Langham Scholar and Keswick speaker says top degrees ‘open doors’ for South Asian leaders

Langham Scholar Havilah Dharamraj completed a PhD at Durham University in 2006 and is now the Academic Dean of India’s leading evangelical theological institution for post-graduate study.

Havilah was also one of the speakers at this year’s Keswick Convention. This article comes from an interview conducted by our partners in New Zealand last year.

Havilah has some very good reasons for believing that higher degrees are not simply academic notches on a belt, but significant door-openers for changing society. Havilah’s first career was teaching biochemistry at high school.

Langham Scholar Havilah Dharamraj completed a PhD at Durham University in 2006.

Qualified biblical leaders in short supply

But in the 1990s a love of the Old Testament drew her back to study. She completed a Masters degree at South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) in Bangalore. That led to a PhD which at Durham University, funded by Langham Partnership.

Across South Asia, qualified biblical leaders who can listen to the world and build contextual bridges to the Word are in short supply – from village churches to urban seminaries.

Since Havilah completed her PhD in 2006 and started teaching on the two main Masters Programmes at SAIACS, she has directly taught and influenced 400 Christian leaders.

New set of skills

There are three types of students at SAIACS, from all around India, and several other countries in the region: 

  • Top-level leaders from mission organisations come to upskill;
  • Pastors and Ministers from churches throughout the region come to learn how to lead;
  • Staff and lecturers from other Bible colleges and Christian tertiary training centres come to learn how to teach the Word of God.

Havilah says that students leave SAIACS with a new set of skills – both explicit and implicit. Explicit skills include preaching, teaching, critical thinking (essential for students coming from a rote learning experience), education and pedagogy, leadership, and working on the interface between contextual issues and the Bible.

Havilah Dharamraj is the Academic Dean of India’s leading evangelical theological institution for post-graduate study.

Totally egalitarian

As for the implicit curriculum that SAIACS students receive, Havilah says:

“As Indians, the caste system is in our DNA. But at SAIACS we are totally egalitarian – we all eat at the same table, and have the choice to call each other by name regardless of our role or rank. This is in the classroom as well as within the SAIACS community. It’s this implicit value that is so central to the Gospel, that Christian leaders who study here, take away with them.

“And many of them are implementing this same value at their training colleges and organisations because they picked it up here, recognising it’s inherent within the Gospel.”

In the Asia-Pacific context higher degrees are door-openers for Christian leaders to have influence. 

Focused on mission

“How many universities in the West can say their motto is ‘Excellence for mission?” asks Havilah. “We are so focused on mission, that our Principal makes sure he’s at and involved in every major mission conference in our region every year.”

So, by her example, one good reason for having a higher degree in Theology is to be able to teach and train other leaders.

Another good reason, Havilah believes, is that a higher degree creates leaders who effect systemic change. But she is clear that on its own a higher degree is not enough. Senior leaders but know how to use their degree to lead, influence policy-making, make high-level decisions in the country, and publish.

Havilah Dharamraj
Havilah believes that a higher degree creates leaders who effect systemic change.

High level influence

“In the Christian faith, we need people on the ground, but we also need people at the top levels, because that’s where the big systemic changes take place in our societies. When you work from the top down, you can help sustain what is happening from the ground up.”

Havilah’s daily work combines this kind of thought-leadership, with innovation in learning that is responsive to the needs of the region’s Church. 

Right now, together with others, she’s establishing a Masters in Mission Leadership focused specifically on mission organisations. This is in direct response to the move from South Asia mission organisations to decentralise in the face of pressure and persecution. 

As they are ‘scattered’, increased leadership skill is needed by many more leaders who are now leading smaller nodes but across greater geographic areas. So, for a mission leader coming to SAIACS to get a Masters in Mission Leadership, this is no ivory-tower experience. It’s about survival and safety for the Church under pressure.

Havilah with her students at SAIACS.

Publishing much-needed resources

Another way that having a degree brings about significant changes, is through publishing. Havilah worked on the highly significant South Asia Bible Commentary (SABC), which was supported by Langham Literature.

“The commentary is the go-to reference most used by South Asian Christians and leaders to understand the Word of God within the Asian context. It was written by South Asians; with Havilah’s contribution and editorship one of the most substantial.

“The writing of the SABC was a turning point in my writing career, because this time I was writing for the greater Church [not just students]. Now when I see it used I am absolutely delighted to know my contribution makes such a difference for so many people across such a wide region.”

“Our students see their postgraduate degree as a gateway to leading the church strategically in their part of the world.”

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