by Jack Graves
Churches, mission agencies, and seminaries have a part to play in avoiding failures in our training investments.
These three stories will illustrate the theological brain drain:
According to his doctoral adviser at a leading evangelical theological seminary, he was one of the best students the adviser had ever had from Africa. Because he was fluent in French, English, and Kiswahili he was being pursued by three of Africa’s graduate evangelical seminaries. So my sadness at learning that he would not be returning to Africa was only exceeded by the frustration of learning why not. He explained that he had just accepted a job with an American mission agency to represent their work in Africa. Even more disturbing is that this particular mission is one that considers itself on the leading edge of ministry to nationals.
When he first arrived at the seminary I was attending, he was in the throes of culture shock. He didn’t hesitate to compare negatively anything American to his beloved Indonesia. He loved his country and couldn’t wait to return after completing a masters degree. I was somewhat surprised when I learned that he was staying on for a doctorate. But I knew that his goal was to be a professor in the well-known Indonesian seminary that was sponsoring his study. I recently learned he remained here nine years before returning home to work for the Bible Society. He had become one of 30 faculty members his sponsoring seminary had lost in the history of its faculty development program.
He had come to the United States initially to complete a master of divinity degree. By the time he left seven years later he held a Ph.D., his resolve and vision were intact, and his commitment to the theological college in his country was unchanged. But something had happened unnoticed by him during the seven years he had devoted himself to studies. His children, who came with him as infants, had grown up in the United States. He assumed they were African. His mistake was soon revealed when he moved his family into the tiny African faculty quarters and deposited his children in a local African school. The eldest child, according to one friend’s description, "just flipped out." Today the man and his family are back in the United States, where he was recently teaching high school.
It has been called the "theological brain drain," a less-than-adequate name for the unfortunate loss of church leaders, particularly theologians, from some of the neediest regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The effects of the theological brain drain would be impossible to document. The extent of the disease is a bit easier to measure. Bong Rin Ro, former executive secretary of the Asia Theological Association, has been one of the closest observers, and most vocal critics, of its occurrence, especially among Asians. On various occasions Ro has reported:
- the exodus of over 100 Chinese pastors from Hong Kong in a three- year period, many of them hired by Chinese North American congregations.
- the ratio of Korean pastors to Korean residents in North America to be twice the ratio found in Korea itself.
- the recruitment of one of Manila’s top pastors to serve a congregation of Californian Filipinos.
- that the American Consulate in Madras, India, claimed the brain drain among Indian theological students exiting for studies during the 1970s reached 90 percent.
- that "more Chinese theologians live in ‘Western Paradises,’ especially in North America, than in all of Asia.1
Zenas Gerig of the Caribbean Evangelical Theological Association has estimated that perhaps 85 percent of students from the Caribbean to the United States or Canada have eventually emigrated north to live.
Theo Donner, a Dutch-born missionary professor at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia, has estimated the loss in Colombia at 75 percent. According to him there are also more Colombian theologians in the United States than in Colombia. Other observers throughout the world have reported similar disturbing news.
FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO THE THEOLOGICAL BRAIN DRAIN
Hardly anyone in the North American missions community needs convincing that the theological brain drain is a serious problem. But surprisingly little is understood about why the problem occurs and what should be done to alleviate it. The motives in operation when a church leader decides to abandon his country-and sometimes his calling-are numerous. They are seldom purely economic, though this is undeniably a frequent contributing factor.
The first reaction that one might have to these occurrences is anger at the lack of spiritual vision of leaders who would turn their back on their home country for the lure of material things. But do not be so hard on them. Many of us fail to leave this Western paradise as missionaries for motives that differ little from theirs. Of growing interest is the role that Western organizations are playing, often unawares, in this tragedy. In a majority of the cases with which I am acquainted, at least a portion of the blame must be laid at the feet of Western churches, academic institutions, and mission organizations.
