First Barnabas Pastoral Program grads ready to make a difference

Alex Stambaugh, Becky Probst, Emily Williams and Josh Henson (from left) are the first four graduates of the Barnabas Pastoral Program.

Photos by Ralph Freso

They call themselves the “Trailblazers," though the "Building Blocks" or the "Core Four" also seem to fit,

“We call ourselves the ‘Trailblazers’ because it's this fun, exciting thing where we get to be the first to graduate and the first to say, ‘Hey, this program is a success. This program is changing lives.' And it started with just four," said Becky Probst.

She is one of the first graduates of Grand Canyon University College of Theology's Barnabas Pastoral Program along with Alex Stambaugh, Emily Williams and Josh Henson, all of whom were conferred their degrees at today's 9 a.m. Commencement ceremony.

Becky Probst gets hooded on Friday morning at Global Credit Union Arena as she prepares to walk on stage as one of the first graduates of the Barnabas Pastoral Program.

The program, which started in fall 2020, has been a major initiative of the college and its graduate school, Grand Canyon Theological Seminary. Those in the program earn their 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. The goal is to turn 18- and 19-year-olds into church ministers.

The foursome represents the bedrock for the accelerated program, and their graduation, achieved despite a global pandemic, represents a major milestone for the University, Barnabas Pastoral Program Chair Brett Berger said.

Stambaugh was in fact-seeking mode as a freshman when GCU announced plans for the program. He admitted he did not pay too much attention until he attended a meeting and became hooked.

“To hear the vision – what Barnabas would look like – got me sold on going after this opportunity,” Stambaugh said.

Alex Stambaugh (left) said he was invested in the Barnabas program as soon as he heard its mission, and Josh Henson (right), on the staff of Pure Heart Church, wants to continue to invest in local churches.

He felt even more invested when the seminary, which was previously online only, opened its new 17,000-square-foot physical space at GCU's 27th Avenue and Camelback Road location in the fall.

“That was crucial to having a different feel for it, and it felt like the college was investing more in us by giving us more space. That felt really unique and special.”

Stambaugh, who married two years ago and moved off campus, is serving his second internship at Banner Church in Mesa.

“My thing is to continue to serve where I’m at and see if that leads to any opportunities,” Stambaugh said. “But long term, my goal is to be a pastor at a church – whatever that looks like."

Alex Stambaugh receives his diploma from College of Theology Dean Dr. Jason Hiles.

The Barnabas program came at the right time for Williams, who enrolled at GCU as a sociology major. She intended to pursue family counseling or prelaw. But she started to steer off course and wondered about her future.

“I was like, ‘God, I don't know what I want to do,’" Williams said.

She thought about studying to become a biblical studies teacher or an apologetic but did not have the finances. She cried while talking to her mother for a couple of hours before attending a worship event, where a friend told her, “I don't know you very well, but I just really feel like the Lord is telling me that He wants to use you in a capacity like ministry of some kind.”

The Barnabas program was announced the next day, and Williams thought, “That’s it.”

Emily Williams receives her diploma as one of the first graduates of the Barnabas Pastoral Program.

Entering ministry as a woman with a master’s degree fueled her aspirations. And financial help from her grandparents, along with GCU paying for the final year of her schooling with a discount in housing were significant, she said.

Henson believed the opening of the new seminary space put a stamp on the Barnabas program. He loved the expansive library, which supplemented the teachings and expertise of the faculty.

"They’re great people to talk to about what future endeavors can hold,” Henson said. “There’s a lot of wisdom, with a lot of them being former pastors in a pastoral program. Being able to bounce those big questions off them can be super helpful and instrumental.”

Henson plans to stay on the staff at Pure Heart Church. His goal is “to invest in local churches and invest into whoever God will take me with that.”

The new graduates, trailblazers that they are, have provided feedback in discussions and exit interviews to help enhance the program for those who come after them.

The Barnabas Pastoral Program aims to produce young pastors, such as Alex Stambaugh, Becky Probst, Emily Williams and Josh Henson (from left).

“I know they take our feedback seriously and care about making it an interactive experience for the students who come next because next year there will be from 15 to 20 students coming in," said Williams. "They have to be a little less tailored but more structural. So that will be very cool.”

The future appears to be just as cool – and promising – for the next group of graduates.

“The groups coming after us are so passionate about Scripture and motivated to pursue and further the kingdom,” Probst said. “And it’s been really neat seeing how GCU has partnered with churches in the local Valley and how there’s been a lot of theology connection with ministry connection with the purpose, and it’s all kind of tied into each other.

“That’s really exciting to see how that’s been all coming, just helping with our program and making us feel important and valued.”

GCU News Senior Writer Mark Gonzales can be reached at [email protected]

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