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I Understand
Volume 1.2 / The Challenge of the Brain Drain Within Global Theological Education


The Challenge of the Brain Drain Within Global Theological Education

Christopher Wright
The epicenter of global Christianity is increasingly moving to the south and east as the church continues to increase in South America, Africa, and Asia but decrease in the West. Resources for theological education, however, remain in the West, particularly human resources where many seminary instructors possess doctoral degrees. In recent years some from the west have been recruiting scholars from the global south and east. This takes valuable human resources from areas of the world that need it most. This article encourages western institutions to be aware of the needs of schools in the majority world and encourages majority world scholars to serve the areas of the world in which the church is growing most.

Nathan’s Parable

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!

He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! [2] 

In the world of evangelical theological education, we have gross disparity of rich and poor. This was a focal point during the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education conference in Chiang Mai, 2006, at which I gave the paper “Addressing the ‘North-South’ Divide: Issues in Global Theological Education.” It is a disparity that exists at many levels—perhaps most glaringly in financial resources, but also, in libraries, campus buildings and facilities, access to conferences, academic networks, etc. At this moment we are thinking of the huge disparity in the availability of adequately qualified seminary faculty members.

  • In Rich World theological education—there are more PhDs than we can find jobs for

  • In Poor World[3] theological education—there are very few PhDs, and in some countries none or just one—in the main theological disciplines.

The problem is worsened by the continuing ‘brain drain’—that seemingly inexorable pull to the west, drawing to itself the brightest and best and most qualified evangelical academics from the poorer parts of the world to the richer.

I do realize that this is a sensitive issue.[4] We represent both sides of Nathan’s parable. I feel I must speak as I see and hope that it will be accepted that the point is not to offend anyone, but to address a serious issue within the global body of Christ.

In Langham Partnership, we grieve deeply over this at times. The Langham Scholars Program has been operating for over 40 years since John Stott founded the Langham Trust in 1970. Langham has supported 400 Scholars globally in that time, serving all over the majority world.

Today, it costs about $100k to get a Scholar to PhD—over three to five years. Over 40 years it could be anything between $10–20 million has been spent. We thank God that around 85% of all those we have funded have returned and are in teaching and leadership jobs in their home countries. A very few fail to get their doctorate degree and a few fail to return to their home country, but on the whole we rejoice with gratitude in a high rate of success and return. Increasingly we are funding Scholars doing their doctorate in majority world doctoral programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the risk of non-return is greatly reduced.

The prime vision of Langham Partnership is to serve and strengthen the church in majority world countries, “to see churches equipped for mission and growing to maturity through the leadership of pastors and teachers who believe, teach and live by the Word of God.”[5] 

Our purpose is to serve the church in its mission to the nation but not to foster the individual career paths of budding academics. We tell all our Scholars that very clearly: our investment in you is an investment in the church in your country, not a private gift for your own benefit. So after all that investment (which is far more than just financial, and includes enormous pastoral commitment and personal interest as well), we feel it deeply when a Scholar, after a few years back home, is approached by a US Seminary and offered an attractive post with all the benefits. It can be an irresistible temptation for some!

There is a huge irony in this. For to put it bluntly, when this happens, our money has actually helped the brain drain! If they did not have a doctorate, there would be no job offer in the west. If they had stayed with the Masters degree they already had, they would have stayed in their own country. So by helping somebody get their PhD we have made them more self-marketable in the west. They now have a ticket to leave. We were trying to help the poor but we ended up adding to the wealth of the already rich. It is tragic if those of us who are seeking to reverse the brain drain are actually facilitating it. That’s why we feel it so strongly.

Here’s an important point also: it is not really “our” money. Langham does not have money. All that we give we first receive from faithful and generous donors who are giving the Lord’s money to support the Lord’s work and to help the church in the majority world. They do not give money to the Langham Scholars program in order to foster the ethnic diversity of US seminary faculties. When that occasionally happens, there is (in us at least) a sense of betrayal that is painful—betrayal by a Scholar of the commitment they made (often very emphatically and repeatedly orally and in writing) that they would serve in their own country; and betrayal by us of the generosity of those who have given to make our investment possible.[6]

1. Why Does It Happen?

At this point I will be shamelessly abusing Nathan’s parable. I do not pretend for a moment that what follows is an exegesis or exposition of the biblical text, but rather an imaginative jumping off from it to explore some dynamics of the issue we are addressing.

1.1. From The Rich Man’s Door

The rich man wanted to impress his external visitor with his cuisine. 

US seminaries want to increase the ethnic diversity of their faculty, and thereby to impress gov- ernment departments, donors, boards, students, etc. That’s not bad in itself. Ethnic and cultural diversity is good. We all want to see an end to the mono-cultural dominance of the academy by all- white-and-western faculty who have no awareness or experience of the majority world—culturally or theologically.

