On this iteration of Life after Seminary, we continue with the religious education theme begun by Dr. Gupta, but shift it ever so slightly to current ministers.
Enter Mitchell Cooper.
I had the pleasure of being classmates with Mitchell at Gordon-Conwell, so we’re naturally pretty tight. Mitchell (M.Div., ’12; Th.M., ’13) now works in Orlando, FL with Third Millennium Ministries which, according to its website, “provides Christian education to pastors and church leaders around the world that lack sufficient training for ministry.” Mitchel”s advice and interview was a blast, and I’m thrilled I get to post his interview here.
Where are you now and what was the journey like?
We’ve now lived in the Orlando area for 15 months and I can honestly say that this position in this city at this time wasn’t even on my radar while we were at Gordon-Conwell. When we came to GCTS in August of 2010, I had in mind a role in theological education overseas somewhere, teaching at the seminary or college level. In fact, I was part of the Overseas Missions Practicum team to Zimbabwe the following summer in order to better prepare myself for what I assumed would be a career teaching in a very similar context. Then in the summer of 2012 the Lausanne Movement hosted the Consultation for Global Theological Education, which brought some 60 representatives from seminaries all of the world to Gordon-Conwell to discuss how we, as a Church, can train our leaders in a way that matched the breadth and depth of growth we are seeing around the world. I was privileged to work at that consultation and meet many of the participants.
One of those participants was Richard Pratt, who started Third Mill in 1998 to meet the need of the church by providing a mediated curriculum at the seminary level to functional pastors around the world, free of charge. When the executive director for Third Mill, Michael Briggs (who was also at the Consultation), came back to Gordon-Conwell that winter to work on his D.Min., we made a point to reconnect. Through the course of the conversation we talked about all that Third Mill was doing and he mentioned I might be able to help out in their Curriculum Department. One thing led to another, as they say, and my family and I ended up moving down to Florida a few months later.
What is your current role and how does it serve the Church?
I currently work at Third Mill as a curriculum writer, which means I take much of the same information we would learn at a seminary and create a script out of it for a lesson lasting an hour to an hour and a half. One of the joys/burdens of this particular kind of writing is having to write everything in such a way that it can be visually displayed as its being narrated, which is not nearly as easy as I assumed. When you’re writing a research paper, you are allowed to be a bit more “heady” or abstract than you are when you are producing a script for a video-based mediated curriculum that will be translated into a dozen languages. Once I have written the script (currently working on a single lesson on the books of Samuel), I send it on to be edited for style and content before it goes to our production team, who will story-board it and create visually stunning representations of the concepts and ideas I am articulating for that particular scene. After the lesson is produced in English, it will be translated into Arabic, Russian, Spanish and Chinese at our offices in Orlando, and then into a host of languages by others around the world. But the process really starts at my desk and in order for it to work, I have to keep all of these steps in mind.
One of the recurring themes of the Consultation for Global Theological Education was the idea of “brain drain,” which happens in all sectors of business and society. And what it boils down to is the idea that students from all over the world come to the U.S., Canada and various parts of Europe with the intention of returning to their home countries and contributing to the growth of its businesses, governments, and various aspects of its infrastructure. But what happens on a consistent basis is those students find jobs in their countries of study and never return home. And when this happens over and over again, the home countries are left with fewer educated leaders than they ever intended when they sent their best and brightest to the West to study. The brain drain is affecting the church today in much the same way. The curriculum I help produce with Third Mill is intentionally designed to make the brain drain unnecessary.
There is also a second category of people, the pastors who could never even dream of leaving their homes or churches to study in the West. For every pastor that actually does win the scholarship to study overseas, there are hundreds who are staying home with little chance of a biblical education. By producing a mediated curriculum in a video format, and then offering that curriculum for free in various forms, both sets of church leaders can learn the same information (and from some of the same professors via interview spots) we enjoy in the States while never having to leave their homes or ministries. Instead of asking pastors from around the world to come to the U.S. for a seminary education (or to stay at home and struggle through the text the way we all did before we had NT Survey or Systematic Theology I), we are taking the seminary education to them. Our hope is that these functional pastors take the curriculum and find either a mentor or a collaborative learning group to walk through and apply these lessons to their own lives and contexts. And from what we can gather, this is happening all over the world by the millions.
What is your greatest joy serving as curriculum writer with Third Millennium Ministries?
