Heart & Mind

"When I grow up, I'm going to tell them..."

Leland Eliason reflects on 25 years at Bethel Seminary.

Volume 22 No 2 | Spring 2009

Image not found: publications/heartmind/2009-spring/images/eliason.png

Read comments from friends reflecting on Leland's service to Bethel Seminary.

Executive Director and Provost Leland V. Eliason retires this August after a quarter century of service to Bethel Seminary. At the helm he led the transformation of Bethel from a modest midwest theological school to one of the most robust – and the 10th largest – accredited seminaries in the nation, with a model distance learning program and a distinct approach that develops whole and holy leaders for ministry.

Heart & Mind conversed with Eliason about his legacy, his most memorable moments, and the wise counsel he leaves with those who succeed him at Bethel.

How would you describe God’s calling for your life and ministry?
As a child, I loved communion services. I was especially moved by the pastor’s description of how Christ’s body was broken and His blood was shed, because of His love for us. One Sunday, when I was about six years old, I asked my Dad, “If Jesus loves us so much that He died on the cross for us, why doesn’t everyone believe in Him?” Dad said, “Some have never heard.” I said, “When I grow up, I’m going tell them.” From that time on, I’ve known that I was called to communicate the Good News. Since I’m not quite grown up yet, that call remains!

What events, milestones, and people stand out among your memories of your Bethel years?
That covers a lot of time! Not only did I spend four years as a student at the college and then four more at the seminary, but this year marks 25 years on staff at the seminary – 15 years this time and 10 years from 1972-1983.

Meeting Carol, my wife of more than 46 years, was by far the most influential event while at Bethel. I can’t imagine my life without her. Carol spent two years at Bethel College and then transferred to the University of Minnesota where she completed her B.S. degree in elementary education. She has been and is my best friend, my most reliable sounding board (she offers “right on” critiques!), an inspiring follower of Christ, and the love of my life.

Speaking of your student days at Bethel, who shaped you most during those years?
While I was a student at Bethel College, a cluster of teachers greatly influenced my life: Dalphy Fagerstrom (history), Bob Mounce (Bible), Chris Weintz (literature), and Web Muck (counseling) to name a few. Though relatively small at the time, Bethel College offered an outstanding Christian liberal arts education for which both Carol and I are deeply grateful.

At Bethel Seminary, Virgil Olson (church history), Gordon Johnson (preaching), Clarence Bass (theology), Timothy Smith (American History), and Millard Erickson (theology) continued this transformational education. Their classroom teaching and coffeeshop discussions changed how I thought about the world, about myself, about the very nature of who God is as well as encouraging an exploration of His ways of working in the world.

Looking back, why do you think the Lord led you to the various roles you have had at Bethel? And what have been those roles? What is your Bethel résumé?
Most pastors are generalists rather than specialists. They must be familiar with a broad range of subjects and cultures in order to minister to people from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. Within churches, the roles and responsibilities of youth pastors are distinct from those of an associate pastor. And being pastor of a smaller church (200-250) is quite different than being senior pastor of a larger church (1,500-1,700). The longer I’ve been at the seminary, the more grateful I am to have had these diverse experiences. Overseeing the development and refinement of the 11 degrees at Bethel Seminary calls for a broad perspective on the multi-faceted dimensions of ministry for which seminarians are preparing themselves.

When I was at Bethel the first time, I developed the field education program (now called supervised ministry) that built upon my experiences of being supervised myself by Stan Starr at Spring Lake Park Baptist Church, and Robert Featherstone, senior pastor at First Baptist Rochester. Serving the Whittier Area Baptist Fellowship (now the Whittier Area Community Church) was a cross-cultural experience that forced me to rethink how to do church, how to preach, and how to shape a ministry that needed to address the spiritual and personal needs of people from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.

In retrospect, how have you developed and changed as a ministry leader?
The benefit of looking back over 45 years of ministry includes an awareness of how God has been leading me towards an ever more active and compassionate involvement in the world. The truth of God’s Word is more than something to contemplate – though that’s part of it. But God’s truth is designed to become embodied truth – lived out in our lives for the sake of the Gospel. The movement of growth is out of some limited form of Christianity into a broader, deeper life of obedience and faith. Here are some examples out of my own life:

  • Out of a teetotaling background, I learned to work with recovering alcoholics, who to my surprise, taught me how to live a more centered and peaceful life.
  • Out of a fundamentalistic background that often emphasized separation and isolation from the world, I encountered the model of Jesus, Who crossed cultural barriers and socialized with people considered unworthy by the religious establishment.
  • Out of a monocultural background, I discovered the riches of ethnic diversity.
  • Out of a small rural church background, I discovered the power and impact of a large church that can mobilize its resources around the mission of Christ.
  • Out of an ethos where pastors were loners and secrets were guarded, it became clear that open transparency and vulnerability regarding weaknesses were keys to discovering the power of God within a community of faith.
  • Out of an epidemic of leadership failures, it became clear that seminary education must equip leaders to use their influence to mobilize people around a biblically informed vision and mission in which teamwork and partnership rather than ego and manipulation are the hallmarks of effectiveness.
  • Out of the danger zone of churches grown inward, I learned that an uncompromising focus upon reaching lost people is God’s plan to create perpetual renewal by which Christians discover the unsurpassed joy of introducing people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

When I came to seminary this last time, these basic themes had become the DNA of my life. In God’s economy, everything is usable.

