Leland Eliason Named 2019 Bethel Seminary Alumnus of the Year

In a ministry career spanning six decades, the pastor, leader, and Bethel Seminary executive director and provost emeritus has lived out a call to tell people about the transforming love of Jesus—and has equipped countless others to do the same.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

July 31, 2019 | 11 a.m.

Leland Eliason

Leland Eliason ’62, S’66 is the 2019 Bethel Seminary Alumnus of the Year.

“As a six-year-old, I used to love communion services.” Leland Eliason pauses as he recalls the memory. “When the pastor broke a loaf of bread and said it represents Christ’s body, and when he described Christ’s blood shed for us on the cross, that really gripped me. I remember asking my dad one Sunday, ‘Dad, if Jesus loved everybody so much that He died for them, why doesn’t everybody believe in Him?’ And my dad said, ‘Well, some have never heard.’ And I said, ‘When I get big, I’m gonna tell them.’”

Leland Eliason has gotten big. He is a 1962 graduate of Bethel College (now Bethel University) and a 1966 graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary (now Bethel Seminary). He holds master’s and doctoral degrees in theology and pastoral psychology. He has pastored churches diverse in attendees, location, and size, and served in a leadership role at Bethel Seminary not once, but twice—as a faculty member and assistant to the dean from 1972 to 1983, and as executive director and provost from 1994 to 2009. Since retiring from Bethel, he has continued his service to the church and to theological education as founding dean of the School of Ministry at Richmont Graduate University in Atlanta, and most recently as a consultant to Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana, where he helped develop and implement the first ATS-approved, competency-based model of theological education in the U.S.

From rural Saskatchewan, Canada, to a ministry career spanning six decades, Eliason has fulfilled a pastoral call all his life. “I date my sense of calling in the mind and heart of a six-year-old kid on a farm in Canada, and it has stayed with me,” he says. “It’s still with me, because the best news humanity can hear is that God loves them with that kind of sacrificial love.”

In recognition of his life of service and commitment to the church, its flock, and its pastors and leaders, Eliason has been chosen as the 2019 Bethel Seminary Alumnus of the Year. Nominators say he has “lived faithfully and boldly as a Christ-follower. He has played an active role in the character development, equipping, and spiritual formation of hundreds of women and men in his various roles. He is a courageous witness for Christ, and God has used him as a peacemaker and reconciler in many settings and ministries. He speaks truth in tough situations and gives of himself selflessly.”

Bethel Beginnings

Eliason’s Bethel journey began as an undergraduate. After growing up in fundamentalist Baptist churches in Canada, he says “college was an experience of grace and freedom. Bethel was a gift. The spirit of Bethel just breathed a sense of openness and understanding and seeking after the truth.” In 1962, his senior year of college, Eliason also took classes at the seminary, so by the time he enrolled in seminary full time, he was already experiencing “remarkable spiritual and intellectual and personal growth,” he says. The list of his professors and mentors reads like a Bethel Seminary Who’s Who: Clarence Bass, Virgil Olson, Reuben Omark, Millard Erickson, Gordon Johnson. Eliason adds that then-President Carl Lundquist “modeled the intellectual vigor and theological breadth that was inspiring to all of us.” 

One life-changing seminary experience stands out. Eliason clearly remembers sitting in the library reading Martin Luther’s treatise on Romans concerning the doctrine of salvation by grace, through faith and not by works. “The Spirit of God came over me,” he says, “and I discovered that I was experiencing what Luther was talking about—I was having a personal experience of that grace. I met God in a way I never had before, and I sat and wept over His grace.”

Compassion-based Ministry

After graduating from Bethel Seminary in 1966, Eliason and his wife Carol, whom he met at Bethel, answered a pastoral call to North St. Paul Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, now called North Haven Church. There, he had the first of many opportunities to apply the spirit of grace he had experienced so personally in seminary. “The people of the congregation were much more full of grace and love than they were full of rules and regulations,” he says, “but unfortunately the church by-laws had some unnecessary rules.” 

