Sustainable Theological Education

by Robert Reese

Suggestions on how to bridge the gap between theological institutions in the Majority World and their local churches and contexts.

Local churches here are telling our theological college that its training program is irrelevant to their needs,” complained the rector of a college in Argentina. He was one of the participants in a seminar that included representatives from eighteen South American Bible schools. In 2007, I had the privilege of speaking at five such seminars in South America, the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia on the topic of financial sustainability of theological colleges. Interaction with leaders from nearly seventy-five evangelical colleges prompted this article, which investigates ways that such schools can become more viable in their settings.

As painful as the Argentinean rector’s comment is for any theological educator to hear, other college leaders hinted at the same problem at each of the five seminars. Since local churches would presumably still want their leaders trained, why would they disdain the theological education offered by their colleges? Answering this question will offer suggestions for improving the colleges’ long-term viability. Below are four reasons this may be the case—and three ways to navigate around these issues.

The Widening Gap between Colleges and Local Churches
Psychological ownership is the feeling that something is ours, even if its title deed may say that it belongs to someone else. Clearly, churches that consider the local college as irrelevant to their needs no longer see the college as belonging to them. A widening gap has come between churches and schools. Since the churches are the constituency from which the colleges draw students and prepare leaders, this gap must be overcome for the sustainability of the colleges. Local Christians and churches must take full psychological ownership of the institutions that train their leaders. But what created the gap between churches and schools? There are many possible answers to this question.

1. Incomplete indigenization. Western missionaries founded most of the institutions represented at the seminars. They naturally saw the need for higher-level leadership training for the churches they had planted. During the “indigenization” process, the theological colleges were often among the last institutions to be released by missionaries, while the churches they served were usually released much sooner. In addition, the colleges were set up along Western models of education, with emphasis on classroom lectures, libraries, and written assignments in an environment somewhat sheltered from normal life. This was, after all, the system of training that the missionaries had come through in their own training. Since this method of education bears little resemblance to traditional forms of education in the societies where the colleges minister, these institutions prove difficult to indigenize. Meanwhile, the churches in the same places were indigenizing more rapidly—thus creating a cultural gap—as the training remained more Western than the churches.

2. Dependency upon foreign resources. Due to the Western origins of these theological colleges, they have tended to look to the West for direction instead of looking to local churches. The prolonged connection between colleges and missionary agencies creates a dependency upon foreign resources that is often richly rewarded. Some of the seminaries in developing nations are showcases of what Western money can produce. They sometimes appear equal to or better than Western seminaries. Being well stocked with up-to-date materials and technology is what we might wish for all such institutions; however, there is a price to pay. For example, principals of these institutions must become international fundraisers to maintain these Western standards. Even more damaging for their viability, the colleges look like wealthy foreign schools to the churches that should be supporting them. This means the churches feel no responsibility for them and may even come to them looking for financial help. The search for Western resources has separated the colleges from their normal constituency.

3. Western accrediting standards. Every theological college wants acceptance of its diplomas and degrees, and these come through accreditation. But where do accreditation standards come from? Again, these originate in the West and are reinforced by older, more established seminaries. Thus, for any college in the Majority World to issue recognized credentials to its graduates, it must conform to Western standards. The Western paradigm of higher education gets a boost from the fact that universities around the world use similar standards, making Western education a prestigious model and a virtual monopoly. Accrediting agencies for theological colleges now exist in the various regions of the Majority World; however, missionaries founded them and expected them to insist upon foreign standards. Teams that visit schools seeking accreditation come from the seminaries previously accredited, so they promote the same values they have already become accustomed to. The entire accreditation process can become inbred and may not necessarily involve local churches at all. As far as accreditation is concerned, what local churches want in the training of their pastors could be considered irrelevant. If that is the case, then no wonder the churches might consider the seminaries irrelevant in return!

4. Westernization of students. When churches send their members to local theological colleges for training, they may find that the colleges transform them right out of usefulness in that setting because the training atmosphere is so Western. Students soon learn that greater resources are available in the West where the college obtains its funding, so they may slide into dependency upon foreign resources as they search for the best way to make a living after they graduate. Most students do not need to pay much for their studies because foreign donors cover their fees. They enjoy the use of equipment and technology that the seminary provides for free, but which are not available back at their local church. In this case, being the pastor of that local church no longer seems as attractive as it once was, and the students may look elsewhere to an international ministry or parachurch organization for future employment. It is not surprising that seminary training in the Majority World is often a path to migration to the West.

Tapping into Local Resources
These are only some of the possible reasons for the widening gap between colleges and local churches. For colleges to remain viable in this situation, they may continue to focus on the West for continuous infusions of fresh resources; however, this may only alienate them further from the churches they intend to serve. A better alternative is to reconnect with local churches which are searching for appropriate training for their leaders anyway. A strong case can be made that the most sustainable colleges are those that arise from the needs of local churches. At one seminar I attended, a missionary told how a spiritual revival among some churches in Brazil issued in the birth of a seminary. In this case, the connection between the churches and the school was strong from the beginning, with psychological ownership never in question. The churches’ agendas drove the curriculum and training methods from the start. The seminary grew quite large as churches saw the need for new church planting, which necessitated the production of new leaders. Local pastors and other qualified leaders provided the training themselves. However, in most cases where missionaries founded theological colleges, the churches did not necessarily drive the formation of the schools. Below are suggestions that may help such schools reduce foreign dependency and tap into local resources.

