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

Mark R. Elliott

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Winter 2010): 16, 14-15.

Reevaluating a School’s Purpose

In coming to terms with the dire straits of most residential programs Sergei Sannikov, E-AAA Executive Director, recently noted, “There was no strategic plan when these schools were founded—they were spontaneous creations. People were enthusiastic, Western support was available, and so they began.”1 Lack of careful deliberation and forethought does appear to best characterize the launching of many schools. Thus, Moldovan professor Oleg Turlac’s advice for a first step forward is for seminaries to “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.”2

Academic Versus Pastoral Training

In a sentence, should theological training be academic, pastoral, or both? Many church leaders in the former Soviet Union would second the conclusion of evangelical Anglican theologian Alister McGrath that “The growing gap between academic theology and the church has led to much theology focusing on issues which appear to be an utter irrelevance to the life, worship, and mission of the church.”3 Estonian Baptist theologian Toivo Pilli quotes McGrath approvingly, but he also sees a vital role for “academic” theology in “the prophetic task” of producing “contextually relevant theological reflection” on pressing social and cultural issues.4

No doubt, some post-Soviet theological educators have become mesmerized with academic learning at the expense of pastoral training—as can happen in the West as well. Still, Pilli seems justified in rejecting the “growing tendency to see ‘faith’ and ‘knowledge’ as contradictory terms.”5 Whatever one concludes on the perennial question of the relationship of faith and knowledge, the point is: Each school and all its stakeholders must think through the question in order to champion a common vision and purpose for each institution.

Responses to Declining Enrollment

As the enrollment crisis has deepened, theological schools have responded in a variety of ways. The most common adjustment to the disappearance of full-time residential students has been to expand non-formal programs—which may prove to be the salvation of many institutions. The subject of non-formal theological education in the post-Soviet context is so vast that it deserves its own paper or monograph. After enumerating other responses, I will return to this topic.

Closures and Mergers

Lacking students, some programs, as noted, have closed, and more will follow. Even Sergei Sannikov concedes, “The number of theological schools will and must decrease.”6 It would make sense for some schools to merge. Full-blown theological education is arguably the most expensive enterprise the church undertakes. The development of facilities, faculty, libraries, and textbooks is enormously costly and time-consuming. Given the small number of Protestants in the former Soviet Union (perhaps one percent of the population), minimal indigenous funding, and the trailing off of Western interest, school mergers would seem a logical necessity.7 However, tenacious allegiance to denominational and doctrinal distinctives works against such unions.

For those in the former Soviet Union who hope for the miracle of cooperation, the dream of the Bulgarian Evangelical Theological Institute (BETI) deserves note. In 1999 in Sofia six denominational schools (Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of God, Congregational, Methodist, and United Church of God) made common cause. While less successful than one would desire, it nevertheless is an attractive model.8

Finding a Niche

Another seminary survival stratagem will be to develop unique educational specializations.9 The College of Theology and Education in Chisinau, Moldova, with a focus on outreach to Muslims, has more Central Asian than Moldovan students.10 Some schools have expanded their English language programs to attract additional students. More ambitious has been widespread consideration for the introduction of liberal arts programs parallel to theological studies. Two Central Asian schools in Insur Shamgunov’s study were considering this option.11 Names of seminaries such as St. Petersburg Christian University (SPCU) and Donetsk Christian University (DCU) certainly indicate their intentions to offer non-theological courses of study. In recent years seminary administrators have frequently approached Moscow’s Russian-American Institute, modeled on liberal arts programs in U.S. Christian colleges, seeking advice on the formulation of a liberal arts curriculum.

Perhaps the institution with the most successful expansion beyond theological studies in the former Soviet Union has occurred at Zaoksky Adventist University. Housed in, arguably the most impressive, faith-based campus in Russia, Zaoksky offers degrees in theology, music, English, social work, economics, accounting, law, public health, and agriculture.12 Whatever one thinks of Adventist theology, this institution deserves close study for its commendable strides toward self-sufficiency and for its exceptional breadth of program.13

One niche a Protestant seminary might consider would be studies in Orthodoxy from an evangelical perspective. Perhaps such an undertaking could be developed in tandem with Orthodox institutions open to working with Protestants such as St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute headed by Andrei Bodrov or the Orthodox Research Institute of Missiology, Ecumenism, and New Religious Movements headed by Father Vladimir Fedorov.14

