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Program gives Divinity students the opportunity to teach at local churches, gain practical ministry skills

Heath Caldwell has taught at numerous churches, including Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Dillwyn, Va., pictured here.

Through the Liberty University John W. Rawlings School of Divinity, students are playing a vital role in today’s Church by ministering to congregations who have a temporary or long-term need for a pastor.

The Liberty Pastoral Pulpit Supply Program matches graduate students in the School of Divinity with congregations around Central Virginia who are without a pastor, whether for the short term, when a pastor is ill or on vacation, or for longer terms such as when a church has lost its pastor. Students get a chance to practice their preaching skills and gain real-world experience among different churches and denominations.

The Pulpit Supply Program currently works with 20 area churches and about 40 graduate students.

The program was conceived and is administered by Dr. Randy Spencer, director of church revitalization. Spencer was a former campus pastor at Liberty from 2000-06 and worked in full-time ministry until retiring in 2017. It was then that he returned to Liberty and started the program.

Spencer, who has always had a heart for growing the local church and for mentoring young pastors, said that our divinity programs prepare students’ heads  — advancing their biblical and theological knowledge — and this program helps prepare them to take on the numerous roles of a teaching pastor, something which usually requires “intangible heart knowledge.”

“There are no shortage of internships or mentoring opportunities for students,” he said, “but to have the opportunity to apply the classroom knowledge to the real-world experience as a teaching pastor is something unique to our program. The reps at the pulpit get them comfortable and confident and prepared to take a church.”

Spencer said the process for placing students in the program is straightforward and creates opportunities for both students and congregations to test each other. Churches contact the School of Divinity and as long as the church is located within the required 100-mile radius around Lynchburg, Spencer will visit the congregation and meet with church leadership to explain the program and get a better understanding of their needs. He then works with the churches to set up a rotating schedule of student-pastors who visit the congregations and preach for Sunday services.

“This gives churches who are in a pastor selection process the chance to not just look through a stack of resumes,” he said. “I tell them that I’m going to send real people — pastors — and they are going to get a chance to see their church and meet their folks, and they will have a chance to hear a live person.

Shane Bost, seen here at Cumberland Community Church, said the program allows him to make an eternal impact through preaching the Gospel.

Shane Bost (’19) received his Bachelor of Science in Religion  – Biblical and Theological Studies through Liberty University Online Programs and is taking part in the Pulpit Supply Program while he pursues his Master of Divinity with a concentration in Military Chaplaincy.

“It was fantastic,” recalled Bost, who has spoken at seven churches. “Dr. Spencer was able to get me plugged into churches immediately, and since then, I’ve been traveling around filling the pulpit as needed. Dr. Spencer provides the information we need — background information on the church, like how many are in attendance, service times, where it is located, dress code, and church culture.”

Bost said although he has appreciated the experience of honing his teaching skills in front of various congregations, the eternal impact is what he most treasures.

“The amount of fulfillment that I personally feel getting to be part of Kingdom work, there are no words to describe it.”

Heath Caldwell (’20) received a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry at Liberty and is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity with a concentration in Christian Leadership and Church Ministry. He had a successful career in insurance prior to being called into ministry.

“Dr. Spencer contacted me to tell me that someone who had been scheduled at a church had to cancel, so he asked me if I wanted to step in,” Caldwell said. “I had literally no preaching experience, but had just prayed that morning, ‘God if you are ready, I am ready,’ so I began teaching and have been part of the program for two years now.”

Caldwell served as an associate pastor as a result of his experience with the Pulpit Program and his relationship with Dr. Spencer.

“This has given me the opportunity to learn the ins-and-outs of the everyday local church and the community,” Caldwell said. “The education gives you the knowledge and the book work and the stuff that is very, very important, whereas the Pulpit Program is the practical side — how does the stuff that we all learn come to be put into practice.”

Caldwell’s encouragement for those considering the Pulpit Supply Program is clear: “If you feel called by God, get started now!”

John Armstrong, director of experiential learning, said the program is a win-win for congregations and students.

“Applying the practical learning from the classroom into the church has had a powerful impact on congregations and students alike. Several students have become full-time pastors in churches where they had once temporarily served,” he said. “In some cases, they have kept churches from closing their doors and no longer having services.”

Spencer said students also gain wisdom on issues that practicing pastors may face.

“It is imperative the student-pastor learn from those who are serving in the trenches,” he said. “They must learn principles about money and time, decision-making, and church growth from those who are experiencing success in ministry. They need the raw street smarts that can only come from someone who has been educated in the workplace.”