African Ph.D.s and Ministerial Education

Lately independent Adventist media has been abuzz with stories of a church leader in the Southern African and Indian Ocean Division office whose academic degrees turned out to be unsubstantiable. The responses to this revelation have been, it seems to me, unnecessarily scathing, as though the church has been irreparably damaged by this one man claiming degrees he didn’t have.

I am not an insider, so I’m hesitant to judge. At first glance, it certainly appears to be an honesty issue. Some have said, “It’s too bad he made a mistake and now everyone is blowing it out of proportion.” If what is alleged is true, it’s not a mistake. You don’t go in search of “credentials” like that without knowing precisely what you are doing. If he tried to take credit he didn’t earn and used these credentials to climb into positions of greater trust, it is deception.

(An aside: let’s not tolerate the “I made a mistake” excuse, much beloved by politicians and businessmen when they get caught. A mistake is a misstep of small consequence, like blurting out something you wish you hadn’t, or turning left when you meant to turn right. Setting up a system to write deceptive loans for millions of homeowners may have had consequences you didn’t foresee, but it wasn’t a mistake. Slapping your coworker on the bottom or texting her a picture of your genitalia shows appallingly poor judgment, and you can’t label it a mistake. Nor are making laws that support your campaign contributors at the expense of the rest of us, or starting an unnecessary war in which hundreds of thousands of civilians die, mere mistakes. “Mistake” is a way to sound vaguely apologetic without admitting you were stupid or selfish or both.)

On the other hand, I hesitate to declare this alleged degree-poacher an absolute scoundrel, as some have done. I don’t know the man, but I suspect that through his life he has preached good sermons, prayed sincere prayers, lifted up the fallen when he had a chance, and baptized many. Someone commented that he should return all the compensation he’s received from the church through the years. That seems to me extreme. A lot of us pastors would have to return salary on the grounds of productivity alone, not to mention private reservations we might have about parts of the Adventist message which could, conceivably, also be labeled dishonesty.

Still, it’s an embarrassment. Yet, as Donald Trump has shown, the world has an astonishing willingness to forgive audacity. Danny Shelton came back and Samuel Pipim is coming back, forgiven by those of the faithful who hate to see their heroes fall. I find myself grudgingly impressed by the sheer chutzpah of people who can keep up the pretence even as their story unravels.

I’ve been, like everyone else, thinking of this story mostly in terms of personal integrity, until I came upon a comment from one of my friends that went something like this: “It makes me wonder what is the purpose of education in ministry and church leadership.”


Here is something we need to talk about. Integrity is the immediate discussion. The harder, follow-up discussion starts here: why are leaders seeking these degrees? (SID president Paul Ratsara claims several, as well, though there’s also controversy about them.) What makes these inessential, if not superfluous; degrees so valuable that one would be willing to risk one’s whole reputation to claim one?

The Seventh-day Adventist church has attempted to keep a nearly-flat compensation structure within fields, regardless of the size of congregations. That’s good for me, a pastor who’s in a district of small churches. But human beings are naturally competitive. And if you can’t make more money, you might instead aspire to power and security and recognition. In the Adventist church, that means leaving parish ministry for church administration. Sometimes advanced degrees facilitate promotions up into the church leadership world. And, while there aren’t dramatic differences in pastoral compensation, there are sweet perks for being in an office as opposed to a parish.[1]

In this case, it may also have to do with the desire of the developing world church to be recognized. Education is for learning, but a pile of degrees is for respect. Africa is the fastest growing region of our denomination. Most of what we’re proud of in church growth happens there. Yet who runs our church? Our denominational president is as white as a parsnip. And he does have a Ph.D. Others in Silver Spring boast of D.Min.s and other degrees. Doesn’t it make sense that leaders in Africa, arguably the heart of world Adventism, would find a few more degrees might facilitate their climb up the ladder, too? (In fact, the principal in this story was on his way to Silver Spring when questions were raised.)

I don’t know how one would manage to earn multiple doctoral degrees while working full time. I surely couldn’t do it—but then I’m clearly not world division officer material. But if the SID accusations are true (and I’m not that interested anymore in digging into it to find out for sure) what happened didn’t earn any respect. What it did do was reinforce a stereotype of Africa that we’ve formed from its political history as a place where the powerful get ahead, not necessarily by honest means.

I think there’s a another discussion here, though, that we probably should have. In my lifetime we’ve seen a push for Seventh-day Adventist pastors to get more academic education. When I was a child, many pastors went to work with a bachelor’s degree. Mine was the first generation in which a Master of Divinity degree was common.[2] And an increasing number of pastors are becoming Doctors of Ministry, not to mention church administrators seeking Ph.D.s in leadership.

