Brien Wahlen is one of 23 theology majors currently attending Union College.
Brien Wahlen, a junior theology major, has learned that sometimes the best classrooms are not found on Union College’s campus. Currently a student pastor at Golden Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Bellevue, Neb., he has been given the opportunity to assume many of the tasks of pastor: giving sermons, attending board meetings and meeting with church members.
Wahlen felt God calling him toward a career in the church, which led him to Union College, where he began pursuing his goal of becoming a pastor. When he reached his junior year, he, like all upper division theology students, was assigned an area church to serve as student pastor.
At Golden Hills, Wahlen found himself in an unusual situation when the pastor left over the summer. “Usually students preach a couple times per semester, but I’ve been preaching every third week.” Since the church elders are carrying the responsibility of leading the church, he has willingly shouldered some of the responsibility.
While this proves challenging at times, Wahlen finds guidance and mentorship from his theology professors at Union, each of whom offers a unique skill set and point of view. “Each professor brings something different to the table,” says Wahlen, “I’ve received a well-rounded variety of options.”
He has also received a well-rounded variety of experiences, one of which remains a spiritual high point. “At the end of one of my sermons I made an appeal asking everyone to live dedicated lives so we can all meet in Eden restored, and one of the members responded to my appeal by raising his hand.” That member died the following week. “It made me realize how important preaching the Word really is,” said Wahlen. “You never realize who is going to be hearing the message and where they are in life.”
Delivering the last sermon the man would ever hear has profoundly affected Wahlen. “God used me, an unpolished, underprepared speaker to reach out to this man.” The experience made him realize that, even with all the training Union offers, he will never be fully prepared for ministry without going through God. “The only way to be effective is to be connected to the Lord.”
When theology students take Church Leadership class during their junior year, they are assigned to work at a church within 60 miles or so of Lincoln. This assignment carries over into the senior year and Biblical Preaching class, so each graduate spends two years with the same congregation. Robert Fetrick, chair of the Division of Religion, has worked to create more field training opportunities for student pastors because he knows firsthand the importance of these experiences for young pastors.
“When I graduated, I had little exposure to the realities of pastoral ministry,” said Fetrick. “I felt very unprepared and inadequate. We want our graduating theology majors to move into a church situation with the confidence and skills they need to be successful.”
Experience helps a resume
Student pastoring can also give students an edge when it comes to finding a job after graduation. Michael Paradise, who recently became the young adult pastor at College View church in Lincoln, arrived at Union College in 2001 with no idea what to study. After one semester, however, he felt God calling him to be a youth pastor. “I didn’t know what the word ‘theology’ meant,” said Paradise. “I just told my advisor I wanted something in religion.”
Paradise worked all four years in Campus Ministries, leading out in spiritual activities on campus, developing his gifts and finding avenues in which to use them. When his junior year came and the time to be a student pastor, Paradise was excited to test his education.
Assigned to the Fremont, Neb., congregation, Paradise immersed himself in the church. He gave sermons and was involved in church life as much as possible. “If you seek leadership opportunities, you’ll get them,” he explained. He helped lead prayer meetings and orchestrate an evangelistic series. The biggest challenge of his additional involvement also proved to be his biggest blessing “At that point, you’re not preaching to get a grade, but to give a sermon,” he said of his extracurricular church activities. “The church members expect their spiritual bread.”
After graduating from Union College in 2005, Paradise was hired as associate pastor at Piedmont Park Church in Lincoln. “At that time, we were looking for a youth pastor to work with the kids and we felt like he would make a good fit for that,” said Allen Myers, then senior pastor of Piedmont Park “He was young, enthusiastic, had a good attitude and was easy to work with.” Myers believes he and the conference leadership knew Paradise in large part because they watched him as a student pastor.
The next year the Kansas-Nebraska conference appointed him youth director, the youngest in conference history. Paradise credits many of his college experiences, both as a student pastor and as a leader in Campus Ministries with preparing him for the assignment. “The leadership training I received at Union College is second to none,” he said.
In 2009, Paradise left his role as youth director to earn a Master of Divinity degree from the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. “You could tell which students had gone straight to seminary with all the knowledge but none of the practical skills,” says Paradise. “My experience as a student pastor and subsequently in the field definitely gave me a head start in that regard.”
Although he graduated six years ago, Paradise still visits his former professors at Union to ask theology questions. Sylvester Case, who retired from teaching last year, became a special mentor during Paradise’s years as an undergraduate and especially during a mission trip to Tanzania. “He helped me so much with my sermons,” said Paradise, “but more importantly he cared about my development.”
The future of pastoral training
Fetrick and his fellow theology professors constantly explore new ways to better prepare students to be effective pastors, and next year will launch an entirely new training program. For the first time, senior theology students will spend the first semester of the school year working full-time at a local church.
“Students could be placed anywhere in the Mid-America Union,” said Fetrick. “We will match them with a mentoring pastor in a church.” The students will live in the area and function as an associate pastor for four months. “They will immerse themselves in the life of the church: leadership, speaking, board meetings, youth ministry. They will have a much more in-depth experience.”
This will be the first undergraduate theology training program of its kind in North America, and a partnership with the local conference to fund the students’ living expenses will make it possible. “Students need a practical view of ministry that allows them to apply the principles learned in the classroom,” said Fetrick. “They need to immerse themselves into the real life of the church.”