Pastoral program to create new age of ministers
This story is reprinted from the November 2019 issue of GCU Magazine. For a digital copy of the magazine, click here.
By Rick Vacek
Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. — 1 Timothy 4:12
Just as Paul made sure Timothy didn’t act his age, Grand Canyon University’s accelerated pastoral training program is designed to create high-quality young ministers.
The steady drop in church attendance across America correlates, not surprisingly, with the steady rise in the average age of pastors – 54, according to the LifeWay Research Group. GCU is aiming to lower that number by making it possible to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Divinity in just five years, not the usual seven, and a $3.2 million grant from the Kern Family Foundation will make the fifth year tuition free.
That potentially means much younger church leaders … like Timothy.
“People sometimes write off what God is doing in the life of a young person or what God could potentially do through the life of a young person,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology at GCU. “I would say to those people that there is a biblical precedent for actually investing in, working with and depending on young leaders.”
The current trend, GCU administrators say, is to take one look at the length and cost of that seven-year educational commitment and put off ministry until later in life. And that’s assuming that someone who hears the calling but decides to enter a different field and earn more money first actually pivots to pastoral training at some point.
“It makes sense in every other discipline for you to get someone into their practice and to what they want to be doing,” said Dr. Peter Anderson, Assistant Dean for the College of Theology and Grand Canyon Theological Seminary. “Any other sphere of life, we want to get them to the workforce as quickly as possible.”
Couple that with the fact that it takes time to build a congregation’s trust, and it’s no wonder church attendance is down and pastors are struggling to keep up.
“In many of the smaller or midsize churches, they don’t have as much time as they’d like to invest in raising up the next generation of leaders,” Hiles said.
Clearly, this is not a challenge that the church can solve on its own. That’s where GCU comes in. But the Barnabas Pastoral Program, as the new initiative is called, aims to go far beyond just improving pastoral statistics. Through proper training and collaboration, it’s going to go right to pastoral hearts.
To that end, students will be part of a cohort, led by a faculty “shepherd” who will coach them throughout their five years in the program.
“They’ll do things together, they’ll journal together, they’ll do some co-curricular activities together, they’ll have a lot of the same classes together,” said Dr. Mark Olmos, a College of Theology instructor. “Because of that, they’ll have those relational environments where they can build trust, transparency, accountability – the kinds of things that are the building blocks of ministry. We want them to experience it from day one.”
Like other disciplines at GCU, students will have the opportunity to supplement what they learn in classes by serving in ministry at local churches.
“Those students are going to need to gain some experience. You can’t speed it up – it just comes with life and serving,” said Assistant Professor Dr. Pete Charpentier. “There also will be labs they will do as they move through cohorts. These labs are strategic to help them understand their journey and what it means to be formed spiritually as pastoral leaders.”
And GCU’s involvement in their journey won’t stop there.
“The other exciting part of this program is that we’re not just committing to the five years that they’re here. There’s a plan for post-curricular opportunities where we commit with them over the long haul,” Anderson said.
The goal is not just to create younger pastors – it’s to create properly humble young pastors.
“Their character is going to be vital,” Olmos said. “Humility is a word we use a lot when we talk about the Barnabas students.”
Last spring, Olmos told students in his MIN320 class (Christian Character Formation) about the new program and was moved by their excitement.
“They love the idea of finishing quicker and leaving with their M.Div.,” he said, “but the thing they were most excited about was the idea of going through the entire experience with one group that will stay together throughout and then continue to maintain that relationship afterward.”
The goal is to create more Timothys. It’s an idea whose time has come.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.