Archive for June, 2020

Emmanuel Bellon begins this work by scanning the historical background of theological education in Africa (Part One: History and Financial Challenges of Theological Institutions; Chapter 1: The Historical Initiatives). By managing to squeeze in the book’s first paragraph the phrases ‘endemic financial challenges’ and ‘the carcasses of struggling institutions littering every corner of the continent’, Bello signals that his will be no Pollyanish reading of events. Indeed, at the turn of a first page we find theological education in Africa described by one authoritative assessment as ‘the weakest element of the entire enterprise of Christian Missions’.

Bellon faults, inter alia, the widespread adoption of the Berlin model of education by missionary educators and the institutional reliance on donations via the hoary model of ‘faith missions’ for the debris that clutters the landscape he surveys. But to mention one aspect of theological education as practiced elsewhere that has been imported on to African soil would be to blunt the author’s severe criticism of the entire project, which has left Africa bereft of sustainable models for institutional life with real capacity for survival and perseverance in the continent.

In spite of the obstacles to which Bellon alludes, African theological scholarship has advanced apace and found its voice on a global platform. Yet the ache in Bellon’s lines persists, because the institutionality that would assure a future for such advances on the part of African churches, scholars, and believers remains largely absent. This is the particular burden of the work under review. Its author will not stray far from it.

A chapter on ‘calling’ to Christian leadership (Chapter 2: Opportunities for Training: The Call to Christian Leadership Ministry) might at first seem to represent a detour from the topic of financial viability for theological institutions. Yet in the logic under development, this is not so. Bellon is at pains to uncover the personal element of those who are most immediately effected by the viability of centers of theological training or, as it happens, the absence of the same. His narrative makes it appear that the infrastructure of African theological education may be designed for a population entirely other than the corpus of the called that are assuming leadership of African churches.

Two observations emerge. First, the project of theological education faces from the outset the difficulty of proving its worth to doubters. Second, the very structures it has assumed from early missionary initiative are too often not those that are attractive to emerging church leaders.

Training is not offered at accessible cost and format. Additionally, institutions staffed by faculty who have been shaped by accredited universities outside of Africa have chosen to ignore the migration towards accredited status that other education institutions have experienced. Bellon describes a landscape pitted by both quandaries and ironies. At no moment has the African church more desperately needed well-trained leaders. Yet the institutions arguably most concerned with shaping those leaders are beset by institutional weakness and an aversion to the changes that would render the viable today and tomorrow. 

Bellon begins his consideration of financial models (Chapter 3: Matching Financial Resources) by rehearsing the opaque arrangements under which missionary teachers and administrators were funded ‘from abroad’ with little or no attention given to the real cost of this phenomenon. The consequences as missionary staffing for diverse reasons became less plentiful are in retrospect quite obvious. First, the true cost of theological education and its outcome in the form of student fees were—respectively—never calculated and abysmally low. Second, when the flow of missionary staff diminished, no provision had been made for hiring African successors at a living wage.

Given the circumstances he is describing, Bellon’s prose is occasionally and appropriately biting, nowhere more so than when describing inequities that are invisible to one party but painful and even exasperating to the other. 

The need for survival overshadows any contractual commitment that holds no bright future. Consequently, many of the students completed their studies but did not return to their institutions. The trained African graduates could not have imagined when they began their journey that they would be in a situation in which they might end up with the same qualifications as their missionary faculty friends, but be offered a standard of living far lower than their counterparts … In addition, some graduates did not attempt to return to Africa for fear that a weak economy could not provide sufficient opportunities. Instead, these individuals availed themselves to whatever employment opportunities could be translated into a stable livelihood abroad and settled into those positions. Therefore, the reality was that initial educational contracts and agreements with funders and contracting theological institutions were constantly broken. Graduates learned to live with the guilt while struggling African institutions grew bitter about students who abandoned them.

Bellon anchors his consideration of ‘matching financial resources’ in a comprehensive survey of the theological college’s stakeholders. Each of these has a particular angle of interest in the institution itself and at times an array of them. The difficulties that lie alongside the advantages of multiple stake-holding constituencies is that each of these brings its own concerns and passions to the seminary. Sometimes these do not align with the core concerns of the school. In consequence, theological colleges can be pulled away from their core precisely because such stakeholders tend to be highly influential and even essential for the institution’s viability.

