"T he change is undeniable.” These are the words of Pastor Oliver Chaplain, a church leader in South Sudan, reflecting on how his ministry has grown and developed thanks to Barnabas Aid’s The Shepherd’s Academy (TSA).
TSA is the undergraduate section of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life (OCRPL), providing training opportunities for grassroots church leaders in the Global South who often struggle to access formal training or education.
Pastor Oliver is one of 97 students working towards an undergraduate degree qualification. Another 321 registered students are undertaking TSA short courses that enable them to sharpen their skills as under-shepherds of the Lord’s flock. God willing the total number of TSA students will grow to more than 600 by the end of 2023.
“TSA has helped me in my ministry in a tremendous way,” says Oliver. “My understanding of the Word of God was seriously challenged and shaped. I had to unlearn many things; learn new and right things; and so far, I am able to teach and guide people in the church more effectively than before.”
Strengthening the Church
According to recent estimates, around five million of the church planters and pastors ministering throughout the Global South have had no opportunity for training. This can limit the effectiveness of even the most faithful servants of Christ’s Church.
As the Church grows rapidly, younger believers can find themselves in positions of spiritual leadership and oversight far earlier in their walk with the Lord than is often the case in the West. Such courageous and godly individuals need help and support to fulfil their burden of responsibility.
There is, therefore, a desperate need for leadership training in order to provide guidance to the global Church. Well-equipped leaders help to build up the faith of all Christians. Furthermore, in some countries it is required by law that church leaders have appropriate formal qualifications in order to engage in ministry.
The aim of TSA is to provide this leadership training, strengthening church leaders and, in turn, the Church itself. “We aim to train a new generation of leaders,” explains Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Aid and Executive Director of the OCRPL. “Our mission is to form in them the character and integrity that will give them the foundation to face their challenges, find hope in hopeless situations and counter untruth with truth.”
“Our vision is to train up 10,000 grassroots Christian leaders in the next five years,” adds Dr Prasad Phillips, OCRPL’s Deputy Executive Director. “Some will join our full bachelors (undergraduate) programme; others will take certificate or diploma courses, or standalone courses, that address the gaps in their ministry training.”
“Every day I learned something new”
Pastor Oliver serves a church in which many of its members – who are predominantly women, children and young people – are impoverished and lack formal education. In some African contexts, Islam has made inroads into Christian communities, often owing to Christians’ lack of familiarity with Biblical teaching and theology.
All this underlines the need for clear, contextually relevant teaching, as well as strong, firm leadership. “I know that I would not have had the opportunity to undertake this kind of training without The Shepherd’s Academy,” says Oliver. The same is true for all TSA students.
The lack of suitably qualified leaders in these contexts also means that it may not be possible for church ministers to be away from their congregations for any length of time. Additionally, many pastors must support themselves and their families with work outside the church, and cannot take a leave of absence for theological study. For this reason, TSA programmes are designed to allow students to study alongside their church responsibilities and any other employment.
Another advantage of this, explains Oliver, is that new knowledge and insights can immediately be shared with the church. “It was beneficial to be able to continue in my ministry while studying because every day I learned something new and got the opportunity to share with others.” This also helped develop Oliver’s understanding, as new insights did not remain as theoretical “head knowledge” but were immediately applied to the needs and lives of the believers in his care.
TSA programmes combine self-study, online classes and in-person tutorials at local study centres, of which there are currently five – one each in South Sudan, Cameroon, Nepal, Pakistan and Zambia – each with its own regional co-ordinator. Oliver adds that these tutorials are important in helping the students apply the self-study material to their own cultural contexts.
As well as allowing church leaders to continue in their ministry while studying, this approach helps to keep running costs low. Costs are further reduced by using the facilities of existing theological colleges or Bible colleges for the TSA study centres. The TSA course material is being translated into Chinese, Russian and Tamil, with further translation into Arabic and Bengali to follow.
“Godly fear and reverence”
Not only do students grow and develop as pastors and leaders, but most also discover that they are personally blessed by studying with TSA. “The Shepherd’s Academy helped in my personal walk with the Lord,” says Oliver.
“I felt like through this course God is committing lives and destinies to my hand, and I will be held accountable if I lightly esteem it or do not take it seriously,” he continues. “This alone developed a sense of godly fear and reverence in me that drew me even closer to the Lord.”
This sense of godly fear demonstrates that, as well as skills and knowledge, young church leaders are attaining a powerful grasp of the spiritual significance of their calling. In every way, by God’s grace, the under-shepherds of Christ’s flock are being shaped and equipped for their vitally important work.
The Shepherd’s Academy in numbers
418 students are registered for short courses or undergraduate study
16 countries are represented in the TSA student body
600 students will, God willing, be registered by the end of 2023
5 countries host TSA study centres
Can you support the work of The Shepherd’s Academy? Just $34 can support a TSA undergraduate student for one month. Please continue to pray for Pastor Oliver and the other students, that the Lord through His Holy Spirit will continue to mould and to shape church leaders with the necessary knowledge, skill, character and spiritual insight.
PR1499 (The Shepherd’s Academy)