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Recent Developments in the Southern Baptist International Mission Board’s Approach to Theological Education

Preston Pearce

Historical Overview

The Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board1 (IMB) has a long history of emphasizing theological education as a part of its missionary efforts. In many countries around the world, its missionaries established and engaged in a wide variety of ministries for the preparation of church planters, pastors and other leaders—from informal lay training programs to degree-granting seminaries.

During the Communist era, Baptists in Eastern Europe faced severe challenges in their efforts to gain access to theological training. This led to a situation in which the number of Baptist churches often far exceeded the number of trained pastors. After the collapse of Communism, many Baptist Unions in Eastern Europe experienced a surge of church planting and growth, which further intensified the need for the preparation of church planters, pastors, and leaders. With new freedom came the opportunity in many countries to begin, reopen, or expand local seminaries and Bible institutes for this purpose.

The IMB was eager to help. Dr. John Floyd, IMB Regional Leader for Central and Eastern Europe (1993-99), felt that having IMB missionaries serving in seminaries was vital for influencing church planting and growth. Among the many personnel who were commissioned or transferred to Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, a significant number were directly involved in theological education. Floyd also initiated the Decentralized Theological Education project in an effort to meet the needs of leaders who did not have access to formal training. Through the 1990s, IMB personnel were teaching full or part-time in seminaries or extension work in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, and Croatia.

Paradigm Shift and Its Impact

In the late-1990s, the IMB underwent a radical paradigm shift known generally as “New Directions.” The organization moved from a focus on cooperation with existing Baptist work around the world, to one primarily facilitating church-planting movements (CPMs)—the rapid multiplication of indigenous churches2—among unreached people groups.

“New Directions” significantly affected the IMB’s approach to missionary deployment in general and to its involvement in theological education in particular. IMB leadership determined that because of its status as a missions agency, its highest priority—reflected in personnel placement—should be engaging people groups untouched by the Gospel rather than assisting in established work such as seminaries. IMB leadership recognized the value of those ministries but felt their operation should be the responsibility of existing churches and unions. Dr. Rodney Hammer, IMB Regional Leader in Central & Eastern Europe (1999-2008), did not rule out IMB involvement with seminaries in Eastern Europe but expected it to be in alignment with a CPM-oriented strategy that had as its objective planting churches that multiply.

The paradigm shift led to a reduction of the number of personnel directly involved in theological education. Few were appointed in the 2000s for full-time theological education in Eastern Europe; some who had been in theological education transitioned to other ministries; others left the field because of “New Directions.” The IMB maintained a reduced presence at institutions in Romania, Albania, and Ukraine, and in other places some personnel continued to be involved with local seminaries through adjunct teaching.

This shift did not, at least in principle, mean that the IMB placed less value on theological education. However, “New Directions” did question whether residential training was the best context for the preparation of church planters, pastors, and leaders.3 In some cases IMB personnel came to consider seminaries as a hindrance to reaching people. Given the IMB’s history of involvement in the establishment and operation of many of these institutions, the issue was sensitive. Regardless of how IMB leaders tried to affirm their support of theological education, their actions and priorities indicated otherwise to national partners in Eastern Europe.

IMB’s East European partners had their own concerns about the new paradigm. The emphasis on rapid multiplication and “on-the-job” training for leaders required more leaders than the typical seminary could possibly prepare even through extension work. In addition, “New Directions” aroused concern over potential problems that could arise with untrained men in leadership, especially in light of Paul’s charges to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:6, 5:22).

The IMB’s paradigm shift was painful for many of the seminaries to which it related worldwide. Some found themselves in staffing and funding crises and felt abandoned. In some cases national leadership could see the value of the paradigm shift but considered the timing lamentable. To them the change seemed abrupt, as they had not been in the long internal discussions that led to the IMB’s shift and were not prepared for sudden defunding. Further, in the paradigm shift some IMB personnel communicated negative attitudes toward formal theological education. Some felt that they were being criticized by the IMB for using leader training methodology that IMB missionaries had taught them.

Seminaries responded in a variety of ways to meet staffing and funding needs created by IMB withdrawal. Aside from developing limited local support, some found foreign churches, mission boards, or other organizations that were willing to help; others continued to struggle, and some of these eventually closed.

