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Partnering to help teachers lead with the Gospel in Ethiopia

“What we are being asked to do in Ethiopia plays exactly to our strengths as a seminary.” So explains Dr. William W. Schumacher about Concordia Seminary, St. Louis and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s partnership with Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, half the world away in Ethiopia.

Schumacher, professor of historical theology and director of the Institute for Mission Studies at Concordia Seminary, knows of what he speaks. He is the faculty member leading the Seminary’s involvement in helping the Ethiopian Lutheran church advance its theological education program.

The Mekane Yesus Seminary (MYS) is the primary theological institution associated with the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), one of the world’s largest and fastest growing Lutheran churches. Headquartered in Addis Ababa, the church counts some 7 million members and baptizes an average 5,000 people a week.

Despite the fact that there are six additional seminaries and Bible training locations serving the EECMY, the church is desperate for well-formed, theologically trained pastors and deaconesses to meet the needs of its growing membership. That’s where Concordia Seminary and Schumacher come in.

“The LCMS has sent short-term guest professors from both seminaries and a few pastors with advanced degrees to teach from time to time at MYS, but when it comes to strengthening a seminary program, that’s not enough,” Schumacher said. “They need a strong, ongoing relationship with another theological institution. Concordia Seminary stepped up and offered to help.”

Thanks to the vision of the Seminary’s leaders, this is a wonderful opportunity to be involved in a mission closely aligned with our expertise, Schumacher added.

The search for a partner
The EECMY’s traditional partners are the members of the Lutheran World Federation. However, the church recently broke ties with some of its partner churches over differences relative to the divine institution of marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Breaking fellowship meant a loss of support on many levels; it wasn’t an easy decision for the EECMY. But it had to stay true to what it believes biblically and to the country’s culture.

“After a huge and courageous move on their part [to break those ties], the EECMY reached out to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod,” Schumacher said. “Although we are not in altar and pulpit fellowship with EECMY, they see in us — among other things — an education partner that can help make their program as strong as it can be.”

Dr. William W. Schumacher gives a lecture about writing a master’s thesis and discusses academic standards, method, and purpose with more than 50 students and faculty at the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 4, 2015. Photo: Dr. Erik Herrmann.
Dr. William W. Schumacher gives a lecture about writing a master’s thesis and discusses academic standards, method, and purpose with more than 50 students and faculty at the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 4, 2015. Photo: Dr. Erik Herrmann.

That is exactly what Concordia Seminary is working toward: helping to make the MYS programs effective, biblically faithful, and sustainable. “The Mekane Yesus Seminary is doing a good job. They have capable leaders. They have clear goals about where they want to go,” Schumacher said. “We aren’t there to make them a carbon copy of Concordia Seminary. They want a strong Lutheran, confessional program. We have a qualified faculty with the gifts and knowledge that can help them with that.”

Dr. Wakseyoum Idossa, president of the EECMY, visited Concordia Seminary last December, and spoke about his church’s extraordinary growth and the ministry that could be accomplished by working together. “Over the last 175 years, Concordia Seminary has prepared thousands of theologians and pastors for the ministry of the Church of God,” Dr. Wakseyoum said. “This is a great opportunity for the EECMY and its theological seminaries to partner with Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and share in the blessings of this rich experience in the process of building the capacity of our evangelists, pastors, and theologians for nurturing members of the fast-growing EECMY.”

Advancing an educational program
The LCMS and the EECMY have worked cooperatively from time to time over the years; however, recent discussions have focused on ways to work more closely, especially in theological education. Schumacher has firsthand insight; in 2006-07, he was granted a research sabbatical to survey the pastoral formation landscape in Africa. His goal was to visit as many Lutheran seminaries as he could and learn what they were doing. The MYS campus was on his list.

“If I was going to get a picture of Lutheran seminary education in Africa,” Schumacher said, “I had to visit the Mekane Yesus Seminary. It is too important and influential to miss.” Schumacher returned to MYS in April 2014 for eight weeks. He taught two courses: systematic theology and a course on the life and work of Martin Luther, both presented at the master’s level.

He returned again in November 2014 and stayed through February to teach two additional master’s-level courses: the history and theology of the Reformation era, and the history and theology of the early Church. His work on that trip included helping administrators enhance their curriculum plans in advance of the formal accreditation process.

“One of the significant differences in pastoral training in Ethiopia is that historically it has been presented as an undergraduate program,” Schumacher said. “With the support of the LCMS, the EECMY now is working to offer a master’s-level program.”

Last year’s concluding class included 60 graduates. Master’s degree students are expected to write a thesis paper of 15,000-20,000 words. However, the MYS faculty needed assistance with teachers qualified to advise on the theses. Schumacher was instrumental in developing an agreement whereby American professors would serve as advisers. This past spring, Concordia Seminary sent four faculty members — Dr. Joel Elowsky, Dr. Erik Herrmann, and Dr. Paul Robinson, in addition to Schumacher — and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., sent Dr. Peter Scaer. “Each American professor was paired with a junior member of the MYS faculty — those who teach at the bachelor’s degree level,” Schumacher said. “The Ethiopian partners helped the Americans understand the context from which the students were writing. The American partners brought our theological expertise and experience advising graduate student research. It made for a great partnership.” This kind of partnership is helpful not just for the MYS faculty, but also for the hometown team, Schumacher added. “It helps to inform and refresh our faculty’s view of the world,” he said. “We were exposed in a real, hands-on way to the global realities of pastoral education. That was good — we love teaching at Concordia Seminary, but once in a while, you should play an away game.”

Shared hope, joy for the future
In the short run, there will continue to be a need for additional faculty advisers to supervise subsequent groups of concluding students. Schumacher plans to return to the MYS campus in Addis Ababa — which translated from Amharic, Ethiopia’s primary language, means New Flower — next spring, both to teach and to assist in the accreditation process. And he’s looking forward to it.

“Just as I love teaching on the Seminary’s campus in St. Louis, I also love teaching the Ethiopian students,” he said. “They are curious. They ask thoughtful, penetrating questions. And they love to talk about Jesus!”

And for all the differences of teaching in Ethiopia — where students are more ethnically and economically diverse with varied faith experiences, and the majority come to seminary as second-career students — there are many similarities.

“We have a shared history,” Schumacher said. “The history of the early Church is their history as well as ours. The Scriptures belong to them as well as to us.”

When Dr. Wakseyoum was on Concordia Seminary’s campus last winter, he shared that the EECMY is focused on growth, missions, outreach, unity, human value, and peace. “And we have this in common with you,” he said. “We share your enthusiasm for bringing the Gospel to our neighbors.”

Schumacher echoed the sentiment and pointed to how the experience in Ethiopia aligned with Concordia Seminary’s mission.

“We find ourselves connected at a deep level because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the primary focus of our life and work,” he said. “In our partnership with MYS, we have the opportunity to facilitate a rich understanding of the Gospel that can only strengthen their call to spread the Word.”

That, indeed, plays exactly to Concordia Seminary’s strengths.