How many theological schools are there in the U.S. and Canada? Nobody knows, and if they did, they wouldn't have an accurate count for long, because new schools are popping up at an unprecedented rate. Some are online, some offline, some both. Some are based at megachurches, some at small churches, some are forming people for ordination or commissioning, some are aimed at preparing people already in ministry to do their jobs more competently.

Many new schools have been founded by churches that are part of an informal new movement that doesn't quite have a standardized name. "Megachurch" is a popular title, which most such congregations don't especially care for -- the "next church," "postdenominational churches," "non-paradigm churches," and "new wineskins churches" have all been suggested and rejected: C. Peter Wagner, who has written extensively and out of experience, uses the term "new apostolic churches."

Whatever you call them, you would recognize one if you would see one. These congregations tend to be committed to explosive growth, given to names that don't sound churchy, prone to worship spaces with percussion-heavy bands and video screens, and marked by a distinctive distaste for tradition. "Leadership" is a watchword in these churches, and it is almost always raised up from inside the congregation rather than brought in from outside -- except for the senior pastor, who is often the founder of the church.

Wagner's book Churchquake! (Regal, $11.69) includes a thirty-page chapter titled "Multiplying Ministers" that sets forth an explanation of leadership in these new churches. He defines pastors as leaders and congregations as ministers, explains in detail why he thinks that seminaries are the wrong place to train leaders (they suffer from an overly academic focus and accountability to accrediting associations rather than churches), and lists the strengths of the schools these churches are starting. These include:

  • Broad and practical curriculum.
  • Delivery designed for student convenience.
  • Primary accountability to the local church.

It's a different world Wagner describes, but one that is coming closer to all of us.

Short Histories, Few Memories
The phenomenon has spread beyond independent churches. A couple of Lutheran churches near Minnesota's Twin Cities will serve as cases in point.

North Heights Lutheran Church in Roseville and Hosanna! Lutheran Church in Lakeville, Minnesota, have much in common. They are both congregations without long histories: North Heights was founded after the Second World War, Hosanna! in the 1980s. They are both located in prosperous, rapidly growing, and overwhelmingly white suburbs. They've both grown so as to require new buildings -- North Heights has one complete with a dining hall and full-time catering staff, among other things; Hosanna! is in the muddy and disruptive stage of construction. Both congregations average more than 3,000 worshipers each week. Both are charismatic in their theology and worship style, both are heavily committed to small groups as centers of community. They are both members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and both uneasily so: North Heights recently voted to leave the denomination and become part of the fledgling Alliance of Renewal Churches, Hosanna! has no intention of leaving but is currently under censure for calling pastors who have not been approved by the denomination. And although they are located in a metropolitan area that has four Association of Theological Schools-accredited seminaries, they have both started schools for ministers, born of conviction that no one else, least of all the ELCA's seminaries, has been able to consistently provide the kind of pastoral leadership they require.

Master's Institute student Nate Johnson states his case before he opens his mouth.

The Master's Institute at North Heights is not technically a ministry of the congregation. It has its own board, its own staff, its own budget. It is however, housed on church property, in a basement room still called the Garden Room for a particularly hideous mural that was removed as soon as the school moved in, and the congregation has contributed $20,000 toward expenses in the school's second year.

The school's president, Paul Anderson, also works for Lutheran Renewal -- which is not a ministry of North Heights, but is located on church property. Lutheran Renewal, which provides seminars and resources on the charismatic renewal in Lutheran churches, is also a driving force behind the Alliance of Renewal Churches, and it is anticipated that the Master's Institute will be a source of pastors for churches in that group.

