Dr. Martin Sanders is the director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary in Rockland County. This is his twenty-seventh year in Nyack, New York, but his thirty-first year as part of Alliance’s higher education program, having spent four years at the Canadian Theological Seminary in Saskatchewan. The following interview was conducted at Alliance Theological Seminary while student cohorts were gathered to take classes for the Doctor of Ministry degree.
What brought you to Alliance Theological Seminary?
I first came as an adjunct professor. They needed someone in Pastoral Theology, and so I came to teach as an adjunct. Almost as soon as I was here, they offered me a contract. It took a while to transition from Canada, but the city is for me. I have a unique background. I am the only director of a Doctor of Ministry program in North America who started out as an artificial inseminator of cattle. I thought I was going to be a dairy farmer my whole life. But then my wife and I came to faith in Christ on the same day and got called into ministry. We started college with two children, seminary with three and graduate school with four. We knew that we were going to be a part of influencing leaders multi-culturally and in a city, so coming to Nyack was natural way to make a contribution to the city.
If you had to introduce Alliance Theological Seminary and its Doctor of Ministry program to someone, what would you say?
Alliance Theological Seminary’s program is uniquely a Doctor of Ministry program, which means it’s in the context of professional ministry, or something similar. The doctorate is in globalized leadership, and because of that it’s a very multi-cultural program—very international in flavor. And because of who Alliance Theological Seminary’s students are, far more urban than anything else, our program is transformational in nature and developmental. As part of the Doctor of Ministry program, we try to identify where people are, what they need next, and then next, and then next. You know, part of this is just a partnership with God and His Spirit to help uncover what’s the best for them. And then, developmentally, to work with them. The transformational piece is that we help people move our students into the next stage, so that it’s not just cognitive or skill acquisition, but it’s actually their full development as a person, including heart and soul issues, as well. We want healthy leaders. Our phrase is that “you can never lead people beyond where you’ve been.” So if your emotional health is at a seven, you’ll never lead people past that. If your spiritual health is at a there, you’ll never lead people past that. So our job at Alliance Theological Seminary is to take leaders and move them into the next level of their effectiveness—hopefully rising to be at a nine and then ten in their effectiveness.
In the time that you’ve been at Alliance Theological Seminary, have you seen any changes in the needs of your students or in the types of students that are coming to the Doctor of Ministry program?
Increasingly we’re being contacted by top-level leaders in various places around the world. For example, we have people in the Doctor of Ministry program who are recognized as the president of their organization or denomination in their region or country. We have the first female bishop of the historic denomination of all of western Australia. We have bishops from Harlem and the Bronx. It’s interesting that we are being chosen by top-level leaders, because so many of them don’t need skill acquisition; they’ve risen to the top. They need heart and soul things to take them to the next level, not just for the people they lead, but also in their own souls. So one of the challenges that I’m facing as the director of Alliance Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program is to see that we appeal to top-level leaders. However, if you look around, particularly in the greater New York area, and in cities in general, you recognize that there are so many forgotten and overlooked people. We’ve discovered that the best people to lead forgotten and overlooked people are people who identify well with them. So we’re trying to consider what’s it like to take presidents, vice presidents, and CEOs of organizations and put them with people who work in the trenches with the overlooked and the forgotten. It seems like that’s a bit of what Jesus did. In the 21st century, in New York, it’s a bit of a challenge, but I think we’re up to it.
In looking forward and considering to the future of Alliance Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program, do you see it changing?
Well, we’re partially there anyway. Our first one hundred students were from forty countries or culture groups, so we’re incredibly diverse, which makes us international—actually, global—in perspective. But also, for schools like ours, we have a higher percentage of women than most, which tells us that a lot of the people that are coming to Alliance Theological Seminary are working in nonprofits, NGOs, and social service initiatives in the city. This is really intriguing for us. Those are the forgotten and overlooked people. So if we can find the high-caliber people who want to go to the next level, but who are working in places that are para-church, or even working in social service in city structures, that’s very exciting. So we’ve already been doing that. What we’re trying to think through is the intentionality of who our best audience is and how we can make our greatest contribution both here and, because of the international piece, around the world.
In trying to identify the essence of Alliance Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program, what words or images come to mind?
As I said, everybody who talks about the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary mentions that it is developmental and transformational in nature. That’s intentional on our part, and apparently that is unique, because it gets talked about regularly. The other piece, in doctoral work particularly, is who you study with. In most Doctor of Philosophy programs and other Doctor of Ministry programs, students study with a person more than a program. We have high-caliber faculty members, and we’ll put them up against anyone. However, what our students talk about most is their peer group—the unique diversity of the group and what each member brings to it. We have one student who’s in the final stages of his dissertation. He earned three Ivy League degrees, and then he came here to Alliance Theological Seminary. And he says the professors here are higher in quality than any he’s ever had. He said what he’s even more impressed with are the people who are doing discipleship by the thousands in China. He was also in a group with two people who are leading an educational program in Haiti and a woman who was an executive coach for high earners in Connecticut. He said that was an education in and of itself. And he said that as much as he enjoyed the classes, it was the interaction with the people in his group that he feels gave him the best education. That’s significant.
Thinking about your vision for what students at Alliance Theological Seminary gain from the Doctor of Ministry program, can you think of an example—a particular student or story that you feel really highlights what this program is meant to do in students’ lives?
One of the things we’re always excited about at Alliance Theological Seminary is equipping people to reproduce what we give them. So we’re very conscious to create reproducible models. We don’t want our Doctor of Ministry students to just get a good education. We want them to be able to replicate it. So, for example, even our comprehensive exams, which are standard in doctoral programs, are not written. Ours are verbal. They have to do oral exams, which throws some students. It’d be a lot easier to write it. But we say, “in the kind of work you’re in, we don’t need you be able to write it; we need you to be able to articulate it.” So we have one student who actually came to us, he called us and said, “I have just had a situation where I had an opportunity to do something significant, and I dropped the ball.” And he said, “I felt so intimidated. I wanted to come to a place that would help me develop the skills to do this.” What happened to him his first time at Alliance Theological Seminary was so significant, that he went home and witnessed a complete transformation of his family, including his young adult children. A daughter got off drugs, off the streets, and has updated her life dramatically. He’s replicated this in his whole congregation, and in two years the church attendance has nearly doubled. He’s become a director of a regional renewal center through his church—all within two years. It’s a model to be replicated. He took it very seriously because of his own transformation, then he took it home, and then he took it to the streets.
You have probably had a lot of people that have come to you asking about the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary and wondering if it’s for them. What is it that you typically say to someone inquiring about this program?
Additional studies, including doctoral studies, are not for everyone. Sometimes what’s necessary is just some new experiences, some directed reading, educational theories, et cetera. Professionally, the Doctor of Ministry takes people to the next level. So as students come in and ask, “Is this program for me?” We ask a series of diagnostic questions, including: Do you personally want to have an update of your own life, heart, soul, et cetera? Is the Doctor of Ministry program for you in that you want to be able to reach a higher level, both in terms of skill acquisition and in the ability to replicate this? If you sense that you’re going to move into an area where it’s going to be a recognized skill to be able to do this, or a degree will help you do it, then we should have the conversation. If you want to move to the next level of effectiveness in your leadership, this program will do that with you and for you. It’s a partnership. But if you’re here to just develop some insights and get a little bit more training, the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary may not be exactly for you. The education and learning are great. The dissertations are challenging. But we also have to make sure people want to commit to research projects, writing them, articulate them, and reproducing them for the next generation. Those are the people we want in the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary.