How GCU’s new Seminary is keeping the faith
(Editor’s note: This story is from the August 2016 issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.)
By Rick Vacek
A lot of spiritual words come to mind when you think of a seminary.
To name just three. But there’s another word that has a spirit all its own in the seminary environment.
It might be the most important word of all at Grand Canyon Theological Seminary, which opened this year on a vibrant campus in a busy city.
“We’re in this incredible moment historically where the global culture clearly has shifted in directions that are unhealthy and, in many ways, unfocused, and there’s this kind of groping, not sure where we’re going,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, dean of Grand Canyon University’s College of Theology and the Seminary. “When the world around us doesn’t know what it’s doing, we’d better have our act together within the church.”
But this is a different type of seminary focus, and that’s what makes it special — and it’s also why instructors and students alike are so excited about it. There is the introspective aspect of the theological environment, sure, but it is mixed with the opportunity to take part in the multitude of campus events and do ministry in the community.
“It’s cool to say, ‘Hey, I go to seminary, but I go to seminary at a university with Division I athletics, which is unique,’” said Bijan Mahlouji, who got his Christian Studies degree from Grand Canyon University in April and now is enrolled in the Seminary’s Master of Divinity program.
Said Annalee Ramirez, another GCU Christian Studies grad who has moved up to the M.Div., “I feel it will help us better serve the different cultures in our neighborhood.”
That’s not a sentiment often heard at seminaries where the focus tends to be more inward. But this is a new kind of intentional experience.
“In a seminary environment, it’s really easy to turn it into a Christian bubble, and we don’t really want a Christian bubble here,” said Anna Faith Smith, assistant dean of the College of Theology. “We want a place where Christians can grow, but in an environment that’s challenging and yet encouraging.”
The Seminary, like the University, is interdenominational, thus providing a path for students whose churches don’t have an established seminary program. It teaches the same doctrinal principles and Biblical truths as GCU.
In short, it is everything the University champions — same sense of community, same warm feeling, same spirit of servant leadership, same affordability. Even better, many of the instructors already have real-world knowledge that truly is real.
“Students are in for a treat,” said one of those instructors, Dr. Justin McLendon. “They won’t just have instructors who will fill their heads with knowledge, they’ll be taught by people who are ministers already. We don’t want students to have big theological brains and hard hearts.”
All in this together
Talk to anyone about the seminary life, and the one theme that comes up over and over is the unity and togetherness. No matter how different they may be, seminarians have something special in common — a love of God and a desire to serve.
“Some of my closest friends are people I went to seminary with,” McLendon said. “We’re joined in this together. It’s the same as if you put two doctors in the same room. They’d already know a lot about each other even if they don’t know each other. They’d still have a lot to talk about.”
And they can talk no matter what their background or belief system is. Jared Ulrich, GCU’s Spiritual Life worship manager, said his time in a seminary gave him a valuable perspective.
“The thing I loved about it, and the thing that’s similar to what GCU will have, both undergrad and grad, is that you get people from all denominations,” he said. “You get people from the whole theological spectrum. To me, that was the most refreshing part about it.
“Sometimes it got a little dicey and sometimes people could be a little bit opinionated, but at the same time, having healthy, respectful debates and dialogues about different viewpoints within the faith was probably the most helpful thing for me in my spiritual walk.”
It was an even more unusual — but equally beneficial — experience for Smith, who went on to a seminary after graduating from GCU. Women in a seminary were not even a “minor minority” in those days, she said, but she didn’t feel ostracized. The environment certainly helped.
“You’re in a group of people who are all working together toward the same goals,” she said. “Each one has a different focus, but they’re pulling on the same team, all trying to get the best preparation they can because they have an idea that God has called them to do a certain kind of ministry.”
That brings up another important difference that GCU brings to the seminary experience — diversity. This will incorporate a multitude of denominations and a wide range of demographics.
“I think we’ll let it grow organically,” Smith said. “I think it would be really odd to say, ‘This is a school that really supports women,’ because that might swing things in some odd way. But what we need to do is show that we are diverse so that when people see us, they see that there are men, there are women, there are many ethnicities and they think, ‘I could fit there.’”
