Educating Pastors and Lay Leaders

Imagine that you were searching for a church to attend. What are some of things that you would include on your list of “essentials” as you visited churches from week to week? Solid biblical teaching would probably make the list along with other things like varieties of ways to get involved, size, location, programs for kids, etc. The list would vary from person to person and from family to family; however, one aspect that would remain consistent would be the absence of a particular question, “Has the pastor been educated?”

We don’t have to ask whether or not the pastor has been educated because theological education is quite nearly a universal requirement in churches across the U.S. The question we may ask is “where has this pastor been educated?” but that question presupposes that the pastor has received some sort of theological education. What we need to understand is that in Latin America, and really across the majority world, it cannot be taken for granted that a pastor has been theologically educated and in some cases, especially in rural contexts, their general education stopped before the sixth grade.

ESEPA seminary is concerned with providing adequate preparation for pastors and lay leaders across Costa Rica and various other parts of Latin America. Any number of ways exist by which this goal can be pursued and span the spectrum between informal, including discipleship, conferences, basic training, etc., and formal which is geared more towards institutional-type learning for academic credit at higher levels (undergraduate, graduate and doctoral). While we recognize the less formal categories as valid and certainly necessary and even participate in them through our own certificate program, the Lord has clearly called ESEPA to provide the latter primarily.

We provide this education in a variety of methods. The primary method of delivering theological education is through courses on our campus in San José and online. We have seven associate’s degrees that can be completed in two years as well as three bachelor’s degrees that can be completed in four years. We also have four master’s degrees – three academic and one practical. In addition to our central campus we also have an extension campus located at one of the local churches in the city. This additional campus allows us to provide classes for students who find it difficult to commute across town for various reasons. Finally, we offer courses through three regional extension campuses outside of the city. These regional campuses are set-up through local churches and are designed to handle a cohort of about 15 students that study a particular degree, normally Pastoral Ministry. The vast majority of our students, especially those at our regional campuses, are active in ministry.

Despite our efforts and those of other institutions across Latin America, there remain barriers when it comes to access to theological education. The most common barriers are financial and a lack of education. ESEPA has sought to respond to the educational needs, especially those of regional pastors, through our regional extensions. The groups we bring together are similar in their education background so we can design our courses around their needs and deliver the courses in a suitable manner. Two of our extension campuses meet for one week every two months. They have a facility that provides room and board for the week, which gives the professor the additional benefit of interacting with students outside of class.

The greatest barrier to access is financial. The cost of higher education is prohibitive and so many pastors simply go without. ESEPA has sought to overcome the financial barrier through a model that allows for local churches to commit monthly funds in exchange for a certain number of members to have access to courses each semester. The cost of one course, not per credit, at ESEPA is $110. The total cost of a 4-year degree is roughly $3,500, which represents a fraction of the cost in the U.S., yet it is a tremendous barrier here.

The agreement that we have reached in partnership with local churches is to allow them a particular number of students full-time in exchange for monthly payment. The structure is tiered in order to offer a variety of possibilities, for example for $60 per month a church can send two students full-time and year round. Normally each student would pay roughly $1,320 to take the same number of classes but through the church they have access for $720. The positive side for ESEPA is that it helps retain students and offers monthly income to cover the various monthly expenses incurred by a brick-and-mortar institution. The tiers continue offering 5 students for $120 per month and 15 students for $240 per month. While these agreements have opened the doors for a number of students to be able to study, the reality is that financial barriers remain that prevent many others from having the opportunity.

Our vision as an institution is to provide quality education for pastors and lay leaders that adequately prepares them for the ministry. In the case of those who are already in ministry, our goal is no different. We want to equip them to better serve the people to whom they have been called. God has used ESEPA over our 32-year history to impact a large number of students and churches. We believe that God has positioned in such a way as to have an exponentially larger impact in the future as the institution continues to grow. We currently serve nearly 400 students across all of our programs with nearly 200 of those students enrolled in bachelor’s level or above.

However, we cannot pursue that which God has called us to without help. We believe that we are forward thinking in our approach but we also recognize that forward thinking is not enough. If you are interested in theological training or if you are interested in helping to make sure that the gospel that is preached in Costa Rica is the same gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ found in the Scriptures, please pray for ESEPA.

By: Andrew Halbert, Serving in Costa Rica