A Guide to Successful International Scholarships

by James L. Hansen

Six key components in one international scholarship program in Bolivia have led to great success in Christian leaders making an impact both nationally and globally.

My overnight flight from Miami to La Paz (Bolivia) was unexpectedly rerouted to Santa Cruz (Bolivia). Once we landed, those of us in transit crowded into the telephone center to call and let our friends know of the change in our flight plan.

Enrique and I had met briefly on the plane and he approached me for help. He was coming to Bolivia to attend a conference on ministry to street children. It was his first time in Bolivia and he did not know how to contact those waiting for him in Cochabamba. After calling ahead, we ended up drinking coffee and talking for hours in the airport.

Eventually, we got to the topic of international scholarships for pastors and Christian workers.  “We are thinking about shutting down our international scholarship program,” he told me. It was a comment I had heard many times from other ministry leaders. I often wondered if I was the only one left who was enthusiastic about international scholarship programs.

Over the years, I have heard many stories of failed programs. The two most common complaints are that (1) scholarship recipients fail to return to their home country or (2) they do return, but the ministry results are very disappointing.

By comparison, our program in Bolivia seems to have been unusually blessed. Over the last fifteen years we have sent ten pastors and one Christian worker outside of Bolivia for advanced theological study; all eleven have returned to Bolivia. Currently, seven are serving as pastors, one is a seminary director, one is a seminary professor, one directs a project that develops Christian education materials, and one is a missionary sent out from Bolivia. Over the years, all have served as either full-time or part-time faculty in theological education. Two started new theological education ministries after their return to Bolivia.

Our scholarship program was not always so successful. In the early 1980s two pastors were given scholarships for advanced theological studies. Each completed an M.A. in theology in the U.S., but when their studies were completed, only one returned to Bolivia. A fifty percent return on investment was discouraging enough to terminate the scholarship program for ten years.

By the mid-1990s, however, several of us became convinced that we should give the program a second chance. We carefully reviewed the previous failure and considered what was needed for a successful program. Below are key components.

1. Choose Spiritual Leadership before Academic Leadership
Our first concern was to select candidates with the most potential to positively impact the Church in Bolivia. During our discussion, Enrique related that even though their scholarship recipients returned home, their contribution to the ministry was a great disappointment.

From the beginning, we asked how we could ensure that our candidates would benefit the Church after they returned. We designated spiritual leadership and a proven record in ministry as our primary selection criteria. Enrique told me that they chose the most outstanding students graduating from the seminary. Unfortunately, although they were the best and the brightest in the seminary context, there was little data to evaluate their effectiveness in ministry. When they completed their advanced studies and entered full-time ministry, many didn’t know what to do or where to start. They were full of knowledge, but had little practical experience. Additionally, the churches didn’t know them and were reluctant to hire them. Many turned out to be better students than they were ministers or teachers.

Our scholarship committee is composed of two missionaries and two representatives selected by the national church board. From the beginning, the committee began the selection process by making a list of spiritual leaders in the denomination. They used a number of questions: Who is making an impact in the church? Who are our leaders in evangelism? Who has increased the vision for missions? Who do we respect as those who set a Christ-like example?

We looked for a minimum of five years (preferably ten or more) of post-graduate ministry. In many cases, the churches and ministries resisted our selection because they didn’t want the leaders to leave. We wanted candidates who were already making an impact in the church, since this was likely the best way to identify spiritual maturity and leadership. Only afterward did we look at their academic record to see if they had the ability to make use of further theological training.  

As a result, our candidates have typically not been the outstanding scholars on campus. We have been told, however, that they are spiritual leaders on campus; many, in fact, became spiritual advisors to fellow students.

The decision to relegate academic achievement to a decidedly secondary status may seem counterproductive, since part of the purpose of our scholarship program was to strengthen our own theological education institutions. Nevertheless, the contribution to theological education has been significant. All of our candidates have been significantly involved in theological education upon their return—although only about half were involved before they left. From the beginning, we hoped our scholarship program would help to improve theological education available in Bolivia (which it has). However, does the Church need more theologians—or more spiritual leaders?

