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Developing Leaders Every Pastor Wants in the Congregation

Calvin University’s Ministry Leadership Cohort offers pathways for students of all majors who want to live out their faith in all of life. This practical program helps them learn how to build community, love the church, and practice leadership no matter where they eventually work, worship, and serve.

Grace Cooper felt at home in her church and school community in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, but didn’t know anybody else going to Calvin University. 

“Starting over to make new friends was scary,” she said, “but Calvin’s Ministry Leadership Cohort (MLC) has helped me connect with so many people.”

Aidan Hillman has strong connections with church youth he’s mentored since his mid-teens. Learning with and from others in MLC courses, small groups, and worship experiences helped broaden his understanding of different Christian viewpoints. “MLC helps foster friendships among students who love the church but don’t necessarily agree on everything,” he says. “It’s a hidden gem.”

Kevin Secundino, a pre-med biology major with a ministry leadership minor, is now a peer leader for students in the two-year MLC program. He says, “One of the coolest things is the community that surrounds MLC. Becoming friends and learning about different faith journeys builds trust.” He is already applying that learning in his home congregation.

Each fall since 2019, MLC has welcomed a cohort of 17 to 27 incoming Calvin students from any major who show potential for all kinds of leadership in the local church. MLC program manager Joanna Wigboldy explains that she and her staff help cohorts focus on building community, loving the church, and practicing leadership—and then living out these values beyond graduation. “We are training students to be the kind of person every pastor wants in their church,” Wigboldy says.

Building community

Building community based on common membership in Christ’s body starts with Calvin University’s Quest Welcome Week for first-year students. All MLC students are put in the same Quest orientation group and get to know each other through weekly small groups and one-on-one meetings with peer leaders. They share meals, worship together, and enjoy impromptu volleyball, annual retreats, and Christmas dinners. 


Sophomore Grace Cooper is double majoring in pre-med biology and Spanish while earning a ministry leadership minor. “I’ve been playing music since I can remember,”she says. “I started piano, voice lessons, and choir in third grade, began playing violin in fourth grade, and took on percussion in fifth grade.” All those experiences helped her begin leading youth worship at age 9 in her charismatic nondenominational church. She was also a high school cheerleader and is a lifeguard at Calvin University.

“MLC members have become some of my closest friends,” she says. “I’ve gotten to know students in cohorts above and below me. We are a community of all different majors and backgrounds. Last spring, our peer leaders helped us have weekly conversations in our small groups. Some topics were controversial, such as the LGBTQ+ community and the church. Our leaders set it up so we could practice speaking respectfully and listening well. Having a safe space to practice real conversations helps you communicate with those who think differently than you.”

Cooper says that having difficult conversations about racism, sacraments, and more reminds MLC members and peer leaders of what they nevertheless share: respect for scripture, similar ministry values, and the desire to support one another in prayer. “The MLC is equipping us to be leaders in the church in an official or unofficial role and leaders in the world for whatever career path we take. We’re learning to see ourselves as leading from ministry values whether we are in a ministry setting or not,” she says.

Loving the church

MLC defines loving the church as recognizing each other “as the body of Christ, made up of fallen people who are being transformed by Jesus Christ.” Students take required courses to explore community and commitments, church and society relationships, and Christian worship. “We ask freshmen to visit various churches during the fall semester. We do focused debriefing to help them discern a congregation’s values and choose a congregation to plug into,” Wigboldy says.

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Sophomore Aidan Hillman is double majoring in religion and philosophy with a ministry leadership minor. While in high school, he began mentoring middle schoolers at Keystone Community Church, a nondenominational congregation near Grand Rapids, Michigan. “My group of eight Keystone students are now ages 15 and 16. They will graduate from high school the same year I graduate from Calvin. I also interned at my church while in high school,” he says.

Hillman admits that his ties to Keystone made him “pretty resistant” to visiting other churches. “But Joanna Wigboldy knows us better than we know ourselves, so I toured churches of many denominations. I’m now leading worship once a month in a bilingual Christian Reformed (CRC) congregation. 

“Near the end of my freshman year, I found another CRC, Madison Square, that I enjoy attending. Madison Square is racially diverse, and you can see a 15-year-old rocking out on drums while a 60-year-old sings. That made it seem very approachable to me.”

