This is the first in a five-part series that tells the story of TLI.
In 2003 I moved from Camp-of-the-Woods in upstate New York to Chicago to attend seminary. Before I left Camp, the man who had mentored me told me to find Hutz Hertzberg, his long-time friend. Full of excitement I arrived on campus to find Hutz boxing up his office. It was his last day but he promised to stay in touch. Over the next few years we would meet semi-regularly and on one of those occasions he introduced me to Leadership Resources International, a missions organization dedicated to training pastors around the world. I looked at their website, was intrigued, but I reasoned I was too young and would not know what I was doing. I repeated that phrase to myself often. One of those meetings with Hutz must have had the right impact, because on September 6, 2004, I wrote in my journal: "I found my call in life. I would love to start a new mission's organization that focused on training pastors that have no way of getting theological training."
I graduated in 2006 and got a job in Minnesota doing what I loved – teaching the Bible and coaching basketball. During my third week at the school I invited Sam Crabtree, the Executive Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, to speak to the students and after we met he turned to me and said, “You should teach at The Bethlehem Institute (TBI). Let’s stay in touch.” At the time TBI was the training wing of the church, offering courses to lay people as well as providing a two-year pre-seminary training program. It was then that Amy and I started attending the church and within a year I was teaching.
In the spring of 2008 I knew things were not going well at my place of employment and for years had been thinking about Leadership Resources International and the need for theological training outside the US. I bought Business Plan Pro 10 and began crafting a plan and calling everyone who had ever mentored me to solicit advice. What came of those conversations was an over-ambitious plan that had as its primary mission to mentor and send seminary students to help meet the need for theological training around the world. As a side note, I had yet to travel overseas and my only time in another country was a day trip to Canada.
On a Tuesday in April of 2008 I was pulled into the principal’s office of the school where I served and was asked to resign. Having been let go I applied to a Christian school in Connecticut and was one of two finalists. They offered the other guy the job. With a house that had lost almost half of its value in two years and two small children, we were stuck.
Two things changed all of that.
First, I met with Tom Steller, the Dean of The Bethlehem Institute on June 1. I pitched my idea to him. Armed with my 15-page business plan, full of charts and promises, I walked into his office and handed it to him. He in turn put it on the floor and listened. To this day I don’t believe he read it. After the pitch he said, “I’ve been dreaming about something like this. How would you like to do this at Bethlehem?” I didn’t pray. I just said yes.
“Armed with my 15-page business plan, full of charts and promises, I walked into his office and handed it to him. He put it on the floor and listened. To this day I don’t believe he read it. After the he said, “I’ve been dreaming about something like this. How would you like to do this at Bethlehem?””
At the same time I learned a small church in Pine City, MN, was looking for a part-time interim pastor. I interviewed in May and started in July. It would turn into two wonderful years serving as their pastor.
When Tom asked me if I wanted to start my ministry at Bethlehem, I don’t think either of us understood what it would take. Over the next six months we cut through all the red tape of a large church. The hesitation was understandable. I wasn’t a member of the church, had not graduated from TBI, had never interacted with the missions department, and really only knew a handful of people. We actually received multiple “no” votes before we even got to the elder board. What I learned was that having Tom Steller behind me was enough. By 2009 we were given clearance to file for non-profit status as a ministry of the church. Training Leaders International was born. There was one little problem. I had never raised any money in my life.