Describe your vision for Bethel Seminary and explain how you believe that vision has been realized.
First, communicating the Gospel to the diverse people groups of the world lies at the core of seminary education. That’s why I never tire of the opening sentence of the seminary’s vision statement: “The passion of Bethel Seminary is to advance the Gospel among all people in culturally sensitive ways.” The seminary exists to serve the lost people of the world because that’s what churches are called to do. If Jesus had a life verse it was Luke 19:10, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” If we are to be like Jesus, we must be compassionate and relentless in our vision to reach people with the Gospel.

Second, if moral failures and leadership failures describe what’s broken in pastoral leadership, then the big question has to be, “How do seminaries fix what’s broken?” I still remember the morning meeting with [Bethel President Emeritus] George Brushaber in which I shared with him the key ideas of a threefold emphasis within the seminary. “What if we had a center for biblical and theological foundations that focused on Bible, history, and theology; what if we had a center for spiritual and personal formation that focused on becoming whole and holy persons; and what if we had a center for transformational leadership to equip and prepare effective leaders?” He responded, “I think we can get somewhere with this.” With his support, we proceeded to shape a seminary that builds upon the best of our core beliefs of the Bible and historical theology, and also addresses character and leadership formation.

So you credit Dr. Brushaber for the groundwork underneath the success of this new model?
President Brushaber provided the essential framework to move the seminary in new directions. By the time I arrived in 1994, he had created a new structure to implement change in the seminary, which made new program development efficient and responsive to the needs of churches. The groundwork had been laid for an experimental prototype for the now hugely successful InMinistry (distance education) program. When the leadership platform needed to be enlarged, he expanded my responsibilities and job titles from dean, to provost, to executive director.

Within this framework, we asked, “How does a seminary serve the leadership needs of the movements of God with degrees and certificate programs that are relevant to precisely what is needed?” Answering that question led us to develop five new degrees and numerous certificate programs over the last 15 years.

How did God prepare you for your service at Bethel, and how has He sustained you?
God’s most basic preparation for service comes through the gift of salvation. God’s extravagant, persistent, all-encompassing grace saves sinners.

And I’m a sinner, profoundly grateful for God’s amazing grace. Salvation offers the gift of life – Jesus called it an abundant life. Watching God’s grace unfold in the lives of people becomes infectious and contagious. I came to Bethel with a deep knowledge that in spite of human frailty, God’s gift of salvation produces the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, and self control (to name a few). God reclaims broken lives and restores the downcast.

There’s more to salvation than overcoming sin. When Paul writes to the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8), he was describing the positive, enriching, and renewing marvels of God’s creation and re-creation.

My father, with a sixth-grade education, was an avid reader. He loved to read about astronomy – and learned the names of many stars and constellations. His enthusiasm over what was right and noble and true about God’s creation infected me with a sense of wonder and awe. Many years later when I was married with children, we would go to our cabin on Lake Vermilion, weary and in need of renewal. That postage-stamp-sized piece of land became a place of restoration, healing, and nurture. There’s something renewing and restorative about brilliant stars and northern lights; about the ways of bald eagles, goldfinches, and prairie chickens; about smallmouth bass and walleyed pike; about bears and coyotes, foxes and mink; and about Merganser ducks and the haunting cry of loons.

How has your service at Bethel prepared you for your “next step?”
As I come to the end of my time at the seminary, I am inspired by the example of Christians from other cultures and ethnic groups. Carol and I just completed a 4,700-mile trip to visit some key historical sites in the African-American experience in America. We visited the First Afro-Baptist Church (really the first one) built in Savannah, Georgia. Slaves, working on plantations, had saved up $1,500 to buy their freedom. But they took that money and bought materials, instead, so they could build a church building. They did so at nights after working 12-hour days on plantations and on weekends, where they toiled together. Their bold statement says, “The spiritual freedom we experience in Christ at church is worth so much that we will delay our physical freedom from slavery until a later time.” In the midst of the grinding oppression of slavery, these people were gripped by hope, energized by the person of Christ, and nurtured by mutual support within the body of Christ. Their example speaks to me even in this later time.

I just returned also from a trip to Ukraine. In a culture hit much harder by worldwide recession than ours, where alcohol consumption ranks as the second highest per capita in the world, where corruption has taken a devastating toll on government and law enforcement, the church is literally the hope of Ukraine. Instead of drinking cheap brew at the beginning of the day, teetotalling Christians are sober all day long. They are motivated to improve their communities, to set examples of right living – and a great number of them are making an enormous difference in their communities. I came away with a renewed sense of urgency about preparing pastors who preach well, who teach God’s Word, who live God’s Word in humility and love, and who have learned to lead so that churches can flourish.

