A letter from Paul Matheney in the Philippines
Mary and I are “assigned” primarily to teach Bible and Christian theology, respectively in our graduate programs. The programs are newly established in response to an urgent need for advanced theological education. The United Church of Christ in the Philippines, our partner church, is suffering from a lack of qualified seminary professors. There are very few professors that have a doctoral degree and many of the professors that are teaching now have been officially retired for years. While the churches are growing, the number of seminary graduates is dropping. Few are answering the call. These may seem to be simple institutional problems, but they are not. What happens to theological education makes a great difference.
One thing that has become very clear to me from my studies in the history of Christian mission is that the Christian community cannot survive without ministers, who are capable of communicating the Gospel and the traditions of the church in intelligible and convincing ways. Wherever theological education and mission have faded, so does the church. Whenever a new Christian church is established, new schools for theological education follow – and with good reason. I believe that if the UCCP and other Protestant churches in South East Asia do not take adequate steps to ensure quality Christian training, the recent successes they will fade.
The need is arising just as possibilities for advanced study in the US and Europe are fading. The costs are prohibitive, especially for the poor – and the students of South East Asia are poor. Visa problems are also barriers. Sending students to study in an American or European school is not necessarily a good idea. The goal of providing scholars for churches in need is rarely met. It is vital, therefore, that we establish quality theological centers in context. This is what we are attempting by laying the foundations for graduate theological programs at Philippine Christian University.
The effort began more than a decade ago, when Mary and I were asked to help. I was made the coordinator of PCU’s new doctoral program administered by Union Theological Seminary. I have continued in this role until today. Mary was to work with the MTheol program of SEAGST, the accrediting institution for our seminary. Mary coordinates today the newly established Masters program in Theological Studies of PCU. The design for the doctoral program has undergone a number of transformations. Conflicts and corruption have led to an almost constant flow of change in the leadership of these institutions. SEAGST almost collapsed due to financial mismanagement. UTS has been without a permanent head now for most of the decade; we are still without leadership. PCU also removed its President due to financial irregularities. In spite of the choppy waters of the institutions that housed the programs, we have continued to grow and improve, both in the number of qualified students and quality of faculty. We are the eye at the center of the storm.
We are training a number of future scholars for the UCCP, as well as students from churches all over South East Asia, from India, Burma, China, Korea, Malaysia and other lands. Churches send their students to us, partly due to tradition. For over 300 years, since the Roman Catholics established the Philippines as the center for theological training for the fledgling churches of Asia, Christians in Asia have looked to the only Christian nation in this part of the globe for training. There are seminaries of every stripe here. There are, however, few doctoral programs anywhere in SE Asia and fewer still with developed faculties. Most schools just do the best they can. The lack of education has led to many problems as churches attempt to face the challenges of growth without trained leaders.
I can list the problems for you, but that could be too much. Just imagine if your pastor did not know much about the Bible, how to lead worship appropriately, how to offer competent pastoral care or communicate the traditions of your church. If these would be problems in your home church, imagine the difficulties we experience here.
To meet this need we offer programs especially designed for churches in Asia that prepare teachers as scholars for the church. Our programs focus on the basics of Christian belief and life. They prepare its leaders for responsible mission and ministry. While we are new, we are capable. While our institutions are shaky, our resolve to do the work is firm.
Our faculty has sought to be creative in meeting this challenge. The graduate program, we believe, must reach beyond its programs to establish itself. We seek to be involved in the work of the University as a whole as well as with the theological formation programs of the UCCP. Consequently, in addition to young students who need encouragement to enter the ministry, we also work with pastors who have served for years. By offering the experienced new training we can enrich their ministry and strengthen the work of the church throughout UCCP and the other churches that join us. By being present to younger students, we are reminding them of the call to serve.
The future leaders are there; we are doing what we can to find them and make a difference in their lives and work. We need to be sure that they have the opportunity and the education to serve with faith and integrity. The UCCP and the churches of SE Asia are in need. Their future hangs in the balance.
Please keep us in your prayers.