My seminary story is likely to be different from most, as my Covenant Seminary journey has taken nearly 20 years. Let me explain.
I graduated from Illinois State University with an undergraduate degree in Business Administration in 1979. I started working at a Fortune 500 company in May, 1980, six days before I married Tammy. Since then, I have worked in a variety of leadership positions in my organization, currently working as a Manager in their IT department.
I was raised Roman Catholic, and attended Mass faithfully, but there was no change in my life. God called me to Him in 1982, ironically at a Roman Catholic weekend event. As a relatively new believer, from 1989-1994 I attended Illinois Missionary Baptist Institute or IMBI (now Illinois Baptist College), a very small bible college in Washington, Illinois. I attended one evening course each semester for those years, accumulating 18 credits. It was never my intent to obtain a degree. As I mentioned, I was a relatively new believer and I just wanted to grow in my knowledge of the Lord, the Bible and theology.
The offerings at IMBI were very limited and I wasn’t excited about the offerings for the spring 1995 semester. In God’s Providence, I received a mailing inviting us to visit Willowbeech Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Normal. What interested me was that Willowbeech (now known as Christ Church) was going to be offering extension courses from Covenant Theological Seminary. We were looking for a new church home at the same time, so we decided to visit for the Sunday worship service. We have been at Christ Church ever since that time, and I was ordained as an elder in March 1996.
At Christ Church I have served as the Session of the Clerk, served for several years on a presbytery committee, led our Session to begin thinking about developing our mission and vision, taught adult Sunday School Classes, led K (Koinonia) Groups that discuss the weekly sermon, pray for each other, etc., coordinated multiple conferences and concerts at the church, as well as the 15th and 20th anniversary celebrations for our lead pastor, and served as editor for Coram Deo, a church newsletter for more than fifteen years that had a mission of looking at contemporary culture from a distinctly Christian worldview.
My Covenant Seminary Experience
My first four Covenant Seminary courses were extension courses at Christ Church, moderated by Pastor Bob Smart, who continues to serve as Lead Pastor today. We watched the lectures on video cassette tapes. Pastor Smart facilitated class discussion and the exams were taken at the church. As she had at IMBI, my wife Tammy attended some of the Covenant classes at Christ Church, as did a ruling elder from a church in Peoria and two local pastors.
Those initial classes were a great experience. The first two were church history courses taught by Dr. Calhoun. I was able to meet Dr. Calhoun when he spoke at our Missions Conference not long after I took his classes. I tend to enjoy history, but didn’t know much about church history in particular, and I was fascinated by what I learned and by the wonderful man who taught the classes. That began a passion for church history that continues to this day through the reading of biographies of the martyrs and people like Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon and Whitfield. I chose the project (artwork depicting church history) from the second class as one of my revisits for my closing Capstone Portfolio project.
My next class was Apologetics and Outreach, then a four hour class, taught by Jerram Barrs. This was a challenging course, as the workload was heavy, with a lot of reading. This course challenged me to look at contemporary culture from a distinctly Christian worldview. I utilized what I had learned from Dr. Barrs in editing Coram Deo, the newsletter Tammy and I wrote and produced from September, 1998 through the end of 2013, when we transitioned from a church specific newsletter to a more encompassing blog – Coram Deo the Blog
It was during this course that I was ordained as an elder. My mother, who I was very close to, was in attendance during the ordination service in March. Little did I know that we would lose her just four months later at age 60 when she didn’t survive a heart bypass operation. I was devastated, and although it was difficult, I tried to move forward. My next class was Biblical Theology, again held at the church. I tried to concentrate, but couldn’t. I remember leaving the room in tears with Pastor Smart coming out to comfort me. I decided to change from taking the course for credit to auditing the course. Then, at age 40, I made the decision to stop taking seminary courses.
It wasn’t too long after that time that we were in the Orlando area, attending worship service at the church that R.C. Sproul was pastoring and would later become Saint Andrews Chapel in Sanford. During a break between Sunday School and the worship service, I was visiting with someone outside. I was telling my story and indicated that by working fulltime I would have been 50 years old before I graduated, as part of my rationale for stopping my seminary education. He looked at me, and then gave me a gentle rebuke, telling me that he didn’t start seminary until he was 50.
