by Rich Starcher
Twice a week for two years I commuted across Nairobi, Kenya, to teach at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. During these commutes, I regularly passed a business with the unique and descriptive name “The Really Useful Landscaping Company.”
Twice a week for two years I commuted across Nairobi, Kenya, to teach at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. During these commutes, I regularly passed a business with the unique and descriptive name “The Really Useful Landscaping Company.” At the time, I was also looking into models of theological doctoral program design for the African context. At the end of my study, I concluded what Africa wanted and needed was a “Really Useful Theological Doctoral Program.”
Given the evident need for thousands of church leaders to be trained at the grassroots level, some strategists might consider a theological doctoral program in Africa for Africans an extravagant luxury. However, many African church leaders see it as imperative. African Bible schools, colleges and training programs are multiplying to supply leaders for the burgeoning African church. This is resulting in a corresponding demand for high-level theological educators who will staff these institutions and programs. Inadequate opportunity for higher studies in sub-Saharan Africa often drives Africa’s best teachers and theologians to Europe or North America. Many never return to a continent desperate for their expertise and critical thinking skills. Others return only to leave again as a result of re-adaptation struggles. High costs prevent many more from ever pursuing their dream of doctoral study. Further, many African students find their overseas doctoral programs lack relevance in light of African realities.
For reasons similar to those mentioned above, seminaries all over the non-Western world are launching theological doctoral programs.
Unfortunately, many are merely adopting (with little adapting) a Western doctoral program design. Western seminaries are exporting their programs (and faculty) to Africa, Asia and Latin America. In a personal communication, noted North American theological educator Linda Cannell said, “This is not an effective way to develop the world church.”
What does a properly contextualized doctoral program look like? To answer this question from the African perspective, I interviewed thirty-three African stakeholders to discover their views for an appropriate theological doctorate in and for Africa. These stakeholders fell into two broad categories: (1) doctoral students in theological disciplines (past, present and potential) and (2) leaders of schools likely to employ graduates of theological doctoral programs.
As a preface to discussing the “really useful” program, I will describe both the African theological doctoral student and the African theological doctoral graduate. These descriptions, provided by African stakeholders, form the basis for designing an appropriate African program.
Daniel1 is a leader in his denomination and teaches at its Bible college. After Daniel completed his masters degree in theology, the interdenominational seminary he attended asked him to join the faculty. He taught simultaneously at both schools for six years before his denomination, with the support of its associated American mission, agreed to support his doctoral studies. He was nearly forty years old and married with five children when he began his five-year doctoral program.
Daniel is typical of African theological doctoral students. They are mature, experienced men and women, most of whom have nuclear and extended family responsibilities. They are vitally interested in African issues, ecclesiastically connected and view the Church as a vehicle for social aid and reform, as well as a venue for individual spiritual growth. They come from poor countries and rarely have the resources to pursue doctoral studies without substantial financial aid. However, they are also highly motivated individuals who already have succeeded against overwhelming odds in reaching the highest level of an educational system fraught with pitfalls.
Such students approach theological doctoral studies pragmatically. They are motivated chiefly by a desire to be useful in Africa and to the African Church. Doctoral studies make them more competent and grant them access into expanded ministry, but they view enhanced competence and expanded access largely as a means to an end, namely, usefulness. They also make pragmatic decisions with regard to the choice of a doctoral program. They desire a relevant, credible program in their field of interest, but demonstrate a willingness to compromise the ideal for the practical. They choose programs perceived as achievable based upon their fiscal and familial situations.
After completing his doctorate, Daniel continued teaching in two different theological disciplines at the seminary in central Africa. However, the school soon appointed him academic dean. He lightened his teaching load to accommodate the new administrative responsibilities. He published his doctoral dissertation upon graduation, but has had little time for
academic research and writing since becoming academic dean.