The author surveys as well sources of income based on data largely culled from a survey of Majority-World theological seminaries carried out by Overseas Council International. Few features of the landscape encourage. Yet Bellon concludes Part One of his work by surveying as well the need for change, possible agents, of change, and obstacles to change. His direction suggests that he, at least, finds reasons for hope that theological education in Africa can in fact be placed upon a firmer footing.

Bellon leads us next into a discursive review of the Apostle Paul’s view(s) regarding what today we might call ‘missionary support’ as a means of sustaining his apostolic project (Part Two: Biblical Foundations for Financial Sustainability; Chapter 4: Missionary Support for Ministry). Since chapter 4 is the only chapter in ‘Part Two: Biblical Foundations for Financial Sustainability’, the section might have more accurately been titled ‘Pauline Foundations…’. With a depth and subtlety proper to a work that is not primarily an exegetical endeavor, the author discerns a parallel between Paul’s multilayered views regarding ‘missionary support’ as his calling, on the one hand, and the role of leaders and faculty of African theological colleges on the other. The recourse to Paul is seasoned with a suggestive reference to the biblical Levites, who ‘administrated (sic) grain, animal and fruit offerings in the temple, which they were divinely authorized to use for their livelihood as they served in ministry to priests to Israel. It was therefore appropriate that they derived their livelihood from this sources. Just as God appointed the Levites to ministry so should the staff of a theological institution be supported out of the proceeds of missions.’

By this reviewer’s lights, the paradigmatic line—a dotted one, to be sure—that links Levites to theological faculty is a straighter one than that which links the apostle the same body. For this reason, I find Bellon’s treatment curious and worthy of a return visit at some point.

Meanwhile, Bellon pivots to the fact that—though such missionary support of theological faculty is appropriate—the institutions in question are seldom in a position to offer it.

Institutions must be held accountable both spiritually and materially regarding how they meet the needs of their faculty and staff.

Strong language, and with a moral edge. But how?

Bellon’s answer begins with a summons to avoid the most trouble-making features of donor engagement with the theological college. These are exacerbated when the donors live in the West and the college finds its place in Africa, to cite an example not far from Bellon’s field of survey. Yet the author is at pains to insist that such cross-cultural mutuality is a very Pauline dynamic, the value and legitimacy of which should not be questioned. 

The delicate dance fails when donors insist on their own preferences to the detriment of the college’s creativity; when fundraising efforts cast local realties and players in a pitiful or otherwise negative light; and when the donor-college conversation fails to move all the way to creation of ways for the college, its people, and its mission to thrive in a healthy ambience where the actors (faculty and administrators, chiefly) are honored by compensation levels worthy of their labors.

Yet the burden of the book’s Part Two would escape our grasp if we were to imagine that Bellon is advocating one particular way of sustaining the work of a theological college. His attention to the Pauline example now takes the form of an extended treatment of Paul’s ‘tent-making’ occupation. For reasons that touch upon personal integrity, a prioritizing of the extension of Paul’s gospel, and an visible demonstration of the need for Christian believers to work with vigor and diligence even in the least respected trades, Bellon finds Paul to be an exemplar for a second economic model for theological schools.

One glimpses near the end of chapter five in the midst of Bellon’s powerful argument for a tent-making theological institution that his constructive contribution to the institutional dilemmas he has so painfully sketched out has leapt out of the blocks. Theological colleges have the right to ask for donations, just as Paul did. Yet they are also well advised to diversify their income streams via tent-making, just as the apostle also found it prudent to do.

This sensitivity translates into responsible interdependence that is healthy and praiseworthy. As sponsorship grows, respect and trust for partners can also strengthen. In a responsible, interdependent relationship, donors are blessed as they give, and recipients are able to fulfill the divine mandate to train men and women for church and society. Lack of sensitivity can significantly hinder the work of God as sponsors might feel tempted to break relationships causing the work of a ministry to suffer. This Paul described as being a burden to the donors, which should not be.

