Perhaps the Lord is doing something.
One spring day in 2018, Michael and I went to Denver’s Botanic Gardens on a date. We’d read about a job opportunity that intrigued us. For so long, Michael sensed a tug to shift from pastoring to teaching, but always with a “wait for it…” sort of caution in the back of his mind. We wouldn’t leave our post unless directed. Back in 2013, we began to pray in earnest about it, and we kept an eye out for potential open doors. We didn’t know what was next, but we began to feel that one season was ending, and something new lay around the corner.
How do you know what God might call you to if you don’t stay alert?
So, we listen. We read the Bible. We pray. We watch for circumstances to line up. We invite advice from trusted people. And often we find ourselves circling round an idea like wary park rangers round a sleeping bear. Is it alive? Is it dangerous?
Alas, this bear was pretty much comatose. The advertised job offered too little vocational fit for too much upheaval as our kids stared down the last years of high school—certainly not worth it if it wasn’t really a calling. To use a technical term, it didn’t seem to be a God-thing. But it inspired a couple weeks of daydreaming, which in turn led to a meaningful conversation with our children about pursuing God’s call, following where He leads, and counting the cost as we obey Him. That conversation re-established as family policy that we will prioritize obedience above convenience, even when it may be hard. Is God calling us to Africa? We’ll go. To North Carolina? We’ll go!
In that moment of freedom we began to dream—what could God do? Where might He call us? Sitting on a spit of boulder tucked into a piney nook at the park, our conversation took an unexpected turn.
Sometimes when you creep over to examine that great sleeping bear, you notice a second one yawning and stretching in the bushes nearby. This one woke up with a startling “what if?”
Have you ever noticed that God doesn’t waste anything? That experiences that seemed like an unnecessary detour at the moment have a way of informing your choices years later? Or a confusing, painful incident blossoms into a life-giving opportunity down the road?
In our conversation at the Botanic Gardens, we remembered old ideas long buried. We talked about our old fascination with L’Abri, a place in the mountains for people to gather, recharge, talk about the Lord, sabbath. Could we do something similar?
We talked about our painful season of burnout and the astonishing blessing our sabbatical was. We had daydreamed back then: could we rent out a camp over the winter to lead intentional sabbaticals for weary leaders?
We resurrected the many hours Michael and friends had spent brainstorming about church-based seminaries and new models of education. But that day, our various brainstorms coalesced in a profound way, and the William Tennent School of Theology began to stir.
There is surely no lack of seminaries in the United States, but there is a problem nonetheless. A series of problems, really. Students rack up tremendous debt in pursuit of training to become pastors, never recouping the cost. The M-Div process is stressful, taking precious time away from families and depleting the pastor’s most valuable resource—his wife and kids. The pastor’s job is wearisome, leading to burnout and battle fatigue—pastors need rest and joy.
Seminaries across the US are floundering financially as they lose students, and, scrambling to stay afloat, they’ve scrapped traditional classes in favor of online courses that oftentimes lack personal connection. Sometimes classes are dry intellectual exercises, sometimes fluff. Perceptive students realize that in a cost-benefits analysis, the cost of seminary often outweighs the benefits. When students do uproot their lives and families to go to brick-and-mortar seminaries, they rarely return home. The cities where seminaries cluster gain leaders aplenty, while rural or downtrodden communities siphon off their best and brightest to head to over-churched regions of the country. That’s not to mention the millions of churches worldwide whose leaders are completely untrained.
All the while, Michael has been extremely blessed, studying with brilliant, kind, and godly people at Gateway and Gordon-Conwell, longing to give back to the Body of Christ a portion of the good he has obtained. Yet for thousands of pastors across the mountain west, no option exists nearby for coffee with a beloved classmate or professor. There simply aren’t any brick and mortar schools available for much of the United States.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What if seminary was rich, robust, relational—a soul-nourishing retreat?
What if students could afford to study, both financially and temporally?
What if families were encouraged to participate?
What if pastors never left their places of ministry for more than a couple weeks at a time?
What if the study was characterized by light and heat?
What if part of the required work was missional in nature, re-gifting theological education to those who need it most, those, perhaps, in the global south?
We dreamed of a place with a string of cabins tucked in the woods, a place where families could come and get to know one another while Mom or Dad works. We played with dates and numbers (if we had just four full-time faculty, how many students would we need? if we ate common meals, how much would that cost?)
We figured we could enroll a dozen or so students at a time, burgeoning over time from three to ten cohorts per year, roll them through twice annually for two weeks a pop. We daydreamed about a scholarship system, interns, a campus.
We decided (no, that is too mundane—we envisioned) that the final two-week session for every group would be international, bringing all the students’ gifts to bear in a theological giveaway somewhere south of the equator. There in the global south, pastors labor for decades without the benefit of Christian books, equipping classes, or Biblical training.