US evangelical seminaries increasingly also genuinely want to hear the voice of majority world theologians. They want to expose their students to the vigorous perspectives they bring. Again, this is good. That is part of the long-term hopes for a journal like this. We long to see a genuine conver- sation of equals in the global theological family.

So there can be very genuine and laudable motives leading the rich to invite the brightest of the poor to come to their table. It may even seem a generous thing to do. It’s what the loss of his one single lamb does to the poor man that is the unseen problem. That is where the real hurt and cost is being borne—which the rich may not even notice. What to the rich man was the acquisition of a single lamb for dinner, was to the poor man the loss of something exceedingly rare and precious— as is the loss of evangelical intellectual capital from very poor countries.

1.2. From The Poor Man’s Door

Maybe he couldn’t feed the lamb anymore. Maybe he was just too poor to look after it. So he entrusts it to the rich man for a while, to help it be better fed, grow more wool, get pregnant and breed a few more lambs of its own, and return later to the poor man’s home to build up his flock. He did not expect it to be ‘consumed’ at the rich man’s table and never come back at all.

We have several sad cases of Langham Scholars being told by their home country seminaries— seminaries that had longed for them to be in top positions (sometimes as principal)—“Sorry we have no money to pay you any salary or support your family. You will have to stay in the west till you can raise enough funding to come back.” It is a terrible dilemma. Sometimes this happens after years of promising that there would be a job back home as soon as the PhD is finished—only to have the promise withdrawn when the crunch comes and the newly graduated Scholar is prepared to return. We have every sympathy with the person and the institution in such situations. We can also understand that if, in such a dire situation, a post in the States is suddenly offered, then that can even appear as “God’s provision.” If the Scholar, however, does stay in the west, and gets a nice post somewhere, then the longer it goes on, the less likely it becomes that he or she will ever return at all. The lamb is indeed fattened up, but not for productive wool growing back home where it came from, but for permanent consumption at the rich man’s table. The lamb is lost to the poor man forever.

Maybe the lamb itself just fancied the rich man’s pastures and the exciting company of his well- fed flocks, and skipped over the fence of its own accord. 

When you experience the struggles, anxieties and sometimes loneliness, of scholars in some majority world institutions (sometimes working with no pay for months; often having to do other jobs, e.g. pastor churches as well as teaching in seminary, just to survive; lacking access to all the library resources they once knew in the west), then the rich pastures of evangelical academia in the US can seem irresistibly seductive—and can even be thought very persuasively to be ‘the right thing to do’ for one’s family and future.

2. Can We Stop It, Or Better, Can We Change It To Something Mutually Beneficial?

Let us now return to Nathan’s parable. What made the story unbearable was the close proximity of the two characters, namely, they lived in the same town. It was something visible to the whole community, something almost unthinkable between neighbours, something that made King David very mad! How could anybody do such a thing?

Today, we in the west are insulated by distance from the true cost of our consumptive lifestyle in general. We see only the fruit and flowers, the clothes, the gadgets, that stack the shelves of our supermarkets, without seeing the deprived places they came from, the sub-human conditions of some who produced them, or the poverty and exploitation they leave behind. We pay the cheap price. Somebody else pays the real cost.

Likewise, when our seminary hires somebody from the majority world, all we see is the interesting, exotic, new faculty member from some other part of the world. They just come to our shores and turn up at our seminary. We rejoice. We welcome them warmly. We shower with an abundance of our good things. We are Christians after all.

What we don’t see is the impoverished seminary and church left behind. It is out of sight and out of mind. We may know next to nothing about the country they came from, let alone the statistics of theological education there (which may be minimal), or the desperate need of the church for qualified teachers such as the one we have just added to our brochure and website.

2.1. Awareness Has to Be the First Step

This conference may be such a moment for some of us. Perhaps we just never thought about the issue before. In our globalized world with all its opportunities for communication and information, there is no excuse not to know. So I wonder if one of the actions of this conference could be to send an open message to the Fellowship of Evangelical Seminary Presidents—which is thankfully well represented here, saying something like: “Brothers, please be aware of this issue. When you advertise and plan to hire someone from the majority world—please at least stop and think. Please do your research, not just on who they are and what qualifications they bring (i.e., their attractive résumé). Please also look at what they leave behind in their home country and seminary. Please don’t just fish in the global pond and pull out the most desirable fish for your own table. Please remember that what may be just one more international faculty member for you may be the only faculty member with a PhD in his entire seminary back home. Maybe.”

Perhaps we need to give some thought to the possibility that Philippians 2:4 applies to seminaries as much as to individual Christians: ‘Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.’