The author’s introduction of the term ‘responsible interdependence’ is a promising antidote to the mantra of ‘sustainability’ that appears so self-evidently virtuous and absolute in the eyes of many Western donors and organizations, yet lands with a thud among Majority World institutions precisely because of its stunning capacity to overlook the fact that nearly all such Western organizations—and educational ones par excellence—are in some real way donor-dependent. ‘Sustainability’ often comes as a recipe delivered from West to non-West for the baking of a respectable cake, when in fact it is seen from the other side as merely the latest chapter in a long book of Neo-imperialist prescriptions.

Bellon is eager to exit this stage and to begin a genuine conversation about trust-building. He is to be commended for this.

What is more, he finds an instructive parallel between the ways in which the apostle Paul was criticized for his tent-making option and the way that theological institutions fall under critique for launching out (yet) again in modern tent-making directions. Bellon does not imagine that a complimentary tent-making frontier is any kind of easy answer for theological institutions. He does insist that in the ‘dynamic tension’ of making the effort divine grace is to be discovered.

Bellon’s  Part Three (Toward Financial Sustainability of Theological Institutions) and Chapter 6 (Church Ownership and Institutional Governance) narrate an almost farcical disconnect between church leaders and theological institutions. His read of how theological institutions were, in retrospect, almost destined to be orphaned when their missionary founders departed is not for the faint of heart. An extended quotation is necessary:

Certainly, theologians are important stakeholders who work with ideas and analytical tools that are exclusive to the discipline, like any other professional field. Donald Luck noted, “As remote and comical as fussing with ideas may seem, ideas are real and very important. They change the world. In other words, even by pragmatic standards, ideas are real because they have practical consequences.” Theologians expect the church—more than any other constituency—to be most sympathetic with lofty ideals and social causes. Instead, the result has been alienation. This slow but gradual drift between the academics and church leadership over the years has seen every effort for church ownership dwindle.

Aloof theologians are often not the kind of people with whom society easily associates. Theologians seem to spend considerable amounts of time analyzing the past but seldom make recommendations for the present. Their preoccupation with the future is always in doubt except when discussing signs of the end times and God’s divine judgment. They are perceived as scholars who take pride in challenging, questioning, and raising doubts about the activity of the church. They often come across as more arrogant than concerned about the simple biblical traditions of the past. This seeming arrogance and spiritual pride of theologians is an affront to church leadership, resulting in the church’s withdrawal of interest in whatever goes on in the theological institutions.

Regardless, the church is a major stakeholder in theological education. Therefore, ownership of the institution is worthy of consideration if these campuses are to experience sustainability—particularly financial sustainability. Yet, theological institutions desire independence from the church with regard to major decisions. This has further aggravated an already sour relationship. The OCI survey indicated that church leaders are not among the top three agents of change in theological education in Africa. On the contrary, they represent the top three obstacles to change in the institutions. The prevailing emphasis should be to explore various ways to work with, instead of against each other.

Such an essentializing description of ‘aloof theologians’, ‘the academics’, and ‘scholars’ provides this reader with multiple reasons to bristle.

But Bellon is barely getting started. From this point of his survey, he launches into a sustained argument for church-institution (the latter meaning the seminary or theological college) partnership where ‘ownership’ is a function of the church but mutual ‘responsiveness’ is at the core of the relationship. Although one might wish for a nuancing of certain of his points, this reader finds little that is worthy of disagreement. Even his seven granular descriptions of how ‘institutional leaders’ must strengthen this brand of church ownership draw a hearty if occasionally qualified ‘Amen’.

However, I miss a list of similar duties that are incumbent upon the church in this mutually responsive relationship. As a veteran of church-seminary tensions in multiple contexts—with the scars to show it—this worries me. Churches, it seems to me, are as capable of one-sided conceptions of ‘responsiveness’ as theological institutions are. 

Bellon signals the location where he will place the preponderance of responsibility for financial viability—the governing body—by dedicating an unexpected number of pages to how governance ought to function in (African) theological colleges, but seldom does.