Why not build into American leaders the commonplace expectation that what we receive, we will share?
The blue sky sessions grew in specificity and intensity. We charted calendars and asked questions of nitty-gritty details. What would it entail to send repeated waves of missionary teams each year? If we were smart about it, we would simplify. If we were strategic, we would not only train our people and bless others, but replicate the training process somewhere else, effectively training two groups at once. Indeed, we could essentially create two seminaries at once—one here, another in one of the toughest, least-educated parts of the world. That was a staggering thought, and the more we played with that idea, the more awesome it seemed.
What kind of crazy does it take to start a grad school? What kind of crazy dreams of two?? That idea was a radical step up, not just missional in a loose sense, but inherently, deeply missional, global from the very roots.
We searched online for properties that might work. We found them, realizing to our amazement that retreat centers for sale dot the mountainsides, and for less of a sticker shock than we imagined. Two million dollars? Four? Surely it is a bigger pile of nickels than we’ve ever seen, but it is a light thing to the Owner of Everything.
At this point, the mind begins to reel. How incredible would it be for so many of our various interests, gifts, experiences, struggles, and training to be harnessed and applied in one fell swoop? What a delight, what a privilege, would it be to help create a project of such grand proportions? From our hardest moments in the valley to our training in fundraising, our dream of cabins to our visions of mission work—seemingly every scrap of God-work in our lives would be redeemed to attempt this. All of our own sabbatical prayers—that God would give Michael a platform to teach and raise up leaders, that I would have the ability to write, that our church would be a sending church, that we could personally be involved in missions, that God would be gracious to someday give us a cabin in the woods—every last one of those prayers would be so abundantly answered that God Himself must be laughing out loud. A cabin? How about a whole retreat center?
We compared this dream to the simpler next step of applying for a traditional job at an established seminary. Suddenly the traditional job seemed a pale imitation.
Here is a legacy builder.
Here is a life work.
“I want to know God’s in it. I don’t want to run out ahead of Him on this,” Michael said, most adamantly. We have done startups. We have done hard. If this is from man (naïve daydream of perennial daydreamers), we don’t want any part. If it is from God, how could we turn it down?
So we stitched together wooly fleeces. If God is in it, the Calvary Family of Churches, our network, would want in, too. We wouldn’t be doing this solo, but as a team. Not only would they be intrigued, they would be delighted.
Secondly, if God is in it, He’ll have to provide. Gloriously. Lavishly. We don’t want to beg for money or accrue any debt whatsoever. We want the Lord to open the windows of Heaven and shower down every last cent necessary. He unequivocally can.
Michael began, tentatively, to ask a few trusted friends’ advice. What did we expect? Not eye rolls, exactly, but hesitation, for sure. How much to our surprise, then, when we heard whoops of affirmation and excitement. Maybe it wasn’t completely loony. Still, he was (and is) plagued by 10,000 doubts—who is he to undertake such a project?
Next Michael called Mark, the president of the Calvary Family of Churches, and asked for a meeting. “Perfect. I have something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about, too,” Mark said. They got together for coffee. Michael dove in.
He began from a historical perspective. Consider the Great Awakening. A thoughtful pastor named William Tennent, desirous of training colonial pastors, risked mockery to establish the “Log College.” His school was literally a log cabin seminary in the westernmost sticks of the colonies, created to increase access to theological education. That school played an integral part in the outbreak of revival, and set the foundation for what would later become Princeton University. What if God wants to do it again? Would the Calvary Family consider beginning a seminary?
Here’s the shocker. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” said Mark, incredulous. He’d wanted to meet with Michael specifically to ask if we would help them start a school of theology.
And our little church plant? How would it survive our leaving? Very well, thank you. It’s not about us. And in a longer story than I have time to tell, God has strengthened and equipped our church to be more vibrant than ever. They aren’t sad, they’re excited.
So it’s happening, this school. It feels less like a man-made idea and more like catching a wave. God stirred something in Michael’s heart and Mark’s, quite independently. For my husband, who never wanted to start anything again, He gave a fresh influx of energy and vision. For a couple who’ve been through the ringer with discouragement, He gave a deep desire to encourage others, and fresh courage to begin again.
No, He’s not given us a retreat center, or a string of cabins in the woods. Not yet, anyway. But He’s been flinging open doors right and left, and made a way for us to use someone else’s beautiful facilities in spitting distance of Pike’s Peak. Beautiful. Lavish. Amazing.
I think of I Corinthians 1:26-29, “ For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
It is some kind of crazy for us. But it is a light thing for the Lord.
We are very much a work in progress, and there are many details still to be worked out. But we are ready to accept applications for our pilot group! Check it out: williamtennent.org or (easier to spell) log.college.