2.2. Compensation is a Reasonable Request

David called for compensation (as the Law required). His first angry response was to want to execute the rich man, but he knew, of course, that that was not allowed under Israelite law. You could not be put to death for sheep-stealing in Old Testament Israel (unlike some of our countries until the 19th century). What the law required was four-fold restitution for such a theft. So David gives that verdict and sentence, and probably imagines that Nathan would quickly move on to the next case. How wrong he was!

Can western seminaries build in any kind of compensation when they bring academics from the majority world to lucrative posts in the west? This does not mean ‘compensation’ in the US sense of salary package for the employee, but reimbursement to the deprived party in the majority world.

a. Even the Old Testament law and David’s application of it would not be out of range for consideration. Four lambs for the stolen one. Suppose US seminaries applied that principle to hiring from the majority world? Hire one, train four. That is, if you take away a man or a woman who has already received the extensive investment and training of getting a doctor- ate, then pay for four more to have such training. That could be done either by a long-term relationship with the hired faculty member’s original seminary, helping them to acquire trained faculty to replace him or her. It could also be done vicariously through investing in a Scholars fund such as Langham, to enable four more to be trained from that country, and thus reduce the long-term loss. It would be, as someone used the phrase at the conference“brain gain.”

b. Recognizing that hiring faculty is not really quite the same as stealing sheep (!), one might suggest at the very least a policy of ‘Hire one, train one.’ This would seek at least to con- tribute something towards the replacement of the hired faculty by enabling the training of someone else from that country or region.

c. Could we avoid hiring majority world candidates to full-time posts, but rather invite them as visiting or adjunct professors for a semester or two—whether as a once-off, or on a regular basis. Then, let us pay them, not just a token honorarium but the equivalent of what a full-time US citizen would earn in that post. Also, pay that salary not to the individual, but to and through his/her sending institution, so that the remuneration benefits the whole institution, not just the bank balance of the individual. Such opportunities for visits to western seminaries can be a matter of divisive envy among faculty in majority world institutions, since everybody knows that when somebody gets the chance to go abroad, they will get all kinds of perks, not least an honorarium. A term’s salary in the west might support several faculty members in the majority world institution for a year or more.

d. When contemplating hiring a scholar from the majority world, make enquiries to find out if he or she got their PhD through funding from a Christian organization such as Langham Partnership, or Scholar Leaders International, or Overseas Council. If so, then co-operate in the repayment of those funds.

e. In Langham we regard the grant as a loan if the Scholar stays in the west after graduation or goes to a post in the west within ten years of graduation. This policy is made very clear to our Scholars. We require them to pay their scholarship back over time if they do. Since we make this demand on our ‘defaulting’ Scholars, it would seem right and fair that a western seminary that hires them (sometimes over our protests) should make some contribution to that repayment of the grant. It is important to stress that it is not really the money that is our major issue, but the principle at stake. The individual and the hiring western seminary should surely not simply take it for granted that he or she has a doctorate through the generous funding of Christian donors for the sake of serving the church in their own country, without some sense of responsibility to repay that investment if they default on that commitment.

f. Sometimes it may be possible to arrange an exchange of faculty—sending professors to the majority world institution in exchange visits, to compensate for the loss of a teacher. This can be mutually beneficial, provided there is a good match in terms of subject area, and some cultural sensitivity and a lot of flexibility.

2.3. Let Us Consider Positive Investment

Abusing Nathan’s parable with yet another flight of imagination let us consider the following. Supposing the rich man had a conscience and felt distressed about the needs of the poor neighbor and wanted to help him? He could of course send a lamb regularly for the poor man’s family to enjoy. He could send gifts from the rich man’s table. He could easily spare lambs from his abundant flock, and he wouldn’t even notice. He could go on doing that for years.

What would happen with the poor person if that were to happen? The poor man would get fed, but still stay poor.

How much better it would be for the rich man to help the poor neighbor build up his own flock and become self-sufficient? He should not just send lambs to eat, but he should invest in a ram and few ewes to breed. He should enable the poor man to develop his own resources in his own way in his own fields, sell his own wool, feed his own family. In that way, he helps to build the sense of dignity and self-sufficiency of the poor neighbor and not make him perpetually dependent on the lambs-for-lunch charity.

Can the western theological education community find ways to invest like that in the viability and self-sustaining growth of majority world theological education? It may seem a tough time to be making this proposal, since many western theological institutions are themselves struggling to survive financially. Yet even at that we are much richer than some parts of the world, and some western seminaries are healthily endowed.

