An Investment Well Worth It
Barnabas is one of my favorite leaders of the early church. Some have called him the man with the biggest heart in the early church. I personally think he is the man who held the entire church together as it moved from a small sect in Jerusalem to a multi-cultural mission throughout the Roman world.
His first appearance is in Acts 4:36-37 at a pivotal time when the church needed money. He sold land for the sake of other believers and as a result was given a new name—the Son of Encouragement.
Although he appears at other points in the book of Acts, it is in Acts 9 that we meet him in relation to Saul of Tarsus. When Saul came to Jerusalem, the disciples were afraid of him. They had good reasons. Luke then writes the pivotal words, “But Barnabas took him” (Acts 9:26). Who is the man who is going to welcome Saul into the church? Who is the man who is going to make connections for Saul? Who is the man who is going to advocate for Saul? It was Barnabas. He was a man willing to show hospitality to someone others might designate a risk.
A few years later, Barnabas again “takes” Saul. This time it was because of the explosive growth of the church in Antioch. Barnabas had visited and celebrated God’s work amongst the Gentiles. Needing help, he headed to Tarsus to find Saul, in order to bring him back so that they can nurture this new work of God. “So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people” (Acts 11:25). We know the story. That church commissioned these two leaders to go west. Eventually, they are listed by Luke as Paul and Barnabas, in that order.
I have been drawn to the relationship between Barnabas and Paul as I have considered the ways the West has sought to meet the growing need for theological education. Schools, organizations, and churches have all made meaningful contributions. Extension sites have been started. Church-based training has been instituted. Thousands of short-term trips to teach preaching and hermeneutics have been taken. Websites have been created devoted entirely to training pastors.
One notable way some have sought to meet this need is through granting scholarships to western seminaries. This is the pattern followed by Langham Partners, a ministry begun by John Stott, whose vision was to capture the seminaries of the world for the gospel by training people in the West to be the leaders of seminaries around the world. I’m not sure even Stott anticipated how important this would be considering the growth of the church around the world. There have been countless stories of positive impact.
But is it worth it? Is it worth the cost of bringing one person to the United States or UK when the same amount of money could be spent training many pastors in their home countries? Are we misspending resources?
These are fair questions. Some answer no, which we see most clearly in the financial appeals of online education options. They often tout the cost of training a pastor in the US versus the cost of their training. The argument has appeal—if it costs $90,000 in tuition alone for one student, should we spend that money to train 100 pastors.
But I would argue it can be worth it. The calculus of training pastors at home or abroad is not simple. Even in the example above, consider that ministries often don’t include the salaries of their staff in calculus of paying for training. The math just isn’t simple. Furthermore, stewardship questions are rarely best answered with reference to what is cost-effective or easy. Nor should we take an either/or approach. To help probe the question, let me give you just one example that is worth following.
Dieudonné Tamfu grew up in Cameroon. As a young man, he made a living as a barber in a rural area. To make ends meet, he worked a side job as a Michael Jackson impersonator. There was a seminary within a stone’s throw of his barber shop. Seminary students would often try to convert him as he cut their hair. To refute them he decided to read the Bible for himself. The gospel of Christ confronted him as he read God’s Word and he was converted. One day someone handed him two cassette tapes of an American preacher named John Piper, which he listened to over and over again. Since the cassettes looked very old, Dieudonné assumed that the preacher was long dead.
A short time later a seminary student told him John Piper was going to be speaking at the seminary chapel near his barber shop. Surprised that the preacher on his cassettes was alive and that he would be preaching in his village, Dieudonné decided to go. Hearing Piper preach in the seminary’s chapel proved to be one of the most consequential encounters of Dieudonné’s life: he became convinced that God was, at that moment, calling him to the ministry of the Word and decided to enroll in that local seminary. There he met graduates from Piper’s school in Minneapolis who were teaching at the seminary. Shortly after that he met Tom Steller, a pastor who served with Piper, who himself would grow to love Cameroon. Tom invited Dieudonné to study at The Bethlehem Institute, a two-year training program for future pastors in Minneapolis. But Tom told Dieudonné that he would first need some ministry experience. He took up the challenge, promptly became a pastor, and planted a church in southwest Cameroon.
