Theological education bubble VI: blowing bubbles overseas

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?

9 thoughts on “Theological education bubble VI: blowing bubbles overseas

  1. Hi Peter,

    Great points.

    May I suggest that the local churches of any PhD candidate (or any seminary candidate for that matter) must be more involved in the process. Issues of character will answered best from the pastor and people of the candidates home church. What kind of ministry was the candidate involved in? Was the candidate qualified as a deacon? An Elder? What accountability is in place for the leaders?

    The church must also be a ‘cosign’ in the application. After all, the reputation of the sponsoring church is on the line and they would want to know that the candidate is not only maintaining academic standards, but ethical and moral standards as well.

    The local church has too often abdicated its role in equipping the saints (Eph 4) and as a result the church is not part of the training and mentoring process. When a potential students shows and interest in vocational ministry training they pray for him/her and send them off. While they may remain in contact and pray for the student, they are not intimately involved and have no real say in the process beyond the initial application. Seminaries and churches need to work more closely together so the selection process is more Biblical and sustainable. The church needs to help identify the gifted and called so that the training investment can be used more strategically rather than preferentially. This will also help overcome the ‘glut’ challenge as well.


    • Hi Don: thanks for this thoughtful response. In principle, what you describe is how theological education is intended to work in the first place. But in my opinion and experience, it really can’t work that way because the model itself is deeply flawed. It comes down to one thing: school as a medium of education is a deeply flawed business model that doesn’t work well at any level, but because there is a modicum of decent results and a humongous emotional and financial dependence on the model, only very few people are willing to say, “hey, the emperor has no clothes” and admit that the model itself is the problem. I am a still a huge stakeholder in theological education only because we are donors–but not getting any kind of living from the venture, I have the freedom to ask if it is working at all any more. As a donor to theological education, I might even have a president or two actually even listen to what I say. But eventually, I think my greatest effect might be to speak directly to those who might also contribute and these stakeholders–i.e., the donors to theological education, might be able to use certain amount of collective pressure to change things. But to what? I feel like I’m the doctor who has diagnosed an incurable disease. I throw my hands up and say, “Now we can only pray.”

      It is called full-disclosure when those promoting a stock tell you what they have to gain or lose–if they own any shares themselves. Teachers and everyone else working in the school system are all-in on the investment. They are not about to tell you that it isn’t really working and it hasn’t really work all that well for a very long time. But the results are in. It’s costing more and the students graduating are getting dumber and more self-confident every year because their own teachers are also products of the system that is degrading over time. That’s what the bubble is all about. The home-schoolers could be the control study, since their aggregate test results are a lot higher than those of school kids. If schools with their expensive salaries and high overhead were so indispensible, then why do homeschoolers outperform on a shoestring budget “schoolers” on the billions spent? Because the model itself doesn’t work, and almost anything would lead to better results. As an investor, I live in the real world, in Literalville; I hate bubbles and would short them if I could. If I could find a way to short sell school, I would do it.

    • “It’s costing more and the students graduating are getting dumber and more self-confident every year because their own teachers are also products of the system that is degrading over time.”

      – Can’t argue with that! It’s a fair observation but not representative of ALL seminaries/institutions. Those with robust Trustee boards that expect standards and results can help, but if these mechanisms are not monitored closely, the institution does become a self-glorifying emperor.

      I’m an advocate of church-based education, which is really one of the mandates of the church – to equip the saints (Eph 4), so that tested, trustworthy and teachable saints are used according to their giftedness.

      I’m working with churches who take this approach but eventually there is a point where pastor X cannot teach beyond his abilities. Some students want to study more on soteriology or languages where the pastor isn’t able to help due to time or ability. There has to be a space for those who are looking for that equipping that may not be available at the local church level. When there are 30 of them who come together under the teaching of a pastor who is able to help them, you kinda get a seminary…or so it often happens.

