A New Model for Lutheran Education

Bethel Lutheran Church and School in Morton, Ill., has found an innovative way to provide a solid high school education.

On a chilly January day, 20 high school students sat in a classroom at Bethel Lutheran School in Morton, Ill., while elementary-age children played outside during recess. On one side of a divided room, freshmen and sophomores studied diagrams of the human brain; on the other side, juniors and seniors participated in an English class.

Student Ella Keedy listens in class at Bethel Lutheran School in Morton, Ill.

This is a typical afternoon at Bethel. The church and school campus provides age-appropriate education for 135 preschoolers, 200 elementary school students, and a small but growing number of high school students. Bethel’s high school is in its third year and is “probably three to five years ahead of where I thought we’d be at this point,” said Principal John Jacob.

Getting Off the Ground

Launching a new high school is a major project — and one that had long been debated by Lutherans in the area. “Whenever someone would bring it up, I’d say that it had been tried and failed before. There’s no way that a congregation can sustain a high school on its own. It’s just too big of an undertaking,” Jacob said.

But then, in 2019, three different people mentioned the idea to Jacob over the course of one day. “That’s when I thought maybe God is telling me to pursue this and see what happens.”

Jacob put together a committee from the church and school, and they did a feasibility study through LCMS School Ministry’s Genesis Project. The project helps LCMS congregations start Lutheran schools by providing information and statistics, as well as helping assess local interest, resources and funding.

Jacob said the study was “painful” because the committee had to “do away with a lot of preconceived notions.” But it helped them consider alternative models and options. The committee considered going with a completely online curriculum and having an on-site facilitator to help students — a model that is used by other private schools in the area. But after more research and discussion, the committee decided that they needed to offer in-person instruction for math and science.

Principal John Jacob talks with students in January.

Unfortunately, Jacob had heard how difficult it was to find a Lutheran teacher for high school math or science. “Well, it’s over,” he thought.

Then, completely out of the blue, parent Karen Duke mentioned that she had a degree in secondary math education from Concordia University, Nebraska, Seward, Neb. Jacob told her about the potential need for a math teacher, and she was interested.

With renewed hope, he approached church member Emily Wegner, who taught science at the local public high school and had helped with the feasibility study.

“I called her and said, ‘I know you are working part time. We could really use you if you could come teach science at Bethel for just an hour a day,’” Jacob recalled. “She called me back two days later and said, ‘I just turned in my resignation. I want to be a part of this.’”

Growing and Developing

Wegner jumped at the opportunity — even before the congregation had officially approved it — because she wanted to give her school time to find a replacement and because she felt that God was leading her in this direction.

Shortly thereafter, the congregation approved a one-year trial, and eight families enrolled. The school has grown since then, adding one additional grade level each year.

“Stepping out of the public school was sort of like taking a mask off, like taking the filter off, where I could actually have a real conversation about creation,” Wegner said of her experience at Bethel. Less than an hour later, in biology class, she was standing in front of the freshmen and sophomores discussing the fossil record and how it is used by both evolutionists and creationists.

Bethel’s high school now has seven teachers — five part-time instructors and two pastors who come in to teach theology — who offer most subjects on-site. When the students reach junior and senior year, they have time in the mornings to supplement their studies with online electives or to take classes through the local community college, where they earn college credit at the same time.

Bethel Lutheran Church and School in Morton, Ill.

During the fall semester, junior Evelyn Mulvey took a math class at the community college, while senior Ada Keedy took an online speech class. Keedy is now taking a self-paced Photoshop class.

“We’ve had students get some upper-level classes that way, so they’re getting some college credit and some experience in other educational settings,” Wegner said. “Then they come back for theology classes here, where we can have conversations about the Christian perspective of these things and help them deal with any issues that arise.”

Bethel’s fledgling extracurricular activities are expanding as well. The school already has an archery program — thanks to a grant from a national organization and a couple of parents who enjoy bowhunting — as well as a student council and a girls’ basketball team. Jacob said a student has also started planning Bethel’s first school dance.

Providing a Christ-Centered Alternative

“We’re not for everyone. We understand we can’t offer all of the frills and programs that a full high school can,” Jacob said. “But what we can offer is a place for kids to go who don’t necessarily fit into the large crowds or who aren’t interested in all that other stuff. What we provide is a small, safe, Christian environment to learn in.”

Teacher Karen Duke (facing away from camera) leads a math class for juniors and seniors.

Bethel turned out to be the perfect place for Mulvey, who has attended the school since preschool. “Freshman year, I went to the local high school for the first five weeks, and I knew definitely this isn’t for me,” she said. “I just like the smaller setting because you’re really close with everyone.”

It also turned out to be a good fit for Keedy, even though she is the only senior. Keedy and her sister, sophomore Ella, transferred from a local school before the beginning of the school year. Jacob and Wegner figured out how to accommodate a senior, even though they had not yet added a senior class, so that both sisters could attend the same school.

“I thought I was going to be totally alone, since there are no other seniors here,” Keedy said. “But I have most of my classes with the juniors, and it’s really nice. I’m a lot closer with the people here, even just being here one year, than I was with the kids at my old school.”

Finances, staff shortages, a pandemic, space issues. Jacob recalled all the reasons he used to say a Lutheran high school at Bethel would never work. But now just three years in, he has seen how God has provided generously every step of the way. “It’s a thrilling ride when you try to go where God is leading,” he said. “You just have to step forward in faith.”

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Pray with Us

Lord Jesus Christ, who taught Your disciples and the crowds, and who has given to parents the duty of teaching their children, we thank You for Your work at Bethel Lutheran School. May they be an example of a sure confidence in You that inspires other congregations to provide Christian environments in which youth may learn of You and the world You have created; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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Megan K. Mertz

Managing editor of Lutherans Engage the World and chief copy editor for LCMS Communications.

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