Derik Vanderford Staff Writer
December 19, 2013
UNION — A local couple has earned identical master’s degrees at the same time by going back to school together.
Last Thursday, husband and wife Jeff and Courtney Dean each earned a master’s degree in Christian ministry from North Greenville University. The couple began their graduate program in March 2010. Jeff and Courtney each took the same 12 online classes to complete a 36-hour program which they completed this month. The couple said such an undertaking required effort to balance work schedules, family schedules, school schedules and quality time with their nine-year-old daughter Ruthie, who is a fourth grader at Monarch Elementary School. During an interview on Monday, Jeff and Courtney shared the same response about their accomplishment:
“God has been good to us.”
Although Jeff Dean is currently the associate pastor and pastor of students at Jonesville Baptist Church, he did not always know his path would take that direction. In 1994, Jeff graduated from Gardner-Webb University with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. He said while he was in college, he felt that God had a purpose for him to serve.
“I always knew God would call me in some way, but I didn’t know it would be full-time ministry,” Jeff said.
After graduation, Jeff began working at an advertising agency in Greenville. He said in 1998, God called him to ministry. He began working on a part-time basis, and eventually full-time in 2000.
Jeff was asked to describe his calling from God, and he said it was almost unexplainable. He said he realized God’s call through prayer and devotion, as well the confirmation of other people.
“You just know,” Jeff said.
In 2002, Jeff married Courtney.
Courtney graduated from North Greenville University in 2001, with a double major in Christian studies and English. Contrary to her husband’s plan, Courtney had already planned to go on to seminary. Courtney explained her calling as a sense of understanding, which comes from Jesus Christ.
“Because we are Christians, we base our truth in Jesus Christ,” Courtney said. “Our faith is what everything hinges on — the decisions we make personally, as husband and wife, and as parents. Faith allows us to sense God’s leadership.”
The couple moved to Union in January 2006 after Jeff was hired by Jonesville Baptist Church in November 2005.
Back To School
When asked about her experience at North Greenville University, Courtney echoed the university’s President Jimmy Epting:
“When you come to North Greenville, you are guaranteed a quality education in a Christ-centered environment.”
“Their focus is the salvation and spiritual growth of their students and then graduation — in that order,” Courtney said. “That makes for a successful Christian university.”
Jeff said he is thankful that he and his wife received each scholarship for which they applied, as well as an abundance of support and encouragement from their church.
“God was faithful,” Jeff said. “We didn’t have to pay a dime, and we got a quality education.”
Courtney said receiving her education online was a pleasant surprise.
“A big misconception I had about online education was that there was a lack of community among students,” she said. “I was wrong.”
Courtney said communication with professors and classmates through a communal website and emails made it easy to learn online, even for someone who had been out of school for a decade.
Education In Christian Ministry
Jeff said his graduate studies in Christian ministry changed the way he looked at areas of ministry, leadership and spiritual disciplines, and taught him more about pulling things from scripture and making them applicable.
“One course I gleaned the most from was Leadership and Development,” Jeff said. “We looked at what type person we are at the core. I look at myself in a new light, and what drives me. If my inner self is not suitable to His image, I can’t convey to other people to have that same relationship with Him.”
Courtney said her perspective was changed through her Prayer and Spiritual Awakening class. She said a historical portion of her textbook about “circuit riders” — clergy in the earliest years of the U.S. who were assigned to travel around specific geographic territories to minister to settlers and organize congregations. Courtney said the illustration in her book showed a circuit rider on horseback, riding in the rain.
“I thought, ‘That’s not comfortable,’” Courtney said. “I couldn’t imagine riding bareback through the rain all for the sole purpose of teaching the gospel and sharing God’s word. That class changed my perspective on comfort zones. Would I be willing to brave the elements? We are called to share the gospel everywhere, not just where it’s comfortable. Ministry is not about comfort; it’s about compassion.”
Another requirement of the couple’s degree program — a course called Practicum in International Missions — took them out of those comfort zones and placed them in San Jose, Costa Rica. The practicum was one of two courses the couple took from Dr. Bill Cashion, who has also been the interim pastor at Jonesville Baptist Church since February.
The Deans were part of a 22-person team who worked in Costa Rica from July 19-27. They participated in street evangelism in the mornings, leadership conferences in the afternoons, and revival services at night. The mission trip was a first for the couple, and they said 220 people accepted Christ while they were there. They also said the church with which they worked continues to grow, and they are planning a return trip for July 2014.
During the trip, Jeff and Courtney hiked about three miles each day. Jeff said they traveled across an extremely narrow (and less-than-sturdy) bridge and up a hill to an area that the church did not want to go. He also said the local police never go there, and a car could barely get there. He said the area was overrun with drugs, gangs and prostitution. One man who was led to the Lord had just been robbed the night before.
“It was intimidating, but we were never afraid,” Jeff said. “Eighty-eight people came to Christ on that hill. To see that as a couple, and to get course credit, we were getting the best of both worlds.”
Courtney said the trip made her realize people in the U.S. have too much.
“When you see people who have very little, but they have smiles on their faces from ear to ear because of their faith in the Lord Jesus, they begin to attract other people,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder why it’s not that way here. We have so many things grasping for our attention. I’m not saying TV, social media, and even money is bad, but anything we place above (God), that’s our God, despite what we say.”
The Deans’ final task of their degree program was called Integration Project, which required them to put what they learned into practice. Jeff held a crusade called New Life 2013 at the Jonesville Municipal Complex. His work included preparation beforehand such as the formation of ministry teams, creating publicity, and coordination with special guests. Jeff said six people came to the Lord through the crusade.
Courtney wrote a six-week Bible study and implemented the study at Union County Pregnancy Center, which coincides with her goal of writing faith-based books.
“We have the same degree, but we will use them completely differently,” she said. “He’s an ordained minister, and I never will be.”
Courtney said she feels her calling is to share her faith through writing, and one topic on which she plans to focus is simplification.
“I think there are great benefits in simple solitude — tuning the world out and experiencing moments of grace,” she said. “It’s not something foreign; it’s what God created us to do in the beginning. It’s what Jesus did while he was on earth; he went to a solitary place and prayed. Sometimes I think we forfeit that sweet communion with God.”
Courtney said she often takes those moments during the morning and often finds herself praying for the people of Costa Rica who have nothing.
“I’m not saying live a life of complete solitude, but we need those moments away,” she said.