First, I’ll list the “runners-up.” I work with some pretty stellar and humble people. I live in a vacation destination and my parents are able to visit often. I actually get to use my seminary education (and BibleWorks!) every day of the week. I get to travel to seminaries all over the U.S., interviewing professors I respect on topics that I really enjoy. And I get to be an integral part of the “creative process” for what is essentially a production company.
But the single greatest joy I have in writing curriculum comes on regular basis when we meet in staff meetings and hear folks recount story after story from the field where deserving pastors in underdeveloped parts of the world receive a year’s worth of seminary education for free on a single thumb drive they can fit in their pocket (when internet access isn’t an option). The folks who can have the greatest impact on their communities and who have the greatest need for the education I so dearly loved are finally getting the tools to handle the text well. And their response is much more than simple gratitude. It is gratitude coupled with a full understanding of what that education will mean for their congregations and for their own spiritual growth. To use a borrowed phrase, it’s very much like providing “streams in the desert.”
What was one (or several) things that you gleaned during your time at seminary that is helpful for your current role?
It’s not all head knowledge. It’s not all information. It’s not all parsing or defining or getting the right answer on a test. I loved the academic side of Gordon-Conwell, but I walked away from seminary realizing life and ministry and God-given work happens in and around and through and beside all of that academic work I did (and enjoyed). I loved taking Dr. McDonough’s Exegesis of Revelation course, but what I probably loved more was the group of friends I studied with for the final. Maybe I would have done just as well on that test, but I know for certain I wouldn’t have enjoyed the class nearly as much if I hadn’t done it with friends.
That idea translates in two particular ways with what I do now. First of all, I came to work with the assumption that I was going to be working with some of my best friends (even though I hadn’t technically met them yet). I assumed the relationships. And in a way, that helped create the relationships much faster than they would have come if I had just stuck my nose in a book or stared at my computer screen all day. This has made getting used to the process, and my place in it, much easier that it could have been. I know the folks I work with; I enjoy the folks I work with; and I know how my job and their jobs all fit together to produce the curriculum. But secondly, when I’m writing the curriculum, I actually have a visual picture in my mind of students meeting together watching the videos or talking through the issues in whatever part of the world God put them. This allows me to write in such a way that understands and helps create the kind of environment that is conducive to really good learning. I know my audience because, in some small way, I have been part of the audience. I have been in those learning groups with friends and I can rightfully assume the context for these lessons.
What advice would you have for someone considering seminary?
Think two (or three) steps ahead. Before I entered Gordon-Conwell in the Fall of 2010, I had set aside some time the previous winter to seek the Lord and talk with my wife about what we would do with a seminary education. After all, the diploma wasn’t the end goal. We landed on global theological education. And because we already knew the direction we were heading before we arrived in South Hamilton, we could be more intentional with the classes I took, the friendships we developed, and the extracurricular programs we did (like OMP). Now, am I doing exactly what I thought I would be doing when I entered seminary: actually, no. But that is due more to my own ignorance and how I was using yesterday’s paradigms to plan my future. Little did I know that a ministry like Third Mill existed, was meeting the same need in a very different way, and that I could be a part of that. But had I not been looking past seminary and the diploma, it isn’t likely that I would have landed where I am right now.
What advice would you have for a recent graduate?
As a “recent graduate” just last year, I had to consistently remind myself that the rest of the world, the church included, wasn’t going to afford the kind of life I enjoyed at Gordon-Conwell. When I was in seminary, I saw my friends on daily basis, talking, cutting up, discussing work from class, eating, whatever. My wife and kids saw their friends every day. All they had to do was go to one of the play areas on campus and 99 times out of 100, there would be good friends playing there as well. I can’t tell you how many times I walked down to a friend’s apartment, barefoot, to talk through the parsing of a particular verb, to think through once again how a particular view of the atonement might apply itself to the “real world.” In essence, community at Gordon-Conwell was unlike anything we had ever experienced. We LOVED it! But honestly, I’m not really expecting to ever have it like that again. Friends we have now are folks we see a couple of times a month (outside of Sunday morning worship). And those are our good friends. In one sense, it’s harder, but in reality this is just the ebb and flow of American culture. And for us, this was the hardest adjustment post-GCTS.
Thanks again, Mitchell! Go check out Third Mill and use some of their awesome resources for yourself!