On the Ridge

Seven Community Leaders Graduate from Advanced Certificate Program in Applied Urban Ministry

Of those in the faith-based community, Mother Theresa once said, “Many people mistake our work for a vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”

On April 17, seven members of Western New York’s faith-based community had their commitments to becoming more effective leaders in their churches and neighborhoods reaffirmed during an event at Niagara University. Rev. Gregory Ashley, Nancy P. Askins, Rev. Roland Bittles, Pearl Bobo, Jill Rohring, Rena Rohring and Rev. Charles Searcy comprised the first cohort of graduates to complete NU’s new advanced certificate program in applied urban ministry.

The advanced certificate program, funded in part by the Riefler Ministry Enablement Fund of the Network of Religious Communities, is designed to enhance participants’ abilities to think theologically, assess urban conditions and formulate ministry solutions. The program builds on skills gained in the university’s basic certificate program in applied urban ministry.

“This is an opportunity for lay people, pastors and priests to become re-engaged with their theology,” said NU professor David Taylor, Ph.D., who co-founded the AUM programs with Rev. Jimmy Rowe and Jay Stockslader, NU’s director of continuing education. “Our goal with the advanced program was to take learning to a whole new level, by re-engaging those who were highly motivated and ready for graduate level course work.”

The curriculum required candidates to propose an advanced action plan that could be implemented in their respective communities and churches. Those projects, the result of months of intensive research and soul-searching, were shared during the graduation ceremony.

“When I first started, Rev. Rowe pushed me to the point of being real mad,” said Rev. Searcy, assistant pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Niagara Falls. “I started three different projects and he scrapped them all. Looking back, I can see that he was just trying to get me out of my comfort zone.”

Rev. Rowe had a similar effect on Rev. Searcy’s classmates as well, (appropriately) providing a fatherly hand to guide them when their spiritual lives had the potential to veer off course. He called the interdenominational program “a time to recognize that you cannot stay in one place – be it emotional, physical, political, spiritual or theological – and continue to grow.”

Rena Rohring, a Wilson resident, read about the advanced program in a local newspaper days after experiencing some personal challenges. “That was a difficult time for me but I am stabilized in my Christian faith once again,” she said.

Her daughter, Jill, struggled to find a place to turn to after her husband died. “This program has given me a new perspective,” she explained. “Quite simply, the glass is now half-full, not half-empty.”

Pearl Bobo, one of the Rohrings’ classmates, echoed their sentiments. “My soul is very happy today,” she began. “It’s a blessing to be here. This program has provided confirmation for me that my work in the church is necessary.”

While the spiritual rejuvenation of its candidates was expected, it was not the program’s primary objective. The goal, as Rev. Rowe put it, was about determining whether participants were going to be “upstairs” or “downstairs” servants of God. Referencing Nicodemus, Rev. Rowe elaborated on how some religious professionals today are trained in religious systems but do not understand how to serve God by equipping others in the supernatural kingdom that exists “upstairs.”

“The difference is that one seeks an office, a career, a status, possibly power, while the other serves in the Kingdom of God and seeks to equip others. An advanced urban ministry certificate should be cherished, not for the paper hanging on the wall, but for the skills that make us more valuable in equipping the saints.”

Two of the projects – one proposed by Askins to enhance organizational performance through workplace spirituality and the other, an idea by Ashley to deploy evangelical expressions into the church culture – were granted startup funding.

Askins expressed her gratitude to Father Levesque and the committee, for both the award and the opportunity to associate with people who she referred to as “colleagues in faith.”

“In true Niagara University fashion, you have laid the foundation for greatness,” she told the university president.

Father Levesque, in a Vincentian display of humility, deflected the praise back to the graduates, abandoning his prepared remarks in favor of a simple message.

“Thanks to all of you for speaking from your heart. You’ve taught us all some great things from your experiences. Your own faith, your own hope, is evident.”

The advanced certificate program may be offered again at Niagara University this fall. For more information, please contact Niagara University’s Office of Continuing Education at 716.286.8181 or ude.aragain@ec.