San Pablo Seminary

   Ten years ago San Pablo Seminary was a shining light for the Gospel in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Today that light is beaming all the way to Central and South America.

Begun in 1982 as a small seminary servicing the Yucatan, it quickly branched out to other parts of Mexico. Today it is the largest Presbyterian seminary in the country (and the only one in the Yucatan), boasting students from a third of Mexico's states. With its current aggressive evangelical leadership, it could become the center of theological educational in the Southern Hemisphere; students are already coming from Cental America.

     "The Yucatan is strategically located between the Caribbean and Central and South America," says San Pablo President Ricardo Santana (RTS '89). "We want to reach the Hispanic world; already we have had students from Belize and Nicaragua. With the recent addition of the Distance Education Program to our curriculum in cooperation with RTS, we can now easily offer outstanding training to leaders all over Latin America."

     "RTS courses may now be taken with the student and mentoring support at San Pablo," says Andy Peterson, RTS Senior Vice President for RTS/Virtual. "The seminary could become the jumping-off point for the Southern Hemisphere, especially if we can find economically feasible ways to translate materials into Spanish and Portuguese."

     "A good number of pastors and laymen are already interested in the virtual Master of Arts in religion," reveals Fredy Ramos (RTS '98), Coordinator of Distance Education at San Pablo. "We hope in the future to add doctoral programs to our courses."

     Numerous churches in the United States see San Pablo's ministry as crucial to Latin American evangelism. "We support the school because we think it can be the shining light for seminary education in all of Latin America," says Dr. Buddy Hollifield, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Zephyr Hills, Florida, and San Pablo's Vice President of Development. The church's youth group goes to San Pablo once a year to help, and Hollifield, who has been involved with the seminary for twelve years, goes four times a year at his own expense.

     San Pablo began in 1982 with only seventeen students. Prior to that a missionary family ran an extension of the Presbyterian Seminary of Mexico in Mexico City, over 1000 miles away. Within three years the school had forty-five students, and in the last five years it has grown to 116 - eighty-nine in the School of Theology and twenty-seven in the School of Sacred Music. In 1993 San Pablo was able to move from downtown Merida to its present campus.

     Nearly 120 students may not sound like many, but for the Yucatan it is a significant number. Evangelicals comprise only ten per cent of the Yucatan population and Reformed evangelicals even less; the rest are Roman Catholic, the only church allowed in Mexico for some four centuries. The Presbyterian Church began in 1872 and reached the Yucatan by 1884. From the beginning the denomination built Bible schools and established the Presbyterian Seminary in Mexico City.
San Pablo choir

     San Pablo is respected by other Mexican denominations and hopes to gain students from them. "We offer a Bachelor of Theology degree and certificates in theology and sacred music," says Wilbur Madera (RTS '96), Academic Dean of the School of Theology. "The Roman Catholic Church recognizes our twenty-five-member choir as one of the best in the area and frequently invites them to perform. We consider this an important outreach. The choir travels three or four times a year to promote the seminary in different churches in all the states of Mexico, performing music from medieval times to modern praise songs."


     San Pablo officials are convinced that the seminary is growing so fast because of the critical need for evangelical leaders in Mexico. Statistics show that only 900 ordained pastors serve a Presbyterian population of about 1,600,000. Moreover, most of the existing pastors are not well-trained.

     "In only fifty-five years we have increased from one presbytery to twelve with 160 churches in the Yucatan Peninsula," says Ricardo. "That's exciting, but a growing church without wise direction is very dangerous."

     Other officials don't want the church to continue to stay out of touch with Mexican culture. "Mexico is a very young country, with sixty per cent of the population age eighteen or less," says David Correa (RTS '99), Professor of Biblical Studies and Practical Theology. "We need strong, committed leaders in Christian education to reach this generation. Historically, the church has not kept up with the pace of growth in our country. Mexico is changing daily, and we need better trained leaders to minister here. Many more youth have the opportunity to go to a university now, and our pastors must be able to get as solid an education in order to communicate well."