I know what education means to a physician, an engineer, a research scientist. It’s not nearly as clear that it means the same thing in a profession where instinct and talent are as important—or more important—than degrees.

Here, an admission: Though I have a Doctor of Ministry degree (from an accredited institution), I know pastors with only a high school education who please their congregations more than I do mine. I know pastors who have moved sideways in midlife from another occupation, with no ministerial training, but are unquestionably better at many parts of ministry than I am. I once had a colleague who could barely read who could captivate an audience like I can’t hope to. I know pastors now in top leadership positions who didn’t bother with seminary. These men (still, mostly men) are gifted in ways I won’t ever be, a D.Min. notwithstanding. (I only ask that you don’t tell this to my conference president, though I think he may already have his suspicions about me.)

As we think about those SID vanity degrees, I think it’s legitimate to raise questions about ministerial training in the church generally, particularly in light of our latest theological revanchism. Our denominational president and others seem to be pining for a return to our 19th century church, or some fundamentalist variation upon it. We often hear how scholarly the church pioneers were, and I have no doubt that’s true. But they were autodidacts, for the most part. We credit Ellen White with being so articulate with so little education, and indeed, she was remarkable. But saying that also admits that academic degrees weren’t necessary when our movement started.

And I wonder if we really find ministerial education valuable now. Or, for that matter, whether it’s working for us.

It seems to me that what really matters to most Seventh-day Adventist congregations isn’t education. It’s qualities like warmth, charisma, trustworthiness, availability, communication skills, and just enough (but not too much) polish. I have never had a church ask me, “Can you translate those last few chapters of Daniel from the Aramaic?” No one has even asked if I could read Greek. I have had them ask me whether I visit my members, or how I relate to teens, or what I like to preach about.

Those in the church’s academic ghettos will say that where they attend church (if, in fact, they attend at all) they need an educated pastor. But in our denomination the college and university churches are the minority. Away from them, it’s another Adventist world. We’re still part of a 19th century movement, whose leaders are trying to keep us from going off the historical rails. They don’t want us to become liberal and open-minded, for some good reasons. They’d prefer we were more like the church of a century ago. And many offering-giving church members feel the same way.

Personally, I love education. I’m curious; I’m a reader and a writer. I was the kind of student for whom liberal arts were a great blessing. But given the theological climate across much of the world field, the conference leaders who say, “All our pastors need is a good personality, a wife, and a soul-winning course from Mission College of Evangelism" might have a point. Regions that have hired such pastors, like Michigan, are doing fine. There are other parts of the country where pastoral education has gone up and church attendance has gone down. One can’t draw a conclusion from that—there are many reasons church participation has declined—but neither have better educated pastors halted that slide.

Education is a wonderful thing. But it makes people ask questions. It raises doubts. Church leaders are worried about orthodoxy, as they should be. We’ve waited 175 years for Jesus to return, a delay we aren’t explaining very effectively. Our message is looking threadbare to an educated middle-class here in North America, who used to be our core constituency. Would we be better off, perhaps, abandoning efforts at theological modernization and staying very near to our 19th century roots?

You will have guessed that I’m being intentionally provocative, but I’m nonetheless raising a fundamental question about who we are. Do we want to be what our education is making us? Is it helping us to succeed? We have already decided that we won’t tolerate educated biologists and paleontologists who challenge us. Do we want pastors and scholars who question and reinterpret some of our more troublesome doctrines?

I’m just wondering if we’re the kind of movement that can survive much more education.

[1]As I’ve written elsewhere, pastors in church administration in the NAD get a higher mileage budget, all computer and office needs taken care of, automatic office jobs for spouses, and an enormous amount of free travel. And if you work in a union or above, you can count on getting every cost of living increase, which local conferences rarely keep up with for their workers. I suspect the same is true in other world fields.

[2]I seem to remember some talk of a policy that every pastor must have an M.Div. If so, it’s selectively ignored.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Isn’t it interesting that in the church’s “medical ministry” the highest education and progress are unquestioningly valued. It’s also there that we have disproportionately high remuneration. We love science when it leads to heart transplants and proton accelerators.

So what we have are compartmentalized responses to knowledge. In some areas we want to remain in the 19th century, in some others we want to be on the forefront. We’re not even aware of these as discrepancies and much less have principles articulated for our motivations.


personally, i think education is more important in administration than a local church…administrators represent the gospel outside the church, and to some extent inside it, and their representative function has to have the support of credentials that can have weight with the public, and in particular with government officials that create the legal and social atmosphere in which our church operates…

in a local church, on the other hand, even where there is an evangelistic emphasis, academic credentials without underlying talent and executive ability can become annoying…i think it’s much more important for a local congregation to have an engaging speaker, an effective counselor, and an executive that can set up and maintain an efficient, well-balanced, and well-financed church, than someone with multiple degrees…


“You will have guessed that I’m being intentionally provocative, but I’m nonetheless raising a fundamental question about who we are. Do we want to be what our education is making us? Is it helping us to succeed?”

