Based on the “Diversity of Theo Ed Prog in MW Theo Sem” Survey – Overseas Council, 2019
This article explores the results of a recent survey of 130 theological seminaries in the Majority World that are related to Overseas Council. The results point to a diversity of programs, study topics, and modalities within Majority World theological education. The traditional image of “theological education” in the Majority World needs to change because the concept of “four walls and four years” does not fit as it did 25 years ago. The practice of equipping Christian leaders must move beyond the divide of modalities into a heartfelt diversity.
On an island in the Caribbean, the Christian Church is flourishing under difficult circumstances – government pressures, poverty, and family breakup. Training programs use decentralized, nonformal approaches to equip leaders for local churches. For example, when a specialized need in family counseling was identified, a Master’s program was developed that requires graduates to train local leaders for this area of ministry. In other locations, pastors receive theological training while remaining on the job in their local congregations, and, after they have gained some study experience, are nominated for formal training. Facing the realities of oppression and a limited economy, seminaries and churches work together to address training needs.
In arid areas of West Africa, formal training for pastors is often only available in the cities. One seminary leader received a request from church leaders in interior rural areas who needed training and had little educational background. The seminary developed a nonformal course so that they could bring training to these village pastors on their level and in a way that they could learn well. This short course taught one or two key concepts so that village pastors could then reteach this material to their people.
In many places in South Asia, the growth of grassroots churches is a surprising result of God’s work. Many of these churches are pastored by men and women who have not even finished primary school. These pastors would never qualify to enter any formal theological training programs. They cannot access training unless it comes nonformally, that is, outside of higher education. Situations like these happen in the Philippines and the Middle East; in Latin America and central Africa; in Central Asia and even in parts of the United States. While the work of equipping Christian leaders is advancing, a “leader training gap” continues to exist in the Church of Jesus Christ around the world. So how shall we now train?
This article focuses on the global question of how we equip Christian leaders by reporting and analyzing the results of a survey of over 100 Majority World theological schools. It gives insight into the tremendous variety of training programs that are equipping leaders at many levels for diverse ministries, and it offers recommendations for enhancing this diversity.
The Global Situation
The Cape Town Commitment recognizes that “The rapid growth of the Church in so many places remains shallow and vulnerable, partly because of the lack of discipled leaders, and partly because so many use their positions for worldly power, arrogant status or personal enrichment” (Lausanne, II. D3). Similarly, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary reported in 2017 that of the 5 million pastors/priests in Christian traditions worldwide, “5% are likely to have formal theological training (undergraduate Bible degrees or Master’s degrees)” (Johnstone, 2017). Churches in areas where the greatest growth is occurring are most likely to be pastored by men and women with insufficient theological training.
One factor contributing to this lack of educated Christian leaders is the fact that many believers think that seminaries are the primary (or even the only) place for equipping Christian leaders. The seminary is certainly part of the process of training leaders. However, most Christians think of a “four years and four walls” model in which students travel for training to a residential campus distant from their local churches. There, students have little connection to local church ministry or to normal believers. Much of this picture comes from the Western model in which theological institutions were simply transplanted by missionaries and trained foreign nationals into Majority World contexts. That Western model is often seen as difficult to change. It has resulted in dichotomizing language – binaries like “formal versus nonformal” or “traditional versus nontraditional” or “academic versus grassroots” (Ward, 1972, 1982; McKinney, 1975, 1982; Shaw, 2014; Kinsler, 2008; Ferris, 1987).
Stepping away from these traditional binaries, Volker Glissmann suggests that we think about theological education as a continuum from “grassroots” to “ministerial” to “academic” (2019). Similarly, Donald McGavran understands theological education as a pyramid of leader groups, where both the sphere of influence and the training needs of each level differ (McGavran, 1974; McKinney, 1975; Elliston 1989, 1996; David, 2002; Priest & Barine, 2017). In light of these reconsiderations, many are engaged in a decades-long struggle to renew theological education (Ferris, 1990; Shaw, 2014; Ott, 2001, 2016; Banks, 1999). These responses to the status quo seek to train more Christian leaders so that the Church will have a greater impact.
As Overseas Council (OC) has partnered with theological seminaries in the Majority World, we have seen theological education changing. OC staff hypothesized that, while the traditional seminary model still exists, seminaries in the Majority World have increasingly offered or supported nonformal programs so that those who might not have access to traditional modes can now get the training they need. Seeing this shift, we decided to investigate the state of theological training by surveying OC-related schools.
