Santosh Ninan currently serves as Associate Pastor for Bethel Grove Bible Church in Ithaca, New York. The following interview was conducted at Alliance Theological Seminary in Rockland County while student cohorts were gathered to take classes for the Doctor of Ministry degree.
What made you decide to pursue your Doctor of Ministry?
Well, about two years ago, I had decided I was going do a Doctor of Ministry program, and I had actually selected another school, not Alliance Theological Seminary. Then our family took a vacation at Camp of the Woods, and we heard Dr. Martin Sanders speak, my wife and I. At that point I found out that Alliance Theological Seminary had a Doctor of Ministry program. I hadn’t known that before. And so I went and spoke to him (Dr. Sanders) afterwards and I said, “I think I should study with you. I think I should go to your program.” And so Martin talked a little bit more and we corresponded more by email, and it was really because of Dr. Sanders and his wisdom—his leadership prowess—that I ended up doing the program here instead of the other school.
What were your hopes and expectations for the Doctor of Ministry Program at Alliance Theological Seminary? What were you hoping to walk away with it?
Well, initially before coming?
I was looking for two primary things: I was looking for ministry and professional development, so I wanted to get better as a leader, as a pastor, and as a communicator. But secondly, I was also looking for a place to reflect a little bit. I knew it would be busy, but I also knew that by physically getting away from my primary place of ministry that God would create a space where I could encounter God in a different way, in a way that I could possibly hear him more and reflect more on my ministry and my life.
And now that you’ve been a part of the Doctor of Ministry program, what would you say are some of the more valuable things that you’ve gained here at Alliance Theological Seminary?
So I look at it—I think you have to look at it at many levels. So on the one level, what drew me was professional development, and the program certainly has that. I think one of the things that I discovered after starting here is that the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary is global. And by that I mean it has a multicultural, multiethnic mix to it, not just in the students, but in the faculty as well. And since we live in a globalized, connected world, that’s very, very beneficial. The other thing is that, apart from the professional development, God also did a very deep work in my life and in my soul, which I actually was not expecting, which was kind of a nice benefit. And so there’s the professional level, there’s the kind of deep encounter with God that you have, and then at another level, you get placed in these small cohorts. But even within those cohorts, you end up in a smaller group. In my case it’s four people. I’m a pastor, and the other three are pastors as well—two from New Jersey and one from New York. And that was a very unique pairing up of people. We really connected at a very deep level. I consider them some of my closest friends. We just had a time of prayer yesterday about a decision I have coming up. And so even though I came in with that expectation or desire for professional development, there were these added bonuses that were unexpected that will end up leaving with.
Has being part of the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary affected your leadership and how you approach your ministry? Are you different in any way?
Yes, at many levels, and I think it’s the way it’s organized—from self leadership to team leadership to understanding the broader context of the world. The module I’m in right now concerns leadership in each person’s respective church—disciple making. And I’d say that in all of those areas there has been major transformation. Again, not just because of the content. I think the environment of Alliance Theological Seminary is very unique and very special to this place of people who are walking very close to God and who are imparting that wisdom. It’s not just head knowledge, but the deep spiritual wisdom they contain comes through their teaching and in the way they live their lives as well. And all that has had a deep impact on me. And every time I go back to my church, they’re always like, “You’re like a different person! What’s going on up there?” So that’s probably the best ad for Alliance Theological Seminary—the transformation noticed when I go back to my church.
If you had to try to pinpoint what those changes are, how would you describe how you’re different now since beginning the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary?
Number one, I would say, is better self-understanding. I think when you’re in pastoral ministry or any kind of leadership, you’re often very busy, very hectic, and under a lot of pressure. There is not time to self-reflect on your wounded-ness, your brokenness, or your blind spots. And coming to Alliance Theological Seminary, especially during the first module with Rob Reimer on soul care, you are forced to face those places that we try to submerge or avoid through sheer busyness. And going through that, you become a more authentic and genuine person. And that’s honestly what happened to me. I became more real. I became more able to empathize with others. I don’t think you can be a good shepherd if you can’t feel the pain of the sheep, and that was a primary thing. The second module in leadership really forces you to face where you’re weak, specifically in how you are weak as a leader, and then works with you on developing your leadership in that area. The third module in studying context is incredible because any church, no matter the size, will have a diversity and plurality of people from all kinds of different spheres of society. And in that module we examine these different spheres and how the gospel can impact them. In the module we’re in right now, which I think will be the most transformative, I’m going to leave here with a plan in place for a two-year disciple-making program for my church and leadership development, which is something our church has talked about for a long time, but never really implemented. So I am extremely excited to start working with our senior staff to implement that.
What are you now looking forward to that perhaps you weren’t before being part of the Doctor of Ministry program here at Alliance Theological Seminary?
I think number one is the leadership development—understanding the importance of that for the future of the church and for the future of the health of the church. Developing young leaders and for the leaders that are in leadership positions now, expanding their capacity for leadership. I’m totally excited about that. I can’t wait to get back to start working on these things.
You mentioned your cohort a bit before. When you think of the people—the relationships you’ve made at Alliance Theological Seminary so far, what words or images come to mind?
They use the term “band of brothers,” so it’s kind of like we’ve gone through this incredibly intense experience together, and it’s kind of fused us together. But I just feel like we have each other’s backs. We support each other. We pray for each other. We’re in contact after this is over. Within a month or two we’ll be on FaceTime or Skype together chatting and getting caught up with where we’re at and praying for one another. I would say that it’s deeper than a friendship; it’s a brotherhood. They’re my brothers. They’re my buddies.
And when you think of Alliance Theological Seminary as a whole, are there any words or images that come to mind?
The incredible intentionality of the institution to invest into the lives of students, to be aware of the needs of the church—I think that is very unique about this place (Alliance Theological Seminary). But then I would put along with that is that at the senior level are people like Ron Walborn and Martin Sanders who have a very personal interest in you as a person and want to see you succeed. So obviously they have this incredible responsibility of leading this large organization, but they’re concerned about you as an individual, and there’s not many like them elsewhere. I’ve been around large organizations and large ministries, and this is very rare—to have people that are very concerned about you as a student, you as a person, you as a leader.
If you were given the opportunity to speak on behalf of Alliance Theological Seminary to someone who’s considering it, what would you tell that prospective student who’s considering doing their Doctor of Ministry here?
In the church today, in the world today, there are a lot of options for leadership development, for professional development. And there are a lot of good options. I think the uniqueness about the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary is how personalized it becomes. So you don’t just become a better leader, you become a better person. You become a better follower of Jesus Christ. You become a better disciple of Jesus Christ. Professional skills are great, but as we’ve been learning this week, it’s that inner reality that is paramount—that is primary. This place and the environment of this place give you that. and it’s a gift. And so that’s what I would share with anyone. The Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary is the best investment you can make with your time, your money, and your energy. And the people you lead will see the difference as well. So will your wife or husband.