A new group in Chattanooga is feeding the hungry - the theologically hungry, that is.
Alternative Seminary, a theological education program whose course work leads to a certificate in theology from Interdenominational Theological Center of Atlanta, opened locally in January to serve inner-city and urban pastors and congregational leaders.
Its genesis, according to academic dean Rozario Slack, was an "indigenous idea from several pastors who were concerned about the theological education in inner-city and urban settings."
The idea, he said, was to create a certificate program for church leaders that has no educational prerequisite, offers enhancement and enrichment, and is not very costly.
"We wanted the ability [for students] to get a quality education from a fully-accredited certificate program," Slack said.
Initial local efforts that had been under way for about a year were consolidated into the partnership with ITC, he said.
Through the Atlanta center but locally in classes held at Re:Start, students receive graduate-level training in a DVD-based class model led by a local, seminary-trained graduate of an accredited theological school, according to Slack. The leaders, he said, come from a variety of Christian denominations.
The certificate requires the pass/fail completion of eight 12-hour courses: Old Testament, New Testament, preaching, philosophy of religion, introduction to pastoral care, church administration, church history and Christian education.
Although the program was created so it could be finished in roughly nine months, Slack said local Alternative Seminary organizers felt it was important to stretch each course to two months to allow the widest latitude for success and to even allow for makeup work for students who have to miss classes. Courses, which are $200 apiece, meet for three hours every other weekend.
"We want to build in success," he said. "When you're dealing with adult learners or bivocational pastors, there are certain things you have to do make sure they're successful."
Slack said while each course is valuable, the general importance of the program is to give pastors "a more in-depth understanding of what it takes to really study [the Bible] and to understand how intense and intentional God was to get something in our hands to know something about him."
It's also important, he said, for students to understand what "we do with [the Bible] now that we have it" instead of using it, as can be done, as "a tool of division."
LaJuan Elston, who along with her husband, William, is a Sunday school teacher at Holy Temple Church of God in Christ, said her Old Testament course gave her a better understanding of Scripture.
Slack, who taught the initial course, said "it was phenomenal to see" the "hunger that people have to better themselves and the apparent light bulbs that seemed to be turned on" with the course.
He said the courses are finding senior pastors studying alongside their associate pastors, pastors grappling anew with "issues they thought they knew" and students simply "turned on by the educational process."
Slack, pastor of Temple of Faith Deliverance Church of God in Christ, said the ideal student for the program is not looking at the moment to get a degree but can fill 12 continuing education hours - required by some denominations - by finishing the certificate.
The initial 27 students in the seminar - about twice as many as officials expected - would graduate in May 2012 in Atlanta.