What are your prayers for the students, staff, and faculty of Bethel Seminary?
My hope and prayer for Bethel Seminary and its students, staff, and faculty is that:

  • a compelling vision will shape and direct all that is done;
  • the primacy of communicating the Gospel to lost people throughout the world will infuse all degree programs;
  • flexibility and innovation will continue to produce breakthroughs in degree programs, certificates, and delivery systems;
  • great strides will be made in understanding the work of preparing leaders to do ministry around the world – in Ukraine, Cameroon, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, and China, to name a few. The really big movements of God are now taking place in other parts of the world. There will be ways in which Bethel Seminary can serve and assist these movements through strategic partnerships and targeted programs;
  • the school will never lose its strengths: evangelical pietism grounded in sound theology; an irenic spirit rooted in deep convictions; conversionist theology devoted to transforming lives, churches, and cultures; and winsome collaboration with all who follow Christ in order to maximize impact.

To what portion of God’s Word might you point as your life’s theme verse?
From what I’ve said earlier, it should come as no surprise that one of my most favorite verses is 2 Corinthians 12:9: “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’”

When I felt that we should begin the New Wineskins Initiative at Bethel to help bridge the gap between what tuition brings in and what it costs to run the seminary, I was overwhelmed by the staggering challenges of how to develop a new and separate donor base for the seminary. In my journal back in 2001, I wrote these words of Jesus from Matthew 21: “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” I listed four mountains that had to be removed. Over these last five years, all of those mountains have been substantially leveled! When donors gave $325,000 last year, great praise to the Lord welled up within me. God has been faithful in powerful ways.

What do you and Carol envision as your future in ministry?
I don’t know. I’ve been receiving a lot of advice on how to “fail at retirement!” Carol and I are seeking to stay attuned to what God is doing, and we will seek to be available to serve His purposes in whatever ways we can. We’re intensely curious to find out just what those ways will be!

What do you and Carol look forward to doing most during this next chapter of your lives?
Partly it will be to spend more time with each other. Two years ago Carol had a cancerous kidney removed, and we are profoundly grateful that she is now cancer-free. We know on a deeper level that each day is a gift to be treasured.

We look forward to traveling with enough time to stop and read the historical markers!

We look forward to spending time with family. We are so blessed with a daughter Karin, her husband Jeff Peabody, and their three children; and our son Jonathan, married to Heidi Smith; they also have three children. Karin and Jeff are church planters in Federal Way, Wash. Jon and Heidi (both Bethel alums) live in Ann Arbor, Mich., where Jon is assistant professor of vascular surgery at the University of Michigan. We think they are very much like the children of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories – they are all good-looking and above average!!

We look forward to serving in whatever ways we can.

What bit of wisdom or advice might you offer to the Bethel Seminary community and to the readership of Heart & Mind?
Learn to live outside of comfort zones. God is often found in the places we run away from – places we fear the most, places we are sure we don’t fit into, places that call for humility and more growth.

Expect God to show up – His ways are not our ways, and His timing is often not ours. But when God shows up, then all the pieces of the puzzle that didn’t seem to fit begin to come together.

Don’t quit. Perseverance is so necessary.

Sometimes the greatest step of obedience is simply to show up.

Curiosity is one of the most under-rated qualities for nurturing growth and development. Cultivate curiosity about Christ – “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Let your curiosity guide you to ask appropriate questions of your spouse, of your friends, of people from different backgrounds, and of the expansive body of knowledge which is a hallmark of our age.

Learn to be joyful. Our calling is serious. Yes, the world’s problems – like HIV/AIDS – are massive. Suffering is everywhere. But “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” So in the midst of life, nurture joy in your relationship with the great and good God of the Bible. Look for humor, laugh with abandonment, and cultivate joyfulness.

Any concluding thoughts you wish to convey?
I’m profoundly grateful for the faculty, administration, and staff who make up Bethel Seminary. The list of colleagues is too long to name, but I will say that the team leading the seminary right now – Deans Dave Ridder in St. Paul, John Lillis in San Diego, and Doug Fombelle at Bethel Seminary of the East – are extraordinary people and gifted leaders so well-suited to their respective positions. The faculty who teach at the seminary inspire and bless me. They love God and His Word and care deeply about students. I’m proud to recommend Bethel Seminary to prospective students because I know they will receive an excellent education. Greg Bourgond, who will be moving into a university position, has been a great colleague and friend. He recruited Joseph Dworak to lead the recruitment efforts at the seminary. Joseph and his team are doing a superb job of identifying those whom God is calling into ministry.

Preparing and equipping those called by God constitutes the whole reason for the existence of Bethel Seminary. The Lord of the harvest is calling forth laborers in unprecedented numbers. Bethel exists to prepare them. What an inspiring and eternally significant purpose Bethel Seminary serves! My fervent prayer is that the seminary’s best days will unfold in coming years for the glory of God and the salvation of the lost.