Scott Cunningham: The main issues for theological institutions are financial sustainability and organizational change
Most Ukrainian religious institutions were founded in the mid-1990s with help from foreign donors – institutional or private donations. Now they are going through financial transformations and look for local financial sources and a more sustainable model of existence. About the financial sustainability and other challenges of theological institutions we speak with the dean of Leadership Development of the Overseas Council Scott Cunningham. The Overseas Council (OC) was founded in 1974 and partners with seminaries, Bible institutes and other strategic ministries by leveraging people, expertise and resources to advance quality Christian leadership training.
Please tell about your organization and what specifically you do in Ukraine.
The organization is called Overseas Council, it’s based in the United States, but our primary ministry is not in the US but overseas. There are lot of programs and schools around the world where Christian leadership has been developed. What we do? We support these schools to facilitate in what they are doing, to make them more effective in the fulfillment of their mission. We partner with seminaries, Bible institutes and other strategic ministries by leveraging people, expertise and resources to advance quality Christian leadership training, thus empowering churches around the world.
We have a regional director in each region of the world where we are present, in Latin America, in Africa, in Europe and other parts of the world. We have regional directors who need to be from that area to understand the context well. They are networked with the schools we work with and they have some experience and expertise, so they can act as consultants for the institutions.
I work in the Institute for Excellence and the institutes of this forum gather together leaders from various seminaries based in a specific region to learn how their programs can become more effective in developing Christian leaders.
What trends in theological education do you observe in your work?
We notice a decline in full-time enrolment: over the last 5 years full-time enrolment has declined or remained the same in half of OC-related seminaries. And overseas donations are declining: compared to 5 years ago, half of all seminaries receive a smaller proportion of their income from overseas. But the biggest problem is not financial. The biggest danger of theological education during this time of economic pressure is that we’ll lose our sense of mission. Therefore, we need a balance between education, finances and mission
What are the main challenges facing people Christian education and what do they typically seek consultation?
The main issues are financial sustainability and organizational change. In past years we’ve looked at how schools can be effective in developing the spiritual growth of students, we’ve looked at the issue of leadership – what kind of qualities and skills are necessary to lead an institution where other leaders are formed. Last year we looked at the issues of the church and the seminary: how can the seminary partner with the church in training Christian leaders so it’s not apart from the church but working in partnership with it. Leaders are serving the church and need to be responsive to the church.
Do you work with specific problems facing specific institution or do you give general consultations?
We address more of the general questions, like financial sustainability. But in each particular school the context will be different. Therefore, regional directors play an important role. Taras Dyatlyk as regional director in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova has the opportunity and task to visit each of these schools and give them more information and help in their particular context.
How does the Ukrainian situation, for example financial sustainability in Christian educational institutions, differ from other countries in Eastern Europe or Asia?
Some missions and churches when they establish themselves in Ukraine do not teach that part of Christian life is giving. And Christian communities here don’t understand what it means to give generously to support God’s work. There are many Christian communities that have learned that lesson. Another issue is how to place the value in leadership. This is the critical area for the long-term growth of the church and churches need to learn that this is something they need to invest in to provide funding for the development of leaders.
In Ukraine most religious organizations depend greatly on foreign donors and struggle to receive more funding in Ukraine. How can Ukrainian religious organizations become more financially sustainable without foreign donors?
This is actually a goal because if schools depend on local sources they are more responsive to the people they are serving and they listen to the voices of people providing funds. There are schools that are making great progress in this area. In order to survive, they need to move for more local sustainability because some of the funds that they used to depend on are no longer there. As some of those funds diminish, they rightly look to what’s available in their own countries. Ukraine is not the only place where this is happening – it is happening all around the world.
In post-Soviet countries leadership is not welcome – people are used to hiding themselves. How can good church leaders be formed?
Learning to be good leaders begins in the local congregation where the gifts and abilities of leadership are noticed and developed. Local congregations should support leaders when they go for further training.
Leadership involves certain skills in relating to people, knowing how to lead and to manage. But most important, leaders on all levels need to be people of vision – they need to understand where the organization is going and to be able to communicate this vision to the people they lead. Leaders need to be people of integrity, not self-serving or deceptive. They should not think what this position can give them, but be servants to people they lead.