GCU awards its first Master of Divinity degrees
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Spring commencement at Grand Canyon University was filled with many spiritual moments that happened organically, but there was one with can’t-miss spirituality.
It occurred on a postcard-perfect Saturday morning when the College of Theology honored its first Master of Divinity (M.Div.) graduates less than three years after the program began. First came the advent of the M.Div. degree in 2014, and then came the opening of Grand Canyon Theological Seminary last August. Now this achievement.
“This is a new day for GCU and a new day for Grand Canyon Theological Seminary,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, the Theology dean. “This is the first glimpse we get of the harvest, of what happens when all these things come together, and they’ve come together very quickly and very well for us.”
Twelve students were in the first graduating class, and Hiles credited them and the nearly 200 other students in the program for the quick growth of what he called a “flagship degree” that is the path to ordination for many denominations.
“I’ve gotten to know them through residencies, I’ve gotten to know them through interaction — email, phone, just casual conversation — and they’re absolutely amazing,” he said. “We often say that we’re here to serve the church, and I feel like when the sorts of graduates coming through our program enter into church leadership roles, it’s going to be incredible.
“I am just blown away by what God has done in our midst over the last three years as these men and women have matured in their understandings of ministry and grown in Christ. It’s just phenomenal. It would have been difficult to imagine three years ago that we would have the quality of graduates that we have today coming out of the program because it’s such a robust, demanding program, and yet we do — by the grace of God.”
The graduates, some of whom aren’t in a ministry yet but want to serve, felt that grace, too.
Take, for example, the story of Roy Alfaro of El Paso, Texas, who was unemployed when, through a friend, he felt a calling to be a chaplain in the Army. Never mind that he has never been in the Army … and wasn’t looking to further his education.
So he started looking online to see what the requirements were, and the next thing he knew he was getting a call from a GCU representative early one morning to see if he wanted to get started.
He toured the campus a week later, began his first class a week after that, and four months later he learned that the University was starting the M.Div. degree, which was exactly what he needed to become an Army chaplain.
Alfaro, who has worked with veterans afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was so inspired, he said, he got straight A’s and came to Phoenix for three residencies — including one time when he was in considerable pain from a recent surgery.
“I love GCU,” he said. “I love everything it has to offer.”
Then there’s Stephen Whitsett of Omaha, Neb. He has been a youth pastor and assistant pastor for 28 years, but right now he’s a cook. Now that he has his M.Div., however, he’s working with several churches in the Dallas area and hopes to move there and start a ministry.
“It’s a lot of the Lord leading it and directing it, and then it happens,” he said.
Whitsett’s only regret about GCU is that he couldn’t be on campus more even though he found the program to be “quite challenging.” Like Alfaro, he came for all three residencies, but he also appreciated the interaction with the online instructors.
“Some of the classes were very small, and they were always here for us to talk to us and deal with questions,” he said. “The access that we’ve had has been great.”
Yvette Pointer-Chatman of Charlotte, N.C., had a similar experience with her instructors. “I love them all. We have a special camaraderie,” she said. But she speaks from an even greater depth of experience.
Pointer-Chatman has been taking classes at GCU for 10 years, first getting her bachelor’s in Christian Studies and a master’s in Youth Ministry before the M.Div. She wants to use her spirit and knowledge to become a prison chaplain, and she said the discipline she learned in the online program will continue to help her.
“It teaches me discipline,” she said. “Sometimes I go off course with my time management, but I’m able to set my time for study, turn off the phone and concentrate.”
Dr. Pete Charpentier, one of the instructors heavily involved in the residencies and the online program, talked about another benefit that often gets forgotten: Current pastors and church leaders can continue their ministry while earning their M.Div. degree.
But Charpentier finds it even more heartwarming to see newcomers to the church hear the call.
“They might have entered the program not necessarily certain about what God was calling them to do,” he said. “Maybe they’ve come to know Christ later in life, and they take this class or they that class, and God uses that to cultivate in them and clarify for them what He wants them to do.”
The Theology faculty is committed to continuing that cultivation. At a post-commencement gathering Saturday, Dr. Daniel Diffey, assistant dean for the Seminary, emphasized the University’s ongoing commitment to the M.Div. graduates.
“We don’t take the time we’ve invested in you lightly,” he told them. “We are thankful to be part of your lives. We are here to serve you beyond your degree.”
By the grace of God.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.