Renewal of Commitment

Recent years have brought a growing desire within the IMB to renew its commitment to theological education. In 2008, the IMB asked Dr. Chuck Lawless, Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, to serve as a global consultant for theological education.4 Lawless traveled to various parts of the world to assess the status of theological education overseas. In 2010, the IMB established a new position, theological education consultant, with the intention of appointing one each for Africa and the Middle East, Asia, South America, and Europe. These consultants are tasked with “building relationships with overseas seminaries and Bible schools, developing programs for leadership training…[and working] with Southern Baptist seminaries to encourage and facilitate partnerships with national Baptist seminaries.”5 In April 2011, at the recommendation of newly-elected president Tom Elliff, IMB trustees elected Lawless as Vice-President for Global Theological Advance.6

New openness now exists in IMB for the appointment of personnel in theological education. However, stewardship during the American economic downturn led to a reduction in the number of IMB personnel globally and has forced IMB leadership to strictly prioritize needs. Thus, the likelihood of IMB personnel being appointed to serve in a seminary is affected by a number of factors, including the priority the institution gives to church planting and the potential for a professor to be directly involved in church planting.

Currently several IMB personnel relate to seminaries and Bible institutes in Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, Joel Ragains and Dan Upchurch direct the church planting major (B.Th.) at Kyiv Theological Seminary (KTS), while Russell Woodbridge serves as acting dean. Mike Ray teaches regularly at Kremenchuk Regional Bible College. Ed Tarleton, who arrived in Russia in the early 1990s and taught at the Moscow Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS), is now in IMB strategy leadership in Russia. Though he no longer teaches, he serves as a trustee of MBTS. Andy Leininger teaches a course at the Novosibirsk Bible Theological Seminary.

In Romania, Richard Clark teaches at the Baptist Theological Institute in Bucharest while Cornel Tuns provides theological training for Roma church planters and leaders. Lee Bradley directs the Albanian Bible Institute. Kyle Kirkpatrick, Mike Tullos, and Eric Maroney have been directly involved with the Baptist Bible School in Novi Sad, Serbia. Also, Tim Berry works with a Bible institute in Krapina, Croatia. Additional informal relationships exist between IMB personnel and institutions in other places. This writer serves as the IMB’s Theological Education Consultant for Europe and has visited and/or consulted with seminaries and Bible institutes in Serbia, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Ukraine, and intends to continue building relationships and identifying potential places and ways IMB can be involved where church planters and leaders are being prepared for service.

Dr. Mark Edworthy, who served as Dean of the Polish Baptist Seminary in Warsaw from 1993 to 2000, currently leads IMB work in all of Europe, including the former Soviet Union. The three-fold mandate of every IMB worker in Europe, he maintains, is to “make disciples, initiate new groups and churches, and train national leaders.” Edworthy believes that effective work in all three areas is required for a long-term positive impact.

The IMB also desires to offer help where appropriate in facilitating partnerships with Southern Baptist seminaries in the US. Potential exists for guest professors to teach in Eastern Europe (perhaps through a sabbatical leave) to assist in faculty development or to consult in curriculum development.

Conclusion

It would be too simplistic to say that the IMB was completely right or wrong in every decision regarding its paradigm shift, and consequently, regarding theological education. Different paradigms and ways of training obviously have advantages and disadvantages,7 and the solution does not need to be one or the other. IMB leaders continue to strive to align the organization’s structure with what they believe to be the Lord’s purpose and will. Evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leader training (in its various forms) will remain priorities. IMB leadership still recognizes that ongoing foreign funding is ultimately detrimental, so it is not returning to the days of financial support. At the same time, the IMB does desire to affirm the value of, and its commitment to, thorough preparation of church planters and leaders.♦

Notes:

1 Before 1997 the IMB was known as the Foreign Mission Board (FMB). Though some portions of this article refer to the time before the name change, IMB will be used throughout for the sake of consistency.

2 David Garrison, Church Planting Movements (Midlothian, VA: WIGTake Resources, 2004), 21.

3 Garrison, Church Planting, 269-70.

4 “IMB Taps Lawless for Theological Ed. Post,” Baptist Press, 6 May 2008; accessed online, 8 August 2011, at http://bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=27995.

5 Don Graham, “Theological Education Team Named by IMB,” Baptist Press, 8 April 2010; accessed online, 21 April 2010, at

http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=32667.

6 Alan James, “Elliff to ‘newly introduce’ IMB to young pastors at SBC,” Baptist Press release, 22 June 2011, accessed online, 22 June 2011, at

http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=35359.

7 See Mark Elliott, “The Current Crisis in Protestant Theological Education,” Religion in Eastern Europe 30 (November 2010), 15-17.

T. Preston Pearce, Ph.D., taught at the Baptist Theological Institute of Bucharest, Romania (1995-2001), and now serves as the IMB’s Theological Education Consultant for Europe. He is based in Prague, Czech Republic, and may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..