1. Reduce foreign dependence. When a college’s income is heavily weighted toward foreign donations, the question arises about its long-term viability. Foreign donors may even want to know why local Christians being served by the college do not support the institution. If only foreigners support the school, what real future does it have? The college may need to make a conscious effort to turn the ratio of foreign to local support around for the health of the school. Reducing foreign support can be done in at least three practical ways:

a. Replace foreign lecturers with local ones. At first, this may seem to be an expensive proposition, because foreign lecturers come “free of charge” to the college. On closer inspection, however, each foreign teacher comes with foreign support, which must eventually be replaced when the teacher leaves. By increasing the number of local lecturers, the college increases the likelihood of local support.

b. Reduce reliance upon expensive equipment and buildings. Not every college needs to have state-of-the-art equipment. Creative thinking can find ways more in line with the local economy to obtain space or supply necessary materials without adversely affecting standards.

2. Mobilize local resources. Efforts to mobilize local resources can be the single most effective way to ensure the sustainability of the school. Again, this can be done in a variety of practical ways:

a. Ask students to pay their fair share of the costs. Almost all schools subsidize student costs; however, theological schools often charge the smallest percentage of real costs. By simply aligning school fees with what secular schools in that location charge, revenues will increase even as the value of the education also increases in the eyes of students.

b. Expect students to have jobs. Allowing students time to make a living teaches the importance of paying one’s own way. They may also need to be bivocational after they graduate.

c. Rent out facilities and charge for use of equipment. Supposing that a college is endowed with good assets, are these being used to maximum advantage, or do they sit idle much of the time? Renting out rooms to neighborhood groups not only provides income, but also exposes the college to the public. Business groups or associations become more familiar with the college when they frequently assemble on the campus. Computer rooms stocked with the latest equipment can produce income by charging the public for their use. College computer specialists can even charge for teaching the public computer classes.

d. Use church facilities. Meeting in churches helps colleges to reconnect with local Christians. In addition, colleges can offer the churches seminars or training in areas of interest such as: Sunday school, marriage and family issues, financial matters, or Bible study methods. In order not to put additional burden on professors, students or staff can be trained to conduct these workshops, for which fees can be charged.

e. Cultivate the support of local Christians. Challenge local business people to support the formation of Christian leaders for their nation. Ask local pastors to mentor students in their practical assignments. Make sure churches are involved in the selection of students. Find out what their concerns and needs are for training and try to meet those needs. Have occasional Sundays when students or professors make presentations at local churches in order to provide information about the college and to raise funds.

3. Be authentic in the context. Sustainability comes from being grounded in the context where the college is located. This context should drive the life of the college more than what foreign donors want. For example, intimate knowledge of the backgrounds of students and what they will be required to do after graduation may result in more practical changes:

a. Train students in business skills so they can become bivocational when they graduate. In many situations, it is simply unrealistic to suppose that every student will graduate into full-time, paid ministry. In one Indonesian seminary every student is trained to run a Christian bookstore as well as to repair motorcycles.

b. Expect teachers to be bivocational. Allowing professors time to have a second job models the kind of life many Christian workers in developing countries must have.

c. Adjust the objectives and methods of training. Rather than letting those in the West decide what must be taught and how, let those in the local context dictate the curriculum and teaching methods. This may necessitate changes in scheduling to allow more participation from local Christians who work, as well as in the training methods. Traditionally in many developing countries, apprenticeship is a more suitable training method than formal classroom learning.

d. Use appropriate technology. Gear the use of technology to what is available in local churches rather than to what is the latest thing available in the world.

e. Think in terms of sustainability. Evaluate the college by whether its systems can continue indefinitely as they are. Sustainability will largely depend upon whether those systems make sense in the local context.

f. Develop an indigenous understanding of what the college’s purpose and mission is. Knowing what the college stands for and where it is going in the context will help to withstand the demands of other voices that would draw the college back to foreign dependency. Avoid being donor-driven.

g. Since some of these suggestions may impact a college’s accreditation, leaders of a college that adopts them may then need to lobby sister institutions and their accrediting agencies to accept such changes for the sake of the context. In other words, the accrediting agencies and the standards they set also need to be indigenized.

The example of the Apostle Paul’s training school in the lecture hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus (Acts 19:9) provides a biblical basis for sustainable theological education. In his leadership training, Paul served the church in contextually appropriate and financially viable ways. Using local resources, he taught for two years, training others who then extended the gospel into the province of Asia, implying an apprenticeship model. With this method, Paul did not need to do all the training himself, but could rely upon his apprentices to continue his work of spreading the gospel indefinitely through reproducible patterns. Today’s theological education would do well to recover such flexible models of training to supply the churches with evangelists and leaders.

Because of their history and accreditation standards, most theological colleges in the Majority World are not suitable for all the training that churches need. Leaders of these institutions should realize that they are operating schools for elite church leaders. Some of their graduates will go on to national, regional, or even international Christian leadership, because they are in essence the “cream of the crop.” But this should not turn them away from their local context, because graduates are also in a position to provide all the training that local churches desperately need. What colleges may not be able to do directly can be done indirectly through their graduates. Therefore, graduates need to remain in close touch with the context so that they can provide the kind of training that churches need at all levels. These graduates in turn can become a major asset for the colleges as they advertise their schools by their local achievements and as they support and raise support for their schools.

Leaders of theological schools stand in a unique position to influence local churches. By cultivating relationships with these churches and by orienting training to the needs of the churches, that influence can be maximized. There is no good reason for a gap to exist between colleges and the churches they were founded to serve. Sustainability demands that this gap be closed through paying attention to the local context. Local resources could then become a beneficial by-product of focusing on the context. Having a strengthened local base will give colleges more self-confidence when dealing with the huge challenges they face in a changing world. 


Robert Reese was a missionary in Zimbabwe from 1981 to 2002. He then earned his doctorate in missions from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently teaches missions at Roanoke Bible College in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

Copyright  © 2009 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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