Garuna Foundation liaison extends spiritual reach

Garuna Foundation students meet regularly with College of Theology faculty.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

As he has been for most of his life, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Ehlers was on a mission last year.

His goal fit with his background: He was a missionary in Thailand in the 1990s before coming to Phoenix and starting The Garuna Foundation, which seeks to “support and encourage the proclamation of the grace, mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ to the peoples of Thailand, Cambodia and surrounding countries.”

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Ehlers started The Garuna Foundation after serving as a missionary in Thailand.

Now the organization's Chairman and CEO was looking for an institution of higher education that could create a master’s program to train pastors in that region. He turned to Grand Canyon University and quickly found that it is on a mission, too.

“A lot of times I talk to universities and say, ‘Can we do something like this?’ and there’s a lot of ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea, but we can’t do it,’” he said. “What I liked about this meeting was, we shared the same thing and they liked the idea and said, ‘What can we do to make it happen?’ It’s so refreshing.”

Arranging the early 2020 meeting wasn’t a problem. Making the initiative happen was another story.

Years ago, Ehlers was trying out for the basketball team at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska, at the same time GCU President Brian Mueller was a senior starter. Today, they belong to the same church, and they got to talking after a Sunday service.

Ehlers has two other important connections to GCU: His youngest daughter, Emily, earned her nursing degree from the University, and his wife, Cheryl, has been a GCU doctoral learner when she isn’t helping him run Garuna.

College of Theology Dean Dr. Jason Hiles and his staff had been looking for a way to incorporate a specific international cohort.

Excited by the idea of partnering with Garuna, Mueller brought in GCU’s Provost, Dr. Hank Radda, and the Dean of the College of Theology (COT), Dr. Jason Hiles, to take the discussion further.

Hiles and Dr. Peter Anderson, Assistant Dean for COT and Grand Canyon Theological Seminary, had talked for several years about the possibility of working with international students in a specific cohort and teaching material for a specific denomination – in the case of Garuna, Lutheran.

“Our operational teams have international student work down to a science, so that wasn’t terribly difficult – we just had to learn internally,” Hiles said. “Without Jeff, I think we would’ve lost our minds just because we were navigating so much.”

There was another challenge: They needed Lutheran instructors who could adapt GCU’s nondenominational curriculum for students in that corner of the world. GCU’s experience with nontraditional learning – the cornerstone of the Seminary – also worked well with the program.

“It’s actually a really unique setup where we are able to bring on adjuncts who understand Lutheran-specific dynamics for leading congregations and also understand Southeast Asia,” Anderson said.

“Our curriculum is broadly evangelical and interdenominational and centralized. It lends itself to the opportunity for faculty members of various traditions to bring in their own flavor, and it doesn’t disrupt any of the student experience.”

Dr. Peter Anderson needed to find faculty members who understand Lutheran-specific dynamics for leading congregations and also are familiar with Southeast Asian culture.

Said Hiles, “They didn’t have to make significant changes to the curriculum; they really just needed to instruct from a Lutheran perspective – add that flavor, that denominational emphasis. But we were teaching the basics in ways that even that specific denomination found to be very comfortable.”

The most important qualifications were the transcript reviews and the students’ command of the English language. Each candidate had to have an accredited or equivalent degree from a college in Southeast Asia and had to pass an English proficiency exam.

“We’ve had a lot of people on our team help us think through what it would be like to enroll these students, keep them in a program, make sure they have a great experience and are getting the tools to lead well where they are,” Anderson said.

“The best decision was to cohort them and not overlap their classes. We extended their classes a couple of weeks to figure things out but didn’t lower enrollment standards.”

It all took time. But then, earlier this year, all that planning became a reality. Hiles sat in amazement as he watched them officially begin their work as GCU students.

“They’re all smiling, they’re talking. It kind of brings it home,” he said. “You’re all of a sudden looking into a window that has you in another part of the world, and you’re seeing pastors who are being trained specifically to serve in those contexts. We couldn’t have been more excited. We felt like we were part of something that was bigger than ourselves.”

Scott Hovater found that weekly Zoom sessions with students helped them get acclimated.

Dr. Scott Hovater, their instructor for the University Success class (UNV-505), was equally mesmerized. He quickly figured out that a weekly Zoom session – 6 a.m. for him, in the evening for them with the time difference – was beneficial.

“They could ask each other questions and recognize that they’re not the only ones struggling with the formatting,” he said. “They wanted to learn. They just were excited to be in the program.”

Hovater wanted to be part of it because he was a missionary in Taiwan for two decades before coming to GCU. It so inspired him, he told Anderson he almost felt a calling to go back into the mission field.

Hiles considers this a pilot program, but he hopes it will take flight with many denominations. To help prepare pastors to go into churches, the college offers credits for internships on the undergraduate side and for supervised ministry requirements of graduate students.

“We open it up that way and allow churches to structure the experience in ways that prepare students to make that transition from a degree program to a ministry in a specific denomination,” he said. “We had opened up that space, but we hadn’t actually embedded it in the core of the program or invited specific instructors to teach from a particular perspective.”

The fact that it worked so well with Garuna makes the future that much brighter.

“These are people of like-minded faith, and it’s taken a lot of conversations to see where we’re on the same page and solve issues together,” Hiles said. “There’s a kind of unity when you’re facing out and on mission trying to solve something together. The denominational differences or the particular distinctives, they just kind of fade away.

“It’s not a challenge; it’s sort of an encouraging situation.”

But it’s a situation that works out only if you are determined to find a way to make it happen.

“That’s the GCU way,” Hovater said.

Another mission accomplished.

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


Related content:

GCU Today: Grand Canyon Seminary receives full accreditation

GCU Magazine: How GCU's new Seminary is keeping the faith

GCU Today: Grand Canyon Theological Seminary starts this fall


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