Higher Education Brings Higher Calling

Note: This story was retrieved from Ministry Today's archives and was published in Ministry Today Magazine in 2004.

Meet three pastors who left their churches to hit the books.

They are among a growing number of Pentecostals and charismatics pursuing higher education ... and a higher calling.

At 53, Bob Proy hit the books ... again. A former pastor with more than 20 years of ministry experience, Proy has spent the last several years in classrooms, furthering his education.

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He recently earned masters' degrees in communication, and marriage and family counseling from Oral Roberts University (ORU). Now, he is devoting his doctoral studies at ORU to establishing an after-care program for inmates and their families.

Proy envisions establishing rehabilitation centers outside urban areas where ex-convicts and their families can be discipled while adjusting to post-prison life. And he says higher education is the spark that lit his vision for the future.

"If I'm going to have a brain surgeon work on me, I sure hope he has credentials," Proy says. "If we put that standard on physical healing, how much more should we have that on spiritual matters?"

Proy is not alone. Enrollment at seminaries has increased by 22 percent in the last decade, according to the Association of Theological Schools, a membership organization of graduate schools in the United States and Canada. This phenomenon is not exclusive to mainline denominations, but is evident in Pentecostal and charismatic circles as well.

Vinson Synan, a well-known Pentecostal historian, says that schools that have a Pentecostal distinctive have seen "explosive growth" in recent years. Synan, dean of the divinity school at Regent University, says that enrollment at his school has shot up significantly, while its distance-education component doubled.

He also cites the Internet and distance education, which enables pastors to complete additional studies without leaving home. Other options include modular scheduling where pastors can visit campuses for short-term studies or weekend classes.

Synan credits this growth to an increasing number of congregations who have grown beyond their pastors' training: "They pastor very large churches with middle-class and professional people. They feel they have to get better prepared to minister to more sophisticated congregations."

Back to School

Nearly 40 years ago, Bob Proy started down the traditional Bible-college path. But he quit after a year, opting instead to attend a training center at a growing Pentecostal church in northern Indiana.

"Not being in a mainline denomination, I was part of that 'free spirit' theology coming out of the 1960s. You had a tendency to be able to do a lot of flying by the seat of [your] pants, but then it catches up [with] you."

Proy's zeal and devotion to God propelled him for a time. After working as a youth pastor for several years, he held several positions, culminating with 14 years at a nondenominational church in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio.

A remark made by a traveling evangelist eventually led him back to the college scene. It was 1976. Proy was pastoring a 100-member church in southern Ohio and struggling to maneuver through the political minefields of a family-controlled congregation.

"The evangelist told me experience without education is like a bird with wings but no feet," Proy recalls. "He can spread his wings and fly, but it makes landing tough. I didn't listen to him then, but it planted a seed."

Proy soon realized that without a degree, doors were shut to him that didn't need to be. "The bottom line is I neglected my education because I wanted to jump into life and thought it would carry me," he says.

However, it wasn't until 1994, after their sons graduated from high school, that Proy and his wife finally headed to a Florida college. Before departing, he had to overcome objections from close relatives, church members and others in Pentecostal realms, who wanted to know: "Why do you have to get a degree? Why do you want to put your family through the struggle of going back to school?"

"The majority wondered and some didn't understand or were outright opposed," Proy says. "They couldn't conceive at my age going back to school. But times have changed; the church has changed. No matter where you're at or in what denomination, preparation is mandatory. A lack of education will hinder your ability to be used."

Despite earning his bachelor's degree at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Proy wanted more education. That desire led him to Tulsa and ORU. He credits his education with opening the doors for his plans to help prisoners mature spiritually.

While working part time with Tulsa County's family and children's services department, the ORU student developed a fathering program geared toward providing men with the tools to improve their parenting skills.

Working through family court, he eventually took the course into the county jail, where he learned about an opening for a chaplain. He applied and was hired in September of 2002 by the private contractor that operates the facility for the county.

Proy ultimately credits his vision for developing prisoners' faith--before and after their releases--to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Lately, he has been working on an effort to include thousands of prisoners nationwide in the National Day of Prayer in early May. Still, he says none of this would have been possible without higher education: "If someone needs to find themselves, they should find themselves in education."

The opposition some ministers face tends to reflect Pentecostals' historical reticence toward higher education, according to Vinson Synan. The Regent dean says those feelings were rooted in various factors, including underprivileged backgrounds that kept post-secondary studies out of their reach. In addition, many liberal-arts colleges and universities scorned Pentecostals.

There were two other factors at work: a belief that there wasn't time for college because of Christ's imminent return and the popular view that you just had to "open your mouth and the Lord will fill it."

Proy still believes that Jesus could return any day, but in the meantime he's walking through the doors of opportunity that his newfound education has opened. "You can't operate in corrections without this type of education," he says. "I will continue my education until Jesus comes back so that I can have a more effective ministry."

Needs in the Church

While former youth pastor Rachael Boucher didn't face opposition from family members like Bob Proy did, she encountered resistance from a minister she knew.

When she informed him of her plans to study psychology, he asked: "Why? Who's that going to benefit?"

