How God Led This Spirit-Filled Educator to His Calling in a Graveyard

The Spencer building is one of two original Elim structures built in 1831. (Bethany Miller)

Elim Bible Institute & College may be Christian education's best-kept secret. But God is renewing the vision of this historic Pentecostal school as it prepares for new leadership. Elim rests on the foundation of a historic revival, yet is moving into its future fed by the Word of God and led by the Holy Spirit. Elim will be under new leadership starting in May 2020 as Dr. Fred Antonelli is installed as president.

Located in the upstate New York town of Lima near Rochester, Elim is known for its Pentecostal expression, bold ministry and missionary fervency. An oasis of spiritual refreshment, it bears a name that comes from this inviting biblical passage: "Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there by the waters" (Ex. 15:27).

Elim is the only accredited, charismatic Bible college in the state of New York. It is fully accredited through TRACS, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, a national accrediting agency for Christian institutions, colleges and seminaries. TRACS is recognized by the United States Department of Education, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education.

Currently the school offers two certificates and a degree but is working on its bachelor's programs.

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"There is a one-year program called 'Launch' that leads to a certificate," said Michael P. Cavanaugh, Elim's president since 2012. "This is a tremendous gap-year experience for a Christian student who wants to be prepared to handle the challenges of a secular college or career. We give them the tools to not simply survive, but to thrive in spiritually hostile situations.

"A student can also receive a two-year associate degree from the New York State Board of Regents, and finally, for a student who stays all three years, there is an additional certificate called the Applied Ministry Certificate that is focused on the practical aspects of ministry. At the conclusion of this, they can receive credentials from a reputable ministerial association."

Elim looks to offer a bachelor's in theology in spring 2021, followed by four-year degrees in business, social work and education, and an associate's degree in culinary training.

Established in the Past

Ivan Q. Spencer, a farm boy from northern Pennsylvania, attended Bible school in Rochester in 1918 and found the message God gave him to promote for the rest of his life, simply: "Revival!" He started a college to provide a biblical atmosphere to train champions to trumpet the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit. As a result, God used Spencer to birth Elim Bible Institute in 1924.

Elim has been at the center of some significant mile markers of Pentecostal history. Charles Finney became a major player in forming the Pentecostal movement, and Elim has a strong connection to the famed revivalist. Finney led a powerful revival in the 19th century, preaching nearly 100 sermons between Sept. 10, 1830, and March 6, 1831, in Rochester. The revival was a significant part of what would become known as the "Second Great Awakening."

From 1948 to 1952, Elim Bible Institute was a key institution in what is historically called the "Latter Rain Movement," a precursor to the charismatic and Jesus People movements. Elim was a pioneer in both "praying and singing in the Spirit" as well as singing the Scriptures, a practice that was not looked upon favorably by mainline Pentecostal denominations of that day. Believers were to sing hymns, not the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit could "move on you," and if that happened, you could speak in tongues or even jump or shout. But to sing in tongues, pray in the Spirit, prophesy, pray for people to be healed, give a word of wisdom or knowledge, or dance in the Spirit, these things were frowned upon in more conservative Pentecostal circles.

Since 1951, Elim has occupied the campus of the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, which was started as a direct result of the Finney revival. More than 100,000 people gave their lives to Christ during those meetings. One year later, Genesee Wesleyan was built. Elim sits on a campus built as a result of the Finney revivals that took on a nonreligious college that broke off and formed what is now Syracuse University.

By the time the charismatic movement (1960-1968) and the Jesus People movement (late 1960s through early 1980s) came into being, Elim had become a forerunner of these movements. The movements were powerful, with the presence of signs and wonders; prophecy, healing and other spiritual gifts; and the baptism in the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by speaking in tongues.

Elim is still doing the research, but it may, in fact, be the oldest evangelical Pentecostal-charismatic Bible college in the U.S. still on a campus that has been continuously used as a Bible college and seminary since 1831.

Empowered for the Task

The school's president-elect, Dr. Fred Antonelli, will have a solid foundation on which to build as he begins his tenure this summer.

Rev. Cavanaugh has been president for eight years but fully engaged on the Elim campus for decades.

"I have worked for various Elim ministries since 1980, so it will be 40 years that I've been on campus," Cavanaugh said. "During that time, I started BASIC College Ministries, Mobilized to Serve Single Adult Ministry, wrote the book God's Call to the Single Adult, founded a church on campus, built a 60,000-square-foot ministry center and traveled extensively, ministering to Christian leaders and churches."

On May 21, Elim will install Antonelli in his new post.

"Dr. Antonelli is an experienced leader and has served on the board of the school for several years," Cavanaugh said. "Anyone who has ever spent any time with Dr. Antonelli knows what an amazing personality he has. He is full of energy and vision. Two areas he has felt particularly motivated in are the marketing of the school and the upgrading of some of our facilities. I expect him to have great success building relationships with people who have an interest in the school and then helping those people find ways that fit them to be involved."

