Leland V. Eliason, who grew up on a farm in Wedena, Saskatchewan, Canada, attended Caronport Bible Institute. While there, he committed himself to full-time Christian service. He came to the United States to finish his undergraduate work at Bethel College, graduating in 1962. He then entered Bethel Seminary, receiving his B.D. degree in 1966. As a seminary student, Eliason served in ministry positions at Elim Baptist Church in Minneapolis and at First Baptist Church in Rochester, Minn. When he graduated from Bethel Seminary, he was called as pastor of North St. Paul Baptist Church, serving there until 1972. During this time, he pursued a S.T.M. degree at Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary with a major in pastoral counseling. He was active on the Board of the North St. Paul Children’s Center and on the Committee for Social Ministries of the Minnesota Baptist Conference. In addition, Eliason was part of the Long Range Planning Committee of the Baptist General Conference.
In 1972, Eliason was called to Bethel Seminary as director of field education and assistant to the dean. He completed his S.T.M. degree in 1973. The counseling expertise developed in his master’s work was useful as Eliason built on the work in field education that had begun under Dean Gordon Johnson’s leadership. Bethel established a relationship with North Central Career Counseling Center, which led to a significant step forward in assessment and career counseling for seminary students. During these years, Eliason worked as a counselor in a treatment center for the chemically dependent, developed and directed the Minnesota Baptist Conference Counseling Center, served as a consultant to clergy for the North Central Career Development Center, and filled in as interim pastor for a number of churches. In 1983, he earned the degree of doctor of theology in pastoral psychology from Boston University School of Theology.
After 10 years of work in administration and teaching at the seminary, in 1983 Eliason was called to be pastor of Whittier Area Baptist Fellowship in Whittier, Calif., one of the larger churches in the Baptist General Conference. As pastor, he provided leadership within the Southwest Baptist General Conference and the Baptist General Conference, serving as a member of the Bethel Board of Regents from 1984 to 1989 and from 1991 to 1994. Eliason’s ministry at Whittier was characterized by a deep concern for prayer and a passion to keep the focus on bringing the lost to Jesus Christ. His pastoral experience also led him to a deep concern for the growth and renewal of church leaders.
In 1994, Eliason was called to become executive vice president and dean of Bethel Seminary. The work of restructuring the seminary to meet the diverse schedules and needs of a new generation had begun under Fred Prinzing. The modular program and the InMinistry program were beginning to attract increased enrollments. One of Eliason’s first tasks was to write a new mission statement for the seminary that emphasized a concern for reaching men and women for Christ—characteristic of Eliason’s ministry in Whittier—and for reaching men and women in “culturally sensitive ways” in order to keep Bethel relevant to a rapidly expanding multicultural world. Carla Dahl was called to the seminary to begin a new program in marriage and family studies, leading to marriage and family therapy licensure, and a new focus on leadership preparation was added to traditional seminary studies. In 1996, seminary work was structured into a “three centers” approach, which involved orienting students to an integration of biblical and theological studies, personal and spiritual formation, and leadership enrichment for maximum effectiveness in ministry.
Enrollment has climbed with the introduction of these new programs and delivery methods. From 568 students when Eliason came in 1995, Bethel Seminary grew to more than 1,000 students by 2001. In 2000, Bethel took over the church-based seminary program of Seminary of the East, expanding Bethel’s ministry to the East Coast. At about the same time, a new master’s in transformational leadership program began in conjunction with Willow Creek Church in Barrington, Ill. Denise Kjesbo was called to begin a new distance program in children’s and family ministries. The doctor of ministry program, under the leadership of Greg Bourgond, became the sixth largest doctor of ministry program in the country. In 2006, Bethel is the ninth largest seminary in the country, known for innovation and programs designed to increasingly bring effective and relevant training to those who will engage in Christian ministry.