For starters, she could have told him about the 23 teens--of 25--in her youth group who came from broken homes. Those dysfunctional backgrounds accelerated common incidences of low self-esteem and eating disorders. While the latter is more common among girls, she says many teens struggle with subjective perceptions that they are of lesser value. Left alone, such problems worsen.

Such conditions were a prime reason for leaving her Word of Faith church in Charlottesville, Virginia, to earn a psychology degree at North Central University in Minneapolis. In the fall of 2003, Boucher enrolled at Regent University to obtain her master's in counseling.

"My belief is psychology and counseling can help people in the church, notwithstanding the power of God to make the ultimate difference in people's lives," says Boucher, 27. "With teenagers you see a lot of potential adjustment disorders. You have to ferret out which are biochemically-based from adjustment-based."

Boucher estimates approximately 30 percent of the teens she worked with were halfway down the spectrum of developing serious psychological problems. Some were dealing with bipolar disorders, also known as manic depression.

Despite its historically poor image in Christian circles, Boucher believes psychology can help people adjust to stress and mental disorders. Without therapy and medication some won't make it, she says; the trick is to know when more serious remedies are needed.

Boucher hopes her higher-education studies will appeal to both church members who know her and unbelievers expecting a counselor to have academic credentials. She insists that psychology can help the local church, which she believes is misleading people if it fails to offer them resources that are available.

"What detriment is it to pursue higher education if you can use it to help people?" Boucher says of defensive attitudes about additional schooling. "Pastors have an incredibly difficult job and don't have time to help all the people who might come to them for counseling."

Long-standing criticisms of this graduate student's field mirror the distrust Pentecostals harbored toward higher education, Vinson Synan says. Some feared education would prove a Trojan horse that would introduce liberal ideas and unbelief into the church; others felt it might quench the Spirit by embracing intellectualism.

Still, a lack of formal education didn't mean all Pentecostals were uneducated. Synan names such figures as G.F. Taylor, founder of Emmanuel College (formally known as Franklin Springs Institute, changing to Emmanuel in 1939) in Franklin Springs, Georgia, who read through the Bible 100 times and earned a master's degree after age 50.

Despite only having a fifth-grade education, Synan's father became a bishop in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, learned Greek on his own and became an accomplished writer. Though he doesn't hold a college degree, Oral Roberts founded the university that bears his name.

While misgivings still exist in some quarters, Synan says Pentecostals have largely overcome such objections. The first Pentecostal Holiness Bible College, today known as Emmanuel College, opened in 1919; the first Assembly of God liberal-arts school (Evangel College, now known as Evangel University) followed in 1955. Today, Pentecostals are making up for lost time.

"Once they moved into education they came in with a vengeance," says Synan, noting many have turned Bible schools into colleges and universities. "That reticence toward education was misguided in the sense that people could have been much more effective if they had an education.

"The idea that ignorance is good was a terrible misconception," Synan says. "Pentecostals who understood the Scriptures knew they had nothing to fear from education."

From Missionary to Pastor

Darren Wiskow traveled a slightly different path toward his embrace of higher education to further his ministerial career. A missionary in Egypt for 13 years, Wiskow received a dramatic call from God to return to the states and pursue pastoral ministry.

Before embarking in a new role, he enrolled in an M.Div program at Regent University Divinity School to prepare himself for much different duties as a pastor. Some questioned his intentions--primarily those who thought he should remain on the mission field.

"A few people said, 'You know Arabic, you met your wife here, your children were born here,'" recalls Wiskow, who became pastor of the Virginia Beach Vineyard Christian Fellowship in November 2003. "They told me: 'You know the language and the culture. Who else can do what you're doing?'"

Wiskow's time at Regent broadened his perspective and acclimated him to certain philosophies and practices in American churches. In addition, he says courses that helped him prepare to counsel and mentor church leaders represent the practical side of his education.

Wiskow, who received his second master's degree in December 2003, still revels in the enriching experience. Informed discussions and fellowship during and after classes helped broaden his vision.

"I think as much as the things they taught were beneficial, even more [beneficial] were the people doing the teaching," the pastor says. "People I admired [who] had been in the trenches and would share stories about their experiences. That added more credibility, impact and power to their teaching."

Wiskow also appreciates his exposure to multiple backgrounds at the interdenominational school. Part of the value of higher education was forcing him to grapple with issues and examine others' points of view who--although sharing a belief in Christ--didn't always agree with him.

"I may not change my opinion or strategy, but I can have a greater appreciation for others," says the Vineyard pastor, who notes he took a risk attending a seminary without strong ties to a particular denomination.

However, exposure to different perspectives and strategies was worth foregoing the guarantee of a pastorate or other position: "I saw that as being very helpful to my ministry and life in general."

Taught By the Spirit

To pastors and church officials who question the value of higher education, Bob Proy points out that leaders are to be healers in a world where people are hurting and dealing with complex issues in every area of life.

God demands that His servants be equipped and trained to bring that healing touch, he says. Without a well-informed touch, Proy thinks ministers can do more harm than good.