Strengthening Church-School Ties

Of course, to survive, seminaries must strengthen ties with the churches in which they hope to place graduates.15 As far back as an E-AAA conference in 1998 theological educators were recommending correctives to the school-church divide. Alexander Karnaukh (Odessa Baptist Theological Seminary) urged seminary professors to find teaching opportunities in churches. For his part, Rudolfo Giroi (Euro-Asian Theological Seminary of the Church of God Cleveland), at the same meeting, suggested “that students return to their churches in the middle of the [seminary] program.”16 In his thought-provoking dissertation on Protestant theological education in Central Asia, Insur Shamgunov warned that without close, vital links between school and church, “not only will the quality of training continue to suffer, but the very existence of the institutions will be in question.”17

Overcoming Western Dependency

To deepen the bonds between seminaries and churches, schools will have to decrease their dependence upon Western funding. To that end, enthusiastically or not, seminary administrators will have to become increasingly entrepreneurial because budgets have to start balancing. This is beginning to mean, and increasingly will mean, some combination of administrative and faculty cuts; sharing faculty with other institutions; charging students “meaningful” tuition;18 selling some buildings; and leasing some space.19

More and more seminaries are designating space or retrofitting facilities to generate income from all manner of undertakings: an auto repair workshop (Donetsk),20 weddings (St. Petersburg Christian University),21 dorm rentals for tourists (SPCU), and hotel and conference centers (DCU, SPCU, and International Baptist Theological Seminary).22 Donetsk, as an example, has hosted revenue-generating conferences for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the New Horizons English program, Eastern-Rite Catholics, and the East European Summit for Children at Risk.23

In the past, seminaries sometimes turned down Western offers to help establish profit-making enterprises to help underwrite expenses—but no more. Donetsk raises its own vegetables and at Zaoksky students not only grow the food served in their cafeteria, they can vegetables and fruits and help staff a printing operation on campus.24 In addition to creative uses of campus facilities, seminaries must teach stewardship and must teach churches to teach stewardship. Sadly, tithing runs counter to practice in the former Soviet Union.25

Many times one hears that Christians in post-Soviet lands are too poor to support their churches, much less seminaries. It is true that decades of Soviet persecution and discrimination meant minimal education and low-paying, menial labor for most believers. But Christians in Slavic lands are not the world’s poorest. Many believers in the global South who contend with economic plights as bad as or worse than those of the former Soviet Union support churches and sometimes even seminaries without the level of Western support that frequently obtains in the post-Soviet context.

Expansion of Non-Formal Training Programs

As noted, the most concerted response to falling full-time residential enrollment has been the expansion of non-formal programs. After the closure of their last Bible school in 1929, Protestants for many decades had no choice but to rely upon clergy mentoring of aspiring pastors, an unmistakable example of non-formal education. Then beginning in 1968 Soviet authorities grudgingly conceded a correspondence program to the only recognized nationwide Protestant denomination, Evangelical Christians-Baptists (ECB). Pastors enrolled in correspondence courses were permitted to travel to Moscow for brief periods of fellowship and instruction. Over the years the length and importance of the on-site intervals steadily increased, so that by the end of the Soviet era, the on-site modules of the correspondence program had taken on much of the coloration of a traditional residential seminary program.26

Another precedent was the consortium of visionary East European missions (Campus Crusade, Navigators, InterVarsity, and Slavic Gospel Association) that in 1979 launched Biblical Education by Extension (BEE), now known as Entrust, to provide pastoral training in Soviet-bloc countries.27 Thus, non-formal theological education is nothing new in the Slavic context. It is being expanded, not invented, in response to the residential enrollment crisis.

Elusive Statistics

In the Soviet and post-Soviet cases reliable enrollment figures can be elusive. Nevertheless, as incomplete and debatable as statistics may be, they do underscore two indisputable points: 1) non-traditional theological instruction has long been significant; and 2) non-traditional programs and students now account for the majority of pastors in training.

In 1992 the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kyiv had 335 non-traditional students, compared to 214 full-time residential students. As early as 1993 Seventh-day Adventists claimed 500 extension course students at three sites.28 In 1995 the Greek Catholic Theological Institute in Ivano-Frankivs’k, Ukraine, enrolled 800 extramural students compared to 480 full-time residential students.29 By 2005 in the former Soviet Union the Russian Orthodox Church enrolled 5,700 correspondence students, compared to 5,155 full-time residential students.30

For all practical purposes the Moscow Evangelical Christian-Baptist Theological Seminary (MTS) no longer operates a full-time residential program, while eight extension sites and online instruction account for 600 students.31 The enrollment crisis became so acute at MTS that the school’s trustees recruited consultants from the Euro-Asian Accrediting Association (Sergei Sannikov, Peter Penner, and Charley Warner) to offer advice. The outcome was the appointment of ECB Russian Union Vice-President Peter Mitskevich as rector in 2007, followed by a radical shift in emphasis from residential to extension training.32 A major boost in non-traditional MTS enrollment came in late 2009 with its incorporation of Bible Mission International (Frankfurt, Germany, and Wichita, Kansas), with another 700 Russian-language correspondence students.33

