Moscow Theological Seminary, the educational flagship of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB), has returned to its original format — distance learning.

Begun as a Baptist correspondence program in 1968, the school was known as Moscow Theological Institute (MTI). In 1993, a residential, campus-based institution known as Moscow Theological Seminary (MTS) was added. In 2007, MTI was incorporated into MTS. Total enrollment has skyrocketed since then: from 251 students in 2007 to 975 today.

MTS is made up of nine learning centers spread across the breadth of Russia. On average, the centers are separated by 960 miles.

MTS owns buildings only in Moscow. As with the population in general, enrollment is unevenly distributed, with nearly 500 students in the Moscow region and 225 in the northern region. Enrollments further east average from 25 to 40.

Pastoral ministry and Christian education are the two traditional tracks at MTS. Most programs are actually hybrids involving both distance and on-location learning. The five-year bachelor programs require two two-week sessions a year in a learning center; Masters programs involve three two-week sessions per year. But many certificate programs run for shorter amounts of time, and a few courses are offered strictly online.

Students cover their travel costs as well as 10 percent of tuition.

Flexibility is the name of the game in online and distance learning. MTS Rector Dr. Peter Mitskevich, a medical doctor and U.S.-trained theologian, said that his institution is geared to “differing approaches to best serve the needs of the church.”

One recent Moscow program is designed for the directors of substance abuse rehabilitation centers. This program consists of 15 self-contained modules, allowing students to start the program at any stage.

Other new programs include Christian counseling, church administration, digital media and church-state relations.

Distance learning and its hybrid forms fix many of the problems stemming from campus-based training. Traditionally, young people in the Second and Third Worlds have used church scholarships to leave unpopular rural settings and countries — the opposite of what such aid is intended for.

“Our churches are afraid of losing the best and brightest,” one church leader stated. “If we can train pastors indigenously, then they don’t need to uproot their families and leave their ministries or jobs.”

Distance learning is practice-oriented; the chances of a student disappearing into an ivory tower far removed from the lives of working-class mortals are kept to a minimum.

“In the West, people ask me about the placement rate at MTS. I respond, ‘100 percent!’ Up to 90 percent of these students are already involved in ministry,” said an American. “This is not like North America where a young person goes to seminary and hopes for the best afterwards.”

Ministry in Russia is bi-vocational, so theology students are older than their counterparts in the United States, said Mitskevich.

“The majority will attend a secular institution for their first degree. They will become engineers, doctors or managers first,” Mitskevich said. “If God really is calling them, they will then begin to sharpen their ministry skills in church. They study theology after all that.

“We need to grow things step by step. We have only had 20 years of freedom — the churches need time to mature and grow. Obtaining a good place to meet and starting programs of ministry are the initial objectives. The salaried ministry will only come years later.”

One could argue that the Soviet-era church was far ahead of its time when it began with correspondence courses in 1968. But at the same time, Mitskevich notes that in a sense MTS is now only offering what the Anglo world already has on-line: a vast array of theological courses for every interest. “But we are a Russian-speaking school and it is our task to offer Russian-language courses to students everywhere.” MTS already has several students in the U.S., Australia and Germany who attend twice-annual sessions in Russia. The Rector does not rule out the possibility of additional theological courses in simple Russian directed at students learning Russian as a second language.

Are Russian Protestant institutions of learning in danger of being diploma mills? Mikhail Nevolin, a Baptist theologian in St. Petersburg, said that only a few of them deserve the title of university or seminary. Online education in Russia is no match for the rigorous academic work common in Western seminaries. But these Russian programs require no great leap and are not far removed from the pastoral work students already know.

Mitskevich is convinced that new academic dean Pastor Gennadi Sergienko will lead the way in assuring quality control at MTS. Sergienko completed a doctorate in New Testament at California’s Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011; the majority of MTS faculty now hold doctorate degrees. In the past four years, all students have traveled to Moscow for their final oral exams, establishing a level academic field.

 “Every approach has its strengths and weaknesses,” Mitskevich said. “But for us at the present stage of our development, this is clearly the right way to go.”

William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.