Part-time pastors, lifelong learners

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PDC partners with FLET to train Spanish-speaking leaders

by Myra Holmes

“You really can’t grow (the church) unless you develop leaders,” says Juan Wall, chair of the Pacific District Conference (PDC) Hispanic Council. “In my mind, if you don’t prepare leaders to do the work, you really don’t have a future.”

Leadership development is a key priority for the PDC, the only U.S. Mennonite Brethren district conference with a board specifically charged with developing potential leaders. And for years, PDC leaders looked for ways to connect Hispanic MB pastors and church workers with the training they need.

The vast majority of the 36 Hispanic churches in the PDC, the West Coast branch of the U.S. Mennonite Brethren family, are shepherded by bivocational pastors with little or no formal training for the job. In addition, the pews are filled with people gifted in teaching, counseling and evangelism who lack only the tools and the confidence to minister effectively.

Not an option

For many PDC Hispanic leaders and potential leaders, traditional full-time seminary training just isn’t an option. Precious few can afford the time or have the money to attend a traditional seminary. They may not even have the prior education or the English-language skills seminary would require.

 Now, Spanish-speaking pastors in the PDC can pursue theological training in a nontraditional setting, thanks in part to retired missionary Elizabeth Tieszen. While working with a school in Cali, Colombia,Tieszen gained experience with a self-study system known as Latin American Faculty of Theological Studies (FLET). She thought that, perhaps, FLET could be an excellent tool for training Hispanic leaders in the PDC as well. PDC leaders agreed.

FLET, founded in 1968, offers Spanish-language distance education courses to train pastors, teachers, evangelists, church planters and church leaders. Students can study at a number of levels, including certificate, associate, bachelor’s or master’s levels, and even earn college or seminary credit. Courses cover a variety of areas. Certificate programs, for example, include Teaching Bible, Leadership, Communications, Christian Counseling and Missions.

PDC leaders partnered with FLET to train Hispanic MB leaders a few years ago and established the Hispanic Leadership Training Board to oversee the program. Tieszen, who now directs the FLET program for the PDC, estimates that about 40 MB students participate in each FLET course offered through the PDC, with three to four courses offered each year.

Through FLET, students study the materials on their own time. So, for example, a factory worker can study during work breaks. Or a bivocational pastor can study in the evenings. That flexibility is critical, since Hispanic church leaders are almost always bivocational, juggling work, church and family responsibilities. Tieszen says, “Even though they are working, they can study and improve themselves.”

Studying as a group

Under the PDC program, MB students are encouraged to study together. Study groups gather with a facilitator weekly to discuss the material, answer questions and share experiences as they begin to apply the lessons. Each course is designed to take eight weeks, but Tieszen says that, “true to Hispanic style,” they often stretch the courses over the maximum of 16 weeks. 

Juan Wall took courses through FLET years ago as a young church leader and says he particularly appreciated the opportunity to discuss the materials with other students and learn from their experiences. Even though he later attended seminary, he says he still keeps those FLET materials on hand and refers to them from time to time, because the material is presented in a simple, but not superficial, way.

Jose Elizondo, associate district minister for the PDC, says FLET teaches a “sane, healthy doctrine.” PDC leaders have added a course in Anabaptist history, which is especially helpful for those leaders who do not come from an MB background.

The FLET system is relatively affordable—another huge advantage to those who cannot afford to leave their job and attend school full-time. Non-credit courses cost a mere $30, while the cost for credit courses ranges from $100 to $200 per credit hour. To further reduce the cost and encourage participation for MB students, the cost is divided between the student, their church and the district.

Pastors aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program. Wall says, “At the end of the story, there’s a ministry for everyone, but a lot of times what keeps us from ministry is, ‘I don’t know how to do it.’ I think that’s part of the training.”

Tieszen gives an example of a group of children’s teachers she worked with, who, after some training, felt better equipped and had a better understanding of how to go beyond entertaining children to actually forming them. “It gives them confidence,” she says.

Tieszen says that one challenge with the self-study system is motivating students to continue taking classes. Unlike full-time study which is marked out in clear-cut semesters and degrees, the FLET system is ongoing, conducted at the student’s pace, with few milestones along the way. Many students, she says, take a few courses and then stop, falling short of the full potential of the opportunity.

Serious study takes commitment

Both Wall and Tieszen say that just because it’s self-study doesn’t mean it’s easy. Make no mistake, they say, it is serious study. It takes commitment. Perhaps it takes an even deeper level of commitment for the PDC’s students, since most add study to an already-full life of work, ministry and family. 

But, they would argue, it’s worth it. Wall imagines a day when there are enough trained Hispanic leaders to not only meet current leadership needs but also provide for growth without drawing from other denominations. Tieszen dreams about a day when churches understand that training their leaders aids the work of the church and encourages their leaders to pursue training. Trained leaders, she says, should result in larger, stronger churches with greater vision.

Jose Elizondo points to huge potential among the Hispanic churches in the PDC. “We have pastors who are doing a tremendous job,” he says, “but they’ve had no preparation.” He points by way of example to Iglesia de Restauracion le Senda Antigua in Pacoima, Calif., which has planted several churches in the U.S., Guatemala and Mexico and is growing quickly under the leadership of Rafael Paz, who has had no formal pastoral training. Or take Los Hechos de Watsonville in Watsonville, Calif., a two-year-old congregation already over the 200 mark with untrained leaders.

Elizondo points out that Hispanic churches in the PDC have planted 20 new churches in the last 10 years—an average of two per year—under leadership that is mostly untrained. What might these churches be able to accomplish if their leaders had more training to fulfill their calling? Just imagine.

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