April 10, 2015

East African churches strengthen leadership training for rural pastors

Written by  Chris Fretz and Amanda Miller
Joe and Gloria Bontrager explain Bible training to Tanzanian Mennonite Church leaders and church members gathered in Turugeta village in Tanzania. Joe and Gloria Bontrager explain Bible training to Tanzanian Mennonite Church leaders and church members gathered in Turugeta village in Tanzania. Photo provided by Joe and Gloria Bontrager.

MWANZA, Tanzania – Bishops in the Tanzanian and Kenyan Mennonite churches are working to meet the need for local, affordable training for village pastors. They are working with Eastern Mennonite Missions workers Joe and Gloria Bontrager, who are developing and implementing a basic-level curriculum and sustainable model for training church leaders.

The Bontragers travel to various districts to begin the program with a “Training of Trainers” seminar. By teaching the basic material and modeling how to teach, Joe and Gloria equip local leadership with all they need to facilitate the 12-course, two-year training on their own. They have done 15 “Training of Trainers” seminars in seven of the ten dioceses of Tanzania Mennonite Church and in five of the seven dioceses of Kenya Mennonite Church.

“Our model is the way Jesus taught, our textbook is the Bible, and our method is discussion,” said Joe Bontrager. “The program emphasizes the importance of leaders passing on what they have learned to others, as Paul wrote to Timothy – ‘What you have learned from me, pass on to faithful persons who will be able to teach others also.’”

The program is having a strong impact on the church because the curriculum is designed to directly address gaps in Biblical and denominational understanding. For example, leaders asked to have a class specifically on Mennonite distinctives. They were finding that many parishioners did not know what made Mennonites distinct from other denominations.

So the Bontragers put together a concise collection of Mennonite history, faith statements, and instructive articles. Even the Swahili translators kept exclaiming over how interesting it was for them to be learning about their faith.

Another reason for the curriculum’s impact is the Bontragers’ mode of instruction. African teaching is often based on lectures and rote learning, but the Bontragers want to emphasize personal processing, reflection, and open discussion. The study material is not focused on simply transferring information, but rather on creating dialogue about how to apply the material.

“This style of instruction encourages delving into locally relevant topics together, which facilitates deeper integration of material,” said Joe Bontrager. He notes that the program is still a work in progress. He and Gloria have made numerous changes and adjustments along the way to fit the needs of local churches.

In February, the Bontragers worked with Bishop Albert Randa to offer a week-long training to five candidates for ordination in the Mwanza Diocese of Tanzania. Four of the five candidates came with their wives, who also took part in the training.

“This is a new development in two ways,” said Joe Bontrager. “First, a lengthy training for pastoral candidates is not usually held. Second, inviting the spouse to attend is also new. As we worked with the group, we sensed how much the spouses gained through the training, and how much strength that will bring to the ministry of the new pastors.”

Most of the candidates came from villages in outlying areas of Mwanza, a mid-sized port city on the southern shores of Lake Victoria in northwestern Tanzania. Only one of the candidates came from a church family. Two of them came to faith through evangelism in the diocese a few years ago, and one of the candidates’ wives comes from a Muslim background.

The Mwanza Diocese held the training as part of its ongoing efforts to address the spiritual needs of rural villages. “Many of the villages in rural Tanzania have little, if any, church presence,” said Gloria Bontrager. “But the people are hungry for teaching and worship. These new pastors will be working in those areas.”

Many of the village pastors also face the challenge of constructing church buildings for their congregations. Two of the pastors in the training have started buildings and are working to gather funds to complete them.

The Bontragers drove three and a half hours from Musoma, Tanzania, where they are based, to take part in the training. Bishop Randa taught church polity and practices, and the Bontragers addressed broader leadership issues, such as working together in ministry as husband and wife.

Later in February, the Bontragers traveled to visit Pastor Eliud Munanka in the Tarime Diocese, along with several of the churches that have been planted there. The Bontragers will work with the diocese to offer the “Trainer of Trainers” seminar.

Local dioceses are especially pleased that the new curriculum is sustainable for rural churches. The curriculum material is affordable, especially compared to similar curriculums available in East Africa. Students do not need to travel to study, and local teachers are equipped.

Church leaders believe these trainings will make leadership training for pastors accessible and affordable, allowing emerging leaders to maintain home and family responsibilities. They are also beginning to see the trainings bear fruit as students share what they have learned with others.

The Bontragers hope that leadership for the training program can be taken on by Mennonite Theological College of Eastern Africa in the future.