Conference pastors pursue higher education

by Lora Steiner, managing editor

The Lord works in mysterious ways,  and the Spirit leads in mysterious ways: sometimes to faraway lands, sometimes to stretching local ministries—or sometimes, back to the classroom.

Beth Yoder with her family at her graduation from Drew.
Beth Yoder with her family at her graduation from Drew.

This year, two Franconia Conference pastors finished Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) degrees, while several others are pursuing pastoral studies alongside other fulltime jobs. The advantages to them and their congregations are many: For pastors who’ve been in ministry for many years, it can be a time to refocus and re-tool. For congregations, it’s a chance to develop new practices and to see the Gospel in fresh ways, and a gentle nudge to those in maintenance mode.

Throughout Beth Yoder’s congregational ministry, she has interspersed her work with study: a year at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, coursework at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield and Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, and classes at Eastern Mennonite Seminary as well. It was at EMS that Beth re-embraced her passion for worship and preaching—and also at EMS where she remembered her interest in doing a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) degree at Drew University,  a program that would allow her to focus heavily on those areas.

Yoder, associate pastor of Salford congregation, says her studies were invigorating, and brought a sort of freshness for her and her congregation. D.Min. programs are structured around a project that the student commits to doing in her worship setting; Yoder’s focused on embodied worship—using principles of theater and movement to enrich worship. Many—not all—she reports, were appreciated, but it let her examine a hunch about the significance of embodied worship on spiritual formation. A lot of it, she says, wasn’t brand new—but her studies and assignments carved out that space to try something different.

Mike Derstine, pastor of Plains congregation, recently finished a D.Min. at Palmer Theological Seminary in King of Prussia, Pa. He’d always thought about pursuing the degree but with commitments to family and church, the timing never seemed right. When his congregation gave him a three-month sabbatical, it was the encouragement he needed to enter the program.

Mike Derstine with his family at graduation from Palmer.
Mike Derstine with his family at graduation from Palmer.

Palmer’s program focuses on transformational leadership, the missional church, and congregational renewal. Derstine says it’s just what he was looking for, a “key area for congregational pastors who need to think about what the changing context means for ministry.”

Derstine says he’d become so preoccupied with the needs and demands of the day-to-day life of a congregation that he found he wasn’t taking enough time for personal or professional renewal. Programs like this, he says, allow pastors  space to cultivate a “deeper spirituality, as well as more disciplined  and intentional approach to what we do.”

Beny Krisbianto, pastor of Nations Worship Center in south Philadelphia, is finishing a degree at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary campus in Lancaster. Like many other pastors in Franconia Conference, he takes one or two courses a semester—that’s all he has time for—and appreciates how he is able to daily use what he is studying: “I can balance between learning the principles and theology and applying it to my context.”

Krisbianto says one thing he learned from seminary is how to care for himself.

“Before I went to seminary I didn’t know about teaching and discipline. After beginning seminary, I grew a lot,” he says. “I know my strength, I know my weakness, I know when to say no, I know when to say stop.”

Krisbianto has two classes left and will graduate in 2015. This week also saw the graduations of Tami Good, Souderton congregation, and Kris Wint, Finland congregation, with M.Divs. from Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Pa.

Although it may seem impossible while in the midst of classroom demands, life continues after graduation: Derstine took time after he finished his studies to replace the mufflers and exhaust system on his old car, and started seeds for his garden, continuing the balance of daily life and renewal. Both Derstine and Yoder continue in their same congregations.

“I think both formal and informal pastor education are important for pastors and congregational leaders,” says Yoder, “because it gives people an opportunity to engage new material, to learn with new people, and also gives leaders a space to say ‘I don’t have all of the answers,’ when sometimes leadership roles can get us into the practice of feeling like we have to have all the answers.”

“Going back into the classroom invites you to become a learner, to engage humbly, to rethink your own leadership from a different perspective.”

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