During this time I saw a number of young men and women from our church move down to St. Louis and enroll at Covenant Seminary (including one woman who resigned from the organization I work at to do so). I joined Bible Study Fellowship to continue learning, as well as co-led a small group at church, occasionally taught adult Sunday School and even preached a few times. In the background there was always a yearning to return to seminary, wishing that things had been different – that I was younger, that I had become at a younger age, that God had directed me to full-time ministry, rather than working in the marketplace, etc.
It was during this time that I read John Piper’s book Don’t Waste Your Life, a book that has had a profound impact on my life, and have read many times since. The chapter titled “Risk is Right” in particular led me to begin to think about going back to Covenant to continue my theological education, and not thinking about retirement as most do. But if I thought I was too old when I stopped previously, I was almost 10 years older now. But that really didn’t seem to matter any longer.
After being accepted at Covenant, I retook exams for the 10 hours I had accumulated because they were now outside of the year limit required for distance education. Distance education was the ideal method of learning for me. It allowed me to continue to work as well as pursue my seminary education. I wouldn’t have to leave my job and move to St. Louis, though Tammy told me on many occasions that if I felt called to do that she was fully supportive.
My first class back at Covenant was Old Testament History with V. Phillips Long, who was known as “the smiling assassin”. Seriously, what seminary professor would want to be known as an assassin? I remember Pastor Smart’s reaction when I told him who my professor was for my first class back. He had a pained expressed and told me that he was a difficult professor. Great.
Long would open every class with a little song to help you memorize the kings. I never thought I would memorize them all, and in order, which he told us from the beginning was going to be a requirement on the exam. Tammy, who has been such an encouragement through my entire time in seminary, said “OK, let’s just learn a few kings at a time”. That worked, and since that time, whenever I’ve run into something that I saw as insurmountable, Tammy will say, “Just do a few kings at a time”, and I know exactly what she means. Well, I did learn those kings, but it became a memory exercise, and I don’t feel that I learned nearly as much as I did in other classes. I did choose an assignment from that course however as one of the revisits for my Capstone Portfolio project.
My next class was Life and Teachings of Jesus with Dr. Doriani, the first of two classes that I had with him. One of the things that I remember from this class was getting a very poor grade (my worst in seminary) on the first exam, and then hearing him mention in a lecture that nobody comes to seminary to get “C’s”. Still early in my degree, I was frightened by my performance on that exam. Fortunately, I was able to turn things around and get an “A” in the class.
God and His World with Dr. Williams was my next class. It was the first of two that I would have with Dr. Williams. What I remember about the class was that it was difficult. It was also the lowest grade I received for a class at Covenant (a “B”); tied with the B I received in Christian Ethics from Dr. Doriani.
In January 2008 I headed to St. Louis for my first on campus course. I’ll be honest, I was intimidated. Spending a week away from home in a hotel was enough. But the Bible Content Overview with Dr. Perry was an intense class as he covered the entire New Testament in one week. We were expected to be able to outline any New Testament book for the exam, so I learned a lot in a short period of time. This was my first of two classes with Dr. Perry. The class included a group project/presentation, so it included some meeting and preparation time outside of class. I got to know some people that I would reconnect with in future on campus January classes.
I also remember being impressed with the knowledge of the other students, almost all of whom were much younger than me, and some of whom were from outside the U.S. I also noticed that I was about the only one who was not taking notes on a laptop. It had certainly been quite a while since I had sat in a classroom!
My next class was New Testament History and Theology with Dr. Chapman. I don’t remember a lot from that class, but I did choose a paper on 1 Peter as one of my revisits for my Capstone Portfolio project.
