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Education and faith: Evangelical School of Theology in Poland serves as region’s ecumenical heart

 

Evangelical School of Theology (EST) received its national accreditation as a tertiary educational institution in 2006, following nearly 20 years of existence as Biblical Theological Seminary in Wroclaw, Poland. The accreditation of EST was an important moment for the school, but it was also a significant achievement from the perspective of Polish educational law. It was the first time in Polish history that a non-government, non-Catholic, ecumenical, theological institution received national accreditation based on standard legal acts instead of special, concordat-type agreements between a church and a government. In October 2006, EST started its operation as an institution recognized in Poland and subsequently by the whole European Union.

Wojciech Szczerba during the 2019 Festival of Protestant Culture at EST.
(Photo by Jerzy Piatek/EWST)

The accreditation was something not everybody had believed could happen in a predominantly (95%) Catholic country. It was almost a miracle that amazed all of us — even though we had worked on it so hard. Since then, EST has developed from a traditional college-type school into a versatile educational center. The aim was to create original approaches to effectively serve Christian communities throughout in the region. This way, we believed EST could answer the needs of the society in close cooperation with churches, religious organizations and cultural institutions. Among many initiatives of the seminary, three have formed the core of its activity:

  • The academic, theological program, which focused on training pastors, church leaders and lay theologians for multiple denominations. In time, after the analysis of the demographic situation in Poland, we decided to move from the day study program to extensive study programs (involving weekends, evenings or online study), where students could simultaneously study and work, be involved in ministry or pursue additional studies. This way we were able to maintain both the academic level and the practical side of the school, so important in our dynamically developing society.
  • The Academy of the Third Age, geared to older adults and offering them general programs in the area of religious studies, workshops, excursions, seminars and English and German language classes. The program turned out to be a great success. In post-communist societies, older adults are so often left out of the social stratum, which generally represents the outdated system. When we launched the program, we had about 10 participants. Today, there are about 300 active participants of the academy each year. The program serves as an exemplary ecumenical initiative in the city of Wroclaw and is fully subsidized by European Union.
  • The Institute of Entrepreneurship helps churches and Christian organizations cope with spiritual, cultural and economic realities through consultations, workshops and training courses. Churches and the school engage in common projects to serve the broader society. The seminary learns the needs of faith communities and how to adapt the theological program to effectively serve them.

In addition to these core initiatives, EST’s Educational Center has launched and coordinated many other projects, including the Festival of Protestant Culture. This festival focuses on various aspects of Protestantism in Lower Silesia (the province in southwestern Poland where EST is located) in dialogue with other Christian and non-Christian traditions. The Reformation started as early as 1518 in Lower Silesia and changed the spiritual reality of the region. The Festival of Protestant Culture is built on this heritage. Through concerts, shows, plays, festivities, seminars and debates, it shows various aspects of the region’s ecumenical faith today. It concentrates on such themes like peace, hope, love or joy, and every year attracts somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 people.

Thanks to these activities, EST has become a major ecumenical center in Wroclaw and Lower Silesia, and as such is invited to cooperate with other major ecumenical institutions. Last year, the major event was the European Meeting in Wroclaw organized by the Taizé community in France (watch a short video here). About 15,000 young people from around the world came to Wroclaw to pray, worship together and serve. Every day there were prayer meetings, workshops, lectures, concerts and more. Those gathered read passages from the Bible, meditated over thoughts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and sang songs based on his poems. Children from across the globe prayed for our planet and future generations. It was a very moving experience and a reminder that we are all responsible for creation, which was entrusted to us by God. As Brother Alois, the head of Taizé community, said in one of his meditations: “The poetic account of creation in the Bible emphasizes the responsibility human beings have in the universe, that of caring for and protecting the earth. This responsibility is entrusted by God to humanity. I wish to thank and encourage you young people. You take this responsibility very seriously. In Taizé we are impressed to see the commitment of so many of you to safeguarding creation, protecting biodiversity and simplifying our lifestyles. With those of my generation, we should ask your forgiveness for having so neglected this responsibility. Consumerism has taken up too much room, as if happiness depended on that alone. You encourage us to change our lifestyle so that it become more sober, more focused on the essentials.”

EST participated in the events as the partner institution and I was invited to deliver a series of lectures on the life and witness of faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I felt honored to be able to share about him with hundreds of young people. Bonhoeffer, born in our town, is now considered an honorary citizen of Wroclaw. His witness is still alive and important for the people here. His words that “a life has meaning and value only in so far as love is in it” resonate very strongly in our contemporary, divided world.