Financially, the decision to approve candidates with many years of ministry experience worked against us. They were more likely to be married with children, increasing our investment in the scholarship. Nevertheless, we have seen the benefits multiplied. In most cases, both husband and wife studied at the seminary. In one case, both the husband and wife and their two teenage daughters returned with a degree in some area of ministry. Today, three of those four are working full time in theological education.

2. Choose a School that Teaches Sound Doctrine
Another important consideration is school selection. A friend of mine has been on the board of a large North American missionary society for years. During this time, the board stopped funding and promoting international scholarships. It was a story similar to what Enrique had told me, but with a twist: the churches refused to take them when they returned to the home country!

I was greatly puzzled by this until my friend told me the name of the seminary where the candidates were studying. It was a denominational seminary which had been recruiting students from other countries for years. Getting Latino students admitted was easy, but the teaching was dominated by liberation theology. The students returned to their home country enthusiastic about a theological agenda that was unacceptable to the theologically conservative and biblically-focused national churches.

Although theological education should include an introduction to a broader sphere of theology, caution is appropriate in choosing the school. In general, most scholarships should be for study at schools with a known theological stance that agrees with the national church. For us, this has meant an evangelically conservative, Bible-focused program.

3. Use Schools outside the West
Ensuring recipients will be effective upon their return is not the only challenge. For some programs, the greater challenge has been to ensure that they return at all. Good friends of mine live next to a leading Christian college and graduate school in the U.S.  

As former missionaries, they are eager to make friends with international students. They are no longer, however, enthusiastic about scholarship programs. They know too many foreign students who were sent to study in the U.S. through scholarship programs but never returned to their home country.

Those of us who have lived in the countries where these students come from can hardly blame them. The wealth and affluence in many parts of the West is a great temptation. When we restarted our scholarship program, we asked ourselves if we had any alternatives to sending our candidates to schools in the West. We came up with the names of two leading seminaries in Latin America. After careful consideration, we chose the Seminario Teologico Centroamericano in Guatemala. Ten of our eleven candidates have studied there. Only one of our candidates was sent to the U.S. (for a doctorate).

Although schools in the West can offer a higher level of academic preparation, the majority of our candidates did not need to go there to get the advanced training. For most, the cross-cultural experience even helped them to be more effective in ministry. Additionally, the cost was much less expensive than a scholarship to schools in the West. Leading theological institutions are available in Latin America, Africa, and Asia (see sidebar on page 207).

The cross-cultural experience is just as important as the advanced training. Every missionary can testify how living in another culture has helped to deepen his or her own dependence upon God and expand his or her vision for ministry. That cross-cultural experience does not have to be on another continent. Every continent is filled with a diversity of cultures.

Sending candidates to theological institutions in neighboring countries may not seem to offer a cross-cultural experience, but our candidates have a different perspective. During our first meeting together after one scholar’s return from Guatemala, he told me that he was tempted to kiss the tarmac when he got off the plane. He told me he had experienced the life of a missionary. For a Bolivian, Guatemala is a very foreign place.

There will be candidates who are obviously ready to attend schools in the West. The one we did send to the U.S. had already completed advanced studies in Guatemala, returned to Bolivia to serve for another seven years in successful ministry, and then was sent for a doctorate. On the basis of his long history of successful ministry in Bolivia and good use of advanced training, we were confident he would return.

4. Be Transparent about the Conditions of the Scholarship
Nearly all of our candidates tell us that the churches and ministries in which they served while completing their studies pleaded with them to not return to Bolivia. Nevertheless, all did return. We believe there are several reasons for this. First, as was already mentioned, we sent our candidates to Guatemala, which is somewhat more prosperous than Bolivia, but does not carry the temptation of the great riches in the West.

