Equipping leaders for an emerging Russia
Since its founding three centuries ago by Peter the Great, this city has always had a certain dual nature. A city that was built by forced labor was also designed to be a progressive, European-style city, a veritable “window on the West.”
To founders of the Institute for Theology and Christian Ministry here, it’s a window God has opened into Russia.
Two years ago the Church of Christ institute for advanced Christian studies opened its doors to 19 students from nine Russian cities and Minsk, Belarus.
“Finally, I have a way to pursue my dream of a Christian education,” said student Tanya Kuzmento, scurrying to get a freshly brewed cup of tea on a break between classes.
Baptized at age 17 in her hometown of Tomsk, Kuzmento attended Tomsk State University. She graduated in 2004 with a major in cultural studies and a hunger for a deeper knowledge of the Bible.
Today this institute in northern Russia is a place where she and others can embrace their spirituality and train to become Christian leaders.
In the beginning, the school was the collaborative brainchild of American and Russian Christians who saw a critical need for it, said director Joel Petty, a missionary in Russia since 1997.
In the 1990s, after the fall of communism, numerous missionaries came to Russia and the former Soviet Union. But a decade and a half later, the region has fewer than 60 Churches of Christ.
“And most of those are under 40 in attendance,” Petty said, describing many of the churches as “struggling or at best stable, but not growing.”
There are bright spots, he added, including growing churches in Tomsk, Barnaul, Syktyvkar and St. Petersburg.
When Russian leaders at a 2004 national seminar confirmed the urgent need for more theology instruction, founders fast tracked their plans, Petty said. Along with Petty, Chuck Whittle, long-time missionary to Russia, David Worley of Austin, Texas, and Russian ministers Oleg Yakimenko, Slava Zakharchenko and Alexander Kaladze, determined to open the school in January 2005.
Earlier, Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas, had established schools for training preachers and teachers in Barnaul and Donetsk, Ukraine.
But founders of the Institute for Theology and Christian Ministry saw a need for a place to train college graduates and mature Christians, said Worley, chairman of the Foundation for Biblical Study, which oversees the school.
At first, recruiting students was tough. Many leaders feared the school would rob their small, struggling churches of their most talented and energetic members, Petty said.
He calmed their fears by explaining that one of the school’s purposes was to strengthen existing churches by encouraging graduates to return to their home congregations.
Nine full-time students from Russia and the former Soviet Union made up the institute’s first class. Why would students leave their families and make the long difficult move across the largest nation in the world?
“For me, it was the opportunity to make my ministry more effective,” said Valery Yermakov. Before coming to the school, he had left a dental practice to become the minister at his home congregation in Perm.
“Our first nine students were like Abraham and Sarah — real trailblazers,” Petty said. “They went to a land they did not know. “
The institute took root and more than doubled its enrollment by January 2006.
Both the curriculum and schedule are demanding, Petty said, comparing the institute to a divinity or graduate school but with a greater emphasis on practical ministry. Each school day students meet at 9 a.m. for a devotional, followed by four hours of classes and an hour and a half of discussions and practical application.
One of the highlights of the day comes at 2 p.m., when they gather for lunch at the Neva Church of Christ, a block from the institute. The aroma of freshly cooked cabbage rolls fills the air as students rush to the tables in the fellowship room. They gobble down cheese, fruit, salad and pudding.
Most of the students range from 22 to 35 years old, have a bachelor’s degree and were recommended by their home congregations. Their tuition is free, and each is given a small stipend for living expenses.
“We’re not interested in growing armchair theologians,” Whittle said. “We want our students to go home knowing how to go into the streets and into the pulpits and do a better job of reaching people with the message of Christ,”
When the school opened, the founders weren’t sure when — or if — they might ever offer an accredited degree program.
But in October 2005, representatives of St. Petersburg State University, which has a Biblical Languages Department, invited the institute to share in a joint program that included use of its facilities and 10,000-volume theological library.
“It was a work of God,” Petty said.
“It’s difficult to communicate how blessed they are in this prestigious location on the university campus,” said Allan McNicol, a visiting professor from Austin Graduate School of Theology in Texas.
School officials are optimistic they will be able to grant a masters’ degree within the next year, Petty said.
Besides taking 28 academic courses in two years, students complete four eight-week internships in practical fieldwork. During the internships, they travel to Russian churches and immerse themselves in ministries, ranging from pastoral counseling to youth and women’s ministry
School officials do not encourage their graduates to seek or depend upon support from U.S. churches, Petty said.
“In fact, nothing would make us happier than to see our students go home, be able to support themselves and be a fruitful member of the body,” he said.
Times have changed this nation. As recently as 15 years ago, it was not difficult to find throngs of people eager to hear the gospel and become Christians. But today missionaries say the tide has turned.
“The students will have to win converts one at a time,” McNicol said. “Growth will be slow. But these graduates will be a stabilizing factor.”
Nov. 1, 2006