In January 2009 I returned to campus for Communicating the Gospel with Mary Beth McGreevy. The St. Louis Marriot West was becoming my seminary home away from home, and I would stay there for six of the seven one week classes I would attend. This was one of the most impactful courses that I completed as we developed a sermon based on what we had learned from Dr. Chapell’s book Christ Centered Preaching. I learned valuable techniques on preparing a message from this exercise. That book and Dr. Doriani’s book Getting the Message were valuable resources for me in interpreting scripture and preparing a message. We also shared our story with another member of the class and also heard their story. I remember being impressed with Mary Beth and telling Tammy about her. Our church would later invite her to be a speaker at one of our Women’s events.
Humanity, Christ and Redemption was the first of two classes I had with Dr. Peterson. I immediately enjoyed his humor, passion and enthusiasm for his students and the material he was teaching (as well as his love for Anthony Hoekema!). You had to stay on top of your reading in this class to assure you did well on the quizzes.
In January, 2010 I chose the class on B.B. Warfield because of who was teaching it – Carl Trueman from Westminster Seminary. We met in a small building down and behind the building that at that time housed the seminary bookstore. I enjoyed giving Dr. Trueman a ride one day from the hotel to the seminary and getting to know him a little. I learned a lot by reading many of Warfield’s writings in this class. The paper from the class was one of the revisits I selected for my Capstone Portfolio project.
The next January I chose to take Jeremiah, taught by Dr. Yarbrough. I had met Dr. Yarbrough when he had spoken at our church several years ago. I remember the amount of work in this class being very challenging, as we had to read and outline the book of Jeremiah and read Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris before we arrived on campus. Dr. Yarbrough also had us read a commentary on Jeremiah by a liberal author to see how we would engage with the text that he knew we would disagree with. The course also included some group activities and presentations out to the rest of the class.
The Spirit, Church and Last Things by Dr. Peterson was my next class. A highlight of this course was finally getting around to reading Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent book The Holy Spirit, which I had purchased several years before. I got a lot of it done one day when my organization’s offices were closed due to snow, a rarity.
In God’s Providence, we read and studied hell at the same time that Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins was in the news. That was amazing! I chose as one of my revisits for my Capstone Portfolio project to share and discuss my paper on Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue by Fudge and Peterson with my nephew.
About this time the distance learning offerings were becoming increasingly minimal. Most of the offerings were courses that I had already completed.
My next course was God’s World Mission with J. Nelson Jennings, who had just left the seminary. As a result, Dr. Perry was our professor, though we listened to Dr. Jenning’s lectures. The textbook was Jennings’ God the Real Superpower. What I remember about the book and the lectures was the paradigm changing views of missions that Dr. Jennings had. In the U.S. we have always approached missions as if we were the senders. Dr. Jennings had vastly different views.
A valuable part of this class was our assignment to visit multiple websites each week and then write out prayers in a journal for those in other contexts that I had read about. This was a unique experience, and something that I would have probably never done otherwise.
The concept of God’s story was a recurring theme in my classes at Covenant. In this class we read Dr. Perry’s “Your Part in God’s Story”, which included David Arms’ painting “God’s Story”. More about that painting a little later.
This class also had a group project. I remember collaborating with three other students in different areas of the country on a project in which we were to plan for and coordinate a missions conference. I also remember them using applications such as Google Docs that I had not used before. I had two revisits from this class on my Capstone Portfolio project.
My January 2012 class was the highlight of my seminary education. Ever since reading Objects of His Affection (and his succeeding books), I had wanted to take a class with Scotty Smith. That was on my seminary “bucket list”. We had visited Christ Community Church in Franklin to hear him preach on the way back from a Hilton Head Island vacation in 2003 and I had met Scotty when he was in town to speak at an Acts 29 Conference and speak at our church he following day in the fall of 2011 (where he projected and talked about David Arms’ painting God’s Story). But I had not had the opportunity to take on of his classes at Covenant.
So I was excited to take his Disciplines of Grace course on campus. It was a life changing week as we read Jesus + Nothing = Everything by Tullian Tchividjian, The Gospel-Centered Life by Bob Thune and Will Walker, wrote our “Genealogy of Grace” and heard Scotty powerfully tell his story.
I had been exposed to the Creation – Fall – Redemption – Consummation framework in courses prior to this one, but Scotty’s use of David Arm’s painting “God’s Story”, really brought it to life for me. The painting was commissioned by Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee when Scotty was their lead pastor.