OC developed its “2019 Survey of Diversity of Theological Training Programs in the Majority World” to ascertain the numbers of students and graduates in OC-related programs, to capture the variety of these programs, and to understand the perception of the leader training gap. 135 OC-related programs received the survey online. 96 completed it. 11 additional schools provided only student and graduate statistics. These schools and programs equip Christian leaders in 57 countries. Five key findings emerge from the responses.
Finding 1: Globally, schools train tens of thousands of students through formal and non-formal programs.
The survey gathered data on the number of students and graduates from formal theological education. We defined “formal theological education” as “programs in your seminary that lead to a certificate or degree that is recognized (or could potentially be recognized) by an accrediting agency or government ministry of education.” Examples include Bachelor of Theology and Master of Divinity. Programs could be offered non-residentially (i.e., through intensive modules or online) and still be described as “formal” if they lead to recognized credentials. The 107 schools that provided data reported that during the most recent school year, they had 49,035 students and graduated 13,265. Of course, this is only part of the picture of global leader training.
The survey also asked about “nonformal theological training” affiliated with and/or supported by schools. “Nonformal theological training” was defined as “programs of instruction offered by your institution that aim to provide practical training, rather than qualification for an accredited degree.” Of the 96 schools that answered the whole survey, 73 said that they had “nonformal theological training.” During the most recent year, these nonformal theological training programs (NFTE) had 33,221 participants. This finding indicates an interest in developing alternative modes to equip Christian leaders – through skill training, training for women, and local church-based and extension programs. While some of these programs are part of degree programs, many are not, and thus are categorized as nonformal training.
Figure 1 below summarizes formal and non-formal statistics. The first five columns indicate different classifications of students. The “Partial Report” is the student numbers reported by 11 schools who were not able to complete the full survey.
Finding 2: School leaders still see a tremendous gap between the training local church leaders receive and the training they actually need.
Another question asked schools to evaluate how well-trained local church leaders are. It asked schools to compare “the number of churches with the number of adequately trained pastors.” We used this wording to ascertain how school leaders perceive the need of church leaders for training. We wanted to avoid concerns about what “necessary” training means, to measure the perception of a training gap, not the actual percentage of leaders who lack training.
Each respondent rated their own perception of the leader training gap in their context using the terms “no perceived training gap”; “small gap”; “moderate gap”; “significant gap”; and “very serious gap.” 70% of the respondents indicated that they perceived the training gap to be “very serious” or “significant” in their context. When we add those who saw a “moderate” training gap, 90% of all respondents saw a training gap in their context. This perception stated by school leaders is an indication of the severity of the situation.
Finding 3: School leaders are seeking to fill this gap.
In a follow-up question to those who saw a training gap, the survey asked if their leadership team and/or governance body had considered a response to this gap during the last three years. 95% said yes. This indicates that school leaders not only perceived the need of church leaders for training but also considered how to respond to it.
Those who responded “Yes” were asked to describe their responses. These open-ended responses were analyzed qualitatively, yielding a good picture of the kinds of actions considered and/or taken. The table below shows the breadth of responses with the most frequent responses listed first.
Finding 4: Schools with lower-level formal programs provided more nonformal training.
We analyzed data for possible correlations between the academic levels of formal programs and the degree of participation in nonformal programs. Generally, we discovered that schools that offer formal programs at lower academic levels (certificates or secondary school equivalents) appear to be more likely to offer nonformal theological training. We also saw the inverse: the more focused a school was on upper-level academic programs, the less likely it was to be involved with nonformal training. This survey did not provide information about causal connections, so the correlation between academic level and support for nonformal traning will require further study into the connections between level of faculty, perceived mission of the institution, and institutional tendencies.
All of the schools that offer only a certificate program also offer non-formal training programs. However, 82% of the schools that offer certificates also offer nonformal training. 75% of the schools that offer Bachelor-level programs also offer nonformal training. Of schools that have Master’s or PhD programs along with a certificate program, 62% offer nonformal training. However, only 50% of the programs that only offer postgraduate training also offer nonformal theological training.