Additionally, we signed a formal contract with all of our candidates which stipulates that the scholarship is a loan, which becomes a grant upon their return to Bolivia (every year of service within the denomination cancels one-quarter of the debt). Nevertheless, we are very transparent. We tell every candidate that we have no power to enforce the contract. The whole agreement is based on trust.  

We let them know from the beginning that we chose them because we trust them and believe that they will fulfill the agreement to return and serve in Bolivia.

We do that on the basis of our first criteria of selecting a candidate based on fruitful ministry and godly character. These candidates are people we observed closely in ministry for many years. We believe that the godly character of our candidates and our transparency about our trust in them have been important factors in our success rate.

5. Allow Candidates to Choose the Ministry that Will Fulfill the Agreement
According to the contract, the denomination does not dictate in which ministry the recipient must serve upon his or her return. This allows various churches and ministries to recruit the pastor. Rather than taking a low-paying ministry position in a location that the denomination is having trouble filling, the pastor is able to choose what best suits the needs of his family.

6. Do Not Let Church Politics or Finances Control the Program
A scholarship program can easily find itself operating according to the dictates of church politics or money. Church politics can easily turn a scholarship program that looks for fruitful ministry and godly character into a rewards program for those who have been faithful to the current denominational leadership.

Our scholarship committee (made up of two missionaries and two representatives selected by the national denomination) is designed to help balance local church politics. Whenever a new committee begins the candidate selection process, the primary focus of the initial meetings is prayer—seeking God’s guidance for candidates. On more than one occasion, we have postponed the selection of a new candidate as a result of church politics or a question about the suitability of the candidate being reviewed.

Too much money can also detour the process by encouraging sending a less-than-ideal candidate. When you have to wait for funds, candidates can be included in the process of prayer and dependence upon the Lord, which helps to strengthen the partnership in the scholarship program.

Several years ago, when funds were particularly scarce, a 90-year-old friend of the program took $4,000 out of his life’s savings and gave it to help bring back a candidate to Bolivia. The recipient was praying about this need along with the rest of us, and I was able to tell him of the sacrifice that paid for his airfare.

We have had our disappointments. After one of our pastors was sent off for studies, we found that he had hedged on his resume. The result was that he lost his scholarship, but he got a job, finished his studies, and came back to Bolivia. Another candidate changed to another denomination before finishing the four-year commitment to us. Another pastor visited the U.S. on a mission trip and is no longer serving in Bolivia, but pastoring a church in the U.S.  

Nevertheless, the spiritual leadership that has characterized our candidates has continued to result in bearing fruit for the kingdom and has deepened as a result of their advanced studies.

1. List compiled by Steve Hardy (DMiss), SIM advocate for theological education and international program director for scholars for Langham Partnership International.

 Leading Seminaries in Africa, Asia, and  Latin America
(MA degrees and above)1

English-speaking Africa
•  Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (Nairobi, Kenya)
•  The ECWA Theology Seminary (JETS) (Jos, Nigeria)
•  Scott Theological College (Machakos, Kenya)
•  The Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

French-speaking Africa
•  Bangui Evangelical School of Theology (BEST/FATEB) (Central African Republic)
•  West Africa Alliance Theological Seminary (FATEAC) (Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire)

•  The South Asian Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) (Bangalore, India)
•  The China Graduate School of Theology (CGST) (Hong Kong)
•  The Asian Graduate School of Theology (AGST) (Manila, Philippines)
•  Trinity Theological College (Singapore) Singapore Bible College (Singapore)

Latin America
• Seminario Teologico Centroamericano (Guatemala City, Guatemala)
• Seminario Biblico Palavra da Vida (Sao Paolo, Brazil)

James L. Hansen, DMin, has served as a missionary with Serving in Mission in Bolivia since 1989. He is professor of Bible and church history at the Seminario Biblico of Cochabamba and coordinates the international scholarship program.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 208-214. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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