Hillman is also a counselor at a Christian summer camp. Learning how to have crucial conversations has helped him talk with his Keystone mentees and summer campers about pornography. “Exposure to pornography is so high,” he says. “It’s appalling what 10-year-olds know about and talk about. Simply condemning pornography keeps young people in silence and shame. I try to show how community understanding, compassion, and accountability can help them overcome pornography’s power.” 

Practicing leadership

Wigboldy explains that MLC is designed to help students practice leadership “in the way that God has called you.” This includes getting involved in a local church and on-campus opportunities. First-years and sophomores attend the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship. They serve as drivers, as room assistants, and in other symposium roles. “All this helps them learn to interact with scholars and practitioners, ask good questions, practice hospitality, learn and demonstrate intercultural skills, be servant leaders, and learn how to plan and evaluate events,” Wigboldy says.

During her first year at Calvin, Cooper volunteered on a Calvin University chapel musician team. This led her to apply to be a worship apprentice (WA) as a sophomore. “Leading worship at Friday chapels is most like leading at my home church, which mostly does contemporary worship,” she says. “The biggest difference between my home church and Calvin chapels is that here we get to experience worship from so many different cultures. I’ve learned a lot from that multicultural emphasis.”

Hillman volunteered on his freshman dorm’s Barnabas team, working with other “Barnabi” to lead dorm-based Bible study, prayer, service, and worship opportunities. In fall 2022, he served as a Quest orientation leader for the incoming MLC cohort, and he’s still a Barnabas team member. Hillman says that learning to think deeply promotes leadership, so he was thrilled when MLC students were invited to join a video call with New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. “Intermittently, his grandchildren would run in and out. Seeing this powerful, renowned theologian as a human being was so grounding,” Hillman recalls.


Kevin Secundino, now a senior, was a Barnabas team member in the MLC’s first cohort, which meant he had to help figure out how to do dorm worship as COVID-19 protocols restricted how many people could gather. “Once our team was able to go to a local church and record three songs, prayers, and a time of reflection for dorm worship,” he says. “We also set up a room in our dorm basement where we could livestream. We emailed people to participate in whatever way they wanted, whether reading scripture or leading a prayer or reflection.

“As I look back on all the cohorts so far, it is amazing how many MLC members have become resident assistants, discipleship assistants, worship apprentices, Jubilee Fellows, and leaders in local churches,” he adds. Secundino became an MLC peer leader as a junior. “I remember leading a discussion about communion and baptism. We got to learn a big overview of how differently Christian churches handle sacraments. The goal was to listen and learn, not to try to change others’ opinions.”

Living the values at work and church

The five required MLC courses can all be applied toward a minor in ministry leadership, a program within Calvin’s congregational ministry and studies (CMS) department. Earning that minor requires CMS 381, a ministry internship course.

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“That class is open to all MLC students,” Wigboldy explains. “We offer the class online, so students can do their internship anywhere. Students work about ten hours a week at their internship site so have time to take another course, get a paying job, or both. Also, the course is tuition-free for MLC students who take it in the summer.”

Since Secundino is earning a ministry leadership minor, he completed a required summer internship course at his church during the summer of 2022. He also worked part time as a patient care assistant at a local hospital. 

“I love how the MLC connects to my academic major,” Secundino says. “It’s a big blessing for me to be in community with others who want to talk about and practice faith. When I become a doctor, I know I’ll interact with people who are in pain or going through a lot in the hospital. As a patient care assistant I can already apply what I’ve learned, such as that people have different experiences, thoughts, and opinions. That’s fine. It’s important to listen and respect, whether or not you agree. I want to be sure my patients are listened to.”


Learn more about Calvin University’s Ministry Leadership Cohort (MLC). Consider whether you might like to apply or recommend an incoming student to apply. Check out other opportunities in Calvin’s congregational ministry and studies (CMS) department

Many congregations and denominations are experiencing polarization. The MLC uses Crucial Conversations resources to teach students how to dialogue and disagree while practicing love and respect. Read Crucial Conversations: Stakes for Talking when Stakes are High, by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, et al.

Listen to Calvin University chapels livestreamed each weekday morning and archived online. Each weekday has a different focus

N.T. (Tom) Wright and John D. Witvliet offer fresh insights on Christian worship in this series of fourteen short videos.