      All in all though, I fully agree the current system ain’t working. Too many ‘pastors’ getting through the system untested, ungifted and downright destructive. They may have been looking for a job or glory but in either case it leads to a scattering of the sheep and an indictment of the church overall.

      Keep up the great heralding!


    • Church-based education is good but as you say limited to local resources. What do you think of South Africa Seminary in Pretoria and its church-based approach? I was skeptical with these guys when I first me them, but they might actually have a model that is workable–certainly one which is less expensive. The problem is that there remains little physical contact between instructors and students.

    • The signers of Michael’s contract were the sending school, the receiving school (so the supervisor now who was encouraging Michael), the donor organization, and scholar himself. But the church is represented by the sending school as they are one of the churches that founded the school. In the case of Michael, relations broke down between the sending school and himself, he resigned as a professor there, and then later applied to for a job at a Christian university in the US, failing to disclose to the search committee his agreements to return to Africa. Our own view is that since we are not about resolving internal disputes between Africans, his return to his own country (the school is in another sub-Saharan country)would have satisfied the strict requirements of the contract–though the return to the sending institution is definitely implied by the contract. The scholarship organization’s greatest fears were that the scholar would chose to remain in the West and not return to Africa at all.

      In another case, our organization brought a candidate to study in Canada who had a million problems at home, but was very clever and had the approval of key personnel. We found out for the first time only after his arrival here that he had been a problem–both in his church in his home country and as student and professor at the seminary. Theological education had developed his brilliance to a high level–he has a PhD; but he never returned to Africa. He now holds a job as an ethics officer in Canadian university.

  2. Peter,

    Your example of Michael the PHD student is remarkably sad. One is concerned that his PHD supervisor would find that Jesus Christ’s particular talents were wasted as well–first by his ministry to the unlearned and unwashed and then by his brutal death after only 3 years in ministry. Clever? No. Virtuous? Most assuredly.

    • Thanks for this comment. I think the donors and everyone would want to avoid a sacrifice of that sort. Why spend all that money to train someone who was just going to be killed? But then, as you point out, such a sacrifice to the service of the Lord is following in the footsteps of our Lord. Thanks again.

  3. Peter, I’m delighted to discover your blog. Please add me to your mailing list. I serve a nonprofit based in US but also reaching out in Canada to promote theological education in Africa. We partner with a seminary/university in Nairobi, Kenya. Several years ago we got behind the launch of a Ph.D. program at this school, partly because it was time for doctoral-level scholarship in Africa led by evangelical church leaders there, but also to undercut the serious problem of international students staying in the US (70 percent in case of Ph.D’s). Your deeper questions about he seminary model are on my mind a lot but like you, I see no better alternative than for the church to play an active role in grooming its leaders and holding seminaries accountable. Pastors need to study the Bible and theology in depth and under competent instructors and a few years in a school of some kind is still the best way. I have found it helpful to keep in front of my mind the distinction between schooling and education. Not all schooling is educational and not all education requires schooling. Liberating students to think and theologize for themselves is a worthy goal of any seminary instructor. It’s as true in Africa as it is here.

    • Paul:

      I write with certain fear and trembling not know if those who devote themselves to the promotion of theological education will want to thank me or to stone me. So I am grateful that you hear what I say in the spirit in which it was intended. One can subscribe to this blog by signing up on the side and an e-mail notice will be sent with each new post.

      With the number that you indicate, 70% being so high, I think we have been beating our heads against the wall. This is an investment blog and in all seriousness, no investor in his right mind would continue pouring money into something like that. At least with PhD programs like the one at NEGST, the scholar remains in Africa. But now, the problem of NEGST–it is a question if even that program ultimately serves the purpose of its founders, as one source suggests that the majority of graduates end up serving the many NGOs in Kenya or megachurches in Nairobi, and ultimately are not helping the church to grow its leadership either:

      So there is high attrition from the goal, whether the training occurs in Africa or in USA.

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