LIMA, Peru (BP)–Doors are opening for Baptist seminaries in Peru in light of new legislation making governmental accreditation available to non-Catholic seminaries.
The new law “presents an opportunity for the Baptist seminaries, but also a challenge,” said International Mission Board missionary Phil Calvert, who works with Baptist seminaries and other initiatives to help advance theological education among national partners in Ecuador and Peru.
“Now seminary students who want to have an accredited degree have an evangelical choice,” Calvert said.
Calvert invited some Southern Baptist seminary representatives to Lima to lead a January pastors’ conference. Leaders from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary arrived a few weeks after the Peruvian legislature’s Jan. 16 vote to expand accreditation and met with Peruvian Baptist seminary leaders to discuss their options.
Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Seminary, and Mark Tolbert, director of the seminary’s doctor of ministry program, conducted a three-day pastors’ seminar in Lima during the second week of January.
The Peruvian Baptist Convention has 148 Baptist churches across 12 associations. Today, there are five Peruvian Baptist seminaries, with 10 to 100 students in each.
As Kelley and Tolbert see it, the Peruvian seminaries are faced with two options. They can continue in basic Bible school training, which is effective in preparing pastors for ministry. Or they can invest in the accreditation process, which would provide a higher level of theological education and fulfill the standards of external agencies.
“The Peruvian seminaries are at this critical decision point where they have to ask this fundamental question,” Calvert said. “It’s been a blessing to have Dr. Tolbert and Dr. Kelley here because they’ve been able to encourage them to ask that strategic question.”
A decision to pursue accreditation would present Peruvian Baptist seminaries with several challenges. One is that the accreditation process can be time-consuming. In the United States, for example, it can take five to 10 years.
“If they waited to do that until the best and brightest of the people God calls from the Peruvian Baptists went to other seminaries to get their training, it would be too late,” Kelley said. “You have to aim ahead.”
Another challenge is that seeking the approval of outside agencies often comes with financial and theological pressures. However, Kelley noted that these religious institutions can faithfully maintain their doctrinal positions while pursuing their formal accreditation.
Also, approved schools often are required to provide new classes and resources — sometimes entire libraries — making accreditation an expensive prospect.
Providing an accredited faculty in a context where accreditation hasn’t been available before can be difficult.
“They have to have degrees from accredited institutions,” Kelley said. “And in Peru at this time, there simply aren’t many options to receive the high level of academic training you would expect to find in a faculty who are teaching…. They might have to go outside the nation” to get that education.
However, if the Peruvian seminaries continue in the Bible school model, they risk facing a more strategic problem. In 10 years, they may find themselves unable to meet the expectations of Peruvian Baptists.
“Congregations will have gradually higher and higher levels of education among the members, and education will become a more important standard that congregations have for their [leaders],” Kelley said. “If Baptists cannot provide that, [students] will go to non-Baptist sources to get that. And they are going to bring whatever they learn in seminary into [the Baptist] church.”
Southern Baptist educators were careful to maintain a consultant-only role in the decision-making process.
“I was greatly encouraged,” Tolbert said. “One of the Peruvian leaders said in gratitude, ‘Thank you for being here this week to help us better clarify our vision.’ I thought it indicated that they do understand their responsibility and the privilege and the opportunity that is theirs.”
Tristan Taylor is an International Mission Board writer in the Americas.