Dr. Antonelli never expected or sought to be president of the school he once attended as a student, but obviously the Lord had other plans.

"While I was commuting and teaching a clinical/Christian counseling course at EBI in 2011, I had a desire to visit the old 'Lima graveyard' just a mile or so from the college," Antonelli said. "I had always heard of the many former Elim missionaries, pastors and teachers who were buried there but had never been to the graveyard."

But on this beautiful fall day, he came across the grave he really wanted to see, that of the Elim founder.

"As I stood at the head stone of both Ivan Q. and his English wife, Minnie, I sensed the power of the Holy Spirit visit me," Antonelli said. "I became very emotional and began to weep. At first, I had no idea just why I was so emotional. It wasn't that I had known Ivan Q. I had never met him. He died before I became a student at Elim. As I meditated there in front of I.Q.'s grave, the Holy Spirit spoke a clear word to my heart:

"I'm going to use you to raise $5 million dollars to restore the two 1831 buildings, and this will just be the beginning. I must adapt Elim in multiple facets to meet the spiritual and academic needs for this present generation so as to increase student enrollment to raise up leaders, young men and women to share the gospel of my Son through the power of the Holy Spirit in this country and to the nations. The hour has become critical and the need for passionately empowered leaders has become essential. As a result, the days of Elim's poverty mentality will be coming to an end."

Antonelli was nonplussed as he heard from God in this unusual way.

"I fell to my knees with tears running down my cheeks and said, 'Lord, I'm either hearing from you or I'm going mad, one or the other! How can I ever do such a thing?' I felt the Lord speak to me again and say, 'What Pharaoh thought to be insignificant and useless—Aaron's rod—I counted as highly significant to do exploits and miracles with. Now you hold in your hand my Word, which is my promise. I used a staff to split a sea. Now only believe, and you'll witness my miracle power as well to provide for Elim.'"

No doubt Antonelli stands on the shoulders of great men and women of God who have led in Elim's past, but he now has a big job to tackle.

Danuta Case, executive vice president and provost, believes Antonelli is well-equipped and is the right man for this critical hour.

"His life was impacted by the college, he understands Elim's mission, he has the passion to share Elim's vision, and he possesses the skills to connect with many people outside the Elim realm and inspire them to join us in the task of raising globally minded Christian leaders who are ready to expand the kingdom of God and share the gospel without compromise in culturally relevant ways," said Case, who studied how to turn around Christian "surviving colleges" to "thriving institutions" while studying for her Ph.D. at Regent University.

"We have evolved to a place where the board of directors and the president's focus needs to shift from the day-to-day operations to making connections with other Christians and spreading a compelling and inspiring vision outside the 'Elim' world," Case added.

Antonelli will be Elim's eighth president.

"I'm blessed to have worked in many different roles through the years—senior pastor, radio personality, author, op-ed contributor, mental health professional and crisis marriage therapist—but this is a new and exciting challenge as I succeed Rev. Michael Cavanaugh," Antonelli said.

Antonelli describes his rise to this leadership position as "a high-velocity journey."

"My father was an immigrant from Italy, so we were raised in an Italian home in Baltimore, Maryland. A product of the late '60s and early '70s, I was a baby boomer. My life was filled with garage bands, drugs and feeding my own desires as an apathetic self-centered hippy."

Antonelli was raised Roman Catholic, but his girlfriend, Debbie, who later became his wife, was a United Methodist.

"She led me to Jesus in 1970 during the Jesus People Movement when I was in the U.S. Air Force," he said. "A year after I was discharged, we got married, and within two years, we ended up at EBIC [Elim Bible Institute & College], where I became a student."

He eventually became a senior pastor and served for 23 years. He hosted Rock Alive, a national Christian rock and metal radio show heard on the Christian Broadcasting Network and Salem Radio Network. After continuing his education as a licensed mental health professional, he established Life Counseling Center with offices throughout the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware, which he has since sold. He will become Elim's president after this spring's changing of the guard.

Expectant for the Future

As with many college presidents, Antonelli's first responsibility is to raise funds for the school.

"My purpose is probably going to be more fundraising than any of the previous seven presidents," he said. "My role will be introducing Elim Bible Institute & College to a more national Christian audience expounding on its rich Pentecostal/charismatic history, missionary passion, and world ministerial leadership and influence. Also, as all small, Christian undergraduate colleges, I'll be trusting God to raise much-needed funds in three areas: infrastructure stabilization; marketing and development; and repair on our two original, 1831 buildings.

