Theological Education by Extension

My cell phone lights up and the screen indicates a message. ‘Stuck on the M1 – accident,’ it reads.

As I wait for my ride over to the TEE College (Southern Africa), I think back on my introduction to theological education by extension (TEE). I was living in Kenya at the time, the dean of studies of the Diocese of Nairobi’s residential theological college. The Trinity Grants Program from Trinity Church, Wall Street, was pouring money into Africa, East Africa in particular, in support of TEE. They saw it as a healthy alternative to residential seminaries – more accessible, more contextual, less expensive. Local writers were busy designing TEE workbooks, on the gospels, on church history, on African traditional religion. Trinity Grants supported writing conferences, and resources in multiple languages were churned out, some quite good, some not so.

Behind it all was a strong vision for alternatives to traditional seminary studies, and East African Anglicans embraced TEE, especially for laity.

TEE was a late arrival in East Africa. It originated in Latin America in the 1950s. The name Ross Kinsler returns to my mind as I wait for transportation here in Johannesburg and reflect on those years in which I worked myself up the learning curve about TEE. To this day his name is associated with the founding of the movement, and in fact he spoke at TEE College a few years back on some anniversary of theirs.

The burden of TEE in Africa has been to demonstrate that its programs and resources have depth and integrity. Some have been very simplistic, which is why they continue to be relegated to lay education and to be looked down upon by some leaders of residential seminaries.

But that is changing. When I left Kenya there were those who were developing degree-level TEE programs, a sign that TEE was moving forward and might serve broader needs.

Which is what brings me to TEE College here in Johannesburg. For many years it has been offering quality resources and programs leading to solid diplomas and degrees. I visited them some years back. Now I want to be clear about what they are up to these days, and to see whether, and how, their programs might be useful to the Diocese of Botswana.

 

Craig Dunsmeir has extricated himself from the M1 and pulls up in front of my lodge in Melville. He is the new administrative head of TEE College, an Anglican priest serving at an ecumenical institution. We drive back to the College, his kindness over and beyond the call of duty, even though the M1 has cleared.

The College is between terms, so few staff are around, but even during term there are not many students around – some local ones come to use the small library – since it is, after all, distance learning.

They enroll over 4,000 students from throughout South Africa and beyond. Their motto: ‘Equipping anyone anywhere for ministry.’

We talk for quite awhile in a cold office. They are good at the academic substance of their courses, Craig says, but he acknowledges that the nature of TEE makes ministerial formation, especially in community, hard. He’s been working with the folk down at the residential College of the Transfiguration in Grahamstown, where Botswana already sends ordinands. My mind starts working on the notion that Batswana ordinands might remain in Botswana for two years of their course of study, enrolled with TEE College, then head to Grahamstown for a final year of residency. I run the idea by Craig.

He takes me over to where their resources are located, and I look at a few samples. Dense. EfM’s (Education for Ministry at Sewanee) are more attractively laid out. But it’s good stuff. I’ll take substance over appearance any day.

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Kgolagano

We travel the short distance to Kgolagano College, an ecumenical program that focuses primarily upon distance learning, what is often known in Africa as theological education by extension (TEE). Rupert Hambira is the principal, and we sit down in his office. Tea and sweet muffins soon appear.

I first visit Kgolagano in 1988. I am a seminarian with a small grant to visit grassroots theological education initiatives in southern and central Africa. Kgolagano is seen as being cutting edge back then, a strong testimony to the emerging world of contextual theology.

The place looks very much the same, but now there are fewer Anglican students and more from African-initiated churches. Their tutors travel across the country, holding intensive classes before moving on to the next place, leaving behind resources and assignments, until next time. The College still struggles with what recognition they are allowed to offer – certificate is all at the moment. We talk about ways Kgolagano may assist the Diocese in ministerial formation.

Toward the end I mention that back in 1988 Kgolagano arranged for me to spend a weekend with one of their students from what were then called African independent churches, historic breakaways from missionary control. He was an older man, I say, in a rural area northwest of Francistown. ‘Oh yes,’ Rev. Hambira quickly responds. ‘Moses Holonga.’ ‘Is he still alive?’ I ask. ‘Yes,’ he answers. ‘But old. Very.’

My mind takes me back to Mr. Holonga’s place, not even in a village, reached by following a dirt track through scrub. I remember deciding that I couldn’t make it through the night, so I took my flashlight, climbed out of my bed, left the small thatched house, and wandered out to a kraal where a herd of goats were penned. It seemed the most appropriate spot. I stood there, contributing to the goats’ own collection of waste. Most were tolerant, although a couple bleated a small protest. What I remember is looking up at an endless array of stars, stunningly pressing down upon me. It made the night-time outing memorably worthwhile.

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