He also effectively used Rembrandt’s painting of “The Return of the Prodigal Son” in his lectures.
Today, I have both pictures hanging on the walls in my office at work.
I chose this class for one of the revisits for my Capstone Portfolio project.
My next class was Capstone Supervision I, led by Jessie Swigart. There was one other student in the class, who happened to be in a similar situation as I (worked in the marketplace and was of similar age). In this course we developed our Capstone Portfolios and our Annotated Bibliographies.
I returned to campus in January 2013 for another wonderful week (I referred to it as a “taste of heaven” when I wrote about it in Coram Deo), with Scotty Smith for his Worship Today’s Church course.
Highlights of the class included Scotty leading us through Revelation 4-5 and 21-22, and walking us through his story. I particularly enjoyed the afternoons when he would respond to questions that the class submitted. His responses turned into open dialogue and it was a great learning experience. The perspectives on worship from such a diverse group of students were exciting.
I also got to meet a new friend Ken from Atlanta, who would be in three classes with me in 2013. In the first day of class, I had mentioned to Ken that I was reading Zack Eswine’s excellent book Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, and that Zack was one of my pastor’s best friends. Ken mentioned that he was related to Zack and was having dinner with him that night, and that’s how our friendship began.
Scotty impressed on us the concept of the story, and talked about finding our place in God’s story, as he shared his story with us. We read Tim Keller’s superb book Counterfeit Gods and wrote a refection paper on it.
One of the things I enjoy about Scotty is his sense of humor. When we would take a break, he would say “Take 12 minutes for each of the 12 Apostles”, or “Take 10 minutes for each of the 10 Commandments”. The class would eagerly anticipate what he would come up with for the next break. If he asked a question and all he got was silence, he would say “That’s right” (and then give the answer he was looking for). He referred to Dr. Douglas as the seminary’s “Archbishop of Myers-Briggs” and the “hot” church in town as “the church of the latest buzz”.
Christian Ethics with Dr. Doriani was my next class. It was a giant step forward in distance learning. Prior classes included lectures that were at times recorded well in the past. Two of the classes had lectures from professors who had since left the seminary. For this class, the on campus lecture was recorded and uploaded to Sakai a day or two later. That was particularly helpful for this course as we got to discuss current events such as co-habitation, the cost of weddings, women in the military and homosexual marriage before the Supreme Court. I found this to be a challenging and very relevant course as we applied the principles of ethics to case studies.
Due to the lack of distance learning courses being offered, it was recommended that I take one last course on campus, my seventh. The course was Calling, Vocation and Work taught by Dr. Williams and Dr. Matthews. It was an excellent class, and very challenging, as we needed to read one book each day. I didn’t leave the hotel room much that week except for the half day classes (and when I was in there I was subjected to the Pittsburgh Pirates beating up on my Cardinals!) The class, and the paper I wrote, helped me to clarify what I wanted to do with my seminary education. I used the Creation – Rebellion – Redemption – Consummation framework for my paper, and chose that as one the revisits for my Capstone Portfolio project.
My last class before Capstone Supervision II was Spiritual and Ministry Formation with Dr. Douglass. This was another highlight of my time at Covenant. What can I say about Dr. Douglass? He is a wonderful man, whose passion for the material he taught (calling, sanctification, union with Christ, the sovereignty of God, the finished work of Christ, indicatives empowers the imperative, adoption, his theological heroes, etc.), and his love for teaching and his students came through clearly. He was the first professor that offered a live class for the distance learning students. He led a live class on Sakai every Wednesday night for whoever could make it. That really helped distance learning students connect with their professor and each other.
In this class we read some wonderful books, including Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges, Children of the Living God by Sinclair Ferguson and The Call by Os Guinness. A concept from Bridges that resonated with me was his idea of the performance trap or treadmill. He states that we can spend our lives basing our relationship with God on our performance rather than what He has done for us. I wrote my paper on being adopted by God. I remember sitting at the computer on a Saturday morning and the words just flowed out in an act of worship and thankfulness for what He has done for me.