How is it happening? At least foot contributors can be identified:
1. Questionable missionary strategies. A major rationale for ministering to international students in North America is that they will be equipped to carry the gospel back to their own nations when they return. International student ministry is a wonderful ministry and deserving of every support, but evidence that it has strategic value as a missionary strategy for the student’s home country is largely anecdotal. Taken as a whole, the available data would tend to indicate little promise for training internationals in the U.S. as a strategic missionary program.
For example, according to statistics gathered by the National Youth Commission of Taiwan on the years 1950 to 1983,86 percent of the students who studied abroad failed to return to Taiwan. Of the 80,000 students sent abroad for training by their government, only 11,000 returned.2
Unfortunately, some churches and Bible colleges not only actively engage in outreach to internationals, which they should, but they devise programs that attract international students to Western countries with financial assistance.
Classic among these illustrations is the experience of the Wesley Central Mission of Sydney, Australia, which several years ago developed a church-based training program for international students from Southeast Asia. The intent of the program was to offer ministry training within the context of a large urban church, of which Wesley Central Mission is a remarkable example. The program was very well-planned, well-staffed, and well-funded. It attracted excellent students, many of them sent by denominational leaders, from more than 10 countries.
To the credit of the program’s founder, Gordon Moyes, a study was ordered of the ministries of the first 100 graduates.
"To my absolute horror," said Dr. Moyes, "I discovered that fully two-thirds of these graduates were living on the west coast of the richest nation in the world-in Orange County, California. The remainder were largely scattered about Australia. One Korean was pastoring a large church only two miles from my own."
Should we be reaching out to international students with Christian discipling ministries? Certainly. But if our motivation is to make missionaries of them for their own countries, our efforts are likely to be met with disappointment in a high percentage of cases. In fact, poorly conceived and unresearched programs may contribute heavily to the brain drain.
2. Misdirected benevolence. Sometimes a church will agree to underwrite the expenses of an international student at a nearby seminary or graduate school, though the church’s background information on the student is slim. Perhaps a church leader or member met the student on a brief mission trip to the student’s home country. I have encountered several churches in this situation, and in most cases have learned that the student has weak ties to the church in his home country, has no ministry waiting for his return, and has nebulous training goals.
For example, about two years ago I learned that my brother’s church in a southern state had "adopted" a student and his family from Ghana. My brother informed me that as part of missions program for the next three years they would be providing tuition at a nearby seminary, housing for the family, and a $400 monthly stipend for the student, who had met members of the church while they were on a mission trip a year earlier. Learning that the student had no specific ministry in mind, I predicted to my brother that Ghana would never see his services. Within 18 months my brother informed me that the student had been removed from the mission budget when he declared his intention to remain in the United States.
3. Policies of theological institutions. Theological seminaries in the United States take great pride in having a part in the development of leadership for the churches of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is difficult to find a seminary catalog that does not picture international students. There are almost mandatory references to the number of nationalities among the student body. But it is surprising how little is known or understood about how Western theological seminaries have contributed to the theological brain drain.
Few seminaries have taken the initiative to ascertain the value of their training to international students who have returned home. Equally few have even done serious research into the ratio of students who have failed to return. Many are aware of the problem. Some are seemingly oblivious.
In 1987 Overseas Council conducted a survey of 16 well-known evangelical seminaries in the United States in order to better understand their policies on international students. The seminaries reported that 433 students from the Two-Thirds World were registered with them, plus 116 international students from Europe and other Western nations. Some of the findings of this survey were quite disturbing.
One part of the survey asked about "home church sponsorship," to find out whether students were required to be referred or recommended to the institution by their church or denomination and whether, laws permitting, students were at least partially assisted financially by their churches. Six of the 16 schools required neither recommendation nor assistance by any church body in the student’s home country. Of the 10 schools that did require references from authorities in the student’s home church, only two required that the church be behind the student in some way financially.
Another issue dealt with was "mechanisms of intentional ministry," which meant systems or programs by which the schools provided social or spiritual support for resident international students. Programs of this type include foreign students’ fellowships, special counselors, "big brother-big sister" programs for incoming students, and other means to help students adjust culturally, grow spiritually, and survive a foreign culture emotionally, while remaining fervent in their calling to return to their home countries. The survey revealed that only nine had any such mechanisms of intentional ministry in place for their foreign students.
