Canadian students enjoy benefits of distance education

February 2, 2011 | Focus On | Number 3
By Annette Brill Bergstresser | Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary

In 2009, the high percentage of Canadian participants in the pastoral studies distance education program at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) left program administrators scratching their heads. Ten of the 16 students were from Mennonite Church Canada, with eight of these coming from MC Eastern Canada.

Last year, six of the eight continuing students were Canadians.

These statistics prompted administrators to ask the Canadians how they’d heard about AMBS’s college-level ministry-training program in which pastors and lay leaders complete coursework via correspondence and meet with a local mentor.

The first step

Susanne Thiessen of Faith Mennonite Church, Leamington, Ont., signed up for the program after her pastor, Ruth Boehm, gave her the brochure. “I’d always considered that [the program] would be a good idea, but I had put it on the back burner,” said Thiessen, who has a background in electronics and computer sales/support, and began working as a youth minister at Faith two years ago.

But then Boehm told her that two other youth workers in Leamington were interested in the program and had approached her about being their mentor. “I thought, ‘This is the time to do it, whether I’m ready or not,’ ” she said.

“I struggled with the schedule a bit at first,” said Thiessen, who was working half-time as youth minister and half time as secretary at Faith. “But Lois Zehr, our instructor, was very accommodating and flexible, and it worked out.”

Zehr lives in Goshen, Ind., and corresponds with her students via e-mail.

Brent Horst, a lay leader and long-time member of St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, Ont., first picked up a program brochure last January, when Sherri Martin-Carman, development associate and admissions counsellor for AMBS, visited his church.

“I hadn’t done anything quite like this before, but it seemed like a time to give it a try,” said Horst, who works full time as an information technology director for Home Hardware Stores. Like Thiessen, he has found it challenging to make time to study, and has appreciated Zehr’s flexibility.

Engaging the material

Thiessen has valued the questions that have helped her to see her congregation as a whole and to identify its strengths and weaknesses. Remembering that Faith had begun a visioning/ dreaming process a few years prior, she helped initiate a re-examination by pastors and church council of the list that had come out of that process. “It was interesting to see how many things on that list were actually starting,” she reflected. “We then worked to connect people who were interested in moving forward with some of the projects.”

An area church connection?

Is there a correlation between the number of students from Ontario and the leadership development focus of MC Eastern Canada?

“I think that [the area church] does a really good job of encouraging faith growth/nurture opportunities,” Horst said, noting his congregation’s strong ties to MC Eastern Canada.

Muriel Bechtel, who has served for 10 years as MC Eastern Canada’s conference minister, said, “One way we’ve tried to encourage pastors to use this resource is to help with financial assistance. This is an important way of encouraging the congregation to do their part as well, to help their pastors take this course.”

Bechtel gives credit for MC Eastern Canada’s work in leadership development to Ralph Lebold, who was the first person to hold a leadership training position shared between the area church and AMBS, and all who have built on his efforts.

“But I’m just amazed so many times at the way the Spirit works. I don’t feel as though we are doing all the work,” she added. “Like with Frank [Froese of Leamington United Mennonite] just finding [the course unexpectedly] on the Internet: I believe that was the Spirit’s leading. Then we give our own small effort, and the Spirit multiples it all.”

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