What might be some ways that US seminaries could invest in majority world theological education? I’m sure we can be very creative here, and there could be many ways, beyond mere financial giving that the rich world community of theological education could positively invest in helping their majority world siblings grow and develop in sustainable ways. Here are a few suggestions:

 a. Invest in majority world doctoral programs by supporting the Beirut Process. Check it out: ICETE, Langham, OC, SLI and others are co-operating in a major project to raise the standards of excellence in doctoral education in evangelical institutions on each continent. They need awareness and encouragement from western seminaries; including the possibility of encouraging some western students to actually go and do their doctorates in Africa or Asia, etc.

b. Enable evangelical academics at post-doctoral level, who often serve without a break until exhaustion or extinction, to have time in your seminaries—of refreshment, with some minimal teaching, opportunity and facilities for writing and research, peer interaction, etc. Pay for some of them to attend Evangelical Theological Society, Society of Biblical Literature, etc., and give them the opportunities you extend to your own faculty.

c. Send some students to take modules in majority world seminaries, as part of their program at your seminary, but not as a cheap option. Pay to the majority world seminary the fees they would have paid to the US seminary, so that it is not just a nice cross-cultural trip for the western student, but also a bonus for the majority world seminary.

3. When Hosts and Guests Change Places

Let us return now to the parable one last time for one more flight of imagination. The rich man hosted a meal. Supposing it was not for a traveling visitor, but for his poor neighbor? Suppose the rich man had invited the poor man to a slap-up meal at his own table (Note: this is a much changed rich man from Nathan’s story). First of all, if they were host and guest in that way, then the rich man would not have had the gall to take the poor man’s own lamb for the main course. The host-guest relationship would impose at least that much restraint. So as the theological educators of the richer and poorer worlds meet like this and get to know one another, can we at least begin to live by the biblical standards of hospitality, of how host and guests relate with mutual respect and consideration—even across economic disparities?

Now supposing the rich man did in fact help the poor man to get on his own feet with a viable, reproducing, sustainable flock, as suggested in point 3 above. The poor man then slowly begins to live with dignity and self-sufficiency. He may never reach the level of abundant surplus of wealth of the rich man, but that is not really the ideal anyway (in Old Testament terms). Then the day would come when the host-guest relationship could reverse. The day comes when the poor man would be the host and invite the rich man to share his table in his own home and enjoy his own home-produced food. Then the dynamic of their relationship would be subtly different. There is dignity in hosting, even if the host is poorer than the guest. We may all have had the experience of hosting in our homes for a good meal people who are materially far more wealthy than we are. Does it matter? Of course not. The relationship of host and guest confers dignity, integrity and friendship, in both directions when you are at table together.

The day has now arrived where the majority world can also serve as the host. For too long the west has simply assumed the host position, and invited the majority world as guests to our table. It is our default mode. We are natural-born leaders and hosts. We have the resources to take that for granted. We do it with the best of motives, of course. We say that it is so that ‘their voice can be heard’—but their voice will be heard in our home at our table, where we have set the menu and arranged the seating and decided the range of topics for polite conversation that guests will be expected to talk about. Guests don’t get to dictate the menu. In the world of theological education, it is still the wealthy western host that makes all the decisions and assumptions about what issues should be on the table, what constitutes a good meal, what qualifications the chef needs, and how everything gets paid for.

We need a reversal of roles, so that the relationship can deepen and be enriched. It may indeed be more blessed to give than to receive, but it is much more demanding and humbling for those who are accustomed to be givers to be willing to receive, to be guests rather than hosts.

My strong hope and plea is that after this consultation, it will be the majority world church and its evangelical theological educators—embodied particularly in ICETE and its constituent associations—who will gently move into the role of host. Then, rather than being perpetually the guests who are invited to enjoy the hospitality (so generously given) of western hosts and organizers, they will be the ones who lovingly and appreciatively invite and welcome their rich neighbors to be guests at their table. May both western and majority world educators enjoy the exciting and perhaps very unfamiliar tastes and smells of a different theological and cultural cuisine, the rich and nourishing theological food with which God wants to bless the whole of his church, north and south, east and west. 


2 2 Sam 12:1–7. The New International Version 2011 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

3 I am well aware that this is a very simplistic ‘rich-poor’ dichotomy, and that the reality is far more complex and not merely economic. However, I am simply using the polarity of Nathan’s parable, and highlighting what is certainly a fact—however nuanced it needs to be—that some seminaries exist in relative wealth, and others in extreme poverty.

4 This paper was delivered at the ICETE Theological Consultation held at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts in 2012 but also at the ICETE Theological Consultation held in Sopron, Hungary (2009).

5 See Langham Partnership vision statement at http://us.langham.org/who-we-are/vision-mission/. 

6  6 I ought to sofen the point by saying that I am not talking about senior evangelical theologians, who afer many years serving in their own countries, take up signifcant roles in the west in positions in which their voice, perspective and wisdom can make a major contribution to global Christianity and theological education, without losing touch with their home culture. Rather I am thinking of younger scholars who are hired into positions in the west afer very little or no signifcant contribution to the theological needs of their own country. 



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