First, one must define what “success” really is:

What does it mean to the Administrative Hierarchy within Adventism?

What does it mean to the typical layperson and in which country/continent?

If these questions can be answered honestly and comprehensively there might possibly be criteria that could
be developed that would truly answer about the education, then, finally and most importantly…what IS Adventism? It appears that there are questions which remain unanswered about what it is now in the 21st century.

Thank-you, Loren, for a thought provoking article with pertinent questions which I hope could be answered.


Is there ever a situation where less education would be better? Maybe for a hypochondriac, but if we apply it to our churches, aren’t we saying that in order to make the SDA story “work”, it would be better to have a less educated membership, lead by a less educated pastor? That’s saying a lot. It also explains why membership is dwindling in North America and growing in the less developed countries.

Of, course, it all depends on what we mean by “working for us”. For the administration, “working for us” means “is it growing membership”; for a caring pastor it might mean, “are we growing faith in our members”; for the member it might be saying, “is it answering all my questions”. In defining that question on these terms, leaves out the emotional aspect of faith. When it comes to the crunch, our need for a “working” church comes in terms of community - which involves friendships and support. Seldom, do our beliefs get challenged or refreshed in our weekly sojourns in church.


“.i think it’s much more important for a local congregation to have an engaging speaker, an effective counselor, and an executive that can set up and maintain an efficient, well-balanced, and well-financed church, than someone with multiple degrees…”

All these are not innate with most people. Education both teaches and hones native skills to be better and more effective. It is very difficult to find such qualifications in one individual; usually, there can be improvement over one’s native abilities.

As for executive duties, a congregation often has a member who is an accountant or has those skills in business which should be relied upon for advice rather than the pastor who is often expected to be “johnny of all trades” and sometimes master of none.


I did not study in an Adventist school in my youth. Neither did I study theology, let alone be acquanted with a theological seminary in order that I may know at least what goes on inside it. The church needs educated pastors and from where I sit, a Masters degree should suffice for a pastor, if he is able to make it that far. But it does not make him/her more effective that a pastor who does not possess any university qualification.

There is huge difference between pastoring churches and administering a conference, field, division or even the GC itself. Theology takes a back bench once a person is in administration because this (administration) is a science of its own. It is not just one of the social sciences but has its own demands. My personal view is that it is a waste of human resources to take a theologian or at best a person who is interested in conversion of should to Christ and put him in an administrative position where he/she should stop preaching and study, know and apply administrative principles including matters of labour relations. It is no wonder that while many a treasurer have been fired in church, but none of them have had to face the consequences of embezzling church funds. Most of them are requested to resign and they are happy to do so because they know that they have been spared. In the corporate world a person who commits such a crime is thankful if he did not get to jail and get fired as well.

When faced with cases of this nature administrators look at the soul and rationalise and pontificate about a criminal offence to the extent of letting the offender go free because they (pastors) are not trained in the science of administration but are well trained in preaching. Solution? Get men and women who are schooled in administration to administer conferences, fields, SID and GC as well and leave the preachers of the word to do that which they were trained to do. The and only then will the church have a higher impact on evangelism to which she is called.

However, in the case in point in respect of Mr Paul Charles, there is evidently more than meets the eye as opposed to sheer incompetence on the part of the administration. The administration is clearly and outrightly protecting him and thereby condoning fraud, deceit, lies and subterfuge.


I think Charles is from India.


According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 1950 6.2 percent of all Americans 25 years or older had a bachelor’s degree. By 2014, that number had increased to 32 percent for all Americans. If Adventist congregations are representative, then, on average, about a third of a congregation has a college degree (more for Asian-Americans and less for African-American congregations). The idea that the pastor of these congregations should not aspire to be at least as educated as his (or her) congregation is strange. It is not at all clear that Pastor Seibold, who admits to having a D.Minn, is advocating a dumbing down of the pastorate under the guise that certain attributes (friendliness, visitation, warm greetings, etc.) are more valuable than a sound grounding in the theology that pastor is preaching on Sabbath.


Not sure what the relevance would be whether he is from India or Mars . . . .


Let us not be too judgemental. Let us just ask about our environment.

