A Response to Peter Mitskevich on Theological Education
Oleg P. Turlac
Editor's note: Oleg Turlac's article is a response to Peter Mitskevich, "Problems I See with Theological Education," East-West Church & Ministry Report 12 (Fall 2004), 5-6.
Peter Mitskevich, vice-president of the Russian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Union, has outlined some of the burning concerns in theological education today. While his report provides helpful information, I want to give a different perspective on the issues raised.
Theological Education and New Converts
Rev. Mitskevich states that new converts should not be admitted to seminaries because they lack spiritual maturity. Yet some schools do set reasonable admission standards. For example, the College of Theology and Education (Kishinev, Moldova) and Odessa Baptist Theological Seminary require of applicants two years of membership in a local evangelical church. St. Petersburg Christian University even has a prerequisite of two years of active ministry in a local church.
Also, because of mass immigration of Christians from Russia to the West, new converts have to take their places, and their theological training is vital for the effective church leadership and sound theology. Seminaries have to work with young people who are eager to learn and who are committed to serving in its homeland. Seminaries should direct their programs to respond to the needs of this new generation of students.
Academic Training and Ministry Involvement
Rev. Mitskevich states that seminaries are receiving fewer quality applicants. It is quite evident that the quality of education in many Russian public schools is declining. Because of corruption and economic crisis, students, specially those who do not live in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in provinces, do not receive a strong education. Perhaps seminaries should redirect their curricula to address the academic shortcomings of incoming students, paying more attention to the development of critical thinking and writing skills. I agree that the problem exists, but the question remains, "What have we done to address it?"
Another burning issue is the separation between academic studies and practical ministry. It is quite common for Russians to distinguish between "the mind" and "the heart." I believe that theological training should emphasize both formal education and passion for ministry. Academic studies should be viewed in the light of practical experience brought into the classroom. I think seminaries should reevaluate their mission and curriculum so that the latter will support the former.
Theological Education and Spiritual Qualifications
One of Mitskevich's theses states that students are not qualified spiritually. They come without a call from God and do not want to be missionaries. They come for answers and stay in school for years. But should seminaries teach only students with a clear call from God to be involved in ministry, or should seminaries serve as a place students can receive a call and have it shaped?
Staying in school for years should not necessarily be regarded as something negative. Different people have different talents, and some may be more predisposed to teaching and writing than pastoral ministry. Gifts of the Spirit are diverse, but all of them are needed in the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:5-11). One of the greatest needs of theological education in the former U.S.S.R. is the lack of theological literature written by national authors. We need those who will excel in their education to produce quality indigenous texts for use in our schools.
Church Attitudes toward Seminary Graduates
Mitskevich argues that students are not being sent by churches. The majority of evangelical schools in the former Soviet Union, to my knowledge, require letters of recommendation from local churches and ministers. Why is it, then, that students are not being sent by churches? Quite often church participates in the process quite passively, simply issuing a letter of recommendation to the candidate. Theological education is still not seen as a necessary ingredient in one's ministerial vocation. Education in general is still widely associated with atheistic training received by many young people in Soviet times.
Maybe the question should be phrased differently: Do churches plan for a student to return after three to four years and do they have a vision for where that student can serve? Many churches do not plan ahead in this way. Worse yet, some churches send some young people to seminaries because they ask too many questions and cause trouble for the pastor.
The author of the report also argues that churches will not accept graduates due to changes in their theology. Seminary is a place of change. It is not necessarily the place where one's theology and changes in a dramatic way. It is rather a culture where one is taught to think critically through the questions of theology and practice existin in evangelical churches. Quite often only minor theological changes take place in the seminary environment. What is actually changing is the angle from which a person is looking at theology, church traditions, and methods of conducting ministry. The question is, how should the word "theology" be used? If it indicates the basic doctrinal beliefs that the student holds to, then only minor changes occur in the minds and hearts of students. If we use it inclusively, as an indicator of basic beliefs plus local church traditions and ways of doing ministry, then yes, major changes can be expected. But even then changes should not be viewed negatively. Quite often graduates come back charged with a new vision for the local church, and if they are supported by the leadership, such vision can result in dramatic church growth and helpful perspectives on reaching the lost.
The Church and the Academy
Mitskevich asserts that the seminary experience is too academic, with students seeing as their models professors and seminary leaders, rather than local pastors. The remedy is pastoral involvement in the lives of seminaries, with ministers on campus regularly visiting with professors, administrators, and students from their churches. Also, it will help if faculty participate in the lives of local churches. At the College of Theology and Education in Kishinev, Moldova, most faculty are involved in local church ministry. Students see them in classrooms during the week and in pulpits on Sundays. This approach creates a positive connection between the church and the academia, between pastor and professor.
Study in the West
Mitskevich asserts that students enroll in seminary in order to wor with Western missionary organizations or to receive scholarships to study in Western schools. The author of the report has already pointed out that students are often not being accepted by local churches. Churches cannot offer them salaries and ministry positions. Often the only choice graduates have is to work with missionary organizations, where their help is much needed. Quite often graduates combine ministry in churches as volunteer, unpaid ministers, while making their living working for missionary organizations.
Many students desire to study in the West after seminary in the former Soviet Union. This is not surprising because in some schools more than 50 percent of courses are taught by visiting professors from overseas. Also, more theological literature is available in Western schools than in the former Soviet Union, and students find the greater diversity of opinion in the West to be stimulating.
Rev. Mitskevich himself received the Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. I am sure that students at the Moscow Baptist Theological Seminary, where he served as the academic dean, as well as churches of the Russian Evangelical Christian-Baptist Union, benefited greatly from the education he received in the U.S. Why should others be denied this opportunity? The concern, however, is the likelihood of graduates of Western schools returning to their homeland to minister.
Mitskevich is also concerned about graduates' willingness to serve where they are needed. But church administrators do not provide data on churches that are in need of ministers. So often it is being said that "the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few" (Matthew 9:37), but no information is being provided beyond that. Perhaps church unions and associations should make lists of church openings available to theological schools, which could then supply the demand and thus contribute to the solution of the problem. Unfortunately, networking between churches and seminaries in the former Soviet Union is too often in short supply.
Oleg P. Turlac is dean of extension programs and instructor of theology at the College of Theology and Education, Kishinev, Moldova, and a doctor of ministry candidate at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.
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