Teaching Church Initiative Students Thriving in Local Churches

Article by Julie-Allyson Ieron

In Fall 2018 Northern Seminary’s Teaching Church Initiative saw its first class of minister/students begin their studies. The program, a partnership with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky, allows pastors and ministry professionals who serve in small, local churches to attend seminary via the school’s live-streaming technology—Northern Live. Students receive part or all of their tuition costs from the district and their local church.

Scott Johanningsmeier
Bi-vocational Pastor
Elizabeth Baptist Church, Nabb, IN

“I am a bi-vocational pastor and have been serving Elizabeth Baptist Church for three-and-a-half years. I always wanted to finish seminary but figured it would be later in life after my children were out of school. When I was presented with the opportunity of the Teaching Church Initiative, I jumped at it. Our Region staff was dedicated to this project. They came and talked with the church about what TCI is all about. The church was onboard—100%.”

Scott in the pulpit at Elizabeth Baptist Church.

Scott became excited about doing seminary online because he’d tried distance learning in the past with good results. “The ability to interact with the class has been a wonderful part of the online experience.”

For him, the greatest challenge is balancing his time. “My family’s willingness to support me is the biggest reason I can do what I do. I value my family time and try to work my classwork around it.”

He tries to adhere to a well-orchestrated schedule. “I work a full-time job, Monday-Friday 8-4:30. My classes are on Monday nights. After class it is time to start helping with bedtimes. On Tuesday I start planning for my sermon on Sunday. On Wednesday nights I help lead a Bible study. On Thursday nights my girls have gymnastics, so I have the night at home alone, and I try to focus on classwork. On Saturdays I get to go with them to swim lessons. I make sure I do not take any of my books so I can watch them. On Saturday I also finalize my sermon so that I can preach on Sunday mornings.”

Sam Sloffer, a church member and one of Scott’s partnership team, says, “It is incredible that Scott can juggle his family, job, school and tend to our church needs. He works with energy and has much enthusiasm toward it all. We are fortunate to have Scott and share in all the things he is learning.”

The respect between congregation and pastor goes both ways. Scott says, “My connection with my congregation has grown since the start of the TCI program. The church is investing in me above and beyond what is required in a pastor/church relationship. When I am doing my studies, it is a way I am investing in my congregation. This is a way of becoming a better pastor for my church.”

Scott’s ministry is unique in size and scope, as his rural congregation averages 13 most weeks. “It often feels like a ministry is viewed as lesser or failing because of its [smaller] size. TCI has made a huge impact in my ministry because it validates small church ministry.” By its nature, this program enhances the ministries of smaller churches, rather than encouraging ministers to upgrade to larger churches. Scott says this impacts both the pastor and the congregation:

Troy Burns
Bethany Baptist Missionary Church, Crothersville, IN

“When I found out about the Teaching Church Initiative in The Baptist Observer, I talked to my regional pastor Dan Chadwick about it. He said it was a great opportunity; he’s been invaluable in this process. The thing that drew me was the theological study. To preach the Word faithfully, I need to be in an environment where I’m studying and daily wrestling with difficult passages.”

Troy sharing breakfast with his Donut Shop group—congregants who work second shift and appreciate being able to meet with their pastor during the day.

Troy, a husband and father of two grade-schoolers, had a full schedule before seminary. Adding graduate studies to this mix wasn’t an easy adjustment—but he’s finding it a creative challenge. “My son is 8, and my daughter is 5. It’s fun. They’ll come home, and I’ll say, ‘It’s homework time.’ I’ll do homework, and they’ll do the homework. My daughter is reading Goodnight Moon, and I’m reading my theological textbook.”

Troy finds value in pursuing his studies with a cohort. “There are 10 of us, and we’ll be together in all our classes. We learn together, and we get to know each other and build relationships. That cultivates a deeper learning and a deeper understanding because we come from different cultures and different backgrounds and different theological emphases. We’re not all Baptists. So it is challenging and wonderful.”

What does a typical study week look like for Troy? “From week to week there’s a lot of reading. The class is just like you’re in a classroom. You see everybody face to face realistically, even though we’re miles apart. You click a button to raise your hand, and you’re able to talk and interact with the professor and the other students. It does have the feeling of being in the classroom even though you’re not.

“We have papers to write and studying to do and thoughts and prayers and deliberation over topics. It’s theologically challenging. … Today I did a sermon outline, and I did my PowerPoint, I’ve been studying and reading articles and reading books and preparing for a paper that’s going to be due. Then I’ll pick my kids up from school, have dinner, play with them a little bit, then I’ll sit at my computer and keep working. That’s my life right now.”

Bill Shiell, Scott Johanningsmeier, Mark Kern, and Troy Burns at Teaching Church Initiative, First Baptist Church, Seymour, IN.

How does he maintain balance with such a demanding schedule? “I think part of it is having a loving and understanding church. Dan Chadwick came to one of our executive board meetings, talked about the teaching church initiative, and we began to pray about it. The church said, ‘Troy we want you to do this.’

“Not only is there a financial commitment on the church’s behalf, but there’s the realization that the pastor’s time is going to be taken. I’m expected, as part of my job as a pastor, to study and be at class, have the dialog with students and professors, and read. The church has adopted it as what I do. They are an incredible church.”

One early benefit has seen unique kingdom results. “My first class under David Fitch challenged me to create fellowship like Acts 2:42—breaking bread together. So I started inviting congregants to my house. Through that I’ve been able to have open dialog in things I would never have been able to talk about with them at church.

“I think of two people who were coming to church because they knew they ought to come, but there was this vacuum; they were never able to talk about their struggles. Sitting at my dining room table with my wife and me and our kids—praying and talking and laughing and playing together—they felt comfortable enough that they could break down and cry and talk about the pain of the past.” What happened to these two young people? “They came to the Lord, got baptized, joined the church and began a healing process.”

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