Students Called to Ministry
Thomas Dunn was a history major during his first fall semester at Bluffton, but it was also during that semester that he recalls feeling a deeper call toward pastoral ministry.
He felt the same call earlier in life, but hadn't taken it seriously as a student at Central Christian High School in Kidron, Ohio, or at Columbia Bible College in British Columbia, Canada, where he spent his first year of college before returning to Ohio.
As a Bluffton undergraduate, however, he reacted differently, changing his initial plan in order to test his sense of calling with a heavy dose of religion courses in his second semester.
Those classes were the first step toward a religion major that the 2006 graduate says prepared him for more than five years as youth pastor at his home church, Kidron Mennonite, and for enrollment in a master of divinity degree program at Ashland Theological Seminary.
Dunn became a youth pastor when, during his summer 2006 pastoral internship at Kidron Mennonite, the church's then-youth pastor resigned. But religion students narrow their focus through Bluffton coursework, pursuing the major with a declared concentration in youth ministry or through a youth ministries and recreation major.
The university also prepares students for the related field of music ministry, offering a concentration in that subject within a four-year music degree. In fact, says Dr. Jon C. Peterson, assistant professor of music, "the music department sees potential for music ministry to become a highly desirable concentration for future music students."
While the music ministry concentration has been available for several years, youth ministry has a longer history at Bluffton.
According to Dr. Randy Keeler, associate professor of religion, who has taught in youth ministry throughout his 20 years on campus, the youth ministry concentration is best suited for students with an interest in congregational ministry, while the youth ministries and recreation major is more appropriate for those interested in Christian camping or recreation.
"When students express a desire for more theological education, we encourage them to pursue the religion major," Keeler explains. "Other students who are specifically interested in camp ministry are guided to youth ministries and recreation."
In youth ministries and recreation, students take courses from several departments—, including communication and psychology as well as religion and recreation. Graduates are prepared to enter entry-level leadership positions, such as camp program directors and community outreach coordinators.
Bluffton undergraduates who pursue a music ministry concentration study music history, theory and aural skills to develop in-depth perspective and foundations in music. In addition to coursework in Christian worship and music ministry, students are encouraged by faculty to develop their own style and musical gifts—whether vocal or instrumental—in studio lessons. "We strive to challenge our students with new repertoire but also to inspire them to shine in the area of their gifts," Peterson says.
All graduating students must complete a practicum, and those in the music ministry concentration help lead worship in Bluffton-area churches. "I enjoy visiting area churches and seeing what students are contributing with their gifts and talents," he says.
Peterson has considerable experience in church settings. Most recently the director of music and fine arts at First United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark., he has also been minister or director of music at churches in Tucson, Ariz., and Dallas and Denison, Texas.
Through Bluffton's music department—the only one accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music at a Mennonite institution—students learn how their faith can relate to the music they perform while also gaining lifelong musical skills. "As a department, we strive to address the spiritual needs of our students, colleagues and the community," says Peterson.
Whatever discipline students choose, both Keeler and Peterson hope they grow in their Christian faith, as individuals and in their field during their years on campus. "At Bluffton, and for me personally, I hope to have students discover their own gifts and to use them to glorify God and God's kingdom, wherever that might lead them," Peterson adds.
Prepared for vocation
Thomas Dunn was led back to the church where he grew up, to help lead 30-35 young people. Teenagers are looking for community and companionship, he says, and "to see a young person mature into a person of faith" has seen the most fulfilling part of his calling.
Currently serving as half-time associate pastor, while attending seminary, the Dalton resident credits Bluffton with preparing him for his vocation and seminary studies. "Bluffton really helped establish a biblical foundation that prepared me for church work," says Dunn. The religion faculty challenged him to think in new ways biblically, theologically and spiritually, including "all the simple things," such as how to structure a Bible study, he says.
"Ministry is relational," he adds, saying that even learning to interact with friends was "an intangible that the opportunity to live on campus provided." And, "returning to seminary, I'm leaning on what I learned at Bluffton as I prepare for the next stage of my ministry."