Student-led group provides service to churches, hands-on experience

May 6, 2011

PLAINVIEW – When it comes to preparing college students for the work world, employers are consistently touting the value of internships for the hands-on experience they provide to potential workers.

For ministerial students at Wayland Baptist University, those internships typically take the form of volunteer or part-time staff roles at area churches, most of which are small congregations. But a new student-led venture at Wayland is providing future ministers with another venue for honing their skills.

The Eleazar Project, housed in the School of Religion and Philosophy, consists of groups of students who travel to churches around the region to provide their services for a Sunday. The specifics vary from church to church depending on their needs.

“We call the churches beforehand and explain to them what the point of the project is, which is two-fold: to serve churches and to gain experience,” said Chris Winegar, a senior religion major from Rock Rapids, Iowa, who plans to be a preacher. “Some churches want only preaching, some want everything from Sunday school teachers and children’s workers to music leaders.”

After the team leaders have defined the church’s needs, the group meets to lay out the plan of action, forming the team based on what students are needed and the strengths and talents of those studying for ministry at Wayland. Not all of the 40 students making up the Eleazar group are religion majors or minors; some, Winegar noted, are just interested in serving churches and getting more experience in doing so.

Winegar said the group’s services are not limited to small churches, and the group likes the variety of experiences they’ve been able to have as it has really helped students. A key element is an evaluation form the group gets back from church staff members providing helpful feedback on how they can improve their skills. 

Miguel Garcia, a freshman from Livingston, has found his visits to churches quite helpful as it hones his skills as a worship leader. Though Garcia is a religion major with an emphasis in youth ministry, he enjoys leading music and playing his guitar at churches and has found the trips with Eleazar Project beneficial. 

“I have learned a lot during this. It has helped me to prepare for the services more,” he said. “This has helped me learn more hymns and challenged me to know not only contemporary songs but to fuse traditional music into the services as well. I also used to be pretty nervous in leading worship but now I’m much more comfortable.”

Garcia said he has found the variety of churches served in his first year to be helpful as he gets to experience the different styles of worship that occur and has learned how to be adaptable to what churches and congregations like. He leads worship for the youth program on Wednesdays at Seth Ward Baptist Church and enjoys the opportunity to practice flexibility in his worship role.

Though he is preparing to preach, Winegar said he has let other students take the pulpit with Eleazar since he gets the opportunity to preach locally at College Heights Baptist Church, where he has been a member for a few years. He enjoys the role of coordinating experiences for other students and seeing them really benefit from the field trips.

“It’s been nice to go into a church you’re not used to because all churches do some things differently,” Winegar said. “We’ve been able to hone our skills with these services, and it’s given us exposure to different people and personalities.”

Junior Wes Tayntor, a religion major from Wichita Falls, said he also has enjoyed the exposure to varied churches. He has preached with Eleazar at Highland Baptist Church in Lubbock and at First Baptist in Earth. While he is considering a career in camp ministry, Tayntor said he enjoys preaching and is glad to be able to use that skill and sharpen it.

“I enjoy preaching and having the chance to get more experience in that area. I think both times I have benefited in the time of preparing and the chance to speak in front of different groups,” Tayntor said. “The feedback forms have been helpful too to know what to change the next time, what worked, what didn’t work.”

Debbie Wiley, who directs the theological research and writing lab for the school, said she original proposed the group idea to school dean Dr. Paul Sadler, feeling that ministerial students needed a new option to give them practical experience. With his approval, she pulled together students to form the original leadership team of four, then promptly moved out of the way, desiring the group to be student-led all the way. She has been pleased at the outcome.

Students may leave here and never have the opportunity to have actual experiences with churches in the field in which they want to serve,” Wiley said. “In the fall we were going somewhere almost every week, and in the spring we’ve been several times.” 

Winegar said the leadership team now stands at seven members, with some freshmen added to give them several years of leadership.

The group has regular fellowships each month to establish bonds and network about their experiences. They had a fall formal and a fellowship that ended in a surprise reenactment of an underground church experience; a barn dance is being planned to close out the school term this month.

Winegar said the leadership team named the group Eleazar after a common Biblical name that translates from Hebrew as “May God help,” echoing the sentiment of students who feel called to serve churches with leadership from God.

For more information about the Eleazar teams, contact Wiley at 291-1168.