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Financial pressures force European seminaries to get creative

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The Rev. Robert Kohler

Feb. 21, 2006

By Linda Green*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — Faced with tight funding, the United Methodist Church’s theological schools in Europe are seeking new ways of educating future leaders on the continent.

A group of 29 academic officials and other education leaders in the church met Feb. 2-6 at the Reutlingen Theological Seminary in Germany to address the financial shortfalls faced by the schools and to seek ways for the schools to support one another. A primary focus was on developing a distance learning program for training United Methodist leaders.

The meeting included representatives from theological institutions in Europe, the American Association of Theological Schools, the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and United Methodist bishops from Middle and South Europe.

The 2000 General Conference established a Fund for Theological Education in Post-Communist Europe to provide $3 million to several theological programs for the 2001-04 quadrennium. The Nashville-based Board of Higher Education and Ministry provided $2 million from its reserve funds, and the other $1 million came from General Conference action.

However, the 2004 General Conference cut the support and established a Fund for Global Education. The assembly did not provide any apportionment money for the fund but designated it as a World Service Special, meaning the fund would depend on contributions from individuals, annual conferences, local churches and other organizations. The denomination’s Connectional Table authorizes World Service Specials.

According to Bishop Patrick Streiff, who takes office for Central and Southern Europe in May, Methodists are a small minority in most European countries, and the church cannot afford to have a Methodist theological institution beyond the theological schools in Tallinn, Estonia, and Moscow. Europe is divided into many countries with many languages and cultures, and students attend ecumenical facilities to receive training in Methodist studies.

“In some countries, the fund for theological education in post-communist countries helped build up small institutions, but some had to reduce their activity or even close down because of lack of funds in the new quadrennium,” Streiff said. “Continuing the training in Methodist studies and having adequate literature in each language continues to be a struggle in many countries.”

Meeting the challenges

During the meeting, participants explored current information technology to make theological training in Europe more effective.

The Rev. Robert Kohler, a staff member at the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said all programs in Eastern and Southern Europe have continued without additional support from the Fund for Theological Education in Post-Communist Europe, although the programs in Estonia and Poland have been reorganized with fewer students, courses and instructors.

In outlining the challenges facing theological education in Europe, Kohler said, the challenge in the Nordic Area is to maintain Methodist identity in theological education at the University of Oslo in Norway and to maintain the integrity of the seminary in Gothenburg, Sweden. Both schools, he said, have a small number of students who are supported by the government.

“However, the (annual) conferences are finding it difficult to have students travel to these centers and be in residence for their studies,” he said. The challenge in Eastern and Central Europe, he said, is finding an income stream that would support theological education over a long period of time.

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Bishop Patrick Streiff
Streiff responded to the question of how the financial challenges will be met. He said each of the church’s central (regional) conferences in Europe is encouraged to develop opportunities for Methodist students learning English or German to participate in exchange programs whereby they could study at least one semester in a Methodist school in another country.

“Together as Europeans, from east and west, we plan to build up a system of e-learning (distance learning by network communications) as a virtual platform of excellence with courses in German or English,” he said.

Kohler said the Board of Higher Education and Ministry wants to raise $3 million to $4 million in the next three years to provide technical support and scholarship aid to institutions of higher learning across the world. The money, he said, will be divided equally among Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States. The goal is to raise $1 million for the program in 2006.

The resources available for support of theological education in Europe will be examined at a Leadership Summit in Germany in February 2007. The summit, Kohler said, would look at ways in which distance education can be created to link the theological centers of Eastern and Central Europe with Western Europe and the theological schools in the United States.

“Such a distance learning program will enable all the theological centers to access the educational resources of the participating schools,” he said.

Platform of excellence

The theological school representatives agreed on new forms of cooperation, including creating a virtual “platform of excellence” and translating and publishing theological literature and media in different European languages.

International doctor of ministry programs are already offered through partnerships with Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, and the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools will continue to foster that relationship in developing a distance learning enterprise.

United Methodist scholars and institutions in Europe and Methodist scholars and institutions in Britain said they are willing to provide assistance in making distance learning happen.

Leading the effort is Minnis Ridenour, a retired financial officer at Virginia Technological University. He and a committee will establish an online distance education process that will eventually link all European theological centers.

The distance program would be coordinated through the office of the bishop of Central and Southern Europe and would be linked to on-site training “in order to have the direct, personal interaction and discussion between students and teachers,” Streiff said. The training would cover specific areas of Methodist studies and other areas of theological education.

Said Kohler: “Once the funds are raised, the technology in place and courses developed for this platform of excellence, it will be possible for students who understand German or English to access course material from a variety of schools and use that material in classes offered at any one of the other centers of Europe or America.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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