience. During classroom periods mentors continued close interaction their students, working with them in local ministry projects and providing personal spiritual mentoring.
Recommendation: Hire Faculty with Practical Experience
In this paradigm shift, the selection of the right teachers is of paramount importance. As much as the institutions in question would like to transfer teaching responsibilities to nationals as soon as possible, the emphasis should be on spiritual maturity, the depth of pastoral and teaching experience of the teachers, and their ability to relate to students, regardless of nationality. Although it would be ideal to have teachers who are both nationals and highly experienced (in my study the graduates did identify a few gifted national teachers), it will take considerable time before sufficient numbers of such individuals are in place. Students want role models who are wiser, older, experienced ministers, not their own peers who finished seminary only a few years before and who, despite having degrees, cannot offer much practical wisdom. Besides, as Peter Penner points out, expatriate teachers help students broaden their perspectives in an increasingly globalized world,3 a notion that was also expressed by several students in my study, who desired a healthy mix of national and international faculty. This mix seems to be the best solution at present.
One also has to take into account the harsh reality of shrinking religious freedom in Central Asia that makes the expulsion of foreign missionaries a real possibility, just as has already happened in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Therefore, individual selection and customized training of national teachers and mentors with high potential remains an important priority.
Recommendation: Increase Admission Standards
It seems that when the colleges lowered their standards in order to attract more students, they created a vicious cycle: Pastors did not like the new graduates who were not motivated to engage in ministry and were not trained in ministry skills, further reducing their desire to send people for training. Therefore, despite the temptation, colleges should, perhaps counter-intuitively, increase admission standards, something that in the long term will attract more quality people.
Recommendation: Enroll Students Called to Ministry
A particularly important quality for applicants is a sense of calling to ministry, especially for the long-term sustainability of their ministry. Many graduates interviewed emphasized that their conviction that they were called by God, even before they started training, later proved to be of immense importance when they were faced with the temptation to quit the ministry. Therefore, it makes sense to give preference to applicants who have a distinct sense of calling. At the same time, many graduates were skeptical of the ability of their colleges to motivate students who did not already have distinct signs of calling. Often, these students failed to graduate or failed in ministry.
Recommendation: Develop Close Ties with Local Churches and Other Stakeholders
Finally, it should be emphasized that some of the problems described in this study, such as the decline in church growth, pastoral salaries, and increasing government restrictions, clearly cannot be addressed by the training institutions alone. Discussions of how to deal with these problems need to also include denominational leaders and mission agencies. Therefore, institutions must make a significant and sustained effort to increase the level of communication with local churches and other agencies involved in church development in Central Asia. Without such an effort not only will the quality of training continue to suffer, but the very existence of the institutions will be in question.
Admittedly, strengthening school-church relationships is easier said than done – three out of four principals of the institutions interviewed pointed to difficulties they faced in this regard. Some church leaders do not value theological training or are suspicious of it. Some are afraid of competition from young graduates. Others simply do not have a long-term vision for leadership development, and therefore send to the colleges not their best people, but “idlers” who have nothing else to do. These problems seem to persist across denominational lines.
Another important activity from which the institutions might benefit is organizing a forum for regular communication with local churches and other Christian agencies. Such a body would not need to offer formal accreditation, although this could help gain better credibility for institutions in the face of a worsening political climate. Rather, the forum would serve primarily to develop relationships, share experiences, and discuss issues such as enrollment decline and improvement of local church participation in training. F
1 Toivo E. Pilli, “Toward a Holistic View of Theological Education” in Peter Penner, ed., Theological Education as Mission (Hagen: Neufeld Verlag Schwarzenfeld, 2005).
2 M. Eraut and W. Hirsh, “The Significance of Workplace Learning for Individuals, Groups and Organisations,” SKOPE, ESRC, www.skope.ox.ac.uk/WorkingPapers/Eraut-Hirschmonograph.pdf; accessed 31 January 2009; p. 80.
3 Peter Penner, “Introduction,” in Peter Penner, ed., Theological Education as Mission (Hagen: Neufeld Verlag Schwarzenfeld, 2005).
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).