Although this finding may be understood as a critique of postgraduate theological education, it also opens an area for further research. On the one hand, we affirm that academic institutions have a normal tendency to aim higher, to improve. On the other hand, as an expression of unity and love within the people of God, higher-level theological programs could consider the value of equipping the lesser-prepared. Indeed, the survey revealed some clear examples of schools that offer postgraduate programs alongside nonformal programs. In Latin America, FIET (Instituto Teologico FIET, Argentina) and SETECA (Central American Theological Seminary, Guatemala) provide theological training at the Masters and Doctoral levels, while most of their students are involved in church-based or prison-based nonformal training. In Nigeria, West Africa Theological Seminary offers vocational training for students alongside formal degree programs. In the South Pacific, at CLTC (Christian Leaders Training College, Papau New Guinea), over half of the students are part of TEE courses in the local setting. This opportunity is part of an integrated learning pathway that may lead to continued studies in a formal program. These and other examples merit further investigation to discover the motivations that lead these schools to counter the general pattern.
Finding 5: Schools offer formal and nonformal theological education in many ways.
Our survey found diversity among formal and nonformal theological education programs alike. This diversity surfaces in ways that should challenge us to work differently as we equip Christian leaders. The next section will examine this finding more deeply.
Diverse Programs, Topics, & Modalities of Theological Education
Schools’ responses to the survey revealed diverse formal academic programs and study topics in Majority World theological education. Schools reported formal academic programs at five levels: Certificate, Diploma, Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate. At the Certificate level, schools reported 24 areas of study; at the Diploma level, 25 areas; at the Bachelor level, 33 areas; at the Master level, 44 areas; and at the Doctoral level, 11 areas (Fig 4).
These 137 areas were compiled into a list of 25 categories of study that vary from theology and Biblical studies to specific ministry skills to marketplace training:
- Theology / Theological Studies
- Christian Ministry / Pastoral / Practical Theology
- Bible / Biblical Studies / OT and NT
- Biblical Theology
- Counseling / Psychology /
- Leadership / Organizational Leadership
- Youth Ministry / Youth Counseling
- Christian Education / Religious Education / Discipleship
- Women in Ministry
- Holistic Child Development / Community Development
- Preaching / Exegesis / Expository Preaching
- Missions / Evangelism / Church-Planting / Apologetics
- Islamic Studies / Religions / Messianic Theology
- Translation / Linguistics
- Theological Education
- Historical Theology / Church History
- Systematic Theology
- Ethics / Governance / Public Policy
- Education and Teaching
- Social Ministry / Urban Ministry
- Media Leadership
- Christian Studies / Basic Studies
- Sign Language
- Church library
- Basic English
This list demonstrates schools’ responsiveness to the needs of the churches in their contexts. Two examples: Two seminaries in Africa (Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC) – Egypt and Institut Biblique du Benin) developed media leadership programs to provide training for church leaders in the use of media for ministry as the churches expressed their needs; two other seminaries began programs to train students in sign language to reach the deaf (Lviv Theological Seminary – Ukraine and ESEPA – Costa Rica). This responsiveness has enabled these institutions to reach beyond theological education’s traditional areas of study, to equip believers more effectively for ministry.
Next, the survey sought to understand schools’ involvement with nonformal theological training. Since nonformal programs are not oriented toward accredited degrees, categorizing them is more difficult. Surprisingly, 76% of schools that offered formal theological education also partnered with nonformal training programs. This points beyond the diversity of formal programs to a more general diversity of modes of teaching and learning. The fact that formal programs so often affiliate with nonformal teaching demonstrates a renewal of theological education, the fruit of years of investing in innovation. Figure 5 provides some data on nonformal programs. Altogether, nonformal programs have 33,221 participants.
Figure 6 shows the diversity of types of nonformal training programs and the number of programs reported in those categories.
Of the largest group of nonformal training programs, 12 were general lay leader development programs promoted in local churches. Specific skill training was promoted for Christian education or children’s ministry (6), counseling (6), preaching (4), missions and evangelism (3), and music and worship arts (3). 11 vocational skills programs were offered both on the seminary campus to train future pastors and missionaries and in local churches to train congregations. Some examples include tailoring, mechanical work, computer maintenance, and hairdressing. The interest in preparing future pastors and missionaries with skills for bivocational ministry is especially appropriate for church-planting and tent-making ministries.
