Students hear God’s call, flock to Barnabas program

August 06, 2020 / by / 0 Comment

From left, Abbigale Burdett, Tyler Villines and Carly Wright all are enrolled in the Barnabas Pastoral Program this fall.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Abbigale Burdett heard God’s call to be a pastor when she was walking through the Grand Canyon University Library

Her good friend Tyler Villines heard it when a throat ailment prevented him from singing for a week and a half.

Carly Wright heard it during an emotional prayer service at a youth camp.

But the point is, they acted on it. And now all three are enrolled in the College of Theology’s new Barnabas Pastoral Program, which begins this fall.  

It’s a unique opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Divinity in just five years, with the final year tuition-free thanks to a $3.2 million grant from the Kern Family Foundation.

For current students, such as Burdett and Villines, it became a spiritual reason to change majors. For incoming students, such as Wright, it became a reason to choose GCU

The program is named for Barnabas, a New Testament figure who served as a mentor for Paul and others.

“He’s an impeccable, Godly character,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology. “Barnabas is about as ideal of a namesake as you could imagine.”

The mission will be to create other mentors just like him – mentors who become pastors at very young ages. Here’s how three of them intend to achieve that goal.


Burdett already had changed majors once when she heard about the Barnabas program during the 2019-20 spring semester. “You’d be perfect for it,” her friends told her, but she still needed to hear from God. She needed confirmation. She needed to see what she considered a clear sign of the call.

Abbigale Burdett feels so infused with confidence, thanks to God, that public speaking has become “like second nature – I can pour into people so easily.”

It came the week before spring break, the final on-campus week of the semester before students were sent home because of the pandemic. She was in the Library late one night working with friends on a theology project, and she had just spent 45 minutes talking with Villines about the pastoral possibility.

After taking a break to freshen up, Burdett was walking back to her table when another student stopped her.

“I know you,” the woman said. “You prayed over me in the Prayer Chapel in October. You helped me find my confidence and my faith again, and my faith in God has never been better.”

The woman even had a Bible verse picked out for Burdett – Matthew 11:28-30, which reads:

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

“That Bible verse just broke me and made me find so much peace,” she said. “It just confirms God’s faithfulness through it all.”

And it also confirms her newfound confidence in public speaking:

“I’m so passionate about this. At first, I felt called to be a worship pastor. I have never been a natural speaker. I’ve always been so nervous to talk in front of people. Even doing class presentations, I would have anxiety attacks.

“Now it’s like second nature – I can pour into people so easily. That’s actually what fills me up the most is being able to speak into others and to spread the Gospel. Now that I know the Lord is also calling me to preach and calling me to lead women and young adults and whoever else, that alone helps me find rest.”


Like Burdett, Villines already had a different major and a different objective before God started working on him earlier this year.

“God kept speaking through other people to me in a way that was so evident,” he said. “I tried to avoid it for a long time, but people kept saying, ‘Tyler, I believe you’re called to teaching and preaching.’ I was like, ‘That can’t be me. I’ve never done it before. I’m a music guy. I like to sing, I like to play guitar – that’s fun for me.’

Tyler Villines thought he wanted to stick to worship music before God got him to change his tune.

“But then I would find myself just feeling so full of the Holy Spirit whenever I would talk about the Gospel and preach it to people.”

Around that time, he went to work for James Landa, Program Development Specialist for the College of Theology, and learned about the Barnabas program.

“I was like, ‘That sounds really cool, but I have no idea what a Master of Divinity is,’” Villines said. “He had to explain the importance of it – it makes you a professional in any line of stepping into ministry.”

He still needed the throat issues, which spoiled his chance to try out for a Worship team, to swallow the breadth of what he was feeling.

“It’s funny how God works in the bad timing – that’s when He gets our attention the most,” he said. “That’s when I started to speak the Gospel. I switched from wanting to lead worship to just wanting to talk to someone about Jesus.

“It literally felt like that was what I’m supposed to do the rest of my life.”


Wright is set to travel from her Tyler, Texas, home for her freshman year at GCU in a few weeks, but her transformation started a few years ago. 

She had dealt with depression and other issues in her early teen years (“I went down a very, very bad path, doing my own thing, living my own way”), but then God went to work on her, just like the others.

Carly Wright can’t wait to fold her Christian fervor into GCU’s culture of spiritual life.

“It’s such a God thing because I got to meet the Lord at, out of all places, a children’s camp service,” she said. “I got baptized with the Holy Spirit and I got plugged in and I fully gave my life to the Lord and I started to get to know Him and I started to really worship and breathe the Word.

“About a year later, we were having a youth camp service – I was in a very deep state of worship and being still before the Lord – and the Lord gave me this vision. In my vision, my heart broke open and, looking back now, I know that was my heart of stone turning into a heart of flesh.

“When my heart broke open, I was reading The Word and preaching The Word to hundreds and hundreds of people in this open field. I looked to my right and I looked to my left and I closed my Bible and I ran and the people followed. Craziest thing I ever experienced.”

But it still wasn’t a done deal.

“From that July to that January, the Lord just went silent. I was like, ‘What the heck? You laid this seed on me and now I don’t know what to do with it.’ Throughout that time, He started to send people and people were prophesying over me: ‘This is what I see you doing,’ and it was matching this vision and it was giving me so much confirmation.

“About six months later, the Lord started to speak to me again through it and I was able to preach my first sermon. It was so natural and I was like, ‘This is what the Lord wants me to do. It’s so obvious and it’s so apparent.’ I just gave my life to the Lord at that point. I cut worldly ties and I’ve been on fire for the Lord ever since.”

Wright had just happened to hear about GCU, but she still didn’t know about the Barnabas program when she met Landa. The free year at the end made it a slam dunk, and now she can’t wait to get into the spiritual life on campus – her roommate also will be a Barnabas student.

“I don’t have very many solid Christian friendships where I live. It’s nice to know I’m going somewhere where I don’t have to worry about being myself,” she said. “I’m just really excited to be in an environment that is uplifting and to hear professors talk about Christ.”

Wright seemed to be speaking for all Barnabas students when she said, “My slogan is, ‘I just want to be a vessel for the throne room.’ That is what I’ve always said. I think it just would be neat to be a pastor somewhere, wherever that may be. I just want to be plugged in somewhere into ministry.”

So here they come, ready to get plugged in. God generates the power.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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