Degrees of Disruption

blog May 30, 2024

By Ken Walker

While its sanctuary seats 3,000 and hundreds more flow through three buildings each week on its 40-acre campus, Visalia First Assembly of God doesn’t look like a traditional Bible school. If Mark Merrill achieves his vision, though, tomorrow’s Christian higher education model will follow the grassroots approach fueling Catalyst Bible College.

Powered through a partnership with Vanguard University, the central California college is nearing the end of its first academic year. However, because of transfers who helped launch the college, Catalyst could see its first graduates walk across the stage in 2025. Their degrees will be issued by Vanguard, an Assemblies of God school founded in 1920.

“Today, if a young person feels the call to go into Christian ministry, they’re going to pay in excess of $200,000 to $250,000 for a four-year experience,” says Merrill, Visalia First’s senior pastor and president of the unique Bible school. “We’re a fraction of that—one-quarter to one-third or even less. “When they go through a traditional experience, they’re coming out with a six-figure debt and coming into a job that may not pay them very much.”

Indeed, last year an analysis by the New York Federal Reserve showed theology majors were earning a median annual salary of $36,000 five years after graduation. That was the lowest of a half-dozen fields where grads earn less than $40,000. At the other end of the scale, the highest earners were in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, topped by chemical engineers with a $75,000 median salary.

Not only is Catalyst seeking to slash the cost of a degree, it wants to provide more hands-on training for ministry. Although only required of theology majors, its 12-week practicums are also available to students majoring in business administration, management, psychology or early childhood education.

Provost Jason Kennedy says this approach is partially modeled on his wife’s training as a medical doctor. After Rachel’s first two years of academic studies, she spent two more years  combining academics with rotations through different specialties. Then, she capped off her preparation as a family physician with a four-year residency.

“We believe your ministry calling happens as you are doing,” says Kennedy, 48, an executive pastor at Visalia First. “With most people who feel called to be a missionary, they’ve been on the mission field, on a mission trip or have been around a missionary. Most students who are called to youth ministry had a deep relationship with their youth pastor and worked in youth ministry. So we want them to learn by doing.

“Ministry is not just theory; it’s also practice. You have to have hands-on training. There’s a need for churches across America to not only help with education costs, but help students with day-to-day experiences.”

Hailey Martinez, part of a small group of students who completed a beta test year prior to Catalyst’s official launch last fall, has completed practicums in youth ministry, young adults and digital ministry areas. While she hopes to one day find a pastoral job in children’s ministry, for now the central California native appreciates the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of her chosen field.

“I’ve enjoyed sitting back and watching how ministries work together to do the same thing, which is to bring the gospel to people who don’t know it,” says the 20-year-old sophomore. “Just seeing all different aspects of the church—I really like seeing how each part of the ministry works toward that goal. Because I volunteer in kids’ ministry, I don’t get to see a lot of what young adult or youth ministers do, so this has kind of equipped me in seeing all different parts of the church.”


A pastor for 24 years before becoming superintendent of the Georgia District of the Assemblies of God in 2018, overseeing that state’s 200-plus churches and 700 pastors gave Merrill a keen awareness of the evangelical church’s problem. Namely, its graying pastoral population. Research released a year ago by the Barna Organization showed that in 2022 just 16% of Protestant pastors were 40 or younger, with an average age of 52. One in four clerics plan to retire by 2030. Merrill observed that reality as he traveled regularly around Georgia and beyond.

“When I was a superintendent, I was getting pretty alarmed at the aging of our ministers’ population and the fact there were no younger ministers coming behind them that were keeping pace with those we were losing,” the senior pastor says. “This is something every major evangelical denomination in America is facing.

“We’re at a crisis point. So with that, when I made a decision to leave as superintendent to go back to the pastorate, I was pretty determined that we were going to do something to raise up ministers. Not only for it to be a strong robust academic experience, but to pair it with real-life service where they’re getting practical experience on the ground.”

So, while Merrill didn’t specifically accept the call to lead Visalia First in order to launch Catalyst, it followed soon after his installation as pastor in June of 2022. In the decade leading up to that, he obtained a Master’s of Science and Leadership at Grand Canyon University and a Doctor of Ministry from George Fox University. Merrill wanted younger people to have the same kind of educational opportunities without hocking their future.

For help, Merrill reached out to Kennedy, then senior pastor at Foundations Church in suburban Dallas. Having worked together periodically for 25 years, Merrill knew Kennedy—who also has a doctorate from George Fox and a master’s degree in organizational development—had the background to oversee the academic program and staff. Plus, classroom experience as an adjunct professor at Kings University, Southwestern AG University and Global University.

One of many operational approaches that help keep Catalyst’s average four-year tuition around $34,000 is relying on adjunct faculty that come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. The 16 professors include Manny Maravilla, dean of enrollment and a former professor at California Christian College. Based in Fresno, 40 miles to the north, the Freewill Baptist school closed its doors in 2023. However, it allowed students to transfer credits and continue their studies at Catalyst.

Another key to lowering costs: the church changed its missiology, diverting a healthy portion of its missions giving from sending people to the mission field to preparing students for ministry. Not only has that reduced tuition, students wanting to live near campus can stay in an apartment complex two minutes away. Thanks to subsidies from the church, the cost is only $400 a month, which includes utilities and furnishings. And, though many of its 55 students are commuters, campus life includes weekly chapel services, a monthly social activity (such as bowling, laser tag, or movie night) and an intensive leadership retreat each semester.


The reset of its missiology means Visalia First now devotes about half its mission budget to education. In addition to a strong academic program, Catalyst pairs it with real-life training beyond its practicums. For example, each summer it offers the Catalyst World Experience, where students visit different regions of the world, such as South America, Europe and Africa.