     Finding a pastoral position is no problem in Mexico. Most of San Pablo's students are already pastoring a church when they come to school; they'll usually return there when they graduate. Others simply graduate and plant a church, especially along the United States border. Often churches call the seminary asking if a student or graduate can pastor their congregation.

     But San Pablo faces stiff obstacles in trying to provide the needed leadership. First, most students come from poor areas and cannot afford seminary (nor can their churches). Pastoral salaries usually run about $150 a month; either the pastor or his wife frequently have to work a second job. They need scholarships, which are in short supply. Funds must come from U.S. sources, since San Pablo doesn't have the resources.

     Second, San Pablo's ten resident professors are extremely overloaded, handling administrative duties in addition to teaching classes. Moreover, they cannot dedicate themselves totally to their classes because they must pastor churches themselves in order to make enough to live. While their $2.50 an hour wage is vastly higher than Mexico's minimum wage ($3.50 for eight hours), it is still not enough to cover living expenses that are basically the same as those in the United States.

Students during class,...

in the library,...

and in chapel.

     Finally, the seminary desperately needs more facilities, especially dormitories since the number of students has grown so fast. This year they had to close three classrooms to use them as dorms for the seventy students on campus. The dining hall and library now double as classrooms. Construction continues on a dorm for ninety-six men, but progress is slow from lack of funds and manpower.

     "Christians in the United States can help in many ways," reveals Fredy. "A scholarship of $120 a month will pay for tuition, food, and housing for one student. We also need help in construction; not only are we building dorms, but we also want to build houses for the resident faculty so they can stay on campus more and have greater interaction with the students. Finally, seminaries and missions organizations can send professors to help teach. Drs. Kistemaker, Whitlock, and Pratt from RTS have already taught courses for us."


     Those professors who have studied outside of Mexico know how much their fellow pastors and the Latin churches would benefit from a quality seminary education. "My years at RTS changed my life," confesses David Correa. "It not only shaped my vision and goals but also gave me a new perspective on life and ministry. It changed some of my perceptions -- and misconceptions - and gave me a whole new understanding of the Bible. I want my brothers here to experience such a blessed education."

     "I think many in the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico have seen the importance of a good seminary education, but they have not had the resources to provide it," explains Buddy Hollifield. "Most pastors have merely gotten a Bible institute education, even though their enthusiasm and love for the Lord was boundless. Since more Mexicans are getting advanced degrees now, some churches have laymen who are better educated than the pastor. The church now recognizes that San Pablo can produce well-trained church leaders who are changing lives through the Gospel.

     More than Mexican lives are being impacted. Members of Sugaw Creek Presbyterian in Charlotte, North Carolina, first met Fredy Ramos when they were on a mission trip to another church in Merida. They immediately clicked, and when he came to RTS/Charlotte, the relationship was strengthened and the congregation began supporting him as they saw his heart for evangelism.

     One thing led to another and soon a mission team found themselves wending their way to his poor village in Mexico to help build an educational addition to his home church. The trip proved to be life-changing for the entire group.

     "Our members experienced phenomenal spiritual growth on that trip," says pastor William Ralston. "They missed their flight and were five hours late. To their amazement, the townspeople had waited patiently for them at the airport. The Mexicans' gratitude seemed endless. The mayor came out to meet them, and the town had a parade in their honor. Citizens removed air conditioners from their own homes to place in the building where our people stayed so that they would be comfortable. Our people had tears in their eyes when they realized that these people who had so little gave all for them."

     San Pablo could be the beacon that shines the light of Christ to the tip of South America. You or your church could experience great blessing by being one of those who helps direct that beam.

Fredy Ramos & family

    For more information, contact:
Seminario San Pablo,
ADMON #10 Atdo. Postal 136 Cordemix
97110 Mérida, Yucatán, México.
Call 011-529-941-0070.

Ricardo Santana & family

Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 2
© 2000 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Last updated 7-21-2000 by KMc.