Drawing heavily upon the above-referenced survey produced by Overseas Council International (full disclosure: this research occurred during the presidential tenure of this reviewer at Overseas Council) and the superb doctoral dissertation of Jason Ferenzci (Serving Communities: Governance and the Potential of Theological Schools; Carlisle, 2015), Bellon next surveys a number of factors that in concert create a climate in which organizational health can thrive. Summarizing, Bellon writes that…

Effective governance of theological institutions can be achieved if there is a community of trust, presence of alignment, responsive integration, a strong enabling CEO, and succession planning. It is the confluence of all these factors that makes a difference. The governance process is like a concert in which a fluid function centered on the board but [draws] expertise, skills, and time of the rest of the organization as well.

The first two, and indeed the conventional, revenue streams in African theological education are tuition and donations (Chapter 7, The Role of the Third Stream). The duo holds sway of course in other regions as well, although Bellon implies that the ‘charitable’ approach and economic realities of Africa have rendered the impact of the first stream negligible and the second stream an uphill watercourse. Thus the need for a ‘third stream’, which the author defines as ‘any revenue generated by theological institutions apart from tuition and donations … for the sole purpose of fulfilling the core mandate of theological education at an African institution.’ 

Though income generated in this way often lies outside the expertise available on the staff of African theological colleges, a quick look at mission history persuades Bellon that the effort is a viable one. In addition, the current climate make ‘short-term capital projects … a more compelling case for support than long-term capacity building projects’ when the third stream and the second stream are taken into view at the same time.

If Bellon’s rehearsal of aspects of healthy and unhealthy institutional structure has at times appeared a worthwhile if pedantic exercise, it is in this seventh chapter that the reader discovers the destination to which his method leads. This is also the moment when Bellon makes his unique contribution to the discussion via a metaphorical turn that produces the vocabulary of the ‘God-given seed’. Again, a full quote is merited:

The God-given seed is the talent or resourced divinely placed within the reach of every theological institution to develop third stream projects successfully. The seed supports an institution’s mission to generate financial resources for continued development of leaders and like the biblical talent in Matthew 25:14-28, God has provided every theological institution a seed to guide the success of a third stream project. Of course, seeds will differ with every institution, as some institutions are better endowed the others. Nevertheless, all institutions have been gifted with a seed. Consequently, theological institutions must trust God to open their eyes to identify and explore their unique seed for the benefit of the institution.

God-given seeds come in all forms and shapes, such as land, buildings, expertise, the student body, faculty, administrators, churches, affiliations, and the like. Although these things are often obvious by most standards, institutions often overlook God-given seeds in areas critical for the success of third stream projects. Discovery of God-given sees is often hindered by policies, customs, traditions, and the culture of an institution. Sometimes these hindrances are wrapped around the policies of primary sponsors such as churches and mission agencies.

Bellon then walks his reader through critical decision points that will keep the nurturing of the God-given seed from burdening theological and institutional leaders and from distracting the college from its shared vocation of training Christian leaders. The board and what are sometimes called talented ‘raving fans’ are brought into the picture as key assets for this delicate dance, which can in this reviewer’s experience otherwise begin to resemble a slow-motion train wreck. A catalogue of third-stream projects introduces some thought-provoking options and moves the discourse in the direction of concreteness and practicality. 

To his credit, Bellon is acutely sensitive to what can go wrong or at least throw up novel challenges as the God-given seed is identified and projects to operationalize its promise get underway. These include mission drift, management challenges, financial loss,  and what the author calls ‘nonprofit privileges’.

In my view, the value of Bellon’s experience as a theological educator rather than a more generic institutional advisor shows its face here. He has seen in all their horror the frustrations of both theological educators who endeavor to develop third-stream projects and of allies of the college whose experience is limited to the business world. Not all good ideas transfer smoothly across this dotted line. Bellon knows this, and so is well placed to educate his readers to the reality that it may be some time before victory is declared and a parade organized.

