As I travel around East Africa and North America for my work, I meet many generous and visionary church members, pastors, and foreign missionaries. Very often I hear people say: "I have a vision to build a theological school to train pastors" or “God is calling us to start a Bible college here.”
All of these people have a passion to meet the urgent need of theological education for church leaders in Africa. And I have the same passion. Many pastors have not received any theological teaching at all. Some do not even own a Bible. But is starting more Bible colleges the most effective response?
In this article, I'd like to suggest that, in many regions, starting more Bible colleges is not the most helpful approach, and in some cases it might actually hinder us from achieving our goal of educating more African pastors. I write this article not only to North American Christians, but also to my fellow church leaders in Africa, passionately working for the cause of theological education.
Here are three potential problems with the strategy of starting more Bible colleges:
- Building more Bible colleges does not necessarily mean that more pastors will be taught. While it is true that there aren’t enough Bible colleges right now in Africa to accommodate the vast number of untrained pastors, the reality is that the majority of pastors are unable to attend a Bible college. The biggest challenge is that they cannot afford to pay the school fees. Most pastors are tentmakers, supporting themselves rather than receiving support from their church members. In addition, many pastors lack the educational prerequisites, such as English literacy (which is often required). In addition, some pastors are unable to leave their family, ministry, or their tent-making work for long periods of time.
- Starting more Bible colleges adds to the intense competition that is already present between Bible colleges in Africa. The added competition will result in even more Bible colleges struggling to survive financially. They compete over local and foreign donor support and over the very few students who are able to pay for school fees. The majority of colleges are not financially sustainable because they don’t have enough students paying tuition. Sadly, I have heard of a Bible college with only five students, less than the number of the staff. Emmanuel Bellon articulates this well in his incredibly insightful article, Theological Education in Africa: Business or Mission? “Consequently, Africa is littered with financially stressed theological training programs. The efforts of institutions to survive financial crises have led to all manner of bungling academic programs. The institutions struggle with debt, and those who opt for cost reduction are shrinking into unimaginable sizes and shapes.”[i]
The competition has more devastating results. Many colleges are unable to pay their staff regularly, and are not able to maintain the upkeep of their facilities. These financial challenges cause some colleges to raise their tuition fees, which in turn results in even less students being able to afford attending these colleges. This can become a downward spiral until the school finally closes, or until the school receives a gift from donors to keep it limping along for a few more years.
It is a worthy goal to desire to start a Bible college. But for the Church in Africa, it is far better to have few Bible colleges which are all succeeding, than to have a proliferation of small Bible colleges which are all performing badly and financially struggling. So before we start new schools, our first step should be to find out what Bible colleges and organizations are already here in our countries. Will starting a new college hinder the work of other Bible colleges and create more competition over the few available students?
Sometimes our pride gets in the way of our mission. Often each foreign missionary organization wants to start their own theological training institute, and each bishop wants to have his own Bible College in his Diocese or Pastorate. We must humble ourselves and look for new ways to partner together. We need to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ: 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5 ESV).
- Most Bible colleges that have been started in Africa were initiated by foreign agencies and missionaries, and even those which were started through indigenous initiatives are still heavily funded through Western donations.[ii] It is very hard for these colleges to become financially sustainable in the long term because the local churches and denominations were not financially invested in the colleges from the very beginning. It usually does not work well when foreign donors start a theological institution and then later try to transfer ownership and financial responsibility to the local churches. On the other hand, most denominations do not receive enough financial offerings from their churches to start and sustain Bible colleges on their own. Therefore, starting more Bible colleges is often not financially sustainable.
To meet the urgent need for theological education in Africa, I suggest that African leaders, foreign missionaries, and donors focus on these four tasks:
- We need to partner with and support existing Bible colleges in Africa. Instead of starting new schools, we have to be flexible and work with Bible colleges that might not exactly match our own denominations or doctrinal beliefs. They might not do things in exactly the way we want. But it is simply not possible for each group to have their own Bible college in our current context. We must give up the control we might want. It is exciting to have ministries we can call our own, and it is very fulfilling to create a personal legacy by starting an institution. But we must put the Body of Christ first before our own legacies and visions.
We should continue to support Bible colleges financially, both as African leaders and as foreign donors. We can send teachers, give library books, and do fundraising events to request help from local churches. But we should give to these colleges in a way that will help them become more financially sustainable so that eventually they can stand on their own. We should equip college presidents and recruiters with the skills that they need. We should help colleges to diversify their income sources and start income generating projects. Benjamin Mwange Musyoka suggests that “Christian institutions of higher learning should deliberately reduce their dependence on donor funding for recurrent expenditure...The institutions should only seek donor funding for income generating projects and programs.”[iii]
If it becomes absolutely necessary to start a new Bible college in a certain region, then we must make sure to partner together with others. We need to look for creative ways to bring together multiple denominations, local churches, local donors, and foreign donors in partnership so that a new college can be successful and sustainable and draw students from a large spectrum of different churches.
- As African leaders and as foreign donors, we should continue to sponsor pastors with scholarships to go to existing Bible colleges. This is a common practice already throughout Africa. But I suggest that we prioritize matching scholarships. A local or a foreign donor can agree to pay a percentage of the tuition if the student first raises a percentage from local churches as well. This type of scholarship will not only allow more pastors to attend college, but it will also help the churches to feel invested in their pastor’s education and feel more ownership of nearby Bible colleges.
- We should consider helping pastors enroll in online programs from African universities or from institutions abroad. For example, Christian Leaders Institute offers pastors a chance to receive a good education and a degree at a subsidized cost. Generally, online programs are less expensive and they allow pastors to stay with their families and continue to work while taking classes.
- We should focus on training pastors where they live. We should encourage educated pastors to teach other pastors in their region through in-church Bible schools. We should also prioritize informal teaching programs such as TEE (Theological Education by Extension) and Timothy Leadership Training. Graduates of multiplication programs like Timothy Leadership Training can go on to start new groups of their own to train even more church leaders. Informal pastor training programs have a low cost and allow pastors to be trained according to their education level and in their own languages.
The African Church urgently needs theological education but in at least some places this need cannot be best met by more Bible colleges. Next time you hear someone say, “I think I should start a Bible college here,” you could respond by saying, “What Bible colleges are already nearby? Can you work with them?” May the Lord Jesus help us to work together in humility and unity so that we can effectively train more church leaders in Africa!