Diversity in Majority World theological education goes beyond areas of study within either formal or nonformal theological training to include delivery modes as well. One of this study’s purposes was to explore modalities used in Majority World theological education. The study found many varied modes of delivery, timing, and location – residential classroom, extension sites, church-based training, TEE, online, seminars, short courses, pastors’ conferences, etc. Partly, this diversity of modalities points to theological schools’ ability to innovate to meet contextual needs. However, other factors may catalyze potential innovation into real action. OC’s “Unconventional Models” study explored the factors that helped leaders take risks, be proactive as they approached local churches and ministries, and stay open to new ideas (Macleod, 2013: 10-12). For instance, during a time of national ethnic tension, a seminary in Sri Lanka began extension centers that intentionally trained leaders from diverse language and cultural backgrounds. Taking this cross-cultural risk led the seminary to be a force for unity. Macleod (2013) reported that the primary motivation for innovations was a desire by theological faculty to serve the people and churches of their countries (11-12).
Because of these diverse program types, study topics, and modes of delivery, we must adjust our understanding of Majority World theological education. In addition to exploring questions noted above under Finding 4, we need to understand the role of outside organizations in this diversity. Did formal or informal partnerships help schools develop more programs, study topics, and modalities? How did organizations involved with nonformal theological training connect with seminaries? What models of partnership might be shared around the world? Alongside this investigation, conversations that include leaders representing different modalities could help to bridge divides between formal and nonformal education (Richard, 2015).
Motivations for Diversity in Majority World Theological Education
From the survey, we infer three possible motivations that guided seminaries toward more diverse programs, topics, and modalities.
Motivation 1: School leaders perceived training needs.
Some schools were motivated by perceiving how Christian leaders needed training in different areas. For instance, because of drug wars and decades of unrest, Colombia has one of the world’s highest numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Through its research department, the Biblical Seminary of Colombia (FUSBC) has been involved in ministry to IDPs for years. It contacted churches also ministering to IDPs across the country, and in response to these church interactions, FUSBC developed partnerships with various denominations to support their programs of leadership training for ministry to IDPs. In addition to these grassroots church efforts, following normal academic patterns, they developed formal academic specializations to meet these needs as well.
Motivation 2: School leaders wanted to serve local churches.
As schools continued to perceive church leaders’ training needs, they contacted churches to adapt programs and offer them nonformally in local settings. They developed centers for theological training in local churches, offered mentoring, and revised materials so that they would be appropriate for church use. Seminaries in Croatia (Evangelical Theological Seminary), the Middle East (Nazareth Evangelical College), Nigeria (West Africa Theological Seminary), the Philippines (Asian Theological Seminary), and Togo (WABAST) reported that their responses grew out of discussions with churches in their countries. Overall, school leaders evinced a desire to stretch the mold of traditional education as they sought to serve “the church by providing accessible theological education for the working adult student” (Macleod, 2015). This motivation opened these leaders up to respond to training needs in new ways.
Motivation 3: School leaders wanted to address their institutions’ problems of sustainability.
As school leaders faced financial constraints, they developed new programs, study topics, and modalities to try to help their institutions become more financially stable. Some school leaders may have thought that new programs would generate more enrollment, thus supporting the school. However, this thinking runs counter to research that indicates that increased enrollment is not usually a path to financial sustainability (Bellon, 2017). That leaders made programmatic responses both to problems of financial sustainability and to the leader training gap is worthy of further study to ascertain which of these was more prominent in their decision-making.
Our survey demonstrates that Christian leaders need training and that seminaries around the world are developing diverse ways to address that need. Schools’ responses to the survey both encourage and challenge us. So how shall we now equip leaders for Christ’s churches?
Implications from the Diversity of Theological Education Programs
This study of diversity among theological education programs in the Majority World suggests four implications for how theological education should continue to develop. The theme that connects all four implications is the need for local churches and seminaries to partner together. I encourage readers to apply these implications to their own situations. God’s work requires trained leaders if it is to be effective in bringing Gospel transformation to our communities, societies, and world.
Implication 1: Whole Life Transformation – Beyond “four years” to life-long learning
Whether formal or nonformal, programs need to draw on trends in higher education that point to a rising emphasis on life-long learning, in which “the focus increasingly comes from listening to congregational leaders and the community about their current needs” (Scanlon, 2019). One aspect of life-long learning is that students may take shorter bursts of training, but, over a lifetime, will piece together the training they need when they need it. This adds intrinsic motivation to studies and often gives opportunities for problem-based learning.