One rule specified that no one in the church could drink alcohol. And that’s when a local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group asked if they could use the church to hold their meetings. Not only did the church open its doors, but when the group asked Eliason to serve as its chaplain, he agreed—on one condition. “I wasn’t chemically dependent, and I had hardly any knowledge about alcoholism,” he says. “So I finally agreed to be their chaplain if I didn’t have to say anything for the first year. I think they were really curious to know whether a preacher could actually not say anything for an entire year.”

As he attended the AA meetings, Eliason realized they were changing him. “I’d come to those meetings often worried about my sermon from the previous Sunday or what people in the church thought of me, but there I learned to let go of what I can’t control and live in the moment,” he remembers. “We went around the circle every meeting, and each person would say, ‘I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic, or I’m Susan, and I’m an alcoholic.’ When it was my turn, I said, ‘I’m Leland, and I’m a sinner.’” 

He wasn’t the only one who changed. “Our relationship with those dear recovering alcoholics changed the culture of our church,” he says. “The people of the church began to open up, to talk about a family member struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, to say what was true about their family system. No longer keeping secrets created the freedom so crucial to personal growth. During that time of growth and renewal, the congregation removed the ‘no drinking’ rule from the by-laws.” And so a foundational truth took hold, one that would continue to define Eliason’s ministry for the rest of his life. “In that first pastorate,” he says, “we grew out of rule-based religion to compassion-based ministry.” 

Persevering in the Call

In 1972, Eliason returned to Bethel as a faculty member and assistant to then-Dean Gordon Johnson, developing the field education program—later called supervised ministry—that became a distinctive component of Bethel Seminary training. Johnson would later write that Eliason’s friendship “meant more to me than I can readily describe. When [he] felt called to leave as my trusted associate, it was like cutting off my right arm…I always felt that [he] would one day fill my office.”

Johnson was right, although Eliason had another calling to fulfill first—as pastor of Whittier Area Baptist Church, now called Whittier Area Community Church, in Whittier, California. In 1983, he and Carol began their leadership of a burgeoning congregation there, one that had grown from 540 to 1,600 people in its first decade. Church leaders wanted to keep growing at the same rate in the church’s second decade, but they had a stipulation: They wanted to grow not by attracting more practicing Christians, but by evangelizing unchurched people.

In 12 years at Whittier, Eliason led evangelism efforts that involved every area of the church, from the nursery, to Sunday School, to his own sermon topics. The church was intentional about building bridges for easy conversations with people in the area, “creating a setting, a natural flow for relationship building, without which evangelism is limited,” says Eliason. He remembers one service in particular, when he began his message with C.S. Lewis’ teaching that God honors for eternity the choices people make in this life in response to Him. The message concluded by presenting “a simple description of how God has done everything possible to remove every barrier for people to know Him,” recounts Eliason with some emotion. “I gave an invitation that morning, and 29 people prayed to receive Christ. I’ll never forget it.”

Whittier was also a place where Eliason was able to act on his long-held commitment to supporting women in ministry. “The role of women in ministry was born in my heart in high school, when I had an aunt who was a missionary in India,” he says. “Aunt Ruby led the nursing program for a hospital there, and developed an inductive Bible study approach for teaching ministry leaders. She came back to the U.S. and was invited to speak at a Bible study in a pastor’s home. But the pastor was so nervous about having a woman lead the meeting that he hardly let her talk. And as a 10th-grader then, I thought, ‘There’s something wrong with this. If God can use her to teach pastors in India, why can’t she teach others at home?’”

At Whittier, numerous women served on the pastoral staff, but controversy arose a few years into Eliason’s time there. He had already endorsed the value of women in serving in all aspects of pastoral ministry as part of his invitation to serve as senior pastor there. But some key church leaders wanted him to reverse this foundational church value and exclude women from many of those leadership roles. Eliason refused. “I just couldn’t do that,” he says. “If that was the way the church was going, then I needed to go to a different church.” The church voted overwhelmingly to continue their support of women in ministry, but the conflict—added to concern about how emphasis on evangelism had changed the church culture—resulted in 200 people leaving Whittier. “It was quite a journey,” reflects Eliason, “yet we persevered in doing what we believed we were called to do. And at our farewell service before coming to Bethel, the most common sentiment expressed to us was, ‘Thank you for not quitting.””

