It’s my privilege to work closely with LeaDev-Langham’s Partner School Zarephath Bible Seminary (ZBS) in Pakistan to develop a Master of Theology program. This is a ground-breaking first for Pakistan, where there are only several Pakistanis with doctorates in theology or biblical studies, and only a handful with an MTh degree.
After a year of planning and delays in starting, the MTh got underway at the beginning of this year. It’s a three-year program, value-added with a complementary leadership development strand. This ensures that those who graduate do so with both accredited academic credentials, and honed leadership skills. This is crucial in a country where senior leaders – and not just academics – are so desperately needed to better equip the Church to be effective and contextually relevant in the nation – and beyond.
Now six months into the program, what’s been achieved?
Nine students have completed the first coursework module, and in mid-June finished the on-campus sessions of their second.
Encouraging for a programme that’s the first of its kind? Sure! I’m definitely encouraged. But together with colleagues from ZBS, we’re strongly aware underneath this progress are some challenges that need to be addressed for the program to keep moving ahead confidently, and for the students to finish well.
These educational challenges are not so commonly encountered nowadays in typical (if there is such) western countries, but they’re certainly widespread among our Partner Schools in Asia-Pacific.
1. Students numbers
ZBS would like to produce a good-sized bunch of graduates – a critical mass for the Pakistan Church. Initially, 15 Christian leaders signed up. But come the on-campus sessions of the first coursework module, only nine students appeared! Another 3-4 showed up during the first week, and one just disappeared. There’s likely to be further attrition from the present nine stayers.
So, what to do? Of course, this is not just a Pakistani issue. The student attrition rate in higher education worldwide is also pretty high. At ZBS we are already planning to commence a new cohort of 8-10 students later in 2018. They will have their own orientation and then continue with the first cohort. Also, it would be a wonderful witness to the inclusiveness of the Gospel to have women leaders in the program – the sole woman in the initial cohort pulled out after only two months, when her first child was born.
2. Students’ time management
The program is designed to be full time, but probably none of the present nine students consider it so. All, to some extent, are trying to fit their study in on top of an already over-full ministry load. This creates stresses for them and problems for the ZBS faculty to know how to handle missed assignment deadlines and to draw out the best in the students.
Going forward, ZBS will continue to work with the students and their ministry and family stakeholders to view and commit to the program as a significant proportion of their ministry load, rather than an ‘add on’. This is easy to write – it’s rather more difficult to enable or even ensure, in a culture in which there is a shortage of trained Christian leaders, and many of them are under pressure (at least partly self-imposed) to take on unrealistic work-loads. Also, for most their ministry is their main source of livelihood, and financial sponsorship for studies is hard to come by – there’s certainly no ‘free first year’ provision for them. ZBS has been able to proceed with the MTh only because a major sponsor in Australia is enabling the program to be more affordable for the Pakistani students.
3. Students’ ability for English-medium MTh level study.
It hasn’t take long for the students to appreciate that it’s a significant jump from their first theological degree to the MTh in terms of research, thinking and writing skills – and this is reflected in the quality of their assignment work. This is due in large part to the students’ prior learning experiences, which are characterised as largely ‘content dumping’ by teachers who have little real appreciation of active, transformative adult learning strategies. (The move now so common in western tertiary education institutions to require teaching faculty to undergo training to develop their teaching skills is, understandably, slow to filter into Pakistan theological/Bible colleges.) So we certainly don’t blame the MTh students for not bringing well-honed higher education reading, critical thinking and writing skills to their program! It’s simply a contextual educational reality.
Also, students’ ability to study in English is a challenge for them. Here’s a dilemma that’s not intuitive for most of us in countries where English is the first (and often only) language for the majority. English is the second or even third language of all the Pakistani MTh students, and their competence varies tremendously. But they need to access English resources because there are so few in Urdu and Punjabi, certainly for MTh-level study.
It’s some consolation to know that this is a challenge common to theological education in majority and minority world countries (and is the reason why LeaDev-Langham supports ESOL training at some Partner Schools). While the MTh students have had some skills-enhancement sessions, we need to draw in competent resource people for ongoing input. We’ve not yet found these people in Pakistan, so we are exploring an online, webinar-based means of helping the students enhance their academic skills, with international tutors.
4. Library and online resources
It’s no surprise that the library resources at ZBS need to be beefed up significantly for an MTh program. There are significant gaps for a reasonable MTh level library, in terms of both resource material and library infrastructure to support the program (like a reliable computerised catalogue). And there is a dearth of material written by Pakistanis for Pakistan, regardless of whether in Urdu, Punjabi or English.
Right now we have an Australian librarian ready to fly into ZBS for two weeks of ‘forensic librarianship’ – to assess the library reality, and to recommend ways ahead. Lynn’s raring to go – all she needs now is an elusive visitor’s visa to enter Pakistan. And funds are in hand for ZBS to take out a subscription for a major online theological/biblical database – very expensive by Pakistan standards, but necessary for MTh-level research.
We’re hoping that slowly but surely more accessible resources for Pakistan will appear. A policy made when the MTh program was conceptualised is that fruit of the MTh program will be significant books and booklets published to enrich the Church in Pakistan.
So those are four major educational challenges when starting a new educational programme for senior leaders in the Church – all heightened in the Pakistan context. We thank God that none are insurmountable, and that by his grace and with his resources the ZBS MTh program will achieve what we sense are God’s purposes for it, to build and strengthen senior leaders in his Church in Pakistan. And that’s something we can pray for all LeaDev-Langham’s Partner Schools through Asia-Pacific.
Allan Harkness is LeaDev-Langham’s Programmes & Partnerships Manager. Drawing on his long-time experiences setting up MTh and doctoral programs for AGST Alliance in SE Asia, he acts as Advisory Administrator for the ZBS MTh program, based in Auckland and flying from time to time to Pakistan. Both he and ZBS staff and students alike are very thankful for reasonable internet connectivity which makes his role do-able!