Moscow Theological Institute (MTI), affiliated with the Assemblies of God, presently enrolls 700 extension and correspondence students. MTI also anticipates a significant increase in its non-traditional program following a request in 2009 from 22 unregistered Pentecostal bishops and senior pastors for four new extension sites to provide training for unregistered pastors.34

Beyond denominational and mission-sponsored non-formal programs already noted, many other evangelical leadership training efforts serve additional thousands of students. With 750 enrolled, Training Christians for Ministry International Institute (TCMI), based in Austria, probably has the largest number of East EuropeanProtestant correspondence students taking a master’s level seminary course of study.35 School Without Walls, organized by Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries (Association for Spiritual Renewal in the former Soviet Union), is providing pastoral extension courses in 62 sites in 49 regions reaching 1,813 students in 2008-09.36 Other non-formal evangelical programs include East-West Ministries, READ, Precept Ministries, Bibel Mission, Leadership Resources International, BEE World, Church Leadership Development International, American Baptist International Ministries, International Theological Education Ministries (ITEM), and Theologians without Borders.37 F

Notes:

1 Yoder, “Future” 2.

2 Turlac, “Crisis,” 19.

3 Alister E. McGrath, The Renewal of Anglicanism (London: SPCK, 1994), 152.

4 Toivo Pilli, “Finding a Balance between Church and Academia: Baptist Theological Education in Estonia,” Religion in Eastern Europe 26 (August 2006), 39-41.

5 Ibid., 39.

6 Yoder, “Future,” 1.

7 Ibid., 2; Brown, “Progress,” 10-11; Noelliste, “Theological Education,” 10-11.

8 Gary Griffith, “New Bible Institute Registered in Bulgaria,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 8 (Winter 2000), 14.

9 Yoder, “Future,” 2.

10 Jason Ferenczi, phone interview, 27 October 2009.

11 Shamgunov, “Listening,” 277.

12 Gary Land, Historical Dictionary of Seventh-day Adventists (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005), 336-37; “Zaoksky Adventist University,” Adventist Online Yearbook, http://www.adventistyearbook.org.

13 Elliott, “Protestant,” 16.

14 www.standrews.ru: http///www.wcc-coe.org/wdd/what/interreligious/cd31-02.html.

15 Shamgunov, “Listening,” 286-87; Turlac, “Crisis,” 19.

16 Mitskevich, “Problems,” 6. See also Elliott, “Recent Research,” 35.

17 Shamgunov, “Listening,” 286.

18 Jason Ferenczi, phone interview, 27 October 2009.

19 Ted Rodgers, phone interview, 26 October 2009.

20 Ray Prigodich, meeting, 27 February 2008.

21 Jason Ferenczi, phone interview, 27 October 2009.

22 Walter Sawatsky, phone interview, 26 October 2009.

23 Donetsk Christian University, On Campus Newsletter, Fall 2009, 2.

24 Elliott, “Protestant,” 16; http://www.sau.ru.

25 Mark R. Elliott, “Post-Soviet Protestant Theological Education: Come of Age?,” The Asbury Theological Journal 54 (Fall 1999), 38.

26 Elliott, “Protestant,” 14; Pilli, “Finding a Balance,” 42.

27 Elliott, “Recent Research,” 29. See also http://entrust4.org/423.ihtml.

28 Elliott, “Protestant,” 22.

29 Jonathan Sutton, Traditions in New Freedom: Christianity and Higher Education in Russia and Ukraine Today (Nottingham: Bramcote Press, 1996), 92.

30 Vladimir Fedorov, “An Orthodox View on Theological Education as Mission,” Religion in Eastern Europe 25 (August 2005), 25.

31 Ted Rodgers, phone interview, 26 October 2009.

32 Ian Chapman, Theological Education Conference, 28 February 2008; Turlac, “Crisis,” 19.

33 Ted Rodgers, phone interview, 26 October 2009; http://www.BibleMission.org.

34 Anthony Rybarczk, phone interview, 3 November 2009.

35 Peter Penner, email to author, 9 November 2009.

36 www.russian-ministries.org.

37 Bill Arvan, Theological Education Conference, 28 February 20008; Joe Wall, Theological Education Conference, 28 February 2008; http://www.eastwest.org; http://readministries.org; http://www.precept.org; http://www.russianleadership.org;http//www.bibel-mission.de/; http://www.leadershipresources.org; http//www.beeworld.org; http://www.cldi.org; http://www.internationalministries.org; http://christforrussia.org; http://theologianswithoutborders.blogspot.com.

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 (Summer 2010).

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