Theological education overseas is a marvelous idea. Basically it goes like this: rather than send people overseas to do mission work, why not train the native leaders in local schools of theology and they will do the mission work in their own countries? My experience is that these schools are expensive, rarely self-sustaining but in need of constant stream of revenue from the West in order to survive. Furthermore, the leadership is often compromised by the strings that control the foreign money. But this is just the beginning of the woes.
The problem is even more profound in that the product of such schools is dubiously qualified to serve the church. Why? Because the focus is too often head knowledge and not issues of character. Who is promoted in theological education, the most virtuous person or the most clever?
My own experience as an instructor is to try to teach people to be clever because I don’t know, especially in cross cultural context, how to teach virtue in a theological course. Virtue must be caught, and it can rarely be taught. So I can only really teach virtue by practicing it in front of others who are learning from me and with me. But the classroom model is not adequate for this kind of learning.
I had the experience last year of a doctoral student explaining to me that he wouldn’t return to Africa, despite signing a detailed contract agreeing to do so, and that he was just going to take a job here in the US which would then be his base of ministry. Then he explained that his PhD had taught him to be an academic, a person that does high level theological research, and that he would not be able to carry out such elevated thinking and writing within the pressures of his African context. This is symptomatic of the problem in academics generally, as Thomas Benton has written:
Also, remember that most grad students start out as dilettantes, thinking they’ll just hang out for a few years on a stipend. But eventually they become completely invested in the profession, unable to envision themselves doing anything else.
I told this man that his donors paid him to study at the PhD level so that he could go back to Africa and train leaders there, not so that he could teach undergraduates in America. But to no avail, he would not give up the idea that it was ok for him to break his agreements. We had trained someone who had no virtue but his cleverness had led him to think he could only be useful doing research like our funding had enabled him to do during his studies. So the church in Africa has again been deprived of a great talent, and our North America scene has another developing world academic who probably won’t return to work in his own context where such talent is actually needed.
But the problem does not begin at the level of doing the PhD in America. It starts at a much earlier level. Perhaps his own PhD supervisor was partially to blame; he wrote to me:
The ministry opportunities that are open to Michael [not his real name] in his home country would not enable him to use his gifts and training. Michael is a gifted scholar and writer; his dissertation is very well-done, indeed. He has spent many years working hard to polish his skills as a scholar. I would hate to see them “wasted.”
So there we have it: a full time North America scholar at an evangelical seminary could not see how his doctoral student, with the training that he had received from him, could work in his own country given his skill set as a fine researcher and scholar. Whatever occupation this man would find there working in his own church would be a waste. So says the man that supervised his very fine dissertation work, a very well-respected and well-known evangelical scholar who himself is the best product of Western theological education. In my view, the only waste in this matter was the money spent training Michael at this particular supervisor’s school of theology! Michael had learned to be clever, but he had not learned virtue: certainly not the virtue of keeping one’s word.
But I find that this is the problem with theological education in general. I was promoted through the ranks and yet not for any particular virtues that I practice, whether goodness, generosity or gentleness, but because I was smart. It has always been this way. But shouldn’t theological education teach us to be people of our word. What kind of God would we worship if He did not keep his promises? Yet we are called to be imitators of God. And to what suffering did our Lord Jesus Christ not submit? Shouldn’t we be willing to suffer like Jesus Christ, who was obedient even unto death–and yet the only suffering we asked this African scholar to endure was to keep his word and return and to use his training and skills to help the African church, because that is what his donors required of him before they gave him the scholarship to study in the US.
I wrote about the difficulty I had working in an evangelical setting because of the exploitation of desperate PhD labor. In my opinion, theological education which is caught not taught is more profound than classroom training. By mistreating adjunct labor, the theological school was actually teaching the students, without realizing it, that it was ok to be a bad employer and to exploit a glut in the PhD market. First the theological schools create the glut by promoting too many people to the PhD level, then they exploit their labor by using them as part-time workers. It is a vicious problem of exploitation, and yet this is what is modeled in many evangelical seminaries.
I have written that I question the efficacy of school as a model for theological education. But this model which is ineffective here in North America has been exported to the church overseas. What can we do to resolve such issues?