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Empowering Families to Grow Together

For her Bethel Seminary D.Min. program, Sara Sosa S’19 researched the spiritual development of children and families at the same time she created and launched a prototype Awana program doing just that.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

June 07, 2019 | Noon

Sara Sosa

New Doctor of Ministry graduate Sara Sosa ’19 created and launched Awana Together, a discipleship program for families.

How can parents influence their kids’ spiritual development? Sara Sosa S’19, pastor of children and family ministry at Plymouth Covenant Church in Plymouth, Minnesota, would tell you that parents need some biblical training themselves in order to feel empowered to guide their children. And she should know, since she’s spent the last four years researching the topic as part of her Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) program at Bethel Seminary, culminating in a thesis project on “Empowering Parents as Spiritual Mentors for Their Children.” At the same time, she’s been implementing her research in groundbreaking ways in a prototype Awana program she created and launched during the same four-year trajectory as her seminary journey.

Growing up, Sosa went to school just down the street from Bethel. Then her educational journey took her in another direction, through Wisconsin, then England, then Chicago. As an undergraduate, she studied English, history, and medieval studies, with plans to become a teacher. As doors to various opportunities opened and closed, she earned a master’s degree in Christian education and worked in youth ministry at three different churches, eventually arriving at Plymouth Covenant Church, where she has served as the pastor for kids and families for 14 years.

But Sosa still felt some passion around teaching. She looked into Bethel’s M.A. in teaching degree, but the inability to accommodate student teaching while working full time changed her plans. A few years later, she decided to consider Bethel Seminary’s D.Min. program. Her degree track focused on church leadership, with a self-directed emphasis on family ministry. It turned out to be a perfect fit. Sosa describes her Bethel experience as flexible and supportive. “I felt like everybody was in my corner,” she says. “There was no way I could not succeed.”

Her time at Bethel coincided with some new developments in her ministry at Plymouth Covenant. The church was seeing a need to empower parents to influence their children’s spiritual development, and wanted to provide parents with biblical training to help equip them. Their already-established Awana program, a ministry focused on providing Bible-based discipleship for children, was “an available vehicle and a great tool to accomplish this,” says Sosa.

So, as she started her first year of Bethel’s D.Min. program, Sosa launched her church’s pilot Awana Together program, where children and their families attended together on Wednesday nights. This was a radical shift from the traditional Awana structure, which saw families—who often didn’t attend Sunday services—dropping children off for the Wednesday night youth program. “We only knew of one other church that was trying to do a family-inclusive Awana,” says Sosa. “But we really felt this was where God was taking us.”

The response bore that out. In Awana Together’s first year, 80 families signed up. The numbers were so much higher than projected that Sosa says it took three years to get a good working model in place. At the same time, her seminary studies were supporting and informing the work she was doing in her day-to-day ministry context. “Every class has a project component within your current ministry context,” she explains. “It’d be nice to say that I put my projects together in just the right order, but actually God did it for me!”

“At Bethel Seminary, you’re surrounded by so many people to help you succeed. It was hard work, but I would do it all again!”

— Sara Sosa S’19

By year four, the Awana Together model was going strong, and Sosa was writing her doctoral dissertation on a topic that came directly from the mission statement of Awana Together: “Empowering families to grow together in Jesus and invite others to do the same.” Her research asked the simple question, “Are we doing that?” In the process, all the varying components of her work began to fall into place. “As I began my dissertation, all the divergent pieces came together,” she says. “It was incredibly validating and motivating.”

At the foundation of her hard work was the reason she was doing it in the first place. “Our seminary professors encouraged us to see our writing and research not as an academic exercise, but as an act of worship,” she explains. Seeing her efforts as part of a higher call helped her persevere through four years balancing her ministry, her degree program, and her family. “At Bethel Seminary,” says Sosa, “you’re surrounded by so many people to help you succeed. It was hard work, but I would do it all again!”

With her newly minted D.Min. degree in hand, Sosa is ready to take on whatever’s next. She hopes the Awana Together model continues to grow and succeed, and she dreams that it would be adopted by more churches nationwide and even globally. “For decades, Awana was in a box,” she says. “Now Awana wants churches to unpack the box and use it in their contexts.”

Bethel Seminary

 

There’s never been a more convenient time to begin a program at Bethel Seminary. Five Bethel Seminary degree programs are now offered entirely online. A dual-degree program allows students to complete both college and seminary in five years, saving students an estimated $7,425 and two years of coursework. And with every student receiving a free license to a premier Bible software product to support their ministry, they gain valuable resources they’ll use in their ministry long-term.

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