Ministerial education in Russia and other Slavic countries of CIS: Lessons for the global church

This article is a part of the September 2013 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis. Access other articles from this issue or download the full issue as a free PDF download

Twenty years have passed since Russia entered a time of religious freedom. A fleet of evangelical educational institutions grew out of one very small boat, consisting of hundreds of different-sized ships:

  • This fleet is sailing today, though not at full speed as it was 10 years ago.
  • The captains and admirals wonder why many of the ships are half-empty. 
  • At the same time there are crowds of travellers who are waiting for a different kind of transport. 
  • Western funding of this fleet has decreased considerably. 
  • Captains and crews are working hard to attract travellers. Without solid funding it becomes a challenge to match the real cost of the journey with the price that travellers are ready to pay.

Theological and ministerial education in Russia today is passing through a developmental and cultural crisis. In addition it suffers from the general crisis of educational systems globally. In order to understand what is happening today in evangelical educational institutions, it is necessary first to describe the vacuum where construction started 20 years ago.

Development of ministerial and  theological training

During the last two decades of the Soviet era, only one formal programme to train evangelical ministers existed in Russia. The fast growth started as soon as government restrictions became milder and freedom came:

  • Every region and every evangelical group of churches wanted to have its own school for training and educating ministers.
  • Local initiatives were supported by foreign human and financial resources (mostly from the USA, Europe and South Korea).

In the beginning, pastoral schools offering 1-3 months training were started in different regions. Today graduates remember them as very intense, practical and exciting. Existing pastors and ministers of evangelical churches as well as new zealous Christians went through these programmes. Many of the graduates acquired the necessary knowledge to shape their ministries as missionaries, pastors and overseers.

The next step was the development of full and part time Bachelor programmes with majors in theology and ministry. Considerable foreign finances were invested in building educational facilities for theological schools. Today we see the fruits of this investment:

  • More than 100 educational institutions in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus offer BA training in theology and ministry.
  • More than 10 schools offer Masters level theological training. 
  • There are no local doctoral level programmes yet, but that is a matter of time.

The academic development of evangelical schools is guided by the Eurasian Accrediting Association (EAAA), instituted in 1997. It has 51 members from Eurasia.
In addition there are evangelical institutions focused on practical and spiritual training without theological depth or desire to get academic accreditation. Most of them belong to charismatic churches that started from scratch after the revival of the 1990s. Presently charismatic churches are moving toward development of higher ministerial education through Western colleges and universities.

Changing demands

Western influence is a noticeable feature of evangelical education in Russia. The majority of theological schools in Eurasia were developed with the support of Western Christians, started by foreign missionaries according to the Western theological training model. Full-time theological training has been seen as the best way to prepare pastors, church planters and leaders. The degree of effectiveness of such foreign educational help has been in direct proportion to the level of cooperation with indigenous churches.

Alongside the full-time programmes, part-time and extension programmes have been growing. Demand has increased for these during the last decade, while the number of students in full-time programmes has decreased dramatically over the last 5-7 years:

  • Because of economic and social changes, Christians in Eurasia now have more financial resources.
  • They are ready to pay for professional education, and are able to cover the expenses of part-time education, but since theological and ministerial training does not provide a well-paid job, Christians are not ready to invest significant personal resources into it.

What are the fruits of the theological schools that were started in the 1990s? The first students of the newly created biblical and theological Institutions were usually active pastors and ministers who received much-needed training. The churches were blessed with the fruits of their education. The situation started changing when the active ministers finished the training available for them, and full-time programmes were filled with young Christians who were searching for their place in life and ministry.

Challenges facing training institutions

By the beginning of the 2000s, pastors and bishops stopped sending students to theological institutions. A gap between church and academy became obvious. Questions arose about the effectiveness of such ‘greenhouse’ long-term theological training as a way to prepare ministers for the church.