Again, Daniel resembles many African doctoral graduates. If employed by African theological colleges and seminaries, they are engaged as teachers in the “traditional” theological disciplines (Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, Church History, Missions or Christian Education). However, they often teach outside the narrow confines of their discipline. While they are given little opportunity or encouragement to engage in scholarly research and writing, their research skills help them prepare new courses, including ones outside their area of expertise. Further, they are quickly thrust into leadership roles where their critical thinking skills prove invaluable. As teachers and leaders preparing men and women for church-related ministry, theological colleges and seminaries expect the students to demonstrate integrity of character.
Against the backdrop of the student and graduate profiles described above, stakeholders painted a composite picture of a really useful theological doctoral program with three main features. It is: (1) contextually suitable, (2) demonstrably achievable and (3) internationally credible.
1. Contextual suitability. The first important aspect of contextual suitability concerns relevance to church and society in Africa. Richard, pursuing a doctorate at a seminary in the United States, spoke frankly of the content of his program:
I read and read and read. I say, “You’re having this great stuff.” Then I ask, “So what?” I always come back and I say, “So what?” Has this helped the Church grow? Has this helped the body of Christ to be better? And sometimes I think there is more than we need out there. And then, that’s the tension of, when I come, I ask myself when I go back to Kenya, “Will this be useful for the church? How is this relevant to their needs?” And sometimes you may have so much information (that is) good, but not very useful.
Beth recently received her masters in divinity degree from a seminary in Kenya and longs for a doctoral program dealing with issues relevant to the African context. She believes that by studying in Africa, some of the issues she desires to learn about will retain their African relevance. William also assumed a program on the African continent would be more Africa-relevant and so chose to do his doctorate at a South African university. However, he soon found the approach and content too “Western.” William wondered, “Can’t we [Africans] do something that responds to our concerns?”
The second important aspect of cultural suitability involves relevant preparation for future service. Relevant preparation results not only in learned scholars, but also in competent teachers and effective leaders. While Western doctoral programs primarily prepare researchers, heads of African colleges and seminaries are mainly looking for teachers. They want skilled instructors who not only have domain-specific expertise, but also the versatility to handle a variety of courses. One Christian college leader stated,
We’re looking for teachers who use different learning and teaching methods, other than the usual lecture type, and are more creative in their teaching and learning methods. So we look for that, and we also look for the ability to integrate their faith with their teaching, and to be able to contextualize their material so that it fits the cultural context.
However, when I asked one student what he thought of his doctoral training as preparation for future service, he replied, “We’re trained to do theological research, but what’s lacking (and this needs to be corrected) is training in teaching methods.”
The reality is, few African doctoral graduates find time for scholarly writing once they begin teaching. Further, most are saddled with heavy administrative duties early in their academic careers. One academic dean testified, “I taught for four months and then I was given this post.” Her case was not exceptional. In fact, many schools send faculty to do theological doctoral studies and expect them to return to administrative posts. One doctorate student complained, “I am in the Old Testament… but I can finish here and go work in the administration of a school. You see, then, doctoral studies were of no use to me in the field of administration, but that’s what I’ll be doing.” A recent doctoral graduate (now an academic dean) lamented, “I wish someone had given me leadership courses, management courses, and so on and so on; administration courses.”
While Africa needs scholars and writers capable of addressing African issues from a biblical perspective, the jobs awaiting doctoral graduates are in the areas of teaching and administration. The stakeholders I interviewed are pleading for a contextually suitable doctoral program providing preparation not only for academic research but also for real work in the real African academic world.
2. Demonstrable achievability. The second important quality of an African theological doctoral program concerns its achievability. First and foremost it must be affordable. Second, it should be flexible. Third, it should be able to be completed within a reasonable amount of time.
Affordability. The cost of a theological doctorate varies greatly from context to context. Interestingly, students don’t worry much about the price tag. Their only concern is getting enough money and being able to care for their family. Hence, an expensive American doctorate is more attractive than a South African program costing less than half as much, provided students receive sufficient financial aid and visas that allow them to work. One prospective doctoral student explained, “The American context is an attraction because you may have work to do as a livelihood as you pursue the degree… Life can go on; family life can go on as you go ahead with the study of your degree.”
