New Zealand pastors strive for high-quality theological education

Carol Anne Eby
Monday, January 23, 2017

With tears in his eye, Pastor Felix, an immigrant from Africa, said, “I never thought I would be able to earn a bachelor’s degree. You are making this dream possible.”

Pastor Felix is among a group of pastors who are seeing their dream of theological education come true, thanks to a new partnership to bring bachelor's and master's degrees in theology to Nazarenes in New Zealand.

Over 30 years ago, Neville Bartle, district superintendent of New Zealand, who was then a missionary in Papua New Guinea, wrote in his master’s thesis about the church in New Zealand’s need for a means of educating pastors.

“Without this education, the church will continue to limp along, becoming increasingly weaker with each passing generation. ”

Thirty years later that warning still rings true.

Image“One of our needs for many years has been affordable and accessible theological education from a Wesleyan Holiness perspective in New Zealand,” he said.

Today, God has answered that need in several ways. First, He lay the burden of helping to train and equip pastors on a pastor’s heart when He sent Jaron and Elizabeth Graham and their son, Quentin, from Jaron’s hometown of Lovington, New Mexico, to serve as missionaries in New Zealand.

In New Mexico, for seven years they served as lead pastor (Jaron) and pastor to kids and families (Elizabeth), starting a non-profit after-school program, a summer care program, and developing a community-wide food coalition for feeding and meeting utility assistance needs.

They have always felt passionate about sharing Jesus through international relationships, so they eagerly accepted the call to serve as missionaries, pastoring the Crossroads Church of the Nazarene in Hamilton, New Zealand. Hamilton is a city of 150,000 people on New Zealand’s North Island, a place where only a small percentage of people participate in a church community, teen suicide rates are high and pastoral education from a Wesleyan holiness perspective is limited.

ImageThe Grahams have only been in Hamilton for a little over a year, but have quickly learned to love their new country, finding New Zealand a fascinating culture. With its own “flair,” it is a “first world” culture that is quite different from American or European cultures. Almost 40 percent of the population of Auckland, the nation’s largest city, was born in another country. Many have come from India, Asia, Pacific islands, as well as Europe. This trend has certainly been reflected in the Nazarene churches. Of the 29 Nazarene churches, two pastors were born in New Zealand.  The rest of the pastors were born in 19 different countries. Most of them are bi-vocational and, although they are skilled immigrants, they have had little access to theological education. The Grahams felt impressed that God was leading them to find a way to provide this education.

“In order for the church to thrive, our pastors must be strong leaders to build strong churches,” Jaron said.

For the past nine months, Jaron has been working diligently to partner with Nazarene Theological College (NTC) in Brisbane, Australia, to provide accredited Wesleyan theological education for New Zealand. In the past, many potential students found it too difficult to participate at the college because most of the pastors are migrants, they face an up-hill financial battle trying to get established in New Zealand and do not have the funds to go to Australia to attend the college.

There is a need for contextual education, as the diversity of pastors brings very different learning styles, cultural norms, and educational experiences.

Taking all of this into account – to be accessible, affordable, contextual, have resources and support – a partnership being referred to as Nazarene Theological College-Auckland has been established so that students will be able to receive a bachelor’s or even master’s degree without ever leaving the country. This is done through distance classes that are facilitated locally. Many thanks go to NTC Principal Rob Fringer and the leadership across the Tasman Sea in Australia that is helping to make this partnership possible.

A pilot class took place in September 2016. Together, five course of study students: four bachelor’s students, one master’s student, and some auditing participants engaged in an intensive, nine-day pastoral theology course. Among this group were a fourth generation Nazarene pastor from India and a student who had formerly followed Hinduism.  Jaron was the registrar, the librarian, the facilitator and the director for NTC-AKL.  Elizabeth provided much academic support in reading the students’ papers, giving training in writing, and developing research skills. The students received the same material and were all together in the classroom but worked at their individual levels. This seemed to raise the bar for all as they sought to engage. And all passed the class.

The plan has also been blessed by Mid-America Nazarene University (Kansas), Nazarene Publishing House (Kansas), and the Wesleyan Holiness Digital Library (online), which together are helping to provide the beginnings of a library for the pastors. The Grahams would be very happy for anyone heading their way to bring a suitcase of books. NTC is also providing additional books for the library in the hopes that NTC-AKL might become a fully recognized teaching site in the future.

There has been a very positive response to this new plan for education.

Pastor Paul Talluri, of Auckland Telugu Church of the Nazarene, sees this opportunity for theological education not only as an improvement to pastors’ ministries, but also a means to develop strong lay leaders who might feel a call to ministry. Talluri says he struggles to find strong leaders in his church because most come from non-Christian backgrounds and are so occupied with full-time jobs, they have little opportunity for training. He believes NTC-AKL is an answer to his prayers, so much that the church board paid half the tuition for two students to enter the degree course. They finished the course and in Talluri’s words, “They are fired up and ready to do the next course.”

“Now we are excited about being able to offer four classes a year of the Bachelor of Ministry degree through Nazarene Theological College in New Zealand,” said Bartle. “This is a great step forward and something that the Nazarene Church in New Zealand has dreamed of for many years. Having Jaron and Elizabeth Graham to take the lead on this and getting it established is a big plus for the New Zealand District. This will make a significant difference in the years to come.”