We have the task of training a certain number of Russian-speaking men for the pastoral ministry. What is the best way to achieve this goal? To put it bluntly: if we’re speaking of a small seminary with a handful of students (in our case, 12 is the maximum number of resident students according to the Seminary’s official charter approved by the government), wouldn’t it be more practical and money-wise just to bring the 6 or 8 students that we usually have to one of the American seminaries and train them there instead of maintaining an entire building in the cold of Siberia, supporting a faculty, and taking care of the other things related to the educational process?
The short answer is no, and here is why. I have 6 points or arguments that I hold to be fundamentally correct.
1. Language. We use Russian as the language of instruction, while English is the language of instruction at an American seminary. There are many more written and audio-visual resources available in English, this is true. However, a seminary graduate will need to serve, preach, and teach his flock using what language? Presumably, in Russia it will be the Russian language. I know firsthand how difficult it is to provide adequate translation from one language into another. It is a completely different framework of thought. Between Greek-based and Latin-based theological terminology and the peculiarities of rendering Biblical texts, the number of nuances to be taken into account is immense. Are all of these students going to be professional linguists and translators? In addition, having this program operating in America would limit ministerial candidates to those who have English proficiency, while other qualified and capable students would be left out. Otherwise, an interpreter would be needed all the time.
2. Culture. Language is part of an entire culture of communication. There are also different cultural norms that shape the educational process (teaching and examination methods, etc). There are also likely to be different political and social issues at stake, and as a result Russian students studying in America would get further away from their original context, which would make it more difficult for them to be on the same page with the people they are to serve upon their return home.
3. Theological context. While some theologians enjoy universal recognition, other theologians are more important for the local context. Recent theological history may be very different between America and Russia, and the dangers and challenges are not quite the same either in the two places. The teaching and preaching experienced by the students during their studies would also take place in a different context than the one they experience at the Seminary in Novosibirsk. This is not an insurmountable difficulty, but in general it is good if it can be avoided.
4. Liturgical practice. The liturgy is very similar there and here, yet it is not identical. To learn liturgical practice in one setting and then to transfer it to a different context is not so simple. Again, it is a matter of a mission vs. an established church context. The Lutheran Church does have an established history and tradition in Russia.
5. Church structure, tradition/succession in the Church, personal familiarity of the clergy. As the head of SELC, the bishop is able to get to know future ministers when they are still students. There is no way the Church will get to know these students well if they receive their education outside of their own ecclesial context. Receiving one’s education abroad, one may expect to gain a position of authority and prestige, but a lack of personal relationship, so important in a smaller church, might create a conflict with the existent clergy. Remember that Siberia is very large, and the ministers tend to be quite isolated in those places where they are assigned. So there may be no way for them to get to know what their own church is like if they have not gone through the seminary of this Church.
6. Motivation. A seminary in Siberia is a very good test in and of itself of the serious intention of a student. I’ve had a number of cases where some potential candidates were referred to me by missionaries or by some other people. These were men who said they wanted to study theology and become ministers in the Lutheran Church. When I started communicating with them, however, I found out that they wanted to study theology in America, or in the worst-case scenario, in Europe. They did not want to stay in Siberia or come to Siberia to study theology. They gave all kinds of explanations and excuses as to why this was so. So I couldn’t help but wonder: do they want to study theology, or do they just want to go to America? As you can imagine, anybody coming to Siberia to study theology — this by itself is already a good indication of a student’s serious intent.
Once again, Lutheranism in Russia is not a recently imported version of Christianity. We’ve been here for centuries. It is our confession and it is our land. Sustainability of the ministry in the Church depends on the quality of theological training of those people who are to do the duties of the ministry. Having a local seminary is the best way of organizing pastoral training for SELC, as I’m sure it is for other churches.