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A Millennial's thoughts about Higher Education for Pastors

Prior to March 1, 2021, I thought theological education was too expensive, especially given that so many people in the Assemblies of God and non-denominational churches do ministry without a formal education and seem to be successful. Unlike other fields, theological education doesn’t typically reap a big financial payout, and the result is that student loans are crushing. This is what I used to tell someone called by God into ministry and debating whether it is worth entering formal theological education due to the cost. After all, that had been my story.


Like many Millennials, I expected the benefits of education to outweigh the cost and took on student loans to finance a degree. I graduated with a B.A. in Religion from California’s Vanguard University (VU) in 2010. At the time, I had a deep passion and desire to continue learning and planned to enter graduate school. That summer, my wife and I got married. We moved from sunny Southern California to Springfield, Missouri, to begin working on master’s degrees at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS).


My wife, also a Vanguard graduate, and I both pursued our education mostly through student loans. After three semesters of graduate school, we were facing mounting student loan debts, and we were struggling under the financial weight of the cost of our education. Since the housing prices were still low, my wife and I purchased a house in Springfield. At the time, our total student loan debt was over $15,000 higher than our home loan, and our monthly payments were slated to last just as long. I quickly became frustrated with the debt load, and each month the frustration grew. We soon realized the cost was so high that we couldn’t afford to do full-time vocational ministry because of the cost of repaying the loans from our theological education. So, we changed course. I began working at AGTS full-time in the IT department, and my wife worked in insurance.


The journey from IT to full-time ministry is one for another time, but God led our steps. It was seven years later, in 2017, that I became the administrative pastor of a church in Springfield. As 2019 came to a close, I felt God calling me to become a lead pastor. At the start of 2020, I applied to be the lead pastor of a small rural Assemblies of God church in Fennville, Michigan. On March 1, 2020, the members voted me in to be their pastor. We went back to Springfield and told our church we were leaving. Then, COVID-19 hit the United States, and the world seemed to turn upside-down. In addition to the pandemic, there were protests nationwide for racial equality, and the election year became extremely divisive.


This was a difficult thing for any pastor – new or not – to walk into. For me, I saw an analogy to the sand dunes in West Michigan near where I live, and I’ve gained a new appreciation for the drivers and vehicles that run them.


The nearby dunes have a hill called “test run” right by the entrance, and if a vehicle can make it up that one it’s good to go and can run all the dunes around. But if the vehicle gets stuck on it, the vehicle is limited to where it can go. It’s fun to see vehicles attempt their fate on the test run, from small cars to huge souped-up trucks. The year, make, and model, however, are not the determining factors for success. The keys to a successful run include having the right amount of air in the tires for the feel of the sand that day, enough horsepower for the vehicle’s weight, and the right weight distribution of the vehicle. When these three factors are set correctly the vehicle is poised for success, and then it just needs a determined driver.



For me, navigating the pandemic world as a lead pastor was like trying to run the dunes, and my preparation for ministry would not only be tested in that but a determining factor in it.


When the pandemic hit the U.S., the Church was forced into uncharted territory. For me, I was a first-time pastor not only learning how to preach weekly for the first time but also how to take a church online for the first time in its 60-year history and record myself preaching at a camera to people I had only met once. Then, to top that all off, I was bombarded with the constantly changing landscape of state executive orders and mandates. They changed every few weeks with only a couple of days’ notice. During my first 12 months of serving as lead pastor, Michigan closed and opened all indoor gatherings three different times. And to make matters worse, religious institutions were essentially exempt from the law. That meant I had the burden of deciding how to respond to the government’s edicts and how to lead a congregation, that was new to me, through those decisions. That was not easy. In our little rural church, we had people who believed the virus was a hoax and others who would not leave their homes. This was my own “test run” hill.


I can look back now and see how higher education set me up for success, providing me with what I needed to run these dunes. I am grateful for professors like Dr. Bill Dogterom at Vanguard and Dr. Jay Taylor at AGTS. They taught and modeled the principles of personal time with Jesus and studying God’s Word. Courses in both my undergraduate and graduate education pushed me to go deeper in my personal spiritual life. I also had professors like Dr. Camery-Hoggatt (VU) and Dr. Oss (AGTS) who taught the methods, tools, and application of understanding Scripture. I learned from Dr. Ed Rybarczyk (VU) and Dr. Greg Austring (VU) how to engage and critique culture, both inside and outside the Church. And many, many other professors taught and modeled how to do ministry for the long haul. Because of that, and without knowing it, I read the sand dunes and adjusted my vehicle to stay biblically sound and culturally relevant.


I had established and continued with my regular personal Scripture reading. In mid-summer of 2020, just hours before a new round of executive orders came out, my reading plan for the day included Romans chapters 11-13. I became overwhelmingly convinced that if Paul were here today, he would tell me that God wanted us as Christ-followers to do everything we can to honor the government, keep people safe, and preach the good news of Jesus. This became the guiding principle for me for the rest of the responses to COVID, and I hope the rest of my ministry.


As the year rolled on, I saw churches around me flip-flop on which orders to obey and which to ignore. During the summer, there were churches online only for safety but were open in the fall when the numbers of COVID cases jumped exponentially. Other churches were open in summer but closed in the fall after many people in their congregations fell sick. Throughout the year, I had to announce how our church would respond, knowing people were comparing this “new pastor” to the “experienced ones.” Some people even let me know how other churches responded. We had people leave the church because we were too strict, and we had people leave because we weren’t strict enough. This test hill never seemed to stop.



As I look back now, a year later, my view of theological education has changed. I realize that if I had not had my vehicle tuned to make it up the sand dune by investing in education, I would not have made it.


My family has sacrificed a lot to follow God, and we continue to make large payments every month for my education, but I see the value in being equipped for circumstances that have not yet been experienced.


I am now a firm believer in education and am very thankful for what I received.




 

By Keith Jones

Edited by Matt Hufman & Samantha Jones

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