Such life-long transformation will only be possible through an increasing diversity of theological education offerings in terms of programs, topics, and modalities. Through online courses, intensive modules, extension centers, pastors’ conferences, and church-based training, Christian leaders do not need to be restricted to training during one intensive season but can continue to learn over many decades (Green et al, 2018).
Implication 2: Whole Being Formation – Beyond “four walls” to holistic formation
In surveying theological training programs in the Majority World, we discovered a sensitivity to the need for whole-person formation. Diverse programs allow Christians to take advantage of the benefits of the local church for spiritual formation, the local community for social outreach, and the academic community for rigorous intellectual study. Blended learning contexts unite family, friends, church, and academy to shape Christian leaders (Shaw, 2014). Blended contexts capitalize on contextual diversity to promote “character and virtue education” (Oxenham, 2019). To stretch beyond traditional models for the sake of holistic learning, theological training programs need more partnerships with those in their local and global communities.
Implication 3: Whole People of God Trained – Teach students to be teachers
Our survey recognizes that all of God’s people need to be trained – not just church leaders and seminary faculty. Yes, school leaders believe that church leaders desperately need training, as their survey answers show. However, that gap involves all congregational members. Seminaries need to “train trainers” so that their graduates can, in turn, train many others in, with, and for the church. While many advanced programs envision their role as training trainers, the graduates often have their sights on higher levels of learning and teaching. The time has come for pastors and leaders to be trained as teachers themselves in local churches so that they can equip the people of God in local churches in ways that will transform lives, churches and communities.
This implication may mean that seminaries need to involve their students in nonformal training so that they can practice what they should do when they graduate. Seminaries can partner with churches and with nonformal training ministries, requiring their students to learn to train others in these venues.
Implication 4: The whole church is responsible for leader training
For far too long, theological education programs and churches have been separate. This survey points to some good news: That gap is closing. However, churches have responded to that gap in the past by forming their own Bible schools or investing in “content dump” programs. These practices may threaten seminaries – or they may open doors for seminaries and churches to talk about how they can work together to sustain the training of God’s people. Seminaries and churches should begin to see each other as members of one body with mutual respect and responsibility. We need to develop a foundation of Christian unity that can support the diverse programs, study topics, and modalities revealed by this survey.
These implications lead to three challenges especially for those of us who seek to guide Majority World seminaries, whether as consultants, administrators, faculty, or denominational leaders. What can we do, now that our awareness has been drawn to the need for and the diversities within Majority World theological education?
Challenge 1: We must learn with these schools.
Further studies with some key schools will give us insights into new models and motivations for theological education. From these studies, we may discover more models that can overcome some of the false dichotomies that still influence theological education. We may discover models that are more responsive to their contexts and that can then be shared globally. Motivations that build resilience may open doors to encourage school leaders globally to develop new pathways for leader training. We may see ways of thinking that allow seminaries and churches to hold differences in tension, supported by relationships of love.
Challenge 2: We must support faculty development.
“Support” can connote the scaffolding necessary for building to occur. As they begin to teach in many contexts, theological educators who are accustomed to the classroom will need to adapt to new learning environments. They will need to be willing to get out of their comfort zones, to practice humility. Seminaries can support faculty in this process by giving them time and resources to investigate, test, and apply new models of teaching and learning. Seminaries might collaborate with one another (and with other, non-academic organizations) to offer a wider range of faculty development options.
Challenge 3: We must drop false dichotomies of modes of theological education.
In 2010, a group of pastoral trainers released a declaration as part of the Lausanne Cape Town Congress that called all educators to “endeavor to build trust, involve each other, and leverage strengths of each sector to prepare maturing shepherds for the proclamation of God’s Word and the building up of Christ’s Church in all the nations of the world” (Pastoral Trainers Declaration, 2010). Let us pursue mutual respect across formal and nonformal education. This respect will only develop as we honestly look at our own practices and evaluate them frankly. From a place of humility, we can enter into dialogue across modalities and learn from each other. The goal of dialogue will not be a homogenized model of theological education but a mixture of modalities that meets leader training needs based on the context.
As I contemplate the diversity of theological programs, topics, and modalities, and the immense need for training, I return to the question, “How shall we then train?” My answer: While some people are interested in a quick solution, an African proverb is good to keep in mind: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Let’s work together amid this diversity for the sake of God’s work in this world.
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