The results point to a certain lack of sensitivity to recent developments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As churches in these countries are striving to develop programs of higher theological training in their own contexts, it is necessary to ask whether Western seminaries by their unexamined approach to assisting nationals are not undermining the very ministry they think they are assisting.
Direct competition for students, though not as common, is another topic that will grow in importance in relations between Western and non-Western graduate seminaries. Most non-Western graduate programs have begun since 1978. The administrations of seminaries in the West are, in general, uninformed about not only the status of these programs but often about their very existence. Scholarships for foreign students continue to be awarded under criteria established a generation or more ago.
Peter Kuzmic recently lamented to me that the graduate program of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Yugoslavia, opened in 1989, had lost one of its most outstanding prospective students. The man, a leading pastor, felt a great need of advanced training in order to feed his growing church.
Before completing the enrollment forms, he was contacted by a seminary in the United States and offered a full scholarship plus expenses to study in its program. It was actually less expensive for him to study in the United States than to study in the seminary in a neighboring city. The American seminary, it seems, had received a scholarship grant from a well-meaning alumnus designated for training leaders from "communist countries." Since scholarship money of this sort does not get into the seminary budget until a qualified student can be found, apparently the seminary went recruiting.
Seminaries in the U.S. can justifiably be proud of the role they have played in training much of the overseas theological training force. But there can also be little doubt that indiscriminate acceptance of, and inadequate ministry to, foreign theological students is a legacy of Western seminaries that has directly contributed to the theological brain drain. Non-western church leaders are calling for a new partnership with Western theological schools and a change of policies that will better serve their true leadership training needs.
To continue accepting overseas students simply because they have a good testimony, speak English well, and perhaps because they can pay the bill, is not a wise use of resources. This practice may well mean that many leaders who most truly need advanced education may not get it, while many who obtain it have no real ministry afterwards.
Western seminaries will have to setting their own staffing and program needs before their responsibility to be stewards of training those to them by overseas churches and seminaries.
For example, the faculty of a well-known U.S. school of missions recently proposed hiring an outstanding African student about to finish their program. He would be a great asset, they felt, in heading up the program’s African studies department. The proposal was rejected by the school’s president, who reminded his faculty that the man had been entrusted to them for training by an African theological school. "The school is expecting his return and I want no part of the responsibility for him not doing so," the president explained.
In another case in which I was recently involved, a faculty member of an American school of missions had unilaterally decided that one of his foreign advisees should continue an extra two years for an additional degree. He had encouraged the student in this without consulting the student’s sponsoring seminary at home.
4. Mission organization practices.Not all of the leadership drain is occurring as a result of students failing to return to their country after studies. One source of serious concern is the loss that results from competition for leaders among well-funded international Para church ministries.
These agencies, often highly committed to the use of national leaders, frequently recruit leaders from large, growing national churches, or from the staff and students of theological seminaries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Wishing to get a large-budget program launched with greatest efficiency, these agencies often approach the most capable local leaders. Several of them have a policy of treating their employees like professionals and paying them accordingly-a commendable policy.
The problem arises when these programs are discontinued after two or three years and the agency moves its attention to the next famine area or the next region of the world that is capturing media attention.
For example, the director of one of the very few theological seminaries in Eastern Europe told me recently that he had already been contacted on two occasions by one of the large Bible Societies. He was being requested to head its work in Eastern Europe, which would have required him to live in a west European country. He reported to me, "I told them I could not set such an example for the students I am trying to train to be ministers here. Now I am begging other members of my faculty not to listen to the offers that are beginning to come from all over."
Ironically, the only head-hunters to be found on the mission field today are agents of Western mission agencies eager to find gifted leaders to head up their ministries overseas. These new head-hunters are, with the best of intentions, plundering the thin ranks of theologically trained leaders and turning them into program administrators. Is it a plague? Perhaps not, but in the east European context where church leadership is particularly stretched, it is already a serious problem.