"I'm praying that God will use my years as a former senior pastor and church planter, author, contributor to national Christian articles, national speaker, businessman and licensed mental health professional as a platform to engage with Christians who may have heard of Elim throughout the years but know little about EBIC. My prayer is that God will give me favor to engage with Christian businessmen and women, entrepreneurs, and others to consider investing in one of the greatest Pentecostal/charismatic hidden jewels in the body of Christ!"

Along with fundraising, Antonelli will interact with both students and staff. He will speak at chapel services and invite spiritually challenging men and women from all fields of ministry to share at chapel as well.

"I think my spiritual leadership is going to be shown through ministering strength, encouragement and direction to both students and staff," he said.

He will also be traveling to raise money for the college.

Antonelli is thankful that Elim has been consistent and faithful through the years.

"Moving in the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, praying in the Spirit, worshipping in the Spirit, these are the biblical, spiritual passions that Elim has never veered from," he said. "So the young men and women who come to EBIC, no matter what degree they're coming for, will see the amalgamation of both the spiritual and the educational. With Elim, the education is only enlarged when the Word of God is made the template from which to build.

When it comes to Elim's Pentecostal-charismatic lineage and history, you can say we're very much the same today as we were almost a century ago. Our worship has become more contemporary, but our values, culture and passion for Jesus and His gospel to the nations, through the power of the Holy Spirit, has not changed at all. Elim provides a unique, Spirit-filled atmosphere and specificity. Whether the degree is in theology, business, education, social work or another field, there's a spiritual distinction that rests on the campus, a presence of God that's both available and longed for by students and staff."

The outgoing president, Rev. Cavanaugh, sees his major contribution as getting the school accredited and eligible for students to get state and federal aid.

But he has also been a part of keeping Elim consistent.

"I also feel that I have worked hard to give spiritual leadership to the school and to preserve the calling of the school, which is to prepare Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered leaders for global revival and worldwide ministry," Cavanaugh said.

Looking only four years ahead, he expects the new president to be present at a unique time in the school's history.

"I'm hoping Dr. Antonelli will be leading the school in 2024 when Elim celebrates its 100th anniversary," he said. "He will be setting the stage of another 100 years of impact by helping communicate the benefits of the school to the next generation and by building the team of supporters that has made the Elim experience so meaningful in the past."

Of course, the future of any school is planted in the hearts of its students and alumni.

"Elim's central focus is the spiritual formation of the student," Cavanaugh said. "We are preparing students to be leaders in nonprofit organizations, touching some of the neediest people. Pastoral ministry, youth ministry, missions work, worship leadership are some of the areas that our students pursue. Though our academic standards are high, our students are spiritually challenged to grow through many aspects of the Elim experience."

Although most Elim students are just getting started in adult life, others are simply seeking spiritual renewal. Some are in midlife preparing for a vocational change to ministry.

One married student commuting from Rochester said: "Elim has helped me broaden my understanding of who God is, sharpen my ability to hear His voice and plan for my life. Elim really disciples and prepares you for the ministry and the world."

Another student said: "Elim is life-changing and eye-opening. Elim is not just like any other college where you attend classes and do homework. It is the place where the presence of God is settled all around and where I got to know His voice and His heart."

Another student grew in leadership while on campus.

"Before coming to Elim, I was seeing that God had called me to lead, and I felt that I had a heart to do so, but I needed some practical training," the student said. "I have been able to be involved in a number of different leadership opportunities and am very glad for this experience. I definitely feel much better prepared for what God is calling me toward."

Students grow in their spiritual walk in structured ways, including by studying through the entire Bible in a year in class; and in unstructured ways, such as in interaction with faculty and staff. Along with engaging in two hours of work experience on campus every week, most students take part in outreach in an urban environment.

"Virtually all of our students also will experience four weeks of urban outreach ministry in New York City," Cavanaugh said. "This experience covers everything from preaching in churches, feeding the hungry, ministering to AIDS victims and more. All of this investment in those who attend here is beyond what happens in the classroom and almost daily chapels. I know of no other experience that a Christian young adult can have that will supercharge their spiritual lives more than a year at Elim Bible Institute and College."

After reflecting on all God is doing through Elim students here and abroad, for the president-elect, "It isn't just about a Bible college," he said. "It's about preaching the gospel and changing lives and doing it in a day where our nation and our world is in so much sociological trouble."

In light of that need, Dr. Antonelli is looking to "bring this Pentecostal-charismatic hidden jewel to the forefront," one that is truly making a difference for the kingdom of God.

Rev. Paul Johansson, president emeritus of Elim, said it best:

"Elim is a school with a unique balance between the classroom and streets, worship and study, with a goal of preparing Spirit-empowered leaders for the church, mission field and workplace. The personal one-on-one discipleship environment forms true Christian character for service. In two words, life-changing!"


Christine D. Johnson is editor of Charisma Leader. Contact her at chris.johnson@charismamedia.com.

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