Local Training for Native American Church Leaders

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Native American leaders in the Christian Reformed Church have a new way to get formal theological training—one that doesn’t involve attending seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich.

This fall Classis Red Mesa, a regional group of churches in the southwest U.S., launched a three-year course of study for lay leaders and aspiring pastors. The course, called the Red Mesa Leadership Development Network, comes more than 100 years after the CRC founded Native American congregations in New Mexico and Arizona.

“We’re in dire need of new leaders,” said Rev. Raymond Slim, who worked for a decade to get the training started.

Many Red Mesa churches are without full-time pastors. For would-be leaders, the culture makes leaving home to attend seminary difficult, said Slim. “Some just come home defeated and discouraged.”

So the first training session, held at Bis Dootli’iszh Deez’ahi’ Fellowship CRC in Newcomb, N.M., was also a celebration. About 20 students attended a class on biblical interpretation, ate lunch together, and shared their ministry dreams.

“I want to know the Lord more,” said Roland Bitsilly of Church Rock (N.M.) CRC. Bitsilly said he’s been giving devotional talks at a school and would like to become a pastor. “Everyone likes the way I’ve been ministering to the kids. This might get me where I couldn’t get before,” he said.

Ministry Associate Susan LaClear leads Maranatha Fellowship CRC in Farmington, N.M. She called the first session monumental. “It was not just a class, but an answer to hundreds of prayers over the course of almost a century, which became more like desperate pleas over the past few years as we saw many of our churches dying for lack of a pastor,” she said.

Ordained ministers within Classis Red Mesa will teach most lessons in the training program, which will include topics specific to Native American culture. Students will also work with mentors and complete practical assignments for their churches. Those who finish all three years of study could be ordained as ministry associates and then pastor a church.

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