COVID-19 has disrupted all areas of life, not least of which is the area of education. These past months have revealed the many ways in which prevailing models of instruction and learning come into direct conflict with measures required to minimize health risks of the pandemic. The impact of this crisis has been particularly profound for theological education. Long before COVID-19 many seminaries, theology institutes and Bible colleges were facing major challenges and asking fundamental questions about the aims and methods of theological instruction and student formation.
Within the dynamic context of the Middle East, challenges facing theological education are uniquely complex, and the pandemic has only intensified ongoing challenges. Thinking critically about this consequential moment is the pulse of the conversation between Elie Haddad, Hani Hanna, Martin Accad, and Stephanie Black during the second webinar in the Middle East Conversations 2020 series on 16 July: COVID-19 and Theological Education in the Middle Eastern Context: Between Mounting Challenges and Emerging Opportunities.
Elie Haddad, president of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, begins the webinar with a keynote presentation, painting a sweeping picture of theological education in the Middle Eastern context and examining the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. He recalls consequential themes explored in Middle East Consultation 2017– suffering and persecution, emigration, hopelessness and despair, and minoritization- and discusses how these are impacting the Church in the region and revealing further implications amid the global health crisis. The issues discussed range from social ails and mental health to overwhelmed church leadership and strained relationships. All of these burdening the church and demanding greater urgency from theological institutions to make programs robust and relevant as they address the mounting needs of these times.
To respond to these challenges, Elie argues that theological education must seek ways to train students to engage beyond the traditional church parameters by modelling a type of “wounded healer” to the greater community. This means recognizing the importance of not only investing in church leaders but also NGO leaders, lay leaders and thought leaders who will contribute effectively in a wide range of contexts, both religious and secular. Many challenges are becoming more pronounced for Middle Eastern theological institutions in the current moment (including a lack of resources, tight government restrictions and insufficient technology infrastructure) and COVID-19 has exposed organizational weaknesses in responding effectively. Even so, Elie contends that we are faced with a ripe opportunity to act faithfully and strategically. He contends that an understanding of Christlikeness determines our responses during conditions of pandemic; a view of Christ as balanced and safe will produce self-protective responses, but an embrace of Christ as radical and sacrificial will inspire responses that are ready to take risks even at great costs. This can be an unnerving prospect for faith communities and organizations, and it requires a steady commitment to a focus on the mission, a collaborative discernment, a reduction to the essentials, and a willingness to innovate and change. Elie challenges us to believe that crises, when responded to in faith and hope, are fruitful seasons of growth and development. His charge for theological education today is quite simple: “Never waste a good crisis.”
Hani Hanna, longtime Academic Dean at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, provides the first case study from the Egyptian context. The analogy of wind is used to express the impact of the pandemic. While it is undeniably causing significant disruption, it is also proving a force that, if harnessed, boosts theological education into new opportunities. Hani explains that ETSC’s transition to online training was assisted by efforts made five years ago to create online programs. Even so, insufficient infrastructure in Egypt has contributed to ongoing challenges. The task of investing in student formation while distancing has also been a challenge, but even here there has been discovery of new methods and approaches to engage in this important element of theological training. Hani explains ways in which the concerns of the seminary are closely tied to the struggles of local churches during this time of restrictions and isolation. This has driven ETSC to be very thoughtful in modeling prudence while also stirring the church in Egypt to be thoughtful about its presence and ministry during the pandemic.
In the second case study, Chief Academic Officer Martin Accad provides a glimpse into significant actions taken by ABTS during the past months. He explains that one of the most crucial decisions assumed at the start of the pandemic was to separate urgent matters from strategic ones. The goal was to avoid that decisions with long-term significance would be made reactively rather than strategically. Urgent reactions included moving all instruction online and quickly arranging for residential students to return to their home countries. ABTS was able to accomplish this in just two week, thanks to its ability to draw on its existing online infrastructure and programs. Strategic responses, on the other hand, led to an acceleration in the adoption of measures consistent with global trends in theological education. As ABTS introduces major changes in the way that they shape and deliver their programs, they are aware that these changes are not going to be temporary. Such a posture reflects an institutional desire to respond to this pandemic not as the weathering of a storm, but as an opportunity to undergo significant metamorphosis, transforming the ways that ABTS engages in theological education. In the words of Martin, “ABTS has no Plan B.” The changes it is undergoing today – daunting as they may seem – represent the direction that ABTS will take for the foreseeable future.
Stephanie Black of Theologians Without Borders helps set the webinar conversation within a global context by highlighting the trends unfolding in theological institutions across Africa and Asia. She notes that there have been differing experiences between schools that had laid a groundwork for online learning pre-pandemic and those that had not, as well as those schools delivering undergraduate-level programs and those administrating graduate and post-graduate degree programs. In many ways, ESTC and ABTS reflect the challenges and opportunities facing theological schools in other contexts throughout the Global South. Stephanie notes that, amid all the frustrations of this time, there is much that should encourage us when hearing of teachers and administrators discovering that they can do things that had previously seemed unfeasible!
The webinar concludes with a panel discussion further exploring ways in which theological institutions can serve students, respond to the needs of local churches and collaborate with one another during this time of pandemic and beyond. Among all the heavy and urgent matters touched on throughout the webinar, the conviction of God’s goodness and the recognition of the pandemic’s potential are thoroughly affirmed. Answers are admittedly elusive, and many questions still need asking, but there is deep conviction that the mounting challenges facing theological education right now are small in comparison to the emerging opportunities to witness to Christ and the Kingdom.
This Middle East Conversations 2020 webinar seeks to ask questions and consider ideas with the aim of recognizing challenges and identifying opportunities for faithful witness. Watch the webinar and continue the conversation facilitated by Elie, Hani, Martin, and Stephanie, and keep the discussion going by sharing questions and thoughts in the comments section below.