According to Anderson, the Master's Institute was born out of a meeting of pastors who were distressed about what seminaries were doing to their best and brightest candidates for ministry -- not so much that they weren't preparing them (although the special needs of very large churches are not, they concurred, adequately addressed by theology schools) but rather that people who entered seminary highly motivated and full of enthusiasm were coming out dispirited and worn. A consensus emerged among the pastors that the nosedive in morale had to do with an overemphasis on the academic at the expense of formation and serious hands-on teaching concurrent with classes. And so the Master's Institute was designed, as Anderson explains it, as a three-legged stool, standing on biblical training, leadership training, and character formation. That means two days per week spent in class, fifteen hours of hands-on learning, and fifteen hours of character development, which includes a mentoring relationship and assigned reading and writing.

The Master's Institute opened in September 2001 with nine full-time students committed to a three-year program of study that will cost them a total of $21,000 and give them no degree or certificate, just a set of skills and a portfolio of recommendations. And still they came -- most from the Twin Cities, but David Martin, the class's eldest member at 48, from Yankton, South Dakota, where he spent the last twenty-three years owning and operating a construction company. He was surprised to find a strong sense of family and a "freedom to be yourself" at the institute, and he was grateful for both of those in the first weeks of the semester, which he described as "overwhelming. They threw a lot of the academically intense stuff at us right at the beginning, and we were all trying to find our balance." Adjustments were made: as student Caroline Anderson put it, "the faculty is willing to be vulnerable." "And they listen to us," added Mary Bope, who has as a point of comparison the two years she spent at the ELCA's Luther Seminary in St. Paul before switching to the Master's Institute.

Why Luther Wouldn't Do
Luther Seminary, the largest theological school of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is just seven miles from the Master's Institute, and the smaller school has complex ties to the larger. Almost all of the institute's faculty are Luther graduates: one, Walt Sundberg, teaches at both schools, another, Paul Cross is a parish pastor who has had a steady stream of Luther interns in his congregation. Anderson holds that there is no competition between the schools. "Most of our students wouldn't have considered seminary," he said, "and fewer would have been happy there." The students, for their part, are gleeful about the experiment they're part of, and sometimes feel the need to define themselves over and against something else: in interviews, fully half of the Master's Institute students interviewed made a point of referring to seminaries as "cemeteries."

There's no denying that the students are a lively lot. They are particularly enthusiastic about their internships, which take up fifteen hours of each week. Two students, Nate Johnson and Andrew Anderson, are planting a church on the campus of the University of Minnesota. When asked the name of the operation, they responded in stereo, "Extreme Life!" Tom Kelly's internship is perhaps less extreme, but it is precisely focused: he has begun a 6 p.m. Saturday evening service at North Heights. It's held in a fellowship hall, features a seven-piece band, and is planned entirely by Kelly, working under supervision. The order of worship is simple: one recent night featured praise songs, an offering, a mother reflecting on Mother's Day, and Kelly's sermon, complete with PowerPoint outline on two screens. Kelly doesn't seem entirely comfortable preaching yet; his sermon was full of self-deprecating humor, but he was well able to use resources at hand. The highlight of this evening's worship perhaps occurred when he called to the stage a couple, married fifty-four years, who recited together their life verses from Colossians 3. When the service consistently averages more than 200 in attendance -- and it's closing in on that figure now -- North Heights pastor Bob Cottingham says it'll be entirely Kelly's.

Year One at the institute is done, and it was finished in the black, with expenditures of $97,000 and an income of almost $103,000. Tuition was the largest revenue stream, bringing in more than half the money: donations and matching grants made up the rest. Payroll for the school's four part-time employees was the biggest expense at $57,000. That doesn't include instructors' honoraria, which totaled $15,500.

There are also more than enough applications to ensure a new class in the fall. Both groups of students will take classes together, but they will be separate for group processing. It seems obvious that next year will be the last the school can stay in the Garden Room. As it is, remaining will involve moving of furniture to shift from classroom space to chapel space. But the school's board is confident that the experiment will work, and is hopeful the idea will spread, with churches in other places using the same pattern of ministry preparation.

One School Leads to Another
Twenty-five miles away at Hosanna!, the new school hasn't started yet, but applications are in for what is being called the Potter's Wheel, and a class is being selected for this autumn. Jim Warner, the congregation's executive ministries director, is doing the choosing. He has been the church's executive ministries director for a year.

