Theo and Sonja Donner have served in Medellín, Colombia since 1983. Theo teaches at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia (FUSBC) which is based in this rambling city of 2.4 million people. Like almost every part of the world, much of daily life in Colombia was shut down due to the coronavirus, although Medellín had at that time recorded relatively few cases. Yet the impact of lockdown may be felt for years by the Seminary and the churches it serves.
We know some of the serious effects of Covid-19 and the lockdown measures on families, health services, schools, economies and regular church life. But how is the crisis affecting institutions that train up the next generation of pastors and gospel workers? The challenges being faced in Medellín will be mirrored in Bible colleges around the world, including London Seminary, where several GBM missionaries trained. These institutions need our prayers.
The Seminary in Medellín recently marked its 75th anniversary. Many thousands of Christians have been trained over those years and have gone out to serve churches in Colombia and far beyond. For all the blessing that good theological education brings to the Church, such ministry often has a low profile. In Colombia few local churches prioritise giving financial support to the Seminary, so it has long had to survive on a very tight budget. Despite that, in God’s goodness, FUSBC has received recognition as a high-quality university institution.
Theo’s lecturing continues to include courses on Paul’s letters, the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, logic and philosophy, and the history of biblical interpretation. His book on this subject is finished and nearing publication.
But early in the year Seminary life was radically altered. Shortly after the first coronavirus case was reported in Colombia in early March, the country went into lockdown and face-to-face classes were cancelled. The single students returned home while married students remained on campus. Teaching was switched from the classroom to online where this was possible. The Seminary already had considerable experience of this through their online undergraduate degree launched six years ago – a providence that Theo recognises has been a tremendous help in the present crisis.
However there has still been an immediate and severe impact on the Extension programmes run from the Seminary. Around half of the Ongoing Education diploma courses and events planned for the first semester had to be cancelled, and if the emergency continues into the autumn then this pattern will likely be repeated in the second semester. The Seminary leadership have projected that student numbers enrolled in these programmes would reduce by more than 55 per cent. Almost half of the students learning through the Instituto Ministerial de Medellín have indicated that they will not continue their studies if the second semester courses take place online. The forecast for the main full-time seminary course is not quite so bleak. Although enrolment of new students may only be about one half of the original projection, few current students are expected to drop out.
Colombia now faces serious economic trouble. The figures are striking. Although it has so far suffered far less from the direct health effects of Covid-19 than neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Peru, yet the Colombian stock market has fared worse. In the first weeks of the virus crisis many foreign investors pulled out and shares fell by 34 per cent. Falling oil prices have hit the economy hard. The urban unemployment rate has risen to a historic high of 23.5 per cent. While other countries have started to recover, Colombia has not, nor is it thought likely to do so for some considerable time.
What does this mean for the Seminary? In short, Theo reports, there is huge financial uncertainty now hanging over its future ministry. In the 1990s FUSBC depended on outside finance (mainly the US) for more than 60 per cent of its budget. But the crises following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the financial crash of 2008-2009 led to a huge drop in missionary giving in the US. In the last two decades the Seminary has adjusted to live more within the income generated nationally. Now the coronavirus crisis is upon them. ‘Who knows’, says Theo, ‘whether students and churches will be able to afford the luxury of seminary study in the months to come?’
This great uncertainty comes amidst ongoing need for more well-trained pastors, gospel workers and Bible scholars in Colombia. This is really no luxury, but an important means of safeguarding the Church. Formal, university-level seminaries and good Bible institutes are unable to cope with the growth of churches. It’s wonderful that church growth is continuing, but it presents a pressing challenge for the Colombian churches and theological leaders. They recognise that they must think creatively and innovatively about new ways to strengthen the pastorate in the churches, without abandoning the academic training that forms such a vital foundation.
Humanly speaking, the next few years look very difficult for the Biblical Seminary in Medellín. Churches were already struggling to equip their pastors for ministry, so any cutbacks in theological training will make it harder for them to develop spiritual depth and strength. Colombian believers need to hear the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ, their Good Shepherd, as their pastors clearly and faithfully unfold the Word of God. Training matters.
The Bible assures us that God remains in sovereign control of every event and crisis in the world. He carefully and wisely uses the difficulties his people face to refine them and grow them in likeness to the Lord Jesus Christ. We can therefore respond to the mounting challenges in Medellín by praying confidently for God to work in Colombia for his glory and for the good of his Church. Please pray for Theo and Sonja as they navigate the changing scene at the Seminary, especially as Theo continues to teach online. Pray for the leadership of the Seminary to plan and act wisely in light of the many pressing difficulties they face. Elizabeth Sendek is coming to the end of her time as Principal, and Theo and Sonja’s son-in-law Luis Eduardo Ramírez will take over in March 2021 – pray for him as he settles into his new role at this very challenging time. Pray that God will provide finance to support the Seminary’s important work – perhaps in part by raising up new missionary professors who can come to Medellín and help build links to churches around the world. Most of all, please pray that through their trials the churches of Colombia will continue growing in number, and in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.