By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Abbigale Burdett was bummed about staying home last fall.
She was starting the new Barnabas pastoral program with about 79 other Grand Canyon University students, and while she enjoyed talking with them in online classes and gatherings, she wondered what it would be like in person.
She quickly found out when she arrived on campus for the spring semester.
“It was almost like a family reunion,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so welcomed and loved in a community so easily. It was almost as if everybody had known each other for years.”
That’s exactly the sort of community feel College of Theology (COT) administrators were seeking when they accepted a $3.2 million grant from the Kern Family Foundation and created Barnabas, which aims to turn 18- and 19-year-olds into future church ministers.
But when COT Dean Dr. Jason Hiles and his team first started the planning process, they had no way of knowing how much of a challenge lay ahead. The offer of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years, with the last year free, didn’t change, but the forced confinement of the last 16 months changed everything else.
“A difficult, complex program on top of a pandemic, on top of a brand new team to support that, and we had to build it to GCU scale,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, the COT dean. “The deck was sort of stacked against us, but by all accounts, students have really enjoyed it.”
Brett Berger saw exactly how much they enjoyed it. He coordinates the program in conjunction with Dr. Dwayne Pedroza, the Director of Internships and Ministry Experience, and Annalee Ramirez, the Grant Project Assistant.
“We got off to a really strong start, especially given all the challenges with COVID,” Berger said. “You’ve got a new program starting at a time when we can’t get together and do all the things we normally do. But it felt fruitful. There was a really good spirit within the students.”
The opportunities to talk on Monday afternoons in Ministry Labs and Pastorem Groups bore the most fruit.
The one-credit Ministry Labs – Pastoral Identity in the fall semester and Spiritual Formation in the spring – are designed to be practical rather than what Berger calls “theoretical classroom-type stuff.” They give students a chance to talk with pastors who are members of the adjunct faculty.
“Just having people who are out there doing it, sharing their experience, their wisdom, the things they’ve learned over the years, things they’ve failed at,” Berger said. “The faculty themselves have all raved about it, what a joy and pleasure it has been to work with our students in these labs. The students really have spoken highly of their experience with it, too.”
Burdett, for one, couldn’t get enough of the Spiritual Formation Lab.
“I would walk in there knowing I would leave differently,” she said. “It really was hands-on. We did a lot of prayer practice. We had opportunities to lead worship, opportunities to lead devotionals, opportunities to just share things and ask questions about ministry – real-life things that the church faces.”
The co-curricular (not for credit hours) Pastorem Groups are like a homeroom. They bring together a cohort of students, led by a pastorem shepherd, who will stay together throughout the program. Berger likened them to coaching, but the coachable moments became even more memorable when the groups transitioned from video conferences to in person.
“You’re diving into Scripture and you’re talking about these theological discussions where everybody may have a different perspective,” Burdett said. “You’re in a safe place where you can figure out the identity that the Lord has instilled in you – your identity in Christ.
“Pushing character formation is just that. You get to have your opinions, but you’re trained to always bring that back to Scripture and to make sure that you are aligned with Scripture.”
Tyler Villines, who was on campus for the entire academic year, valued the different perspectives he heard in gatherings across the program.
“Whether it’s in ministry or theology or the way that churches run, you get a glimpse into how other churches do church,” he said. “I realized that worship doesn’t look exactly the same. The Lord speaks to people in different ways. Classes don’t have specific emphasis on a particular denomination, so we’re able to take what we’re learning and incorporate it into our form of worship.”
Ramirez, who calls herself a “GCU pure bred” because she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University and now works here, saw great value in bringing students from different denominations together.
“At first it was kind of like everybody almost went to the defensive and it was, ‘Well, this is what I believe, and this is right,’” she said. “But then they would push back a little bit more and say, ‘Well, why do you believe that?’
“There are years of that to come for them. As they grow intellectually and spiritually, that’s all going to continue to flourish. Even us, learning how to speak to students who might not come from our backgrounds, has been a stretching experience but an important aspect to all this. I definitely grew through that.”
Two other spring semester highlights:
A talk on faith, work and economics by Dr. Charlie Self, an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God. “A lot of our students haven’t really been exposed to those kind of questions – really seeing the everyday life and work as being a mission and a ministry in and of itself as opposed to just the pastoral realm,” Berger said.
Those types of opportunities were just part of the reason why it was so hard for Burdett to leave at the end of the spring semester.
“I was not ready to say goodbye to my professors. Since I do recruit students into the College of Theology, I try to explain the relationship you get to have with your professors when you spend five years with them,” she said, naming Berger, Dr. Dan Diffey and Dr. Sammy Alfaro but then adding:
“I could say them all. They all took time to be so personal and intentional with every student. It reminded me that as much as this is educational, it’s relational, and that’s what makes the College of Theology so special.”
The feeling will be even more special this fall for accelerated students in the Barnabas program stepping up to Grand Canyon Theological Seminary, entering its sixth year. Dr. Peter Anderson, Assistant Dean for COT and the Seminary, can’t wait to incorporate them.
“They’re going to be given an opportunity to train themselves to be responsive leaders rather than reactionary leaders,” he said. “I think we live in a reactionary moment where people rashly respond to everything on social media regarding cultural issues. I hope we can train students to think ahead and to be prepared for what will come around the corner for them.”
Villines and Burdett already are putting what they learned to good use this summer.
Villines is doing an internship at People’s Church in Fresno and recently got to preach his first sermon. “This whole year has solidified what I feel like the Lord is calling me to do – be a worship leader,” he said.
Similarly, Burdett is interning with a women’s pastor at Family Community Church in San Jose, California, and is working for COT virtually as a program specialist intern.
How much of what she learned is she applying to her summer work?
“One hundred percent,” she said.
But she also can’t wait to pour every bit of her heart and soul into Year 2 of the Barnabas program this fall.
“I think about this all the time still, and it’s what makes me so excited to go back,” she said. “It’s the depth of everything – the depth of the instruction, the depth of the relationships with your classmates and the depth of the topic.
“We’ve been told that this program is very rigorous, so when you’re in it, you can feel like it’s very repetitive because you’re going to go deeper and deeper and deeper into a subject that you thought you knew a lot about. But I think I’ve learned more about the importance of spiritual disciplines in one semester than I did my whole life being raised as a Christian. It’s definitely transformed me as a person.”
The family will be together again in a few weeks. It should be quite a reunion.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].
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