The history of Warner's involvement with Hosanna! is indicative of the way the congregation raises up leaders. He first visited the church ten years ago when his family was church-shopping. They had never been to a Lutheran church before, but Hosanna! was close to their home, and when they visited, they felt at home. "You wouldn't notice that it was a Lutheran church right away if you didn't know," he said. His own faith life had been strongly shaped by his involvement with Campus Crusade for Christ International during his college years. He was impressed with that parachurch group's training methods, which he described as, "First you watch, then you try." His interest in helping people find their work led him to a doctorate in adult education and to a career in consulting internationally on personnel issues. "I love small groups," he said, and so Hosanna!, where such groups are central to ministry, was a natural fit for him. He became more and more involved in the life of the congregation until he joined the staff last year. He describes his job as doing personnel planning and acting as pastor to the staff, this last even though he is not ordained and has no immediate plans to be ordained.

That may have something to do with the congregation's current difficulties with its denomination. The church "commissioned" three lay women who came on staff last year as pastors, an action that led Bishop Mark Hansen of the ELCA's St. Paul Area Synod to censure the congregation for willful violation of the denomination's constitution. In a statement, Hansen said that in the ELCA only the synod bishop has the authority to ordain pastors and to commission lay associates for ministry. The congregation is trying to find a way to work with the bishop while still raising up its own leadership, and the Potter's Wheel is putting some shape to the training. Not a rigidly imposed shape, however, said Warner. When asked why Hosanna! doesn't simply send its potential leaders up the road to the Master's Institute, he explained that he had great respect for that program. "If someone who was a graduate of the Master's Institute applied for a job here, we'd take them very seriously," he said. But he envisions a program that is shorter (two years), less time-intensive (twenty to thirty hours per week in the first year, increasing to as much as forty in the second), and more individualized. He envisions a list of required skills and experiences for all participants. During the first year they will be asked to:

  • Participate weekly in a discipleship and accountability group.
  • Be trained and lead a weekly small-group Bible study.
  • Attend the New Calling class to identify their spiritual gifts.
  • Be trained and serve as a prayer minister at Hosanna!
  • Go through Alpha as a small-group leader.
  • Be involved in their own in-depth Bible study.
  • Visit other churches to observe.
  • Rotate through a number of practical ministry assignments.

Individual learning contracts will spell out how each step will be accomplished. The small group that students will be involved with will help them discern the more individualized programs for their second year of study. "It depends on their goals," said Warner, "some will want to be teaching pastors, and they'll need to take some courses elsewhere, maybe in biblical languages, maybe something at the Master's Institute. One applicant wants to open a retreat center. We'll see what that will involve. Others just want to be very active lay people." Most practical training will take place on site, he said. "Everything we want them to do, they can do here." The program will cost $500 per year, at least at first. Those who complete the program will be certified and commissioned.

Ugaritic at $50 a Semester
Quartz Hill School of Theology is something else. It is not part of a megachurch -- it is a ministry of Quartz Hill Community Church, a Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated congregation on the corner of a paved road and a dirt road in the Antelope Valley of California, with a membership of about 120. Indeed, the first issue of the school's Journal of Theology, published in 1994, included an article titled, "Cracks in My New Wineskin," which told the story of the congregation's brief and decidedly unhappy involvement with the church growth movement. 

If you have difficulty reaching the Quartz Hill School of Theology, they're happy to come to you.

Another Baptist institution moving away from tradition made the school possible: R. P. Nettelhorst was a lecturer in Bible and biblical languages at Los Angeles Bible College in the late 1980s (before the school was renamed the Master's College) His contract was not renewed the year the school dumped its Hebrew and upper division Old Testament classes to make room for a sports ministries program. Nettelhorst and his wife moved to the Antelope Valley, where she found a teaching job. They joined Quartz Hill, and the pastor shared his dream of a church-based theology school that would be available to students regardless of their financial situation. Church members were polled, some expressed interest, two expressed serious interest, and in 1992, those two became the school's first students.

