By Chris Moon
Four years into its existence, the Merold Institute is looking toward the future.
The ministry of Harvester Christian Church in St. Charles, Mo., began primarily as a place to help mold the church’s key volunteers and existing and incoming staff—to give them the biblical and theological training lacking in many ministry workers who were unable to attend Bible college or seminary.
During its short existence, the institute named for Ben Merold, Harvester’s former senior minister (who continues serving as a teaching pastor), has largely accomplished that goal. Many of the church’s staff and volunteers have earned certificates of Bible and theology. Additional ministry workers now have a place to go to receive such training.
And the Merold Institute also has trained workers from four other local churches. Some students even have decided to pursue full bachelor’s degrees at nearby St. Louis Christian College.
The question for the Merold Institute has become, “What’s next?” Expansion seems on the horizon—in some form.
“What’s the next iteration?” said Don Sanders, the institute’s director and staff development pastor at Harvester Christian Church, a congregation of 2,500 in the suburbs of St. Louis. “That’s what we’re in the middle of right now.”
The institute is considering whether to expand its curriculum and delivery methods, and even the types of courses that it offers.
It has become relatively common for megachurches to create training programs for their members or staff, or to open branch campuses for nearby Bible colleges.
The Merold Institute was founded in the same way. It offers classes in Bible and theology for students who want to beef up their ministry knowledge.
Many students don’t have prior theological training, either because they are second-career ministers or because they are volunteers with careers in other fields.
After 10 intensive courses over a two-year period, those students can graduate with their Bible and theology certificates. The first three graduating classes at the Merold Institute have had 12, 10, and 10 students, respectively.
Students pay $250 per class—a price cut in half for Harvester Christian Church members.
Ben Merold, now 92, regularly appears for a class session in a required course on the history of the Restoration Movement. Merold shares his own recollections about some of the events that students read about in their textbooks.
“It’s one of the highlights of our year,” Sanders said. “He’s just a treasure.”
Looking to the Future
As the Merold Institute evaluates its future, Sanders said, it is taking numerous factors into consideration.
The institute already has differentiated itself from some similar schools by forming partnerships with St. Louis Christian College and Lincoln Christian University, enabling Merold Institute graduates to parlay their two years of coursework and apply it toward a bachelor’s degree.
As such, all classes are taught by people qualified to teach at accredited undergraduate institutions. At times, the Merold Institute uses St. Louis Christian College professors to teach its classes.
Sanders said he expects church-led higher education institutions like the Merold Institute to expand in the future.
Sanders suspects government funding for Christian college students will likely to dry up as the culture moves away from Christian values. There may come a day, he said, when federal financial aid isn’t available for students at universities with a biblical worldview.
“When that happens, how are we going to train people who can’t get funding for a traditional education?” Sanders asked.
Meanwhile, more younger students are debt-averse, not willing to pay high tuition rates for their educations. And large churches are figuring out how to train their staffs and are less dependent upon Bible colleges to do that for them.
“The face of education is changing in our culture,” Sanders said.
In the end, it seems likely that churches are going to create robust higher education ministries to train their staff and volunteers, he said. Some may be connected to Bible colleges, and some may not.
“I think the demand is definitely there,” Sanders said.
He stressed that the Merold Institute doesn’t see itself as replacing Bible colleges. For a variety of reasons, many in ministry just haven’t made their way into a Bible college—sometimes because of location and sometimes because of other life factors, such as second-career ministry moves.
“There is a need for high-level theological and biblical education that for whatever reason many people just don’t have access to,” Sanders said. “We really see ourselves as filling the gap [that] exists out there.”
Meanwhile, Ben Merold will continue to make appearances in the Merold Institute’s classes. His schedule also includes a lot of teaching and equipping at other churches around the country.
Merold said the Merold Institute can fill a gap in the biblical and theological training for pastors at small churches.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “We have a lot of small churches in our area.”
He said a pastor who already has been in the business world could be equipped by the Merold Institute—or another school like it—to minister in small churches as a bivocational pastor.
“I think a bivocational ministry may be something that is really needed for the really small church,” he said.
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.