You see, I have a doctorate in Medicine ( here it gets a part of the name - new passport !, new entry in the real estate register ! new driving license!) - That`s it. Folowing the new tendencies I should have a BA - already for the school edication required for attending the University. And then three X.Y. behind my name for certificates I hold.

Visiting my surgeon for coloskopy he displays some M.SCI., M.S., M.X. and M.Y. to his name , acquired by some far off “universities” - which to really attend for at lesast two semesters he never could afford the time - you can do this per mail and maybe one or two weekends. What for ? His income is limited by the taxes from Social Security (“Medicare”) as a surgeon. Not more . So also my dentist with two regular doctorates (DDr.) and some mailbox acquired letters after her name - also no effect on the income, also bound by her contract with Social Security - “Medicare”.

Looking at the register of the teaching staff of our SDA schools of higher education (Bogenhofen Friedensau, the latter a by State decree acknowledget University !) some names with titles never given by any European university, but some SDA institurte on the Philippines. . I bet, not “nostrificated” - it means acknowledged by the national education authorities. And that the treasurer of our Union does not know the difference between reserve and (unexpected, uncalculated) inheritance - around € one million ! for saving our senior nursing home from being closed by the health authorities - well, a faithful Brother, that is enough, isn`t it ?

This does not mean that I think theological education should not be far better and more intensive as it si now ! For instance I know why I demand better pastoral training , for example pastoring the ones getting old and slipping into dementia - this an increasing number of church members !

One SDA physician, general practitoner and having a parttime job in a peninetiary, contributed in presenting our health program in the framework of an evangelisation. The billboards named him and introduced him as a “Counselor to the Minister of Justice” OK, he was on the payroll of the ministers office, but just for taking primary medical care of the imprisoneds common cold, backache or cut in the finger !

That`s our times !


When these two statements are juxtaposed, the inference is that education is the antidote to belief in Adventist doctrines, and that can only mean that the Adventist “product” is fundamentally flawed. If the teachings of the church cannot stand up to scholarly criticism, they are worthless.


in order to Cogently present a. Theology of God, one must be capable of rightly dividing the Word of Truth. If one does not master Hebrew and Greek one must be closely tied to an exhaustive concordance. All this takes disciplined learning at the highest level. Most would rather hone delivery rather than content. Classic Adventism gets the cart before the horse. Romans and Galaitans are clear that we are adopted as children of the King of Kings. This high estate compels out of Gratitude to live a gracious generous life of service to those in need of basic sustainables to bring no shame upon the King’s name. (not to earn a place at the King’s table but to share the bounties of that table.). The IJ demands another–It is works based at the most fundamental level. The basic Truth is, “Freely we have received, freely we must share.” Tom Z


Loren your “provocative” insights ignited some of my own as I ponder your well written article.

  1. Too much of what we are calling ‘education’ in our Adventist world is little more than an expensive isolation from reality and truth.
  2. When building a case and you are desperately looking for authenticity and credibility, and the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
  3. As Yogi Berra once said “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

True. Having said this, several former colleagues in ministry and many fellow alumni of our schools in the Philippines, would hate me for affirming and confirming your fairly accurate description of what has been going on since who knows when and up till now. It’s between them, meaning each individual concerned and the powers that appointed them, and God, I’d been told whenever I bring the matter of transparency, integrity and honesty to their attention.

Regarding physicians, it’s not enough for them to receive their MD diploma. Specialty boards that independently certify each candidate’s qualification and competence seem to work well for them. One Christian denomination I know (Presbyterian) has something similar, one that’s non-existent in our church: an independent examining committee tasked with guiding a ministerial graduate through the process that leads to candidacy for ordination.


It is a good thing for pastors to get educated but when the issue of higher education overtakes the purpose of ministry, then , the church would need a review of some things. Today, there is growing resentments in some parts of Africa among pastors with low education who are never privileged to get opportunity for higher education. less educated pastors eventhough, they may be performing well in their local field yet they are transferred to remote parts of the mission/conference or union.
our authorities should encourage pastors to do online studies but with caution and the distance learning program should be vetted and approved by the conference/union/division. Besides, pastors studying at our colleges should be made to include more courses in in administration for the pastors considering that they could get elected to administer missions/conference,etc

There is a lot of initial idealism that Religion Majors have to begin with.
But is this lost over time? as they go through their process of education?
Are they some way encouraged to become tantalized by the ideas of Administration and what benefits Administration provides.
No 1 would be prestige of having an “office” job. Then there is authority, power, name recognition. And more so as one “advances up the ladder” of success.
This would be ESPECIALLY SO in 3rd world countries.
So there is a LOT of Personal Pressure to obtain advanced degrees, not necessarily just for the information.

