By George Henson and Jeff Brumley
Keeping it simple — and local — are essential for U.S. Christian groups involved in overseas theological education, American church leaders say.
Translated, that means letting native residents in nations where theological training is lacking take on as much of the load as possible. And it means avoiding going in to create new educational bureaucracies.
“That’s the deal — church to church,” said Gene Wilkes, president of B.H. Carroll Theological Institute in Arlington, Texas.
“We don’t want to build a building; we don’t want to build a campus,” he said. “We want the church to be the locus for the training there.”
“There” for B.H. Carroll means satellite centers in Cuba and Russia. The Texas school and other organizations who’ve seen a need to train pastors and theologians in other nations are working with indigenous populations to create courses and programs that make sense locally.
CBF in the Bahamas
Following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida began building relationships with churches throughout the Bahamas. They began as channels through which to provide disaster relief but evolved into financial assistance and church construction.
That laid the groundwork for establishing a theological institute for Bahamian pastors, who are often untrained, bivocational ministers.
The institute was designed around the work and travel challenges of students who would take classes from CBF Florida pastors visiting multiple sites in the islands three or four times a year. Topics range from introduction to the Old and New testaments to administration, music and Baptist history.
Preaching in Cuba
B.H. Carroll’s approach also emphasizes providing education in partnership with local churches in Cuba and Russia, Wilkes said.
They are also lay-inspired.
After returning to Cuba several years as a missions volunteer, Buddy Rees, a member of Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, saw the need for theological training there. He told then-president Bruce Corley, “we need to get down there and do something.”
About 80 Cuban students began the journey of securing a theological education seven years ago and in October the first 22 graduated with masters degrees in theology. One student has progressed to doctoral studies.
The institute is accredited by the Association of Biblical Higher Education. It has achieved associate membership in the Association of Theological Schools and is pursuing full accreditation by that body.
Another 176 students earned certificates of advanced ministry training through ongoing studies at Primera Iglesia Bautista in Camaguey, where classes are held.
Four of the graduates are already teaching at Baptist seminaries in Cuba.
“Our hope is to have four or five Ph.Ds on the island, then they can begin to teach and perpetuate, and we could just have a supportive role,” Wilkes said.
Since most of the Cuban pastors serve bivocationally, the institute’s schedule is a bit different from a traditional seminary. Instructors periodically arrive with a syllabus, teach intensively for a week, and leave their students to do their work over the next weeks or months until the instructor returns.
“That’s why it has taken seven years for them to get a typical two-year degree,” Wilkes explained.
The students sacrifice much to prepare to be better ministers, he added. One student, Humberto, lives on a smaller island off the west end of Cuba. To get to classes, he rides a donkey, then a ferry, and finally a bus across Cuba to Camaguey.
“So, a lot of the time, when we say this is the week, they just can’t get there, so they have to piece their coursework together,” Wilkes said.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, four students received masters-level theology degrees. The students already had been working with St. Petersburg Evangelical Theological Academy and the Temple of God church there.
Sergei Nikolaev, both president of the academy and pastor of the church, invited the Americans to participate in training the pastors.
The institute looked at what they already had been studying and crafted the necessary pieces to be able to award accredited degrees. All four graduates are prominent pastors in Russia.
In addition to Russia and Cuba, global students also attend class in teaching churches in Vietnam and China.
It is important for students to study in their home countries because research shows more than two-thirds of international students who come to the United States don’t return home, Wilkes said. Even those who go back often have difficulty because they have become acculturated to an American way of life, Wilkes explained.
‘The world is the limit’
The institute already had global graduates in South Korea, South Africa and Kenya, but their studies had been solitary distance-learning ventures. The Cuban and Russian graduates marked the first global graduates who did so through classes taught in local churches.
“What we embrace is that local pastor who is training in the local-church context, and with the tools we have at our fingertips through the Internet and travel, we want the local church to be the center of that,” Wilkes said.
Wilkes added there are no plans to expand the network, but they are open to new opportunities.
If a local church has an ongoing relationship with a church in another country, recognizes a need for ongoing theological training, and is willing to invest financially, “we’d be willing to listen,” Wilkes added.
What matters is that pastors and other church leaders are provided in parts of the world that need them.
“I’m pretty fired up about the model,” he said. “The world is the limit. Anywhere there is a church leader, training them is a possibility.”