A Return to Bethel

In 1994, Eliason returned to Bethel Seminary to become executive vice president and dean, bringing his years of pastoral experience—and his heart for congregations and their leaders—with him. In fact, at the service celebrating Eliason’s installation as dean, then-President George Brushaber remarked that Eliason “still has the smell of sheep on him.”

And in that era, those sheep were increasingly experiencing pastoral leadership failures. “The issue facing seminaries all across the country in the mid-90s was the catastrophic number of personal and moral failures in leadership,” says Eliason. “The question for seminaries became, ‘How are we going to prepare the next generation of leaders for the kind of ministry demands they are facing in the current culture?’ I grappled with this over and over again. And I still remember waking up early one morning and saying, ‘What if we had a center for biblical and theological foundations, and a center for spiritual and personal formation, and a center for transformational leadership?’ I scribbled some notes on that, and met with President Brushaber later that morning. I told him my thoughts, and he said, ‘I think we can get someplace from here.’”

They definitely got someplace. In fact, the culture of Bethel Seminary was forever changed. What became known as the Three Centers approach to ministry preparation now defined Bethel Seminary. Students were required to take courses from each of the Three Centers, balancing their biblical and theological studies with leadership training, personal formation, and spiritual growth. The seminary devised ways of helping students measure that growth, and spiritual formation courses began to show significant impact. New students were drawn to this groundbreaking approach. “After we implemented the new philosophy and tracked the student response for three or four years,” says Eliason, “we found that more students said they came to Bethel Seminary because of the Three Centers than for any other single reason. 

But Eliason’s vision was even bigger than the Three Centers. His commitment to diversity had far-reaching effects on the seminary’s ethos, helping to empower women and people of color for ministry leadership at every level. “The gospel is all about breaking down walls between Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female. It’s a holistic picture,” he says. “But diversity is messy—it takes courage and honesty and transparency. It takes humility and a deep commitment that says we’re going to stay with this until we understand each other and love one another. But the result is a fellowship that’s rich, far richer because we are doing it together.” 

He also decided that future leaders should experience the passion and vision of thriving churches together. In a unique and ambitious plan to equip transformational leaders, he envisioned and implemented Bethel Seminary’s Transformational Church Series (TCS), an annual conference featuring the pastor and staff of nationally known transformational churches, like Wayne Cordeiro and New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu; Tony Evans and Oak Hill Bible Fellowship in Dallas; and Erwin McManus and Mosaic in Los Angeles. The pastor and ministry team of the featured church took the stage at Bethel University and “did church” just as they did at home, then presented breakout sessions targeting various church ministries, from preaching to worship to children’s ministry. Seminary students gained personal exposure to diverse and creative approaches to doing church, but the impact extended much farther—the TCS attracted hundreds of pastors, ministry leaders, and lay leaders each year, all of them further equipped for ministry by Bethel Seminary.

A Legacy in God’s Hands

In 2009, Eliason retired as executive director and provost of Bethel Seminary after 15 years of leadership. “Those years were among the most joy-filled years of my life,” he says. “God did amazing things at the seminary.” In retirement, he has continued to be an influential voice in theological education, tirelessly serving, leading, and consulting. But he’s also spending well-deserved time with Carol, his two adult children and their spouses, and his six grandchildren. He’s renovating a lake cabin the family has owned since 1974, on a “postage-stamp piece of land that has become a place of restoration, healing, and nurture,” he says.

As for legacy, Eliason isn’t much concerned with that. “I think my legacy is in God’s hands,” he says. “I may not understand what it is. And that doesn’t matter so long as He’s holding it.” Others would point to his compassion, his vision, his humble leadership that seems rooted in the heart of that six-year-old boy who just wanted to tell other people about Jesus. “It may seem very different to go from a six-year-old to a seminary, but the heart of it is still the same—it’s about asking what God is doing so we can join Him,” says Eliason. “When I stand before the Lord someday, I’m hoping there will be people from tribes and nations I don’t know about, who are going to say, ‘Because you did that, we’re here.’ If that happens, that will be the best legacy I can imagine.”

Leland and Carol Eliason

Leland and Carol Eliason have been partners in ministry—and in life—for more than 56 years.

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