At least three factors caused the crisis:

  • Unrealistic expectations of self-supported full-time ministry. Church traditions from the Soviet time as well as economic challenges required the majority of ministers to be bi-vocational. However, frequently theological education was their first and only education after high school.
  • Educational gap between leadership generations. Soviet policy prohibited Christians from obtaining higher education, and in turn fostered an anti-educational ‘sectarian’ situation in many evangelical churches. Situations where young ministers had a better education than the pastor and the elders inevitably caused many conflicts.
  • Lack of practical preparation. Theological education in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s was mostly theoretical, and focused on Bible, theology and preaching. Practical courses in areas such as leadership skills, team building, leading change and dealing with conflict were not part of ministerial training.

It is not surprising that many new graduates got into trouble in the congregations to which they returned. Such situations prompted them to pursue professional and business careers instead. The English language, speech and computer skills that they received at seminaries were welcomed in the business world. On the other hand, their classmates who were able to overcome the obstacles in the local churches gave testimony to the helpfulness of their long-term theological training.

This raises an important question: why do we evaluate the effectiveness of ministerial training by the percentage of graduates in positions of pastoral hierarchy?

Degree-granting Liberal Arts  Christian education

In general, evangelical churches have not seen the creation of Christian liberal arts institutions as a priority. Frequently churches oppose this due to general criticism of secular education as worldly—and also because of the example of Western universities, many of which started as seminaries and today have become very liberal and secular schools.        

The Greek dichotomy between the spiritual and the  material continues to define what the church considers its sphere of responsibility. Secular professional education as well as the professional life of Christians is surrendered to the secular world.

Suggestions for theological education globally

The task of theological education is to prepare ministers who have deep theological knowledge and personal integrity, who are integrated into the life and ministry of the church, who are able to understand contemporary challenges and to give biblically and theologically sound answers. The following suggestions are made in order to guide the future development of educational efforts:

  1. Priesthood of all believers.  The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all the believers has to be placed into the foundation of ministerial and theological training. It should be theologically and practically reconsidered in the light of a holistic approach to the spiritual and material realms, to ministry and job, to the ministry of ‘laity’ and ‘clergy’.
  2. Equipping the saints.  Ministerial training focus should be changed to equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Equippers should be trained with the purpose of training Christians to serve God in their daily life—at their jobs, in their households, in their communities. These saints are the front-line ministers who should discover their high calling and gifts, and who should be equipped, commissioned and supported in their mission.
  3. A new generationThe network of biblical schools, theological seminaries and institutes can become a strong force that can train a new generation of such front-line ‘lay-ministers’. This training .  should help Christians to re-think and integrate their professional education into the foundation of a Christian worldview.
  4. Training ‘equippers’. Educational institutions need to focus on raising up a new generation of church leaders with pastoral, teaching, prophetic, evangelistic and other gifts who clearly understand that their primary task is not to do the all work of ministry themselves as ‘clergy’, but to equip others. These new clergy need to be raised up in the spirit of servanthood, realising that their main role in the Body is to help others to minister as servants of God; they are equippers, and not ‘great ministers’ who gather big crowds.
  5.  Integration with church and mission.  Educational institutions should clearly see their deficiencies. The teaching ministry is part of church life. Integration with local churches and missionary organisations should become an important value for it.
  6. Mentoring.  Mentoring is a vital tool that helps Christians to grow into maturity. Educational institutions need to promote models of healthy leadership and mentoring.

The achievements of the previous 20 years in theological, biblical and leadership training in Eurasia should be preserved and developed further, but used in the framework of the concept of priesthood of all the believers, which will enable the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.

Dr. Alexey Gorbachev serves as Rector of Eurasian Theological Seminary in Moscow, Russia. He became a Christian in 1992 while getting his Masters in Computer Science at Moscow State Technical University. Later he received an MDiv from the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee and a PhD in Educational Psychology from Nizhniy Novgorod State Linguistic University.  His passion is to see the concept of the priesthood of all believers practiced in everyday Christian life.