Nevertheless, stakeholders generally assume a doctoral program in Africa for Africans will cost less than its overseas counterpart. Cost estimates provided by various schools appear to confirm this assumption. A four-year residential program (excluding transportation but including tuition, medical insurance and living expenses for a family of four) at nine schools in Europe and America ranged from $92,350 to $145,664. The Catholic University of Eastern Africa estimated similar expenses in Nairobi at only $48,800. Estimates given by three South African schools ranged from $51,877 to $67,105. However, the most affordable programs worldwide were those with flexible residency requirements. Four students who completed their doctorates non-residentially, spending relatively short blocks of time studying on-site, reported their total cost between $8,000 and $33,000.
Flexibility. Given the choice, most African students prefer to study full-time without the distraction of work. However, they also recognize the risks of leaving their jobs, uprooting their families and moving to a foreign land. Therefore, programs allowing students to manage “pace and place” are more attractive than traditional residential programs.
Nevertheless, students view some flexible programs as an achievability risk because they can take too long. For example, Edward is avoiding the Kenyan research-based doctorate because “most of the universities here in Kenya, like state universities, if you register with them it takes so long to finish up a program. It’s because many [professors] are engaged in other [things], you know—moonlighting, something like that, and they don’t really have time to concentrate.”
Program length. African students and sponsoring organizations fear doctoral programs taking longer than four years to complete. Students worry they won’t finish. Sponsors worry students won’t return to Africa if they stay too long in the West. Non-residential doctorates can take up to five years without causing undue alarm. Interestingly, non-residential students who study while “on the job” appear to require only an average of an extra year to complete their studies. Nevertheless, most will need to devote all their time to writing during their last year of study.
3. International credibility. In addition to being contextually suitable and demonstrably achievable, a really useful African theological doctoral program must be internationally credible. While stakeholders view an internationally credible program as both accredited and excellent, they are more concerned about excellence than accreditation.
Accreditation. Stakeholders don’t necessarily view accreditation as a guarantee of program quality, but they do value the importance of both governmental approval and regional endorsement. Graduates want jobs at schools that only accept holders of “accredited” doctorates. Leaders of institutions with faculty development programs hesitate to send students to unaccredited schools.
Excellent research capacity. Adequate library resources are of vital importance. In addition to the sheer number of volumes in an institution’s library, stakeholders mention two factors that boost confidence in an institution’s research capacity: (1) interlibrary collaboration and (2) information technology. Reflecting on her experience in the United Kingdom, one recent doctoral graduate said, “I would click on a computer and I know the book is published in Nebraska. Then I have an interlibrary loan and I know it will come.”
One doctoral graduate living in Kenya commented, “Library resource is a big area, but you’d be surprised. A lot of the works that I access, especially in the African studies area, are actually generated from the Internet.” A Kenyan doctoral student at a U.S. seminary explained, “If it’s on the Internet, it’s everybody’s information. All you need is to have a computer lab.”
Stakeholders desire an African theological doctoral program judged comparable in quality to other doctoral programs offered locally or overseas. Notwithstanding their desire for a theological doctoral program tailored to Africa’s needs, they fear unfavorable comparisons. One recent doctoral graduate explained, “There shouldn’t be this problem of people looking down upon others.” An African Christian college administrator added, “You have to make a doctorate look like a doctorate rather than just issuing degrees. It has to be credible.”
Excellent faculty resources. Doctoral faculty must be experienced, erudite and available. One Kenyan college leader explains,
Doctoral programs, they require a certain amount of academic maturity, a serious amount of it really, because the people you’re going to find are people that have had their own experiences. They need the highest level of theological function in this continent. You need people who have credibility in terms of their theological acumen. I wouldn’t ask for anything less.
