NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — As COVID-19 is exacerbating and laying bare inequality and injustice throughout Latin America, Seminario Bíblico Menonita de Colombia (SBMC, Mennonite Biblical Seminary of Colombia) is uncovering and promoting the riches of online theological education.
The pandemic's social distancing realities have, in many ways, forced people in all areas of life to adapt to a "remote-virtual" platform to do their work. This is certainly true for Mennonite church leaders in Colombia and students of all ages. Prior to COVID-19, seminary leaders started working on a plan to decentralize SBMC's scope and reach beyond Bogotá so people in other regions of Colombia and neighboring countries could benefit from Anabaptist formation.
Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia (IMCOL, Colombia Mennonite Church) is integrally involved in the development of churches in Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. A desire for more opportunities in theological education has been clear from these churches as well as others in the Andean region. Moving to a virtual format responds to this request, although the seminary recognizes that not everyone who wants to study has access to the necessary technology.
On August 4, guided by the leadership of Santiago Espitia, seminary director since 2019, SBMC launched the new online, three-year degree program in Biblical and Theological Studies. Its current classes are: Introduction to Biblical Greek, Old Testament I (Torah), Vocation and Ministry, and How to Write and Read Texts.
Eighty students have benefited from some form of online learning this first semester. Twenty-five of these students are enrolled in the seminary's degree program, while others are studying by subject interest or taking non-formal, continuing education courses.
Espitia believes the new platform along with other restructuring initiatives that began in 2019 are serving to further strengthen/develop Anabaptist leaders.
"SBMC is here to serve the Mennonite Church of Colombia, however, it is also open to other faith communities," he said. "We believe that the seminary, together with its biblical, theological and ministerial teaching, can be a light in the midst of so much darkness in which our country currently lives."
Espitia — with administrative assistant Andrea Santamaría and Mission Network worker Bekah York — are administering the program. Professors are hired for specific courses based on their educational fields and experience.
"We are a small team, but we have managed to do a lot… something like what a few loaves and fishes were in the hands of Jesus," Espitia said. "I am also grateful for the support we have had from the seminary's board of directors and IMCOL at the national level."
Indeed, student testimonials demonstrate how their choice to continue theological formation through an online platform is encouraging them to grow.
At the beginning of the semester, student Graciela Parra said, "My purpose in studying is, first and foremost, to serve God and my community..." [I wish] to have a broader panorama of knowledge to better serve and practically live out what I have learned in my community, carrying forward the message of love and hope."
Student Oscar Suarez said he likes to study Anabaptist theology because he thinks faith complements reason.
"Through theological education, I can delve into the biblical context, better understand what it meant in its time and bring the essence of those teachings into my own context," Suarez said.
York, who has served with Mission Network in Colombia since January 2020, observes how SBMC's restructuring is helping the seminary respond to the realities of 2020 and beyond.
"I am hopeful as I interact online with students and watch SBMC take a new shape," she said. "It is rewarding to see the diverse participants being shaped and molded into reflective practitioners. Theological formation is a journey of regularly being surprised by the life-changing yet strange new world of the Bible and its vision of the upside-down Kingdom.
"I pray every person who participates in our programs, first, continues to encounter the awe and wonder of the Gospel that is abundant life, and second, can apply this healing and hope in their own contexts."
Moving forward in stages
SBMC was founded in 1989 to train leaders in an Anabaptist biblical theological tradition. Study programs naturally shifted multiple times during the first 30 years as people interested in serving in different contexts — ecclesial, community, social and educational — increasingly valued further biblical, theological and pastoral studies from Anabaptist perspectives.
In spring 2019, SMBC began a series of change, Espitia said. Changes included updating the institutional logo, expanding the curriculum of study and programs, developing new work methodologies, and broadening the scope and reach of the seminary.
"These efforts are certainly ongoing and directed towards the overall task of restructuring," he said. "Change does not happen instantly, and although much has been implemented, the restructuring process will continue as the seminary clarifies its niche within the Colombian Mennonite Church and society."
SBMC is a member of Comunidad de Instituciones Teológicas Anabautistas (CITA), a network to encourage and facilitate working together to expand Spanish on-line opportunities for leadership development from an Anabaptist perspective.