Black pastors reach new heights with Indiana Wesleyan ministry program

Originally published in the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper.

A new initiative launched in May at Indiana Wesleyan University is attracting a diverse group of students to the predominantly white school. According to school statistics published by the Associated Press, 98 percent of students at the private Christian school in 2006 were caucasian. Today, that number has dropped to 91 percent.

The Doctor of Ministry (DMIN) program at Wesley Seminary, which will rotate its concentration each year, began in May with the Transformational Leadership concentration. The other concentrations of the program are Transformational Preaching (starting in 2017) and Spiritual Formation (starting in 2018).

Bob Whitesel, an award-winning writer, speaker and professor, is leading the first phase of the initiative and says the school’s new courses are built to increase racial diversity in enrollment by allowing working ministers to earn a degree while maintaining pastoral positions. Most of the program’s coursework is online, with two additional weeks of residential courses as a supplement.

Whitesel is seen presenting passionately about leadership styles for a course at Indiana Wesleyan.

Whitesel said the program currently has 10 Black students and five female students, out of 19 individuals total.

Charles Thurman, a current student, said the group has already traveled to Atlanta for one of the conference-style classes. The next two stops, Oxford, England, and San Diego, are scheduled for the next phases of the program.

“The residential courses are definitely a plus for networking,” Thurman said, citing the Atlanta trip as a valuable experience for him and other students. Thurman, who is considering writing his dissertation on African-American and multicultural leadership in ministries, said the program benefits by having Whitesel encourage diversity as a key to future success.

Whitesel, who is caucasian, said students in the doctorate program will need to be prepared for the challenges associated with a modern multicultural base of American churchgoers.

“Today’s pastors need more knowledge to make an impact. It’s harder to be a pastor today than it was 50 years ago,” Whitesel said. “We are looking at ways to innovate the church. We are learning how some churches are growing and how most churches plateau.”

Ebenezer Baptist Church was one stop for Indiana Wesleyan students. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed crowds during the 1960s. (www.projectaccesstfam.org)

Whitesel said taking students to places like Atlanta, England and the West Coast provides a multitude of perspectives about how societal influences will change how a ministry operates. For the Atlanta trip this summer, students visited Ebenezer Baptist Church and learned of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons to large congregations during the 1960s. They also met with Brian Bollinger, the executive director of Friends of Refugees, an institution serving Cambodians, Kenyans, Croatians, Liberians, Koreans and Iranians, among others.

“I wanted to take them to not just churches in Indiana, but churches everywhere,” Whitesel said. “We decided, ‘Let’s all go on a road trip and bring students with us.’”

Another student in the doctorate program, Mark Brown, described himself as part of the Baby Boomer generation looking to learn about prospective churchgoers of various minorities, including the Asian and Hispanic population.

He said he likes the program at Indiana Wesleyan because it helps him balance time as a student and daily work. In his opinion, other programs were not as practical and lacked the unique travel experiences for students.

“If this wasn’t online or formatted the way it is, I would not be able to study at a doctorate level,” Brown said. “I could never stop and live on campus for three years. Other programs either went to the same place three times or nowhere at all.”

Whitesel echoed this statement by saying, “When we started, we wanted to have the best of online. The students can go online and chat about the books and their papers with one another. It’s really this collaborative opportunity. I have one student who posts at 2 a.m., because he works at night and that schedule works best for him. Other students may post at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. in real conversations over a couple days.”

Brown said he didn’t miss having a weekly classroom setting because he, like most of the students in the program, has other responsibilities, such as work and family. He described the current model as a “best of both worlds.”

As for the two-week residential visit in Atlanta, Brown said he was happy to see how successful contemporary churches appeal to a modern base of Christians. For the visit to England next summer, his goal is to learn more about the Wesleyan Church’s historical presence as being anti-slavery and pro-gender equality.

Brown said another reason he chose Indiana Wesleyan was because he was familiar with Whitesel and other faculty due to a previous master’s program at the seminary. During that time, he gained practical experience by visiting a predominantly caucasian church in Ferguson, Missouri, a year prior to the police shooting of Michael Brown.

“We were trying to figure out how a white church could properly integrate other ethnicities, and I learned about how you work through that change in demographics,” he said. “The reality is that some of that change is hard to implement. I learned that one church can’t change a community, but you can change things one church at a time.”

Whitesel said it is harder to be a preacher in the present due to growing skepticism of the church and a changing society. (www.preaching.org)

The Transformational Leadership concentration of the program will next be available in 2019. Whitesel said the enrollment number will be between 18 and 21 students. In the meantime, the second DMIN concentration (Transformational Preaching) will launch in June 2017 and will be led by Lenny Luchetti. Students are set to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani in New Haven, Kentucky. Students will also travel to England and the Northeast U.S. to meet with pastoral leaders.

Colleen Derr and John Drury will co-lead the third phase of the program — a concentration focusing on spiritual formation.

With the three programs in rotation, Whitesel said Indiana Wesleyan will continue to attract busy pastors like Thurman and Brown who want to earn doctorate degrees while maintaining full-time positions at their respective churches. Online courses and carefully selected visits to institutions within the U.S. and worldwide are key to balancing the workload, he said.

“Transformational leadership is about transforming the community and transforming lives,” Whitesel said. “We want to help our students develop and explain the gospel and realize how beautiful it is to know Christ as their savior.”

Whitesel added that his interest in studying race relations has helped him become a better resource for students in higher education.

“I’d say the majority of my students have been African-American. I am not an African-American, I am caucasian, but I’ve spent a lot of time learning the culture and understanding. I’m not part of the culture. I wish I was. But I think students know I understand the challenges of African-American leadership as an outsider.”

As for Brown, he said it was “phenomenal” to have a white professor like Whitesel encourage discussions of race, gender and class structures within coursework. He said he has learned more about how gentrification, poverty and economic pressures affect the church. His next plan is to incorporate the lessons into his growth as a leader.

“Overall, a multigenerational church is stronger than a single-generational church. We have to find creative ways to work with millennials, too, you know, millennials are real,” he said with a laugh.

“For my church on 38th and Lafayette Road, you can hear about 70 to 90 languages between this community, and because of Whitesel’s willingness to open up on the race question, I have opened my mind to thoughts of a multiethnic church.”

This last thought gave Brown an epiphany.

“You don’t see a Black or red or white Heaven anyway. You see everyone. You see all of their experiences together.”

For more information about the program, visit Indiana Wesleyan’s academics website indwes.edu/seminary/academics/dmin.