In addition to experience and erudition, stakeholders insist upon the stability and availability of doctoral faculty members. One stakeholder described his ideal of a doctoral faculty member as not only good, “but always, there, there, there—a mentor I can count on from the time I start writing to the time that I finish.”
Designing a truly useful African doctoral program requires a careful balance of suitability, credibility and achievability. Some compromises among program components are inevitable. However, it appears feasible to keep each component within acceptable parameters while attending to them all.
1. Usefulness and suitability. It would be easy to assume a theological doctoral program on African soil ipso facto will address African concerns. However, the failure to do so on the part of many undergraduate and masters programs is ample evidence of the need for African schools to be intentional about contextualization. As one African stakeholder said, “We talk about contexualizing, but I don’t think we do much of it.”
African theological doctoral students must be empowered to address African issues from a biblical perspective. One important aspect of this empowerment concerns faculty resources. Most African seminaries are small and must depend, at least in part, on adjunct and visiting faculty to supplement their ranks if they are to offer a credible doctorate. And where will they look for these faculty members? Seminaries in the majority world tend to look first to the West instead of in their own backyard or other majority world contexts. African stakeholders suggest using local adjunct faculty and developing existing African personnel by connecting them to competent mentors who have experience in directing doctoral work.
2. Usefulness and credibility. Credible academic doctoral programs have a substantial research component. European doctorates tend to be “research only” degrees. American doctoral programs include research requirements (including a dissertation) of between twenty-five and forty percent of the total program. Utilizing an American-type model, it is altogether possible to address the felt needs of African stakeholders. For example, with a sixty semester credit hour doctoral program, twenty-four credit hours (or forty percent) can be devoted to the research component (inclusive of research tools). Thirty-six credit hours remain available for coursework that broadens students’ domain-specific expertise and prepares them for service in Africa’s seminaries and theological colleges. Even twelve of those thirty-six credit hours devoted to instruction in teaching methods and leadership/administration skills would represent valuable, intentional preparation for the “real” roles that await doctoral graduates.
3. Usefulness and achievability. While program affordability is clearly an important “achievability concern,” it must not be isolated from other achievability factors. For example, work and family responsibilities will prevent some students from beginning a traditional, four-year residential doctoral program. A semi-residential, modular program translates into achievability, not only because it is more affordable, but also because it is more flexible. Nonetheless, many African students simply must get away from their work responsibilities in order to find time to study. A modular approach also accommodates residential students who will require income (in addition to tuition and living expenses) to take care of their immediate and extended families. All-inclusive scholarships are rare. Hence, many students find work-study programs attractive.
The practice of utilizing graduate students as research and teaching assistants, while common in the U.S., is rare in seminaries and theological colleges in Africa (outside of South Africa). Nevertheless, African stakeholders, both students and institutional leaders, see the employing of doctoral students as a practical approach to enhancing affordability. Three possibilities for student employment appear feasible: (1) as undergraduate instructors, (2) as graduate research and teaching assistants and (3) as teachers in continuing lower level extension education programs. Such employment not only helps prepare students for future service, but also renders the doctoral program more sustainable by decreasing dependence on scholarship funding.
African stakeholders are longing for a really useful theological doctoral program that facilitates Africa-relevant research and provides relevant preparation for the teaching and administrative roles students will assume after graduation. The program should include instruction in postsecondary teaching and institutional leadership while imparting domain specific expertise and subject matter breadth. The program’s teaching component should be delivered in modular courses to grant maximum flexibility to African students. Institutions offering doctorates must do all they can to build their research capacity and faculty resources. At the same time, it is imperative that leading African seminaries forge ahead to create contextually suitable, demonstrably achievable and internationally credible theological doctoral programs. A really useful theological doctoral program is of no use if it only exists in the hearts of students and the dreams of institutional leaders.
1. Real names not used when quoting or describing participants in this study.
Rich Starcher is currently dean of Extension Studies at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology and has served for the past eighteen years in three African countries.
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