Family of 4 graduates together
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)--When Audrey Johnston walked across the stage to accept her master of divinity degree at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, her mother-in-law followed every step she took, ready to receive her own degree. Their husbands cheered them on and then stepped in line to become the next graduates earning diplomas from the seminary.
It wasn't the first time the Johnston family shared the stage at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo., for a commencement service. In 2007, Audrey and Jeremy, along with his parents, Christie and Jerry, received bachelor's degrees from Midwestern Baptist College.
Five years ago the lives of all four of the Johnstons seemed too busy to make time for the education each of them had put on hold. Their entire family, including two other children, had been involved in planting a church in 1996 south of Kansas City.
The multicultural congregation became one of the fastest-growing churches in America with a membership of more than 5,000 at the Overland Park, Kan., campus. And yet Jerry Johnston, the pastor, knew he was overdue for a formal theological education.
"I launched in ministry so fast and so much happened so quickly that I turned around and 25 years had come and gone. I spent the first 17 years in evangelism, preaching in about 1,200 churches," Jerry said.
He had decided to forsake a full scholarship from Liberty University after the first year. The school awarded him with an honorary doctor of divinity degree in 1989, recognizing his effectiveness in crusades where thousands were professing faith in Christ.
"It's not that I don't love to study. I have a library of over 7,000 books, but I recognized that I had never formally finished my degree. I wanted to build a deeper foundation to my ministry, and Midwestern's college and seminary helped me do that," he said.
Jerry encouraged his wife to join him by enrolling in studies, knowing that she had a desire to study the Bible in-depth. His son and daughter-in-law transferred credit earned at other schools to finish their bachelor's degrees.
The family regularly traveled together to the campus on Sunday nights, staying in guest housing before beginning a day of studies that lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. With their own church serving as a satellite campus for the seminary, they took advantage of many of the courses offered there as well as intensive studies, workshops and study tours, completing requirements for the B.A., then continuing with master's level work.
"Every area of my ministerial life has been sharpened because of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary," Jeremy said.
He first served as a volunteer director who orchestrated the weekly set-up and tear-down process as First Family Church endured 11 moves from one rented facility to another before building their own facility.
Now serving as executive pastor with additional responsibility for media outreach and donor development, Jeremy said his seminary studies equipped him for a megachurch ministry with a global outreach that includes broadcasts to Korea and a neighboring province in China.
"Preaching and teaching the Word of God more clearly, comprehensively and thoroughly are the greatest personal improvements as a result of the M.Div. program. Clearly, the entire corpus of study at MBTS allows a minister to be 'thoroughly equipped for every good work' in ministry," Jeremy said, citing 2 Timothy 3:17.
Audrey said her call to full-time Christian service within the ministries of First Family Church necessitated a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Word of God.
"I find myself more equipped to fulfill the dreams of ministry the Lord has placed on my heart," she said. "I was impressed with every professor I encountered."
Jeremy said, "Having a study partner totally engaged in the class was certainly beneficial. It brought a theological, biblical and spiritual connection in our marriage that is absolutely paramount to us."
Christie said she gained confidence for teaching in the support groups and women's ministry she launched at First Family Church.
"I would encourage any woman who has put her life on hold to raise a family, to be an encourager as a wife, and every pastor's wife to go back to school if you've got the time," she said, recommending the programs at Midwestern.
"The professors not only teach in their area of giftedness, but they interject, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, things that will keep a seminary student on fire for God," Christie said.
With parents who fled communism in Czechoslovakia and immigrated to the United States with the help of a missionary, Christie especially enjoyed a course in cross-cultural church planting.
"Seeing lost people come to Christ is still my heartbeat," she said.
An evangelism class taught by a visiting professor prompted her husband to preach a series of sermons on making friends who make it forever, Christie said. They launched a website at www.aboutforever.info and publicized the evangelistic resource through cards they distributed while witnessing.
"We had so many responses that were a direct result of what we learned in that class," Christie said.
While Audrey is taking time out from further studies to care for their first child, Jeremy Johnston has begun a Ph.D. with the University of Wales and his parents have enrolled in the D.Min. program at Midwestern.
"I look back on my studies now and know it was a flurry of activity, but all of it was so inspiring," Jeremy said.
Tammi Reed Ledbetter writes for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.