The director of one of Africa’s few evangelical graduate theological seminaries had just invited one of his friends, a highly-trained church leader, to accept a teaching position at the school. With sadness his friend explained that he had been recruited three years earlier by an evangelical relief agency to head a national office. At the time it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to serve God and his country as well. He was paid a very large salary, had taken a mortgage out on his home, and was sending his children to an excellent, and expensive, school. Now the relief emergency had passed and the agency had closed its office in his country. He was out of a job. He could no longer afford to teach, he explained, so he would have to take his resume and skills to the private sector.
Mission organizations as well continue policies and practices that contribute to the leadership drain. Examples of these are:
- the denominational mission that, being distrustful of interdenominational theological schools, continues to find it "safer" to send its national leaders to its own church-related schools in North America.
- the mission that sends a national away for training, but then makes little attempt to keep the student well-informed about the ministry he has left behind, find out about his needs, or otherwise make him feel that he is vitally important and missed.
- the mission organization that refuses to participate in interdenominational theological training ventures, but insists on starting its own programs.
The proliferation of small programs frequently insures that the available pool of theological resources is diluted in needless duplication of effort and burdened with administrative duties.
"PUT A PLUG IN IT
What can Western Christians and church agencies do to help stem the flow of leadership from the non-Western churches? I would recommend several thing.:
Churches should definitely continue to assist internationals in theological training in the West, but only in close partnership with church bodies or theological schools for which these students are being prepared for specific ministries. Older students who have demonstrated commitment to ministry in their country, and especially those who have deep ties to training institutions, are the best candidates for this type of support. Theological schools in the West have a great deal to offer international students who are preparing for teaching ministries. It is questionable if they can prepare them equally as well for pastoral ministries.
Ask tough questions and do not settle for nebulous answers. Ask why a student is studying in the West rather than in a school in his own country or a nearby culture. Avoid those who claim that the quality of graduate theological education is sub-standard in their region compared to the West. This is very seldom the case. Especially avoid those who have been turned down by evangelical seminaries in their own country for reasons other than lack of space, or those who have not even bothered to apply to those schools.
Western theological schools should undertake a serious evaluation of their training of foreign students and make indicated changes. Re-evaluate the awarding of scholarships to foreign students, giving priority to those who come recommended by both churches and theological schools for the teaching ministry, and especially to those who are already engaged as teachers. It be refreshing to see a number of evangelical theological seminaries in North America enter into a partnership with the World Evangelical Fellowship’s Theological Commission for direction in the awarding of a few of the scholarships designated for international students. This would be one way of ensuring that highly recommended candidates receive a portion of the funds available for training.
Do not recruit international students in ways that compete with developing graduate seminary programs overseas.
Carefully examine the motives of all involved in extension or sister seminary relationships between Western and non-Western seminaries. In very few cases should these relations exist for extending accreditation, and in no case where a regional, evangelical accreditation agency exists. These relations should particularly be avoided where the intention is to bring students to the Western seminary to "let them complete training in an accredited school."
Seminaries might do well to consider that the very same set of environmental and emotional circumstances that make the non-Christian international student open to the influences of the gospel on secular campuses are operative on their own campuses also, making international students vulnerable to the loss of spiritual vision, and sometimes faith as well. Seminaries that fail to provide intentional ministry to foreign students directly contribute to the theological brain drain.
Should we assist nationals to receive training in our Western theological seminaries? Most certainly, but this must be done wisely.
What can be done specifically by churches in the West to avoid contributing to the brain drain? I would suggest five policy summaries to guide churches, missions, or theological schools.
1. Assist only those with a ministry track record.
2. Assist only those who are recommended by those in authority over them.
3. Assist only those who are seeking specialized training unavailable in their country or region.
4. Assist only those who express a clear vision for their ministry.
5. Assist especially those involved in strategic ministries of multiplication-those called to teach, to write, and to lead ministries of evangelism and missions.
1. Bong Rin Ro, "Asian Pastors in ‘Western Paradises’" ATA News, Jan.-Mar., 1986, pp. 2,3.
2. Bong Rin Ro, "Train Asians in Asia; A New Mission Strategy," Asian Perspective No. 35, Asian Theological Association.
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