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The Current Crisis in Protestant Theological Education in the

Former Soviet Union

Mark R. Elliott

Editor’s note: The previous two portions of this article were published in the East-West Church and Ministry Report 18 (Winter 2010): 16, 14-15; and 18 (Spring 2010): 5-7.

Revising the Curriculum

It could happen that Protestant non-formal leadership training programs in the former Soviet Union will eclipse full-time residential theological education. However, if residential programs do survive, they will require a thorough reworking of the traditional curriculum. First, mentoring should be as central to Protestant programs as classroom work, according to Insur Shamgunov and Mark Harris.1 Instead of the traditional lecture format, Shamgunov advocates problem-based learning (PBL): Schools “could integrate the academic element of theological study with the development of students’ skills in exegeting biblical texts, research, and preaching.”2

In calls for curricular reform, two tendencies emerge: 1) the favoring of courses with practical, ministry application; and 2) the favoring of courses that can motivate and equip students to contribute to the transformation of both culture and congregations. A 2007 Overseas Council study of four Ukrainian seminaries revealed that, at least in the minds of graduates surveyed, the least important subjects in their curriculum were systematic theology, Hebrew, philosophy, radio production, Greek, and Ukrainian history (32 to 21 percent). In contrast, graduates ranked as most important for their ministry hermeneutics, introduction to the New and Old Testaments, church history, apologetics, spiritual counseling, evangelism and discipleship, and Christian ethics (91 to 81 percent).3 In the majority of cases, courses with immediate practical ministry application scored highest. Shamgunov recommends courses in social work, counseling, social psychology, leadership, management, organizational development, strategic planning, time management, financial planning, and starting a business.4 For today’s Orthodox seminarians Vladimir Fedorov recommends missiology, psychology, cultural studies, political science, finance, law, and ministry to drug addicts and HIV/AIDS patients.5

The courses Shamgunov and Fedorov recommend are primarily utilitarian, with the aim of reshaping culture as much as serving local congregations. With the same view in mind, Balkan Pentecostal theologian Peter Kuzmič argues that if seminary graduates are to engage the culture they will need courses in psychology, philosophy, and sociology.6 Given the Slavic context, missionary Donald

Marsden urges coursework in Orthodoxy, without which Evangelicals will be “doomed to a kind of intellectual vacuum in their own culture.”7 It is striking that Archbishop Hilarion offers essentially identical advice in reverse—Orthodox seminarians should study non-Orthodox traditions. Orthodox schools, the archbishop contends, should educate in a spirit of tolerance and openness towards other confessions. We are now living not in the Middle Ages and not even in the nineteenth century. It should be borne in mind that many of the future clergymen of our Churches will have to live in a multi-confessional society. They will have to be able not only to see the differences, but also to clearly understand that Christians belonging to most varied denominations have a single dogmatic basis, common belief in the Holy Trinity, belief in Jesus Christ as God and Savior.8

Courses in Counseling

As noted, Archbishop Hilarion and a host of others recommend counseling and psychology for the seminary curriculum.9 These subjects would serve a good purpose based on needs in Central Asia. Pastors in this region surveyed by Insur Shamgunov convinced him that wounded hearts were commonplace in Central Asian churches and in the wider culture which had been “morally destroyed” in the Soviet era. Graduates face “alcoholism, drug abuse, occult practices, a high divorce rate, high unemployment, prostitution, and widespread domestic physical and sexual abuse!”10

The case for courses in pastoral counseling comes through clearly as well from the heart cry of a Lutheran pastor from Kazakhstan, put off by lengthy conference debates on academic qualifications for clergy. What is desperately needed, he argued, is “concentrated training in the basics for ‘emergency preachers.’” I am in full agreement with much of the programs that you have presented here. But much that was said by American and European specialists cannot be connected with the concrete, burning needs of the churches and the believers, such as ours in Kazakhstan. We too allow ourselves to dream sometimes about grand plans, as they were developed at this conference. But in all honesty, they are for us at present quite unreal futurism. We face a mountain of problems: We are surrounded by people who feel lost, who seek comfort, intimacy, calm and a way to God.

They are hungry abandoned children, lonely pensioners without means, mothers ready to give up the daily struggle for bread, drug addicted youth, young women who are forced to turn to prostitution to survive, and disoriented hopeless intellectuals. The church may not pass over them carelessly.11


The impassioned plea of this Lutheran pastor was that pastoral preparation take into account actual, contemporary social conditions as they exist in Kazakhstan. In other words, he was urging that the curriculum be contextualized. In the early 1990s, in the first panic to patch programs together posthaste, new Protestant seminaries emerged in the former Soviet Union that took little account of the social and cultural setting. “Western training programs were simply imported and installed.”12 Course texts were usually translations from English; faculty, of necessity, in the beginning, were Western, Korean, or Western-trained; course offerings replicated those of schools abroad; and early on, even some seminary libraries held more English than Russian titles.13

A West-Knows-Best Mentality

Sad to say, too many Protestant programs, launched, led, and funded by Americans, labored under the handicap of an ethnocentrism that “tended to assume that proper training would help the Russian to think like an American.”14 Too often differences between Western and Slavic mentalities were not sufficiently taken into account. Underscoring the East-West cultural divide, social scientist Geert Hofstede ranked Americans as the most individualistic of some 40 world cultures surveyed, whereas in his study Russians were among the most collectivist, typically deferring to majority preferences and traditions over personal wishes.15

Unquestionably, some of the tensions in seminary classrooms derived from divergent Western and Slavic mindsets. Examples would include students hesitating to engage in class discussion or reticent to question a teacher imparting “received wisdom” and students “sharing” answers on a test for the good of the class average.16