The climax of the Taizé event was a huge party in Wroclaw for the thousands of young people who had gathered. We welcomed the New Year together and prayed for the world. January 1 ended the European Meeting in Wroclaw with dinner for all the organizers. We participated in the finishing ceremony of the Taizé European Meeting of Youth with the hope to meet again in Turin, Italy, in 2020.

I was really glad that such ecumenical events took place in our city and that we can share our faith with thousands of young people. It is important to strive for and to show Christian unity in our world. I hope that our school with its ecumenical character is a good example of Christianity building bridges and not walls between people of faith. The words of Bonhoeffer from “Life Together,” stressing the importance of Christian unity, are very important for us today, just as they important during World War II. He wrote: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. … We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does this mean? It means, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.”

 

Wojciech Szczerba is rector/president of Evangelical School of Theology in Wroclaw, Poland. He also serves as editor of Theologica Vratislaviensia and is a research associate at the Von Hugel Institute at the University of Cambridge.

 

 

 

 

Evangelical School of Theology: A 30-year journey

by Art Ross 

Evangelical School of Theology in Wroclaw, Poland, has grown from an underground seminary in communist Poland in 1989 to a mission partner with Presbyterians and countless other denominations — and shared in hosting 15,000 people at a Taizé gathering in 2019.

Mid-late 1980s. Zygmunt Karel (a Polish Baptist pastor) and Mark Young (a mission worker and later a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and president of Denver Theological Seminary) began planning an underground, interdenominational seminary in Poland: Biblical Theological Seminary.

November 1989. The Berlin Wall falls, and significant freedoms come to many in Poland. Karel comes to the U.S. to visit churches and share his vision for an interdenominational Protestant seminary in Poland. He visits an independent Baptist congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina. A wealthy and visionary member, Jim Brown, invited Karel to his home and became a partner. Another early partner was Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. An elder, Mike Robinson, was treasurer and a major visionary; he has been president of the board for many years. The church remains the strongest financial supporter.

Late 1989 and into 1990. Plans for the seminary proceed. Books and supplies were purchased, teachers were hired and incorporation and permits were secured. The seminary opened in the fall of 1990 in the back of First Baptist Church of Wroclaw. Wojciech Szczerba and Marek Kucharski are members of the inaugural class in 1990. Both had been atheists, then fundamentalists and then became students preparing for ministry.

Prior to World War II, Wroclaw was controlled by the Germans and named Breslau. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in the city in 1906. After WWII, the city was controlled by the Russians. Szczerba’s father, a newspaper publisher, was imprisoned by Polish secret police during Szczerba’s teen years.

1990. Tom Robinson, elder at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, is the tax accountant for Jim Brown, and was enlisted to advise Brown. Mid-1999. Robinson joins the U.S.-based board that owns and operates the seminary, and becomes treasurer. September 1999. Robinson and his wife, Linda, along with 14 others, take a “prayer tour” to Wroclaw, Krakow, Auschwitz and Warsaw. They make repeated trips over the next few years.

2006. The seminary is accredited, a major shift in leadership occurs and the name is changed to Evangelical School of Theology. Szczerba, a student in the first class, now has two PhDs and is named president. His classmate, Kucharski, who earned an MBA, becomes chancellor. Linda Robinson visits with Art Ross, pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church, a church that already has mission ties to Northern Ireland, Russia, Haiti and Mexico. Together, they lead White Memorial to host a mission trip to Poland in 2007, with 23 participants. Since then, four additional trips (including a youth trip) have occurred. In 2009, Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Florida, joined a trip. Currently, an elder at Palma Ceia and an elder at White Memorial are on the board of trustees along with Ross. White Memorial’s current pastor, Christopher Edmonston, has visited twice.

Now. The seminary has three major programs: a European Union-accredited BA in theology; Academy of the Third Age that ministers to older adults; and an amazing Institute of Church Development that provides training for pastors and congregations throughout Poland. Szczerba is a recognized scholar who has been invited to Duke Divinity School, Yale and Cambridge Universities, and is published widely; he is a recognized Bonhoeffer scholar.

The seminary sponsors a popular Festival of Protestant Culture annually and, this past December, shared in hosting a Taizé gathering of 15,000 young people who came from around the world.

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