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The Coming Indigenous Alaskan Church


Staff member
Dec 14, 2023
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A Conversation with a New Doctor!

As you may have heard, our president Dave Ley successfully defended his PhD dissertation, completing his terminal degree in Educational Studies. Recently, we sat down to have a longer conversation with him and learn about the focus of his dissertation. His work has some exciting implication for the state of Alaska!

What is the topic of your research, and what led you to pursue that?

The title is “Leadership Transition in the Alaska Native Evangelical Church.” So, the question about leadership transition, it’s generally apparent that there’s been a lack of leadership transition from non-natives to natives in the church in the native cultural context. There’s really not an established, reproducing indigenous church in Alaska, even after 150-200 years of evangelical effort. In some cases, a church was pastored by a Alaska native, and that leader served faithfully but then passed away, and there was no native leader to step in and carry it on, so it went back to non-native leadership. I see leadership transition as an aspect of discipleship. As you know, 2 Tim 2:2 is a core scripture for me, and it frames leadership transition as an essential part of discipleship. So I refined it to leadership transition because that specifically is the need for the local church body in the Alaska native context.

How did you go about the research?

My desire was to hear from any native believers that have successfully transitioned into church leadership to learn about their experience and perception of what worked for them. So my dissertation research consisted of interviews. I was able to contact 25 individuals, and I initially interviewed a friend who had worked with ABC in the past, himself an Alaska native leader, and he agreed to conduct the rest of the interviews. We thought there would be richer data if a fellow Alaska native initiated the rest of the conversations.

Were there common denominators across all the interviews?

After analyzing the data from them we found four main themes emerge that were significant factors for the individuals to successfully transition into church leadership. The first was that the native leader perceived and experienced someone who was committed to mentoring them over a long period of time. Interestingly, it wasn’t the traditional Western style of mentorship with the “sage on the stage and the student in the seat.” What empowered them and gave them confidence to transition into leadership was the nonnative mentor coming alongside them. The phrase “came alongside” or “side by side” occurred many times throughout the research. There wasn’t an authority structure, it was more of a partnership. And it was long term, where the nonnative mentor was increasingly empowering the native leader to do ministry gradually as they worked side by side together so the transition could take place slowly and naturally.

The second theme really facilitated the first—it was the relational aspect. They perceived that their mentors were committed to them in real life relationships, i.e., there was Christlike love and friendship between them. Key to that friendship was the nonnative being a learner, embracing the lifestyle, learning the language and culture. Which leads to the third theme: appreciating the cultural context of the Alaska native people and respecting and honoring it. That entailed acknowledging the past disrespect and pain caused in the history of missions in Alaska, seeking forgiveness and healing the wounds of the past. In essence, overcoming the pre-established historical barriers to wholesome intercultural relationship.

The final theme dealt with how the Alaska native leaders perceived their training and equipping for ministry. They found that vocational ministry training was essential, yet didn’t see that the traditional Western format of it was critically effective. Notably, 19 of the 25 had experienced some period of training in the Western sense of the term, that is, college. But only 2 had actually graduated. What they found had a greater impact on their equipping were more intensive seminars and trainings that fit the rhythms of native life in remote villages rather than having to uproot and do the “college thing” for multiple years.

With those four themes in mind, do you see ABC playing a role in improving leadership transition and establishing an indigenous Alaskan Church?

Some of the implications of this we definitely hope to apply at ABC. We’re dreaming about developing a ministry training center in remote Alaska where we would pair some of our professors with our native graduates and students and empower them to deliver the essentials of ministry training–how to study and teach the bible, core doctrines, and principles of practice–to believers from traditional Alaskan villages who then won’t be required to leave their established lives to acquire the training. They can take that training and immediately put it into practice, and then receive follow-up and further training in a few months or so.

So rather than investing all the resources to position a nonnative missionary in a village for a long time, maybe instead the missionary commits to serving 10 villages, visiting them all regularly. In between visits the believers in those villages continue to meet together, just like they did in Acts—they meet in their homes, they pray, read scripture, have a meal together and worship together. And it might get messy. The New Testament epistles show us how messy it got back then. But Paul made a commitment to those churches, to visit and write letters, and to help them develop, but not do the ministry for them. They were expected to take ownership of that themselves.

It’s exciting to think about an Acts type of flourishing happening across the state!

I’m definitely excited to shift to a “regular visits” type of model, where there’s little resourcing needs. In a village of 40 people, there’s not going to be a need for a building or much production cost. A missionary visits every few months to check in, keep training, redirect if needed, and enable the natural leaders that will arise out of that body of believers to begin leading and directing the core practices like prayer, scripture and teaching, etc. It was messy in Acts, and attention and correction was needed from Paul and the others, but those early christians knew that they were responsible for each other, not dependent on the “professionals” to do the ministry. It’s an observable fact that if you do the ministry for a church body, they will let you do it. But every believer has gifts that are meant to bless their local body. When a believer uses his or her gifts, they grow, and the body is blessed and grows as well.

For the first time in the broader history of Alaska missions, we have heard the voices of Alaska native believers who have successfully transitioned into church leadership, and we’ve heard their experience of how they’ve transitioned and their understanding of how that can continue. And I think that will be critically helpful to a thriving, reproducing indigenous church in Alaska finally being established.

We are so proud to have a president whose heart is so set on finding the natural path forward to expanding the Kingdom of God in this great state! President Ley, thank you for your faithful leadership here at ABC! We are proud of the hard work you have put in, and of the incredibly important purpose it is pursuing.

The post The Coming Indigenous Alaskan Church appeared first on Alaska Bible College.
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