At the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Master of Divinity (MDiv) students don’t have their head in the clouds, always adrift in academic jargon and all things Hebrew and Greek. The Seminary ensures its students 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 that is of mutual benefit to students and local churches, the Theological Field Education (TFE) program. TFE provides churches with the ministerial equivalent of an intern.
Michael Taylor, pastor of the Paw Paw Adventist Church, said that his congregation 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, is not limited to the pulpit. For example, because of the influence of TFE students, Taylor reports, 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 the All Nations church 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 Adventist Youth meetings 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, Seminarians of All Nations Engaged (SANE), 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 to address church issues and 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, until recently serving in the Eau Claire Spanish Company, inform their TFE students at the outset 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 on the local church beyond the pulpit or the Sabbath school class they are teaching.” With committed students, Eau Claire Spanish Company has been able to attract more people, especially youth, Gonzalez noted.
“Our small church attendance three years ago was around thirty-five to forty; we doubled the regular Sabbath’s attendance, thanks to their support and work. On some special Sabbaths, we made it up to more than a hundred people.”
Cris Suarez recently completed his Theological Field Education at the Eau Claire Spanish Company. He recounts a personal conversation he had with a new believer who was also new to the area, having left family and friends behind. During the conversation, Suarez noted the person’s loneliness and also his relief in finding a church home in Eau Claire. Recalling the conversation, Suarez said, “It reminded me 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. What’s true for businesses also can be true for churches and has been true for most of those involved with the TFE initiative. Partnering with the Seminary brings impact, leaders said.