Consultation Paves the Way to Better Theological Education in Africa

September 24, 2009

Sept. 18, 2009 | KAMPALA, UGANDA – The lack of theological education and training resources in Africa is all too familiar to Yatta Young, dean of Gbarnga School of Theology in Monrovia, Liberia.

"We rely on teachers' notes. We don't have books," Dr. Young said.
 
Young was among 23 United Methodist theologians, seminary representatives, and leaders from across Africa, as well as representatives from general church boards and agencies in the U.S., who gathered August 19-20 in Kampala, Uganda, for a first-ever assessment of United Methodist theological education in Africa. The group identified needs, challenges, and opportunities for effective, sustainable theological training and formation of church leaders.
 
"Forming and educating the kind and quality of leader The United Methodist Church in Africa needs now and in the future calls for careful examination, prayerful deliberation, and thoughtful planning," said Jerome King Del Pino, general secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, during his remarks.
 
The 2008 General Conference approved "Support of Theological Education in Africa" (petition 81160), which directed $2 million over the next four years to expand and strengthen theological facilities beyond Africa University, as well as library development, scholarships, publications, and logistical support of theological education. More than a quarter of United Methodists worldwide live in Africa.
 
David Kekumba Yemba, episcopal leader of the Central Congo Area and the facilitator of the consultation, told the group that the consultation was a vital first step.
 
"It has been a tradition for The United Methodist Church to invest in this kind of gathering before we come up with creative problem solving to respond to the challenges ahead of us on this continent - as, for example, in the case of Africa University," said Bishop Yemba.
 
The group identified five key needs and challenges in the areas of holistic theological education, curriculum, institutional development, publishing, and theological training for laity.
 
First, group members emphasized that theological training must integrate theological tradition - including United Methodist doctrine, belief, and practice - with contextual issues facing the church and society in Africa. Young believes that this is crucial for sustaining the programs of the church.
 
"There was a time when someone came to me to ask a question about AIDS. I was dumbfounded . . . because this was something I had refused to read about," said Young. "There are certain situations when a pastor [plays the role of] a doctor, or maybe a lawyer. They need to know a little bit of everything."
 
Moreover, the group said that church leaders must receive training in leadership, business, and entrepreneurial skills to enable pastors, congregations, and communities to pursue financial self-sufficiency through supplementary sources of income, such as farming.
 
In addition, participants recognized the importance of involving African United Methodist scholars more effectively in writing study material.
 
"We need to publish books written by Africans themselves," Young told the group. "In Liberia, we don't have anywhere to publish. If we want to publish, we have to go to Nigeria or New Guinea. It costs money."
 
Representatives also stressed the need to standardize curriculum across the continent, and to share curricula, including translations, within United Methodist institutions in Africa and across the United Methodist connection.
 
Additionally, technological disparities across the continent emerged as an issue, but the group noted that access is improving each day. That brings increased opportunities to make better use of Internet technology to share faculty expertise and teaching, and to exchange curriculum.
 
Participants also said that libraries need improvement - from physical structures to enhanced holdings, to sharing capabilities. Further challenges include cultivating financial support for students and faculty, as well as retaining both.
 
On September 10, the African college of bishops heard a presentation of the report from Dr. Del Pino during its gathering at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe. The Connectional Table and the directors of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the General Board of Global Ministries, and United Methodist Communications will also receive briefings in the months ahead, as next steps for the initiative are put in place.
 
"It is my hope that at the end of this consultation we will have given the best of our knowledge in theological education . . . to make sure the continent of Africa is not left behind in theological education," said Bishop Yemba.