Roberto Gonzalez pastors at the Eau Claire Spanish Church in Michigan
At the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, MDiv students don’t just have their heads in the clouds, adrift in academic jargon and all things Hebrew and Greek. The Seminary ensures its students also keep their “boots on the ground” via practical church and ministry-related work.
In partnership with the North American Division Evangelism Institute (NADEI), the Seminary employs a program of mutual benefit to students and local churches alike with its Theological Field Education program. The TFE program provides churches with the ministerial equivalent of an intern, only more impactful when you consider the industry.
Michael Taylor of the Paw Paw Church shares that his church has been blessed by seminarians who have shared profound insights from the pulpit. Often TFE students preach their first sermon during their tenure at mentoring churches. The experience is a benefit for both parties. The work of TFE students, however, does not have to be limited to the pulpit and most often is not. For example, because of the influence of TFE students, Taylor reports that Paw Paw has been able to add “a handful of advanced and modern administrative and organization tools to our ministry, such as worship scheduling calendars and member tracking software. In addition, student pastors have led ministries and planned events, including 10 Days of Prayer." Going above and beyond the call of duty, Taylor’s TFE students also have ministered to heartbroken members who have had to deal with unspeakable tragedies. To his amazement, he’s seen them drop everything in order to comfort and support those in need.
For Timothy Nixon, the TFE students serving at All Nations under his mentorship “have been given free rein to become involved in every aspect of church life. They have served in every church office from Sabbath School to Pathfinders to AY to deacons and elders. They also have been given regular opportunities to preach on Sabbath.” TFE participation at All Nations is truly comprehensive. With a desire to address their unique needs as servant-leaders, the Seminary students at All Nations formed their own organization: SANE (Seminarians of All Nations Engaged) which encourages all attending seminarians to be engaged in the church’s work, life and support. To ensure the mutual benefit of the program, Nixon meets with his students monthly not just to address church issues, but also matters involving their ministerial and professional development and preparedness. In-the-field pastoral mentoring is one of the benefits students receive.
Recognizing that TFE is a requirement for MDiv students, mentoring pastors like Roberto Gonzalez of the Eau Claire Spanish Church inform their TFE students at the onset that they desire true commitment from their student-leaders. It is important to Gonzalez that the students working with him “commit themselves to the church beyond a course requirement. It takes time for the church members to know them, and I want to make sure they have an impact in the local church beyond the pulpit or the Sabbath school class they are teaching.” With committed students, Eau Claire Spanish Church has been able to attract more people, especially youth. Gonzalez notes, “Our small church attendance three years ago was around 35‒40; we doubled the regular Sabbath’s attendance, thanks to their support and work. On some special Sabbaths, we made it up to more than 100 people.”
Cris Suarez recently completed his Theological Field Education at the Eau Claire Spanish Church. He recounts a personal conversation he had with a new believer who was also new to the area, having left family and friends. During the course of the conversation, he was able to note the person’s loneliness and relief in finding a church home in Eau Claire. Recalling the conversation, Suarez continues, “It reminded of my purpose. Why do ministry? It’s about people and not a building; it’s not about fulfilling a class requirement but about serving God’s people.”
Strategic relationships and collaborations between universities and external entities are not new. Businesses are increasingly pursuing strategic partnerships with their local colleges and universities for the benefits they bring. These benefits include increased human resources via student-interns and the thought-leaders who teach them. With both of these groups comes trend awareness and greater possibilities for innovation.
What’s true for businesses also can be true for churches and has been true for most of those involved with the Theological Field Education initiative. Partnering with the Seminary brings impact.
Esther Green just completed her first year at the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.