Fernando A. Cascante is assistant executive director of the Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana (AETH). He also directs the association’s Justo González Center for Latino/a Ministries, a study center housed at Asbury Theological Seminary’s campus in Orlando, Florida.
Cascante graduated from college and seminary in his native Costa Rica. For ten years he combined pastoring and teaching at the seminary and university levels, after which he moved to the United States in 1999 to join the faculty of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Now based in Florida at the Justo González Center, he promotes training for church leaders, much of which is done in Bible institutes.
Cascante’s experience in preparing leaders for ministry — both in traditional seminaries and in Bible institutes — gives him a distinct perspective on these two educational models — where they overlap, where they diverge, and how they can collaborate.
In Trust caught up with Cascante to learn about Bible institutes in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico, as well as a recent collaboration between AETH and the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).
Q Help us to understand the Latino church landscape in the United States. How many churches are there? How are pastors and other church leaders trained?
There are more than 27,000 evangelical, Pentecostal, or independent churches in the United States that are primarily Latino or Hispanic. We’ve known that the great majority of leaders in these churches prepare for ministry in Bible institutes rather than seminaries. We’ve also known that there’s a wide range of programs, requirements, and levels of quality at these institutes. But we haven’t had comprehensive, specific data.
So in 2012 AETH conducted a survey of 252 Bible institutes in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada to ask about organizational background, governance, teachers, facilities, enrollment, degree programs, finances, and community involvement. We received about a 23 percent response rate, which gives us a good statistical basis to understand what’s going on.
Q How did you decide which institutes to survey?
We were only able to survey the ones we could reach. There are at least double, maybe triple that number of Bible institutes, but there is no centralized list.
Q Let’s start with the basics — how long have the Bible institutes you surveyed been around, and where are they located?
The oldest institute that responded was founded in 1926, but nearly two-thirds were established after 1999. Half of respondents characterized their institutes as having a denominational affiliation, and half said their institute was certified or accredited in some way. Forty-two percent said they have fewer than 50 students, but 17 percent responded that they enroll between 304 and 1,200 students.
Bible institutes tend to be where there are greater concentrations of Hispanic people, such as Chicago, New York, California, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. But many have started in places like Kansas, North Carolina, and Georgia — locations where the Latino population has grown 200 to 300 percent in a decade.
Q Why would a pastor opt for Bible institute training over seminary training?
Part of the appeal of Bible institutes is that they are flexible, affordable, and students can start right away. Mission-oriented churches that are rapidly expanding can’t wait three or four years to train a pastor. Also, the cost of Bible institute classes is lower than seminary classes. Almost half reported that their institute charges between $50 and $100 per course.
Many Latino church leaders lack the baccalaureate-level diploma required for seminary admittance or lack the English-language skills. A Bible institute may be the most accessible path. That said, 17 percent of the U.S. population is now Hispanic, and over 2 million Hispanic/Latino students are currently enrolled
in U.S. colleges — the highest number ever.
Q What does a typical Bible institute program look like?
We can only speak in general terms because there is such a variety of programs and requirements. However, in general, Bible institutes have a strong emphasis on Scriptures and the devotional aspect of church leadership. They also focus on the practical training needed for Christian education, evangelization, and community work. They tend to be less focused on church history and theology than seminary programs. Bible institutes are more oriented toward the here and now.
The average number of courses required for a diploma is 20. But some students complete as few as four courses before becoming missionaries or Christian educators within a denomination. Others take upwards of 40 courses.
Q What’s the typical student like?
Virtually all students are bivocational in the Hispanic/Latino church. Classes meet mostly at night in order to accommodate students who are working full time. Many classes meet every night for a month. There are also courses that meet once a week for two or three months, and others that meet three nights and a full weekend. In many cases, students have assignments before the first and after the final meeting.
Age-wise, almost all the institutions responding to our survey had students in both the 20-29 and the 30-39-year-old age groups. Also, 36 percent of responding institutions had students that were 60 or older. For the most part, Bible institute students are first- and second-generation immigrants, but some are third generation as well.
Students are overwhelmingly members of local churches and lay church leaders. Sixty-eight percent of responding institutes said they enroll pastors. All of the Bible institutes we surveyed admitted women, and the average enrollment is 48 percent women.
Q Are there Catholic students in Bible institutes?
Yes, but it’s not typical. Of course there are many Latino Catholics in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada, but they have other ministry training programs. Bible institutes tend to attract people from evangelical churches, although more and more mainline denominations are organizing similar programs for their Latino/a members.
Q What about facilities, resources, and technology?
Twenty-eight percent of institutes that responded own their facilities, 21 percent lease them, and 19 percent use church facilities. Eighty-two percent said that they “have a lot more room to be able to grow our student body.” But only 65 percent agreed with the statement that “overall our library addresses our students’ needs,” and only 21 percent reported sharing agreements with other libraries. Online programs are not a big emphasis. Very few reported having distance-learning offerings, for example.
Q Last summer you spoke with In Trust about a collaboration between AETH and the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) to create certification standards that would recognize highest quality curriculum and instruction at Bible institutes. What’s happened since then?
In February 2013, the ATS Board of Commissioners recognized AETH’s certification standards as meeting the baccalaureate equivalency for admission in master’s programs at ATS schools. Now we are in phase two of this project — the certification phase. Almost 80 Bible institutes were represented at regional meetings we held across the country this fall to explain the process. You can’t imagine the enthusiasm for this opportunity to recognize their programs and open doors for their graduates.
Our goal is to have eight to 10 Bible institutes start the certification process by the end of 2013. We’re also identifying Bible institutes that would like to work toward becoming eligible to apply for certification.
Q What kind of impact will AETH’s certification standards have on ATS member seminaries?
On average, only about 20 percent of students at Bible institutes are interested in pursuing a seminary education, so we don’t want to create false expectations that this will start a huge flow of applicants to ATS schools in the short term. But AETH’s certification will recognize the best possible training, and that will help all students — those who want to further their studies, and those who simply want to be as prepared as possible to minister in their local churches.
Part of AETH’s work is to find opportunities for seminaries and Bible institutes to collaborate. The seminaries that want to thrive in the future will pay attention to the growth of the Hispanic church and the training of Hispanic church leaders. Certainly they will find more and more great challenges and great opportunities among the Hispanic/Latino community.