While there are hundreds of schools across the nation that are pairing with a university, Merrill says the thing that makes Catalyst unique is it isn’t taking any kind of profit to compensate for overhead. Not only is it “doubling down” to raise money so it can lower the cost of education, it is looking for international partners; at present Merrill is talking to educational representatives in Southeast Asia about offering some of Catalyst’s courses there for free.

“We’re really trying to be international disrupters in the field to say, ‘If we’re going to be serious about preparing men and women for ministry, we have to bring down the cost,’” Merrill says. “And the only way we can bring down the cost is to intentionally invest in this, even to the point of where it’s sacrificial.”

Still, the Bible college is swimming upstream. Last year 15 nonprofit four-year schools closing their doors, including nearby California Christian. Others have struggled with finances amid a decline in college enrollment overall. The National Center for Education Statistics says the drop began in 2010, with 18.1 million students, then decreasing to 15.4 million by the fall of 2021—nearly 15%.

Because of Vanguard’s sound financial status, the president doesn’t anticipate encountering such difficulties. What’s more, he believes their direct investments in students’ education will inspire more philanthropic giving to Catalyst and education programs of this nature.

When donors give money to the Visalia college, they’re not giving to deferred maintenance, large salary packages or a host of other things many Christian universities are saddled with, Merrill says. Instead, he says they will be giving directly into the life of a student because Catalyst has built a financial model where students are the beneficiaries of whatever finances they raise.

In addition, the president believes a sounder financial footing will enable Catalyst to deal with the impact of any government regulations or cultural headwinds that may down the pike. Merrill says every Christian educator has to be aware of human sexuality or other issues that may place restraints on them if they hope to have students approved for federal financial aid. At this time the college is able to accept tuition payments coming through Federal Pell Grants or parallel state Cal Grants.

“We’re raising up a body of scholars, most who are practitioners out in the field,” Merrill says. “People that are missionaries and pastors that are out there doing ministry. They are academically qualified to be our faculty but are not dependent on the academy for their salary. With that we can be pretty nimble, quick and responsive to pivot, should a doomsday reality come down upon us.”

Kennedy sees two pillars undergirding the college: the local church and its university partnership. The existing facilities (its acreage matches Vanguard’s) had already been used for Southwestern AG extension classes and the denomination’s California School of Ministry. That meant it could host Catalyst classes in existing space. Its partnership with Vanguard is also valuable: about half of its classes are online, taught by Vanguard professors.

“From a financial standpoint, we lean heavily on Vanguard,” the provost says. “I’m not having to hire multiple people or build buildings. I’m able to bring students in and use our own facilities, which we upgraded with technology and all those bells and whistles. But I’m not having to take on the overhead a traditional university is having to cover.”


The unusual Bible college isn’t only aiming to lower costs. Its other driving purpose is to produce more ministers for churches in Southern California and beyond, and more missionaries. Kennedy says the school’s five disciplines all tie back to the local church. For example, a business administration or business management degree will help produce executive pastors, while a psychology degree can equip Christian counselors for local churches. An early childhood education emphasis will lead to a teaching certificate.

The latter is especially relevant to Visalia First, which opened its kindergarten-through-eighth-grade charter school more than a decade ago. Merrill hopes that can expand one day to include a high school, making for a seamless experience from kindergarten through college. In the process, the president also hopes to help boost church attendance, which has seen a steady decline nationwide since the turn of the century.

Merrill, who completed his doctoral dissertation in church revitalization, says one element of reversing that trend is increasing the number of ministry workers. The high cost of higher education often forces college and seminary graduates into secular employment paying better salaries, a necessity to pay back their educational loans, he says. Once used to a higher income, many never find their way back to ministry.

“We can discuss all of the various angles of that with regard to their belief in the call of God, but they’re all constrained by the burdens of the reality of making a living,” Merrill says. “So with that, they’re not coming into the church. I believe with the increase of properly trained workers to fill our pulpits, plant churches and be financially responsible to go out there in ministry, the tide can be turned.”

With a student-to-professor ratio of about 1:15, Kennedy sees its smaller class sizes and more personable approach for students as a major attraction for young adults contemplating a career in ministry.

“They have access to the professor,” the provost says. “In a traditional university, a professor may teach theology one or two times a week and have a couple other classes. When I taught introduction to theology, I wasn’t teaching anything else. Since I wasn’t managing three or four classes at a time, I had a bit of time for students. So it’s very much a family feel, where they can access the professor and ask questions of them.”

Since its concept is to develop students with a missional mindset, in the future Catalyst plans to have missionaries-in-residence and missionaries to help guide short-term, intensive cohorts or oversee missions trips.

Thanks to its high-tech option, other than going on missions trips, students can complete a degree at Catalyst without ever setting foot on the California campus. That is evidenced by one student in Oklahoma, some living several hours away on the coast of California and another who is moving to Mozambique to serve as a ministry intern. If unable to sit in on a class because of time zone differences or other logistics, course videos are uploaded to the cloud so students can watch later.

Catalyst is in discussions with churches in several states about forming extension campuses, with students completing classes online while the church adopts the college’s practicum model to oversee hands-on training.

Part of Merrill’s doctoral studies involved semiotics—the study of signs and symbols. He hopes the college will represent a symbolic presence that motivates and inspires other churches and Christian leaders to invest in Christian higher education as part of their missiology.

“Until we get serious about that, we’re going to continue to have this pipeline problem,” the 50-year-old pastor says. “We need to see that ministry for these young people doesn’t begin when they’re ordained, but when they begin ministry preparation. We can begin to invest in that at step one instead of somewhere down the line.”

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