Dr. Douglass meets with each student and their spouse to go over their Divine Design Assessment. Tammy and I were able to meet with him, and meet his wife, at their home when we were in St. Louis for a Cardinals’ postseason game. The Divine Design Assessment served to confirm what I first began to think about my post-retirement vocation to be in the Calling, Vocation and Work course. If the Lord provides the opportunity, I would like to serve as an Executive Pastor, which would allow me to utilize the strengths and experience of 34+ years in leadership at in the marketplace with my Covenant Seminary education.
I enjoyed putting together my personal mission statement as a part of the Divine Design Assessment:
Bill Pence is a teacher-shepherd-leader called of God to assist people to grow spiritually as well as intellectually, with a special focus of providing organizational and administrative leadership to his local church, leveraging his more than thirty- three years of leadership experience at a Fortune 500 company and seminary education.
I chose the Divine Design Assessment as one of my revisits for my Capstone Portfolio project, reviewing it with Pastor Smart.
I completed my seminary education in the spring of 2014 with the Capstone Supervision II course led by Jessie Swigart.
I began at Covenant Seminary in January, 1995 at 38 years old and will finish my studies in 2014 at age 57. It has been quite a ride. I’ve learned much from the character and faith of the professors and instructors that have taught me so much about grace, scripture and theology. I’ve been challenged beyond what I thought I could handle and learned so much. It’s been only by God’s grace and the support of Tammy.
Influences that have led me to the Executive Pastor Calling
In describing how I felt called to the Executive Pastor position, I want to go a little deeper into that part of my story and share some of the people, authors and classes that influenced me in that direction.
I reported to Mel on two different occasions early in my career. In retrospect, I would consider him to be my career mentor, though we didn’t use that language back then. Mel taught me many things about life and leadership. After early retirement, he became a lay pastor in Texas.
One bit of advice from Mel back in the mid-1980’s helped provide direction for my life. Continuous learning is valued in my organization. I asked Mel if I should go back to school to get an MBA or begin taking industry related classes. He suggested that if I just wanted to stay sharp and continue growing as a leader and Christian, I should go to Illinois Wesleyan University and take a religion class. Mel at that time was pursuing a second Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. I took Mel’s advice and eventually starting taking classes at Illinois Missionary Baptist Institute.
That decision, and my decision not to relocate with State Farm away from family, most likely limited how far I advanced in leadership, but I believe it had eternal significance. It led me down two concurrent tracks. Think of railroad tracks that will get closer and closer together before merging leadership training and experience at work and theology via my seminary education and other readings.
This would eventually result in the realization that I would like to serve as an Executive Pastor when I complete my career. Integrating faith and work aligns with my favorite verse of scripture:
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.
People have asked me for years what I planned to do with my theology education after I graduate. I always had a pretty general answer – that I planned to serve my local church in whatever ways the Lord called me. In fact, in my “Personal Essay” written in 2005 when I reapplied at Covenant, I wrote:
My desire is to serve my church in some capacity after I retire from my organization. I believe these studies will help me to be a better servant in whatever He has me do in that next chapter of my life.
However, beginning with the Calling, Vocation and Work course in the summer of 2013 and continuing with Spiritual and Ministry Formation in the fall of 2013, I felt my calling become clearer and clearer. But I’m getting ahead of the story a bit.
It was while working in the learning function within my organization from 2001 – 2007, that I began reading leadership books. I gravitated to those authors who approached the subject from a Christian worldview – authors such as John Maxwell, Patrick Lencioni, Ken Blanchard and later Andy Stanley, Malcolm Gladwell and one particularly impactful book from Tim Keller. I began, and continue to this day to participate in book clubs and mentoring sessions, discussing leadership and personal development books, and sharing notes from the books with my team, staff, our church Session and in the newsletter and blog.
Tim Keller’s recent book Every Good Endeavor was one that had a significant impact on me. This is a book that I recommended for future offerings of the Calling, Vocation and Work course to the professors. Keller discusses the concept of a Center for Faith and Work to help people integrate their faith and work. This is something that I would like to pursue in my role as Executive Pastor.