St. Petersburg theological educator Sergei Nikolaev provides a startling illustration of an over-weaning, West-knows-best mentality among some seminary graduates: Recently I visited a church where a very interesting young man of wide reading, a graduate of a Russian theological institute, was preaching. People were very attentive and listened to him with enthusiasm. In his sermon the young pastor quoted Spurgeon and Moody, Lewis and Berghoff, Stevenson and Barth, and I was carried away by his vast knowledge. But he did not even mention Solovyev or Bulgakov, Prokhanov or Florensky, Dostoevsky or Kargel. How is it that he knows authors of foreign birth and does not know those of his motherland? Why does he think that Lewis and Barth have better answers to the hopes of his countrymen than do Solovyev and Alexander Men?17

Undoubtedly, this example underscores the need for theological education that is properly contextualized, taking into account Russian history, including one thousand years of Orthodox tradition.18 Caribbean theological educator Dieumeme Noelliste calls for a creative synthesizing of Western and indigenous cultures rather than a jealous, blind attachment to either exclusively: “What is needed is a critical appropriation of the [Western] legacy, involving the endorsement of its useful features, the adaptation of others, the correction of those deemed faulty, and the creation ofnew ones as may be required by the peculiarities of each environment.”19

Of course, Nikolaev notes, “It is impossible to fruitfully serve your own people if you do not know your culture!” Still, he seconds Noelliste’s call for the blending of the best of West and East: “To be able to communicate with people in comprehensible terms we have to find an effective way to combine the enormous experience of evangelical theology of the West with our native religious quest.”20

In Summary

Protestant theological education currently faces serious challenges. Of course, in the Soviet era, state hostility led to many decades of no formal Protestant theological education at all. In contrast, the source of difficulties today stems primarily from an enrollment crisis precipitated by a panoply of mostly self-inflicted wounds. Since the fall of Communism Protestant schools too often have overbuilt, have depended too heavily upon Western money and models, and have admitted too many marginal students. In addition, they  have too often failed to maintain sufficiently close ties with the church, have adopted more classical than practical curricula, and as a result, have produced graduates who are frequently ill-equipped for pastoral duties or are not welcome in the churches they have been trained to serve. Consequences have included, and will continue to include, school closures and mergers, a more entrepreneurial approach to the use of facilities and faculty, and decreasing dependence upon Western direction and funding. Additional responses include increasing curricular revisions relevant to a Slavic context and diversification into liberal arts, business, and/or vocational degrees. Above all, schools are scrambling to develop or expand their nontraditional programs through correspondence courses, distance learning sites, and online instruction. It is hoped that, ultimately, theological educators and their Western and indigenous stakeholders will come to realize that both traditional, residential theological education and nontraditional programs have their place and should be seen as complementary.

 Formal training typically has the advantage of spiritual formation in community, face-to-face faculty-student interaction, greater library resources, and campuses that provide a witness of presence and permanence. Informal training typically has the advantage of more practical content, more flexible schedules, closer church-school ties, and greater accessibility.

To its detriment, formal training can lead to ivory tower isolation from the local church and less focused concentration on pastoral preparation. To its detriment, non-formal training typically is lengthier with less instructional oversight close at hand, has lower retention rates, provides less adequate verification of student work, and offers fewer recognized degrees. Thus, formal and non-formal programs have their strengths and weaknesses; both have their place; both, however, also require adaptation to the unique complexities of the post-Soviet environment. ♦

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


1 Shamgunov, “Listening,” 276 and 284; Harris, “Needed,” 84.

2 Shamgunov, “Listening,” 280. See also Toivo Pilli,

“Toward a Holistic View of Theological Education” in Theological Education as Mission, ed. by Peter Penner (Hagen: Neufeld Verlag Schwarzenfeld, 2005).

3 Sannikov, Effectiveness, 75.

4 Shamgunov, “Listening,” 30, 241-42, 257, 265, and 278. See also Tiberius Rata, “Theological Education in Romania,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 10 (Spring 2002), 6.

5 Fedorov, “An Orthodox View,” 30.

6 Elliott, “Recent Research,” 3.

7 Marsden, “Post-Soviet, 3. See also Elliott, “Theological Education,” 71.

8 Hilarion, “Problems,” 6.

9 Ibid. 7; Fedorov, “Orthodox View,” 20; Shamgunov, “Listening,” 241; Dennis Bowen and D. Russell Bishop, “Training Pastoral Counselors in Russia,” East-West Church and Ministry Report

12 (Spring 2004), 3-5; Dennis Bowen, “Christian Counselor Training in Ukraine,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 16 (Summer 2008), 4-6.

10 Shamgunov, “Protestant,” 7.

11 Gerd Stricker, “The Problems of Theological Education: The Experience of Lutheran Institutions  n the CIS,” Religion in Eastern Europe 21 (June 2001), 18.

12 Harris, “Needed,” 84.

13 Ibid.; Elliott, “Theological Education,” 69-71.

14 Harris, “Needed,” 84.

15 Geert Hofstede, “Cultural Differences in Teaching and Learning,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10 (1986), 306-16.

16 Steve Chapman, “Collectivism in the Russian World View and Its Implications for Christian Ministry,” East-West Church and Ministry Report 12 (Fall 1998), 12-14.

17 Sergei Nikolaev, “The Problems of Euro-Asian Theology for the New Millennium,” Religion in Eastern Europe 20 (April 2000), 4.

18 Harris, “Needed,” 84; Elliott, “Theological Education After Communism,” 71.

19 Noelliste, “Theological Education,” 278.

20 Nikolaev, “Problems,” 4. See Shamgunov, “Listening,” 274-75, for examples of Central Asian graduates successfully gleaning Christian texts from the West for their own purposes, rather than simply parroting them.