I once heard a seminary dean wail, "Are there no limits to diversity?" His lament did not stem from any known xenophobia — he himself was a Latino in a school with dozens of international students. But he knew the costs, human and fiscal, of providing good theological education for a multicultural student body. Every aspect of student life required fine-tuning: admissions and pedagogy, academic counseling and student services, seminary worship and co-curricular programs.
"Welcoming international students" almost sounds like a platitude to those who know the 200-year history of North American seminary education. I was reminded of these roots at a recent In Trust seminar, when several seminary trustees readily identified their own and their schools' immigrant origins: German, Norwegian, Russian, and Rusyn (Carpatho-Russian). Although only a couple trustees were one generation from the old country, all could refer to the experience of their forebears.
Nevertheless, seminary education for international students today has new features. In the past, most were educated in schools founded, built, and warmly cocooned by their own immigrant communities. Moreover, the costs of establishing a school were inestimably lower. Preceding the spread of graduate level accreditation standards and middle-class ways of life, these schools were nearly affordable and could depend on the support of immigrant congregations and church bodies for their survival. Often a school's professors were imported from the homeland to teach.
Today's immigrant religious communities face different challenges. The costs of founding and supporting an accredited school are far higher and must be staged carefully, if they are to achieve their goal of clergy well trained for the ministry and well versed in the daily life of the people they serve. Congregationally based ministry institutes are sometimes the starting point. Other immigrant communities pursue partnerships with already-established schools that have proved hospitable and effective educators. In other instances, individual students come from abroad with plans to return home to teach, minister, or even start new theological schools. In still other cases, North American churches recruit seminarians from abroad to work in North America. And seminaries here and abroad are engaged in transoceanic exchanges of faculty and board members. A new global profile of theological education has already emerged.
This issue of In Trust provides a glimpse at several of these efforts. I hope you'll find these accounts instructive and will write or e-mail us if you have a story to tell. As the dean who wondered if there are any limits to diversity reminds us, educating international students is an institution-wide voyage of discovery. Because it tests all the systems, it also tests governance and provides new opportunities for a school's administration, board, and faculty to examine the way they work together to propose, decide, implement, and evaluate policies and programs.
Candor and institutional research are vital if governance leaders are to ensure that a school is living up to its purposes for all the students it admits. When that is not the case, institutional self-examination can unearth the limits and point to opportunities for renewal and cooperative institutional efforts. The knowledge that some of today's international students will be tomorrow's theological educators here and abroad should put all institutions on notice: seminarians are learning not just Bible, history, and theology during their years at school, but also how to lead and govern an institution. Their eyes are on you.