Bellon is so confident in the promise of such third-stream projects as to declare that even foreign donors ‘should not gravitate toward the usual piecemeal grants that provoke and appetite but do no satisfy hunger … donations can be used to primarily focus on addressing the weak state of institutional structures that threaten (sic) the future of theological education in Africa … These then become seed grants to kick-start third stream projects, under requisite professional guidance and support. This strategy is to ensure profitability. Although conations can fluctuate along local and foreign economic trends, the are an essential part of advancing theological education across the globe.’

Bellon is not arguing for the cheap ’self-sustainability’ that is often preached by Western donors and other partners. Rather, he wants Africa’s Western partners to remain close, but to re-configure their engagement with African theological colleges in a way that supports the march towards viability that has to date never adequately been undertaken.

Bellon’s eighth chapter (Strategic Collaboration and Modes of Delivery) constitutes a survey of areas in which institutions might fruitfully collaborate rather than guarding their own institutional prerogatives. The list, a long one, would make for fruitful contemplation at a gathering of suitably desperate institutional leaders.

Chapter 9 (Leadership Development) argues that leadership development and succession are matters that ought to be approached proactively rather than in the moment of crisis. In few corners of this sprawling work does Bellon sound quite as contrarian against the backdrop of his Africa context.

Unfortunately, quality leadership development has been sporadic up to this point given the assumption that leaders will always emerge as a natural course of nature … In other worlds, mimicking specific leaders is not the key to leadership development anymore. Instead, new forward-thinking mentoring is a clear departure from the former charismatic change-leader syndrome that characterized so much of leadership development in the past.

Bellon follows this observation with a rehearsal of what good leadership looks like—both in the leader himself or herself and in the leader’s institutional ecosystem—in an African theological institution. Although the Western reader may engage the chapter as a detour from the volume’s declared them, it seems that Bellon’s apologia for its inclusion might well include that in African theological institutions there is no enduring financial viability without effective and well-supported leaders.

A final installment (Chapter 10, The Wheels of Financial Sustainability) gathers the contribution of the previous nine into the metaphor of a wheel with six spokes: church ownership, institutional governance, third stream projects, strategic collaboration, modes of delivery, and leadership development.

The image of the wheel works not only because of the convenience of being constructed of spokes. It also draws this reader’s mind to the notion of a journey, conceivably of a long and arduous one.

The image would not be alien to the tone of Bellon’s work. Emmanuel Bellon has served up a four-course meal: One part cri de coeur over the sometimes abysmal state of African theological institutions; one part gritty determination that these critical theological colleges can in fact move towards sustainability; one part nuts-and-bolts instruction regarding how to get started and then gain momentum on the path to sustainability; and one part resilient hope that African church and society can in fact be nourished, led, and served by superb graduates of the theological schools he knows so well.

No one is better placed than this author for the tough diagnostic and prescriptive work that we have in Leading Financial Sustainability in African Theological Institutions. Ghanian-born Bellon is a veteran of the sometimes thankless task of theological leadership in today’s Africa, where the burgeoning growth of Christian churches would seem to render theological education an easy task, but never does. Bellon drives home the reality that achieving financial sustainability in the continent’s seminaries and theological colleges is no mere economic challenge. Rather, it requires deep theological undergirding, life-long growth in leadership skills beyond the classroom, broad collaborative instincts, and a measure of outright daring.

Dr. Bellon’s observations are pertinent beyond Africa, for the issues he addresses obtain across most of the Global South and—indeed—in the venerable institutions of the West, where financial sustainability is also every day’s challenge. Leaders and governing boards of theological seminaries will find in Bellon an empathetic and knowledgeable mentor.


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Times like these are best met with lament.

Not with firm declarations and explanations in the name of God, or calls for peace and stability above all else. As though we knew more, understood more than we do.

Just lament. We have been given words for it, why not use them?

Yet even in this present darkness one must confess a persistent hope, one that will not die.

Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this tenacious hope as only he can.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
     It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
     It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? 
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;      
     And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;      
     And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. 

And for all this, nature is never spent;      
     There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 
And though the last lights off the black West went      
     Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent      
     World broods with warm breast and with ah!
         bright wings. 

          —Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, The Grandeur of God

Come. Brood now, brood again over us.

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