Hiles described the Seminary faculty as “incredibly diverse — men, women, those who are a little older, those who are a little younger, people of color, people who are not of color, various denominations. It’s an incredible mix. And they work together. We’re going to do research, we’re going to be engaged in the scholarly community, but we’re not going to focus simply on publishing books. We’re going to focus on the lives of our students and trying to make our students strong.”
There’s another aspect of the GCU experience that will blend well with the Seminary: having undergraduates mixing with graduate students. Mahlouji and Ramirez both said that’s one of the things they most eagerly anticipate.
“I think there are going to be a lot of opportunities for graduate students to serve and to teach the undergraduate students in ways they might not get in the classroom,” Mahlouji said.
Said Ramirez, “It’s going to be a community. I think that’s going to help a lot. It’s going to be a lot of people helping each other — students helping students as well as instructors helping students. That was my experience as an undergrad.”
Ramirez works as an instructor’s assistant in the College of Theology, so she has seen from both sides how the classroom relationships work.
She is a volunteer youth pastor in her church, but her goal is not to go into ministry — it’s to teach.
The fact that she is on this path is a far cry from what she envisioned only a few years ago. Ramirez, who was born and raised in Phoenix, used to go to the mall for a different type of shopping experience: She was shopping for what she would do with her life.
Every time Ramirez went, she would look wistfully at the Marine Corps recruiting center and think she wanted to follow in the bootprints of people from her church who had enlisted. “I would peek in and my heart would race,” she said.
But as time went on, Ramirez instead felt a tug from God in a far different direction, and here she is.
“God obviously intervened,” she said, “because I’m totally where I should be right now.”
It has been a similar experience for Mahlouji, who grew up just outside Boulder, Colo., and learned of GCU when the University had a booth at a Christian concert. Only in his case, he plans to go into ministry.
“I have found that this is the calling for my life,” he said. “I’ve had people tell me how talented and gifted I am in communicating the word of God to them in a way that’s clear and understandable.
“Charles Spurgeon (a famous 19th-century preacher) told his students, ‘If you can imagine doing anything else with your life other than ministry, you should do that.’ I’ve found that, of all the passions in my life, there’s nothing I could imagine doing other than serving the church.”
And yet, Mahlouji still wasn’t quite sure about his next theological destination until he heard about GCU’s Seminary plan. It helped that Dr. Dan Diffey, one of his mentors at GCU and the assistant dean of the Seminary, was there to advise him and inspire him.
“He was a big influence in my life,” Mahlouji said. “After being in his classes, and we go to the same church as well, just hearing who he is and seeing the man of God that he is and hearing that he’s helping to create the curriculum for the Seminary, I said, ‘Yes, I want to be a part of this.’”
Years in the making
College of Theology leaders have been discussing the idea of Grand Canyon Theological Seminary since at least 2009, and once those talks accelerated a couple of years ago it became a freight train rolling down the track. This is what GCU does. The system is already in place.
“It’s a great environment to be in,” Hiles said. “We have the space, we have the resources, we have the support, we have everything we need, plus we have this amazing student body. Put a faculty together that wants to meet those needs, that wants to speak into that, and you’ve got an incredible combination.”
The resources clearly were evident to the Association of Theological Schools, which made GCU an associate member (the first step toward full accreditation) only four months after its representatives visited campus in February.
Hiles talked recently with two local pastors who expressed their excitement about the Seminary’s impact. “We want them to feel that they can trust us, that they would embrace us,” he said.
That, in turn, means embracing the students who soon could be leading churches in a multitude of ways. This won’t be for the faint of heart … or faith.
“We’re trying to prepare students to really get their hands dirty, shoulder some of this burden and take Christ out into the world, where it’s going to make a huge difference,” Hiles said.
The focus is clear, the goals are in sight. No “Christian bubble.” No “big theological brains and hard hearts.” A desperate world awaits.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.