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Bethel Seminary Forges Innovative Partnership in Malaysia

Bethel Seminary Professor Denise Kjesbo partnered with Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS) to offer the first fully online Master of Arts program in holistic child development.

Five years ago, Bethel Seminary professor Denise Kjesbo was sitting under a nutmeg tree in northwest Malaysia, dreaming about a possible partnership with her new acquaintance and fellow academic, Rosalind Lim-Tan. What could they do together, Kjesbo wondered, that they couldn’t do alone?

The answer came last January, when the Cory Center for Children’s Ministry at Bethel Seminary joined forces with Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS) to offer the first fully online Master of Arts program in holistic child development. Because the program targets those who don’t have access to Bethel’s Master of Arts in Children’s and Family Ministry (MACFM), the degree is only open to students outside the United States and Canada. “We started the program because we want to serve the global community of children’s and family ministry leaders,” Kjesbo says. “It’s been really exciting to learn alongside the students—I’m learning things about working with children that I wouldn’t have learned any other way.”

As a testament to their desire to partner well, Kjesbo taught the first course in January to students from Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, and Haiti, and Lim-Tan, the director of the Holistic Child Development Institute at MBTS, taught the second course last summer. While MBTS is the degree-granting institution, Bethel will provide half of the teaching personnel, help strategize the curriculum development, and contribute $10,000 through the Cory Center, for which Kjesbo serves as director.

The two-and-a-half-year online program will better equip graduates to work in what Kjesbo calls “very rewarding and very demanding” environments. Most students work on the front lines with at-risk children, often traveling between villages for weeks at a time with limited access to internet and other resources. One of Kjesbo’s students had to pay a courier to drive a textbook across international borders because she didn’t have a Kindle or a credit card to order through Amazon. “Still, the joys have outweighed the challenges,” Kjesbo says. “We’re adapting. We want courses to be rigorous at the master’s level while acknowledging the reality of our students’ context—language barriers, lack of resources—things we take for granted here in the West.”

Recognizing and adapting to cultural differences has been crucial in Kjesbo’s success as a global educator. She taught a course at MBTS in 2011, and her 26 students came from 13 countries. The culturally subjective nature of family dynamics made it one of the most challenging courses she has taught in her 30-year career. “I enter all of these partnerships and conversations first as a fellow believer, and then as a learner,” Kjesbo says. “I never come in thinking we have all the answers or can solve all the problems.”

The partnership also provides a unique opportunity for MACFM graduates to serve in a global context. Thanks to the online nature of the program, students and professors are able to connect from their homes and workplaces around the world. Last spring, MACFM graduates taught programs from the diploma to the master’s level in India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Africa. “It’s said that a person learns more by teaching than in any other way,” says David Clark, vice president and dean of Bethel Seminary. “The chance to teach on the front lines of global mission and make a difference for children at risk around the world is a unique privilege.”

The Cory Center has committed to a three-year partnership with MBTS, during which the program will go through an accreditation process and aim to recruit more students. Regardless of whether it becomes a long-term partnership, Kjesbo is grateful for the opportunity to provide affordable theological education that doesn’t require students to leave their own ministry settings. “We are connecting the global community of ministry leaders and inviting them to network together, learn together, and share the journey of graduate education together,” Kjesbo says. “It’s just been incredible—for me and for them.”

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