Vinson Synan also reminds ministers that the Holy Spirit can transform education by bringing the truth of the gospel into the classroom as part of His effort to change lives.

"The Bible says, 'He will guide you into all truth.' So even though we have all these educational systems, colleges and so forth, in the end ... the Holy Spirit is the prime teacher, even in the classroom."

Making the Grade

Many ministers are choosing to earn their degrees at home through long-distance learning.

More than ever, the increasing demands of churches and ministries are reshaping the way Christian leaders pursue continuing education. For many pastors, a computer, a Web connection and the comfort of their own homes have replaced the inconvenience of relocation and career interruption that on-campus college and seminary degrees usually require.

Although nearing his denomination's mandatory retirement age, Bill Broughton expects to obtain his doctorate in pastoral ministry this spring from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana.

After earning a Master of Divinity at a traditional seminary in 1982, Broughton has completed the bulk of his doctoral studies by computer and video the last seven years.

"One thing that attracted me was the fair amount of flexibility," says Broughton, who lives in a remote village in northern Ontario. "The other was cost. They accepted the Canadian dollar at par, which was like getting a discount."

The United Church of Canada pastor isn't sure whether he will continue working with his denomination or do some writing after leaving the pulpit. Still, he has already benefited from his education.

Broughton credits his latest studies with clarifying his theology, which he called "rather fuzzy" for a while. The 65-year-old pastor applied some of his studies immediately, such as the assignment that called for preaching a series on spiritual warfare.

"We also had Bible studies on spiritual warfare that went quite awhile," Broughton says. "People were interested because nobody had ever tackled this before."

Broughton is among more than 8,400 students enrolled in Trinity, a 35-year-old school that changed its program to all-distance education in 1989.

While numerous theological schools include distance education as a component of their studies, Trinity (www.trinitysem.edu) specializes in online course work. So does Global University (www.globaluniversity.edu), based in Springfield, Missouri.

Of the 60 percent of students pursuing post-graduate studies through Trinity, roughly half are in professional ministry, according to Myron Kauk, vice president for academic affairs. The other half either plan to enter ministry or are studying to enhance lay ministry.

The downside to distance-education programs in theology is typically a lack of accreditation--something that may hinder opportunities for financial aid and denominational recognition.

The Association of Theological Schools (www.ats.edu), for instance, requires that the students at its member schools pursue the majority of their course work in a classroom setting.

While not accredited, Kauk says Trinity is pursuing regional accreditation. If successful, he expects that to enhance opportunities for graduates seeking denominational and other positions.

The school also appeals to second-career pastoral candidates, such as Dave Balicki, a 45-year-old manager of a security company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Balicki has completed studies in biblical counseling and anticipates receiving his Master of Divinity from Trinity in December of 2005.

Distance education allows flexibility for those who desire to get an education while continuing to pursue their careers, serve in lay ministry and spend time with their families. A member of Richmond Reformed Church, Balicki works with the children's ministry and teaches an eight-week adult Bible-study class once a year.

"When a student has [family ties] in place in his 30s or 40s and the Lord calls that kind of person, it's an easier transition," Balicki says. "You don't have to sell the house, pack the bags and go to seminary. There's less disruption to your plans."

Beyond Ivy League

Why many laypeople are going back to school--at church.

They're sprouting all over the country--church-based and independent training centers for ministry, that is.

Two years ago, Tim Osborne organized the School of Biblical Studies at Shout Assembly. Now, the school has nearly 30 students from a variety of churches, studying such specialties as youth ministry, Christian counseling, and praise and worship.

The non-accredited program has helped boost the charismatic church past 200, making it the largest congregation in the small, central Kentucky community of Warsaw.

However, attendance doesn't excite the former hospital administrator as much as spiritual growth.

"I'm amazed," Osborne says. "Most of the time we Pentecostals are viewed as shouting and stomping but without understanding. Our students are able to dispel that myth."

Shout Assembly is one of 40 schools--with nearly 700 students--affiliated with the Oral Roberts University (ORU) School of LifeLong Education.

The school offers a three-tiered program ranging from 19 to 66 credit hours. The typical semester includes a minimum of 37.5 hours of instructional time.

Since Paul King took over as coordinator of the Bible Institute program at ORU in 1996, the number of churches involved has more than tripled.

Offered by everything from megachurches to congregations of 50, King says classes train counselors, Sunday-school teachers, short-term missionaries and lay ministers. Some graduates move on to accredited institutions of higher learning.

"I think it's growing for a number of reasons," says King, who has nearly 30 years of ministry experience. "The cost is less for someone to get an education and it helps people get biblical training in the local church."

Among many other programs available are Victory Bible Institute (www.vbi tulsa.org), the Brownsville Revival School of Ministry (www.brsm.org), World Harvest Bible College (www.worldharvestbiblecollege.org), and C. Peter Wagner's apostolic training program (www.wagnerleader ship.org).

While King has no idea how many of these schools exist nationwide, he guesses them to be at least in the hundreds. "I think churches get a vision of using their own people for ministry," he says. "Every believer is a minister, so they need to be equipped."

Ken Walker is a freelance writer from West Virginia.

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