Practical Guidelines for Choosing Theological Institutions and Programs
Pr. Phinni Joseph
Theology is the queen of science; and theological studies is the systematic and scientific exploration of the various avenues of theology.
Theological education is not merely an academic exercise, the primary objective of theological education is to bring about transformation in church and society. This involves commitment and critical engagement with the issues of life. It also envisages the new perception of reality or the real life situations, its interrelatedness and interdependence.
Theological education today embraces the various situation of human existence, “ the earth and all that it contains, with all it surprises it holds for the future, people and their creations, the conditions in which they live and their experience of life as a gift…”. Thus, the new perception and approach to theology becomes a multi-disciplinary form of education that includes understanding of the ‘other’ and solidarity with the suffering and marginalized.
Theological education is significantly intended to shape the leaders or ministers for the rural/urban centers. As much of India still lives in villages, this factor becomes all the more prominent. Moreover, theological education today must address the realities of the context and to realize how faith has to be translated into that particular context. Such demands can be fulfilled only by venturing into an effective learning process through the wise choice of good and credible institutions or training centers.
In the recent past there is mushrooming of theological colleges/seminaries across the nation. Such kind of growth is viewed with different perceptions from different circles. However, the primary purpose of these schools is to equip men/women of God to be effective workers in the kingdom of God. Choosing to study at a reputed institution would contribute much to the quality of training.
Several factors contribute to a standard form of learning process. Being ignorant of some of vital aspects related to the theological studies and study centers would result in the loss of time, resources and effort. The following factors need to be taken into consideration before choosing a particular institution or program of study.
1. The Vision and Mission of the Institution
It is of utmost and primary importance to have a clear understanding of the theological and missiological stand of the institution. Each institution is committed to train its candidates with their stated purpose / vision. Hence, the primary question that needs to be addressed is whether the college is committed to the training of dedicated men and women of God to be future ministers of the Word. The theological study centers must have a commitment to shape those who are called with a passion for the lost and a vision for worldwide mission.
2. The Spiritual Atmosphere
The institution must have a policy for maintaining a balanced spiritual atmosphere. They must receive sound training in Word and Spirit to make them better ministers of the Gospel. The college must nurture and emphasize spiritual disciplines in individual students by setting apart time for their personal devotion, prayer, ministry of the Word and providing opportunities to develop various personal ministry skills.
It must also include spiritual education and nourishment opportunities that would add to the corporate spiritual life of the future ministers. This can be done by exposing the student community to committed evangelists and pioneer missionaries from the field, encouraging them through regular and well planned fasting prayer and exposition to the Word. Future Pentecostal ministers must pay serious attention and make use of every opportunity provided by the institution to encourage and strengthen the spiritual gifts of the candidates enrolled therein.
3. Efficient and Experienced Faculty.
Any theological institution opting to provide sound theological and missiological training must have efficient and experienced faculty to its credit. The strength of any theological institution comes from the quality, dedication and leadership of its available faculty. This implies the combined wealth of experienced pastors / ministers who have labored in the past and the younger, efficient and academically qualified, resource persons who are competent enough to expose the students to wider horizons of knowledge in keeping with the current times. The core faculty of any standard theological institution must include both sections.
The teachers must themselves have had thorough theological training, qualified and efficient to communicate and teach the Word, men and women of good spiritual and moral character, with a commitment to the vision and mission, who will be good role models to future ministers. This prepares the students to leave the institution informed, inspired and ready to serve anywhere with confidence.
4. Well Equipped Library
The academic centre of any good theological institution is the library. A well stocked library fosters learning and provides students and faculty with resources for their intellectual, cultural and spiritual development.
A major proportion of the learning takes place in the library as far as theological education is concerned. Modern theological libraries, like any good academic libraries, must provide access to primary sources and writings, books, periodicals, journals, other electronic resources relating to modern avenues of knowledge of different subjects.
All developed libraries provide computer facilities to students where they can browse the internet to access study material, the Library catalog or the Library’s online databases.
A library with good holdings creates and sustains an academic atmosphere within the campus.
4. Practical Training or Exposure to Ministry
Theological education does not end with learning alone. It must include opportunities for practical ministry where the students are provided exposure to different kinds of ministries such as pioneering of new churches / church planting, ministries among the children, work among the youth, mission among the destitute and other social involvements. Supervised training during their study period will equip and orient them well for their future ministries.
It will not be out of place for me to state that churches must recognise the vital role that theological institutions play in the churches’ wider ministry. It will be good for churches also to show their support to theological institutions by sponsoring students who come from their churches and by providing prayer support for such institutions.
Churches and pastors can encourage students from nearby seminaries to visit their churches, give them opportunities to share and grow in ministry skills.
5. The Legacy or the Goodwill of the Institution
The goodwill that an institution holds and the legacy it carries has a great bearing on the student or graduate, who are products of the institution. Colleges and seminaries that hold a legacy for decades - of ministerial training provided by leading and faithful servants of God – are institutions where students imbibe and inherit an indescribable spiritual legacy. This impacts its candidates, molding them into effective and capable ministers of God. However, the newly mushroomed institutions sadly lack these resources and suffer much, adversely affecting the students who are enrolled and their ministries thereafter.
Guidelines for Theological Education in India
In order to provide standard theological education the institution must be affiliated or accredited by some approved agency. In India, there are mainly two such agencies that recognize theological institutions. Candidates desiring to pursue theological education must be able to identify institutions that fall under the umbrella of these accrediting agencies. By being accountable to such a body, the institutions are forced to follow a certain pattern of work / study methods. Standards of academics are laid down which the institutions are expected to follow, thus providing the students options for a better educational program, even as they prepare for Christian ministry. The following are the recognizing agencies and the programs offered by them:
1. Senate of Serampore
Senate of Serampore affiliates colleges/ seminaries that maintain a common standard for providing theological education. The Syllabi, programs and examinations are conducted directly by the Senate. They offer the following programs:
a. Bachelor of Divinity - It is the basic theological education program offered for Graduates (4 years) or +2 holders (5 years).
b. Master of Theology - Offered for those who are interested or committed to the ministry of teaching (For those who have B.D. or equivalent, Two years).
c. Doctor of Theology - Research program for M. Th. holders.
2. Asia Theological Association (ATA)
It is the common accrediting agency for theological institutions all over the world with an evangelical commitment. Under this agency each seminary/college has the freedom to set its own curriculum and syllabi. They offer the following programs:
a. Bachelor of Theology – It provides the foundational theological training for an individual (3 year program for those who have +2 or the equivalent).
b. Master of Divinity – This program provides basic theological education for the graduates or higher study for those who have a B.Th. (3 years for Graduates and 2 years for B.Th. holders)
c. Master of Theology – Higher learning for those who have a call for teaching ministry (2 years for those who have M. Div.).
d. Doctor of Theology – Research program in a specialized area (for M. Th. holders).
A prospective candidate who gets a good start will certainly have an edge over one who does not have such opportunities. Theological education is holistic in nature where people learn together inspite of their differences. They also learn to value their own personal strengths. Through such training students are empowered to help one another.
Those who are serious about theological education and ministerial training must keep in mind the areas mentioned herein as they seek a good place to study God’s Word. The institutions with commitment, resources, opportunities and Spiritual Legacy would definitely help in molding and shaping the individual for God’s purpose and will in mission. This will bring lasting results and glory to God as Christ’s Kingdom on earth is expanded here on earth.