Dieudonné eventually moved to Minneapolis and lived in Tom's basement for three years while receiving training. During that time, he became an integral part of Bethlehem Baptist Church. He eventually went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, studied under Jim Hamilton, and earned a PhD in Biblical Theology. Four years ago, he went back to Cameroon to plant a church and a church-based seminary. First, he recruited a church-planting team. Then he started the seminary. Finally, with the help of his first students, he launched the church. Now he and his partners are about to start a printing press to help create solid theological material for Cameroonian pastors.
As for Tom, after 40 years of pastoral ministry, he retired, raised personal support, and now serves under Dieudonné’s leadership as a teacher at the seminary in Cameroon. Last year, I received a letter from Tom about his work. It was signed, “Dieudonné and Tom,” in that order.
What is the point of this story? First, it was an American church and its pastors who initially worked with Dieudonné as he came to the United States. This church, with a rich missions emphasis, helped him understand and navigate the West, stimulated him to raise his academic level, introduced him to key people who would later fund his work, and made long-term commitments to helping him. Living with a seasoned pastor also helped him form a bond that has given him a trusted advocate and counselor. In many cases, global leaders are brought to the United States through parachurch ministries and sent directly into seminaries. Local churches in the United States are often an afterthought in this process, and the national leader is left to fend for themselves and find friends within the seminary who might help them. However, a typical American seminary student isn’t going to seminary with the intent of mentoring or helping another student. They might not even know how to. One of the keys to Western Christians successfully training global leaders brought to the United States from around the world is a local church.
Second, it was a seminary that completed his formal training. Bethlehem’s two-year program was a great start, but as Dieudonné blossomed as a skilled teacher and exegete, other opportunities needed to be explored. The relationships within Bethlehem made this financially possible, and Southern Seminary provided the next stop in Dieudonné’s training. Jim Hamilton turned out to be a perfect fit, and Dieudonné wrote on the Psalms while serving at Hamilton’s church. Seminaries have an important role, as they provide space and time for global leaders to mature and grow.
Third, it was a key leader who used his authority to lift up a global leader and then gave away that authority to the person he mentored. After completing his PhD at Southern, Dieudonné returned to a Bethlehem church-plant in Minneapolis where he served for a few years as an elder and associate pastor. At the same time, he began serving at Bethlehem College & Seminary (formerly The Bethlehem Institute). The student (one of the most diligent the school has known) became a teacher. In 2018, he was commissioned by Bethlehem and Bethlehem’s church-plant, Jubilee Community Church, to return to Cameroon in order to plant a church in the capital city of Yaoundé and launch an extension site of Bethlehem College & Seminary. Tom resigned as a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church to give his final years of ministry to working alongside Dieudonné. This work has included helping him navigate missionary organizations, protecting him from people wanting to latch onto the work, establishing relationships with key financial supporters, and advocating for him when necessary. Tom is Dieudonné’s counselor. Dieudonné is now Tom’s boss as well as his pastor during Tom’s frequent stints in Cameroon.
We can see the heart of Barnabas in Tom, as he has lifted up a supremely gifted Cameroonian and helped expand his ministry by giving away his own authority. Like Barnabas, Tom “took him.” And like Barnabas, Tom is now listed second, cheering Dieudonné on as he trains the next generation of pastors and leaders in Cameroon.
What about the eight in ten national leaders that are brought to the West that never return home? I will freely admit there are downsides to bringing people West for their education. These should not be minimized. “Brain drain” is a real phenomenon, and it affects the church. And those who do return have become a cultural amalgam, which is not necessarily a bad thing though it can create cultural tension within their ministry. But let us also acknowledge God’s sovereign hand in the movement of people.
None of Dieudonné and Tom’s story would have been possible if Tom had told Dieudonné to stay in Cameroon to receive formal or non-formal theological education. But with the help of a mentor, multiple churches, the investment of a quality evangelical education, and financial partners, he is positioned to train hundreds of future pastors in Cameroon. The investment has been worth it.
 Christopher Wright, “The Challenge of the Brain Drain Within Global Theological Education,” Journal of Global Christianity Vol 1.2 (2015), https://trainingleadersinternational.org/jgc/26/the-challenge-of-the-brain-drain-within-global-theological-education.