Perhaps the WHOLE EDUCATIONAL program for Pastors needs to be re-evaluated. What do they need to know? If they KNOW it, does it HAVE to end in a DEGREE Title of some sort? Remember the value of their training is JUST for SDAs, not other denominations. So is different than if they were attending a non-denominational pastoral college and THEN applying for a ministerial position with a denomination.
What other denominations would call progressing through “DEGREES”, the SDA church could just call it “Continuing Education”, and then just give Certificates of Completion of the Various Courses.
And have a designated place where their “transcript” of courses completed could be kept.

An easy item for either new pastors, or 3rd world pastors. I would suggest using the Lectionary for the week. It offers 4 Scripture reading for the congregation to hear – Old Testament, Gospel, New Testament, Psalm [either read or sung] – every week during services. The pastor, or pastor assistant, can then present some thoughts regarding one of the readings, or how all 4 readings are related, and their practical application to life.
Another way to use the Lectionary is to ask the congregation to name words or phrases that struck them as meaningful [without comment]. After all have given a word or phrase, THEN one can ask for comments on why it seemed meaningful to them.
Something like this would help new, or learning pastors. Or even long-term SDAs in the congregation.

EDIT-- I am not against Education. The more knowledge, the better, as long as it comes with Wisdom.
I just wonder if it the DEGREES conferred that is the Huge Problem in the Denomination.
Work toward Continuing Education class work.

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If you look at Paul Charles’ Facebook profile for the last 12-24 months it will become clear that his position has taken him around the world. He’s been to the GC session, to Mexico, to Geneva, the Waldensian valley, Israel, just to name a few. This does not include the various countries in the SID. Often his wife is pictured with him on these journeys.

Compare this with the average pastor in the SID, whose average salary will never afford him/her any of these opportunities for travel. There are definite perks to being a director in the SID.

On the value of pastoral education:

In Southern Africa they like to refer to the African concept of Ubuntu “Umuntu Ubuntu Abantu” - “A person is a person because of other people.” It is well illustrated in this issue. When an individual or one or two people disregard the general path of education and manages to buck the system and even benefit from it, it raises questions for everybody else. The questions raised in this article are very thought provoking and valid.

My own answer to these questions is that we need to remind ourselves about the value of an education. It is not primarily about becoming an expert in our subject area - engaging with all the critical questions, or gaining vast amounts of knowledge or perfecting our writing skills or elocution. - Even though those are excellent outcomes.

Practically speaking pastoral education should develop individuals who are able to engage and reflect critically on situations that they are confronted with in the practice of their profession. They bring a range of skills, attitudes, and values to bear on the situation, along with theological reflection. It challenges the ministerial practitioner to develop a critical awareness of their own agency, as well as the impact of other factors on the situation and to adapt and respond in line with this reflection. I think most professions would define the value of their education along these lines. They will also encourage a process of lifelong learning, both intellectually and emotionally.

When short-cuts are taken, and when the process is hurried along, and portrayed as somehow less important than actual ministry - the consequences are usually some sort of pain for the community of faith.

I hope that this situation will also become an opportunity for individuals and for the organisation to experience such learning. It might be messy now, but it certainly poses many opportunities for tremendous improvement and greater robustness in assessing qualifications and candidates for specific leadership roles.


In the western world, there exists the same problem. Some ministers openly talk about obtaining a doctorate from XXXX university (in this case, a non-SDA institution) because the requirements are quite simple. Most church members are unaware of the differences in standards between accredited institutions.
In my university, it is important to check applicant claims for entry to doctoral programs.

Thanks to all of you who responded. This piece grew out of a frustration that I have felt about the clash between what higher education seems to require to effectively explore the borders of knowledge, and what our church seems to require to keep going in our current identity. One asks questions, the other wants to conserve and hold on to the past, and just stick to apologetics. This isn’t really anyone’s fault: it is simply how things are. Our current leaders have pushed for a return to one version of historic Adventism, one that wouldn’t be threatening to who we are. (I say “one version of historic Adventism”, because I’m not at all sure it really is historic Adventism, but it is what passes for historic Adventism right now.) I understand why they do that. I think the argument can be made that a movement like ours requires us to close our eyes to certain realities that education would open them to. We’re seeing this clash most clearly in the area of origins right now—Genesis vs. geology and paleontology—but it is there is so many areas, the clash between faith and exploration. Our colleges and universities are feeling this constantly. I’m merely suggesting that if we dare not let people do full research in the area of faith, if we want our pastors to be just salesman for a 19th century faith (and that is a defensible position) then we’re wasting a lot of money on pastoral education.