Theological educators deal with a changing world

Baptist educators involved in the training of future pastors and ministers face a variety of challenges as their institutions struggle to remain faithful, relevant – and solvent

Representatives from each of the six regions making up the Baptist World Alliance addressed the topic of “Emerging Issues in Theological Formation of Ministerial Students” during the eighth Baptist International Conference on Theological Education, held in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Charlemagne NditemehContextualization was a common theme, as educators have sought to help students integrate theory and praxis. Presenters Charlemagne M. Nditemeh of the All Africa Baptist Fellowship, Miyon Chung of the Asia Pacific Baptist Fellowship, Richard J. Serrano of the Union of Baptists of Latin America, and Glenroy Lalor of the Caribbean Baptist Fellowship all emphasized the diversity of students and ministerial contexts in their regions, requiring educators to help future ministers learn to “do theology” and practice within their various settings.

Nditemeh, from Camaroon, said this has been difficult in Africa, where most seminaries were established by Western missionaries and based on European or North American models, which aren’t always appropriate for the diverse African contexts.

Chung, from South Korea, illustrated ways in which Western models aren’t always appropriate for Asian cultures. The Western approach is philosophical, theoretical, and analytical, she said, done within clearly defined nations that have experienced a common evolvement from premodernity to modernity and postmodernity.

Miyon ChungIn contrast, Asians are pragmatic and concrete, she said, and live in areas where national borders are not as important as tribal identity, and where premodernity, modernity, and postmodernity exist side by side.

Richard SerranoSerrano noted the complexity of issues facing educators, including religious pluralism, distance, environmental issues, hostility and violence, poverty, and immigration, asking “How do we do theology in that context?”

Funding is also been a widespread problem. The global economic downturn has led to a drying up of overseas funding in Africa, said Nditemeh, requiring seminaries to find alternate support or to adapt their programs. Latin American Baptists have faced a similar issue since the 1990s, Serrano said, when the Southern Baptist Convention walked away from theological institutions they had established and funded for years.

Lina AndronovieneLina Andronoviene, of the European Baptist Fellowship, said may European seminaries are struggling because the number of Christians and potential students in Europe has been in steady decline, and schools cannot afford to maintain residential campuses that were built in an earlier period when Christianity was more popular.

“Owning a building can feel like a grinding stone around one’s neck,” she said, but “God’s Spirit can show us different ways to go about things.”

Andronoviene, who teaches at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, said congregational-based ministerial training became popular in the 1990s, especially in the United Kingdom. Theological training in her home country of Lithuania – where there are less than 400 Baptists – takes place without a building or a budget, relying on volunteer teachers as well as students, she said.

Issues of both funding and contextualization have also led to an increase in distance learning, which can be done at a much lower cost than residential progrrams and tailored for individual contexts. Speakers noted, however, that face-to-face interaction remains crucial.  

To deal with this, some seminaries are combining online courses with short-term residential programs. Others connect students with local pastors who provide personal attention and serve a mentoring role.

While past training has emphasized theory, current educators are giving more attention to practical aspects of ministry. Chung said foundations of biblical exegesis and theological construction remain necessary, but educators must widen the fields of specialization to train Christian counselors, educators, social workers, musicians, and others who can integrate theological astuteness with practical skills.

Lalor, who teaches at the United Theological College of the West Indies in Jamaica, noted a growing inclination toward interdisciplinary studies, as students access university programs and engage other areas such as social sciences, mass communications, counseling, and other fields to prepare for more specialization in ministry.

Speakers also noted changes in the candidates who seek theological training. More ministerial candidates are older, second-career students. Lalor said the typical student at his school is not longer a single male in his mid-20s, but more likely to be married and in the late 30s. These students “bring a rich history of life experience” to the table, Lalor said, challenging educators to harness that wealth of experience.

Andronoviene said European students are also more likely to be older and embarking on a second career. Several speakers noted an increase in the number of women studying theological education, as well.

The shift in age is accompanied by a more ecumenical atmosphere in many countries, where it has become more acceptable for Baptists to study in non-Baptist institutions, and where Baptist schools are more likely to include students from other denominations. 

Speakers agreed that preparing students to minister to a new generation of believers in a changing world is challenging. Andronoviene said Baptists in Eastern European countries learned during the Soviet era how to behave under persecution. But, she said, “It’s hard to find our way in a new world where people just don’t care.”

Meredith J. StoneEven among those who are interested in spiritual matters, the framework of spiritual thinking has often changed. Meredith J. Stone, a PhD student at Brite Divinity School who represented the North American Baptist Fellowship, presented detailed research about subject areas that educators and students considered important.

Stone said the most important thing she learned in the research is that “the macro picture is that theological formation in North America is about the questions rather than the answers. This generation is not content to be taught someone else’s answers.”

Contemporary students want to be able to dialogue about the crucial questions of faith, how they arose, what others have thought, what it means in a practical sense. “They live in the ‘gray maybe middle’ and ministry will depend on their ability to dialogue about these issues,” she said.

Personal, theological, spiritual formation cannot be neglected, several speakers said. Chung cited a need for personal, spiritual and moral formation of students, while Lalor emphasized that “Theological education is not synonymous with ministerial formation.”

“Ministerial formation goes beyond theological education to include molding and instruction of students to embody what ministry is about,” Lalor said, including one’s vocational, personal, spiritual, and theological identity, as well as character formation.

Stone said spiritual formation must promote the development of a wholistic person who can be a true spiritual guide to believers, not just a church leader modeled on the model of a corporate executive.

Andronoviene emphasized the need to help students develop personal competence and character as they prepare to proclaim the gospel: “People are not persuaded by argument,” she said, “but by lifestyle and integrity.”

1 Comment

  1. Sounds like it was a wonderful conversation. Contextualization is absolutely critical to the educational experience. It is great to see the variety of presenters, from varied contexts. Such folks give me confidence that God can still move through those peculiar people known as Baptists.

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