“Moscow Theological Seminary”, the educational flagship of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB), has returned to its original format. Begun as a Baptist correspondence programme in 1968, the school soon became known as “Moscow Theological Institute” (MTI). Apparently because Western supporters were not familiar with any other kind of training, a residential, campus-based institution known as “Moscow Theological Seminary” (MTS) was added in 1993.
One MTS-founder admits today: “We began with a residential, three-year program that eventually failed – like nearly every other residential theological programme in the former USSR. That was due partly to cost: Students were to study for three years without any obvious means of support. The residential model is very expensive and soon we barely had any students.” As a result, correspondence-based MTI was incorporated into MTS in 2007. Total enrolment has skyrocketed since then: from 251 in 2007 to 975 today. This has proven that the original, distance-learning model was well-suited to Russia - more than just the unloved gift of an atheistic government.
Today’s MTS is spread across the entire breadth of Russia. Five of its nine “learning centres” form a horizontal line across the map from Moscow in the West to Khabarovsk just above Manchuria (China) in the East. The average distance between these five centres is nearly 1.600 km (960 miles); Khabarovsk is 6.147 km (3.688 miles) east of Moscow. Looking westward from Moscow, this would be akin distance-wise to MTS having a learning centre in Sydney/Nova Scotia.
MTS owns buildings only in Moscow. As with the population in general, enrolment is unevenly distributed with nearly 500 students in Moscow region and another 225 in the northern Caucasus. Enrolments further east average from 25 to 40. Two of the schools (North Caucasus and Khabarovsk) were independent, self-standing institutions before joining MTS. Both of these locations still have resident faculty not based in Moscow. The Khabarovsk site was down to nine students when it came under MTS auspices several years ago; enrolment has rebounded to 60.
Pastoral ministry and Christian education are the two traditional tracks at MTS. Most programmes are actually hybrid forms involving both distance and on-location learning. Bachelor programs require two two-week sessions per year in a learning centre for a five-year period; Masters programmes involve three two-week sessions per year. But many certificate programmes run for only a year or just for a week. A few courses are offered strictly on-line.
Flexibility is the name of the game in on-line and distance learning. MTS-Rector Dr. Peter Mitskevich, a medical doctor and US-trained theologian, assures that his institution is geared to “differing approaches to best serve the needs of the church”. One recent Moscow programme is designed for the directors of rehabilitation centres treating substance abuse. One staff member explains: “These directors have had a great deal of experience with people – but zero training in theology.” This programme consists of roughly 15 self-contained modules. A student is able to begin for ex. with module 8 at end with module 7 – one can start the programme at any stage.
Other new programmes include Christian counselling, church administration, digital media and church-state relations. One course on counselling is being taught at a tenth location: St. Petersburg. The youngest students can be found in a certificate programme aimed at church youth leaders.
Distance learning and its hybrid forms fix many of the problems stemming from campus-based training. Traditionally, young people in the Second and Third Worlds have used church scholarships to exit themselves from unpopular rural settings and countries. This is of course the exact opposite of the intended purpose of such aid. One church leader states: “Our churches are afraid of losing the best and brightest. If we can train pastors indigenously, then they don’t need to uproot their families and leave their ministries or jobs.”
Distance learning is practice-oriented. The chances of a student disappearing into an ivory, academic tower far removed from the lives and thinking of working-class mortals are kept to a minimum. One supporter states: “According to this model, one is already involved in church – here there is no gap and no lag. Conversation in a classroom of proven ministers is on a different level than among 18- or 20-year-old beginners.”
An American states: “In the West, people ask me about the placement rate at MTS. I respond: ´100%!´ Up to 90% of these students are already involved in ministry. This is not like North America where a young person goes to seminary and hopes for the best afterwards.”
Rector Mitskevich explains that students of theology are decidedly older because ministry in Russia is a bi-vocational matter. “The majority will attend a secular institution for their first degree. They will become engineers, doctors or managers first. If God really is calling them, they will then begin to sharpen their ministry skills in church. They study theology after all that.” He continues: “We need to grow things step-by-step. We have only had 20 years of freedom – the churches need time to mature and grow. Obtaining a good place to meet and starting programmes of ministry are the initial objectives. The salaried ministry will only come years later.” The distance-learning model “fits our economic and geographic conditions”. It is the only means of reaching willing students in remote areas.
Students are covering their travel costs as well as 10% of tuition. Russian giving is now sufficient for 30% of the operating budget. An increased sense of ownership is probably due to that fact that the present model can be paid for with local resources. Is it not highly- inconvenient for an instructor to travel to as many as nine different centres of learning? “Sure”, responds the Rector. “But is it that not better (and cheaper) than expecting 29 or so students to come to us?”
The distance-learning model is future-oriented not only because the costs of campus-based training are leaping off the graph in Western countries. The young now begin with a computer in their cribs and the computer-smarts of the young will skyrocket.
One could argue that the Soviet-era church was far ahead of its time when it began with correspondence courses in 1968. But at the same time, Mitskevich notes that in a sense MTS is now only offering what the Anglo world already has on-line: a vast array of theological courses for every interest. “But we are a Russian-speaking school and it is our task to offer Russian-language courses to students everywhere.” MTS already has several students in the U.S., Australia and Germany who attend twice-annual sessions in Russia. The Rector does not rule out the possibility of additional theological courses in simple Russian directed at students learning Russian as a second language.
The down side
Are Russian Protestant institutions of learning in danger of being diploma mills? Mikhail Nevolin, a Baptist theologian in St. Petersburg, claims that only a few of them deserve the title of “university” or “seminary”. On-line education in Russia is clearly no match for the rigorous academic work common of Western seminaries. But stated positively: These Russian programmes require no great leap and are not far removed from the pastoral work students already know.
Rector Mitskevich is convinced that his new Academic Dean, Pastor Gennadi Sergienko, will lead the way in assuring quality control at MTS. Sergienko completed a doctorate in New Testament at California’s “Fuller Theological Seminary” in 2011. Mitskevich reports that the majority of faculty now hold earned doctorates. During the past four years, it has become practice for all students to travel to Moscow for their final oral exams prior to graduation. This helps establish a level academic field for all prospective graduates.
Converted ex-addicts are a major source of students for Russia’s evangelical seminaries. Since they rarely stem from the upper echelons of society, observers worry about a negative effect on the intellectual level of seminary and church life. “This is only a reflection of demographics in general”, one American observer interjects. “Handbooks report that 40% of Russian males suffer from substance abuse” (primarily alcoholism).
Give-and-take-discussion among students is a weak point of distance learning. Two-week sessions on location, informal chat rooms and email are being used to alleviate the problem. Dean Sergienko admits that he longs for the time when longer-term resident study will again be possible. “Every approach has its strengths and weaknesses”, Peter Mitskevich assures. “But for us at the present stage of our development, this is clearly the right way to go.”
Additional schools associated with the RUECB include a seminary near Novosibirsk and a “preachers’ school” located in Samara/Volga.
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