One of those students has graduated (he had a full graduation even though he was alone in his class: three other students were with him to collect their certificate in Bible) and pastors a church that gives 1 percent of its income to the school. The other is also a pastor but still hasn't graduated for reasons that have much to do with the school's language requirements: two years each of Hebrew and Greek and a semester of Aramaic (Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Sumerian are on offer as electives). "We know we could increase enrollment if not for the languages, but..." said the first graduate in a well-rehearsed shtick. "I'm still alive," Nettelhorst completes the sentence.

The school has averaged about twenty students each semester: more always enroll and then quickly drop out when they realize that this is more than a glorified Sunday School. Sherman DeVeaux almost fit into that category. The school's board member signed up for a Bible survey course thinking, "R.P.'s a deacon, I'm a deacon, it's in the church, it'll be a cakewalk." Instead, he said, the courses compare in seriousness with anything he encountered in engineering school. "The teachers would make statements that contradicted my doctrine, then make me look in scripture. They kept asking, 'Why do you believe what you believe?'" The school doesn't demand conformity in doctrine, but it does demand reasoned arguments.

The classes at Quartz Hill are only part of the picture, and nobody has the faintest idea how many people take classes online. About five in any given semester will pay the princely sum of $50 per course (same as for face-to-face instruction) that gets them a grade and faculty interaction. But anyone can download the online class outlines and notes and use them as they see fit, and the school has never tracked these. The school's Web site gets more than 100,000 hits a month, probably because they got online early enough to snag the URL They switched to that Web address in 1996, after having spent two years at a much less accessible name. Some people who teach online are located nowhere near California: one teaches from Tennessee.

Nobody is making large amounts of money from the operation. The school's total annual budget hovers around $3,000, and they aren't kidding when they cite the Coke machine on the porch and the annual used book sale as major revenue streams. The school has been approved as a provider of continuing education hours for the Association of Church Schools International: that brings in a few dollars and some credibility. Some more established schools have accepted transfer credits from Quartz Hill: the University of Jerusalem accepted transfer credits in Hebrew. The board would love to pursue accreditation some day, although that looks a few years down the road. The library now has 8,000 volumes catalogued, for example, but it is hard to imagine where it will go if it grows. Quartz Hill's facility used to be a house; the church added on a worship space, but the rest of the space is full. The library fills the back of the building and spills into Nettelhorst's office -- which is no longer recognizable as the former bathroom. Obviously, this school has the option of growth and increased organization. But in the meantime, they are doing the work to which they have been called.

A Question for the Reader
Are any of these schools a threat to yours? Probably not immediately. But they are changing the atmosphere in which theological education occurs. People preparing for professional ministry, even within denominations, are beginning to discover that there are a variety of ways to prepare, that some don't involve leaving home, that some are geared toward specific skills they think they need. Whatever your program is, you need to be sure of it, and you need to be at least as able as these new schools to articulate your self-understanding and the value of what you offer.

20/20 VISION:
I have yet to experience any major problem with a person on staff who has come up out of our ministry. The few problems that I've had with staff people over the years have always been with people brought in from the outside.

People have come looking for a job or I have gone looking for someone to fill a job. But people who have been hired from within the church do not see themselves as just having a job. They are full participants in the mission and ministry of New Hope. They would do the work of ministry without being paid. I know that because they have done work of ministry without being paid, before being put on staff. They are teachable, pliable, loyal, and committed to the vision and ministry of New Hope Community Church.

If you are a senior pastor and you want to build a strong staff that understands your vision and will minister according to your style, then build your staff out of the people who are already being successful in doing the work of ministry in your church.

--Dale E. Galloway, former pastor of New Hope Community Church in Portland, Oregon, in 20/20 Vision: How to Create a Successful Church With Lay Pastors and Cell Groups (Foundation of Hope.)

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