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Southern Africa faces a growing need for clergy training

Helping students see themselves and their communities through Scripture

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Bannet Muwowo with the Rev. Dr. Dustin Ellington. Muwowo now trains pastors as the principal at Chasefu Theological College in eastern Zambia. (Photo by Sherri Ellington)

LOUISVILLE — Justo Mwale University in Zambia is generally thought of as an educational institution that prepares pastors.  It has trained pastors for seven African countries. But this unique place of learning also plays a key role in equipping scholars to go on to train pastors in other African theological schools.

Well-trained pastors are a growing need in Southern Africa, a region Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker the Rev. Dr. Dustin Ellington has served since 2010.

“Rev. Bannet Muwowo, whom I advised during his master’s program, now trains pastors himself as the principal at Chasefu Theological College in eastern Zambia,” he said. “Rev. Agnes Nyirenda Nyondo, who graduated a few years ago, is a new lecturer at the University of Livingstonia’s School of Theology in Malawi. We also have former students teaching in seminaries in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.”

Ellington and wife Sherri, who serves as the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) site coordinator in Zambia, left Africa when the PC(U.S.A.) called home its mission co-workers last spring during the early days of the pandemic. They are currently sheltering in place in Southern California.

“One way I’m currently serving future scholars for the Church in Africa from here in Pasadena is through writing,” he said. “One of my study leave projects is preparing a paper based on what I’ve learned from the past 10 years of teaching the Bible in Zambia. It first describes how, in Africa’s theological schools, there is a longing for biblical interpretation that is truly African and allows the Scripture to mean what it means to African communities. This is important for the post-colonial situation and for developing a theology that speaks to the African setting.”

So, Ellington said, the question becomes how to encourage biblical interpretations that are truly African and truly contextual “while also allowing Scripture to have its own voice and speak words which surprise and challenge us instead of only saying what our communities want to hear.”

He aims for interpretation to be not only contextual, but also biblical, so that what is taught is not only relevant but also true to Scripture.

“My recent paper is about a model for approaching the Bible and teaching interpretation that helps students use the literary context of Scripture so we’re not just hearing our own thoughts and desires when we interpret the Bible,” he said.  “This approach helps students take in more evidence from the text of Scripture. The result is that students identify more deeply with the Bible, so they see themselves and their community through Scripture.”

When Fuller Theological Seminary’s New Testament faculty members learned about his writing project, they asked Ellington to share the paper with them.

“During the resulting discussion they said that, although it was written for Africa, it deals with analogous issues which they, too, are facing,” he said, such as “how a diverse student body can interpret the Bible in a way that’s sensitive to diversity while also wrestling with what’s actually written in Scripture.”

Fuller later invited the whole faculty of Mission and Theology to read the paper. It was followed by a plenary discussion on Zoom.

“Attendees said the paper describes the sort of experiences students everywhere need: opportunities to see what’s really there in the Bible, to really observe how it witnesses to Jesus Christ and the gospel, and to make space for honest and deep conversation between Scripture and diverse and particular backgrounds,” he said. “These experiences help believers to weave an identity what is genuinely Christian while also being true to their specific background and community. The process seems crucial for thinking through what it means to live life with Scripture and preach the gospel faithfully in diverse contexts.”

A pre-pandemic photo of mission co-workers Sherri and Dustin Ellington. (Contributed photo)

Ellington said he hopes the paper will serve future teachers in Africa who will, in turn, guide how future students interpret the scripture. The paper will be published later this year in a South African journal of theology. Anyone who wants to read the entire document is welcome to contact him at dustin.ellington@pcusa.org.

Dustin Ellington has a doctorate in New Testament from Duke University and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He has a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Stanford University. Sherri Ellington also has a Bachelor of Arts from Stanford University, where she majored in human biology with an emphasis in child development. She is credentialed to teach elementary education. He was ordained as a ministerof Word and Sacrament in March 1995 by the Presbytery of San Joaquin.


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