Small Bangor college prepares students for Christian ministry

Between classes at Grace Evangelical College & Seminary in Bangor, Bernie Staples of Bar Harbor studies biblical Hebrew. After retiring as a Hancock County District Court judge in July 2010, Staples enrolled at GECS to pursue a master’s degree in divinity.
Brian Swartz
Between classes at Grace Evangelical College & Seminary in Bangor, Bernie Staples of Bar Harbor studies biblical Hebrew. After retiring as a Hancock County District Court judge in July 2010, Staples enrolled at GECS to pursue a master’s degree in divinity.
Posted March 09, 2012, at 11:21 a.m.

When Bernie Staples, Beth Rogers, and Steve Kenerson say, “It’s Greek to me,” they mean it — literally. As students enrolled at Grace Evangelical College & Seminary in Bangor, they take required courses that include biblical Greek; by the time they graduate, all three will read the language well.

But biblical Greek is only one of many courses taught at GECS, located at 502 Odlin Road, Bangor. According to the Rev. Dr. Terry Phillips, the college’s president, GECS opened in 2001 to teach students interested in various types of Christian ministry and to prepare them for such service.

“A graduate of Grace Evangelical College & Seminary may be the one leading worship or preaching in a church on Sundays and pastoring though the week,” said Phillips. “Another graduate may be a Sunday School teacher or lead a mission group or may be a lay leader on a church committee or board. They may be full-time in church service. They may be part-time. They may be volunteers.”

According to Phillips, current GECS programs can lead to associate, bachelor, or master’s degrees, with classes taught by faculty members who often hold advanced degrees. For students drawn from across central, eastern, and northern Maine, small class sizes and a flexible class schedule are important.

After retiring as a Hancock County District Court judge in July 2010, Bernie Staples of Bar Harbor started classes at GECS the next month. “I decided to go to the seminary because I wanted to go back in the academic world,” the 79-year-old Staples said. Two years ago “I strongly felt God was keeping me on the Earth for a purpose, and it was to go study His word.”

He decided to attend Grace Evangelical because the college “has an extremely credible faculty, very good teachers. The college appeals to people whose religious life is focused on evangelism and a conservative approach to the Scriptures.”

Since 1965, Staples has worshiped at Church of Our Father Episcopal Church, “a lovely, small, welcoming church” in Hulls Cove. The “conservative congregation” attracted him and his wife, he said.

While taking “demanding courses” since 2010, Staples has developed specific goals — and flexible time-tables. He pursues a master’s degree in divinity, and “I have the rest of my life to do that,” he said, smiling. Staples wants to become an Anglican deacon; “my guess would be the next couple of years” before he accomplishes that goal.

Among the courses that Staples will take en route to his degree are Greek, Hebrew, spiritual transformation, and biblical studies. “The classes are very small,” he said. “You are encouraged to participate; you can’t hide behind your book at the rear of the room and get away with it.

“I have never experienced such committed people in my life,” Staples said, referring to the faculty. “They are very committed to helping students learn … [and] often work individually with us.

“We study God’s word to find out what He said, not what we want Him to say,” he said. “The classes focus on God’s word; we use the Bible a lot.”

Staples travels one day a week from Bar Harbor to attend classes. He enjoys “being with the people. It’s very welcoming here.

“I’ve been so impressed in talking with the students, particularly the young ones who are raising a family and want to be ordained and are committed to serving Christ,” Staples said. “They are aware that they will not get rich in church ministry. Yet they are committed to that ministry.”

Returning to school at Grace Evangelical College & Seminary represents “the call to go deeper into ministry” that Beth Rogers experienced not long ago. “I’ve always been involved in ministry in the church; I feel this is the right road to becoming more involved.

“My main focus in ministry is being able to share Christ with the world,” she said. “The environment here is good for learning how to do that.”

Rogers and her husband, Jim, live in Bangor and attend All Souls Congregational Church. She holds a bachelor’s degree in childhood development from the University of Maine; since enrolling part time at GECS in autumn 2009, she has decided to earn a master’s degree in theology.

Looking toward a May 2013 graduation, Rogers believes that “I should be about three-quarters of the way through at the end of this [academic] year.” Her courses have included New Testament survey, Old Testament survey, eschatology, biblical Greek, church history, and preaching and teaching.

Classes require “you to seriously focus,” Rogers said. “I was not a stellar student when I was younger and in college,” but “I’ve found I’m a pretty good student now. I appreciate the dimensional learning with different professors and their styles of teaching.

“I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been able to go very deep,” she said.

Besides her studies at GECS, Rogers wants to take a spiritual direction course offered by the Anglican Church. She would like “to become a spiritual director, to write, and to teach.”

According to Rogers, Grace Evangelical offers “a pretty flexible schedule” with morning, afternoon, and evening classes. “I’ve been able to fit my classes around my own schedule,” she said.

Because GECS attracts students from various denominations, “you have to be respectful of other students’ viewpoints,” Rogers commented. Students “are all people who hold the Scriptures in the highest place. They feel passionate about what they believe.

“I found I was supported here by all the students,” even those “who don’t approve of a woman being a pastor,” she said, noting that “I really don’t feel like I’m cut out to be a head pastor, but I would be willing to preach.

“It feels very safe and nurturing here,” Rogers said.

Steve Kenerson took his first class a GECS in autumn 2009 because “I want to go into full-time [Christian] ministry. I feel that passionately about God’s calling.”

He and his wife, Angela, volunteer as youth pastors at Harvest Chapel of Levant Village, located on Route 222 in Levant. They also work: Steve part time for UPS in Brewer, Angela full time as a teacher in Newport. In 2009 she graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood special education.

A Hermon High School graduate, Steve Kenerson is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in ministry. After taking four classes this semester, he will need only seven more classes to obtain his degree. With it, “I’d like to continue the work of youth pastor” at Harvest Chapel, he said. The degree also “would qualify me to work as the head pastor of a church.

He learns under “very diverse” professors who are “very qualified in their areas of expertise. Each of them has experience in ministry. The professors here genuinely want the students to be prepared for ministry outside of the school.

“There is no mincing words about what it’s going to be like leaving here and going out into the world,” Kenerson said. The professors “prepare you well for learning devotion and submission to God. We have to be humble and recognize our weaknesses.

“The professors here don’t care about position,” he said. “Their accomplishments are not as important to them as building relationships with us. There is a deep and caring love for each student.”

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