Really Long-Distance Education

After preaching every Sunday, during the week Pastor Jimmy Okitkun hunts seals and other wild game to help put food on the table. The only way into and out of his southwestern Alaskan village is by air; a plane ride to distant Anchorage costs about $800.

Given this remote setting, Okitkun is grateful the Alaska School of Ministry (AKSOM) helped him obtain ministerial credentials in 2011. He started his pastorate as a lay minister at Kotlik Assembly of God about five years earlier.

“In our area, it’s building leaders and making it easier for people to get their credentials,” says Okitkun, 56, whose daughter — Melissa D. Okitkun — also attended AKSOM and is the church’s youth pastor. “The school helps by bringing materials and teaching in, and giving us a bigger vision of who God is.”

An unusual combination of individual study, periodic classes, and long-distance learning, AKSOM classes are aimed at educating Alaskans for ministry in towns and villages around America’s Last Frontier.

When poor online access or travel barriers make it nearly impossible for students to watch or attend classes, Director Wade E. Cogan flies to remote areas periodically to teach them in person.

A U.S. missionary to Alaska through Intercultural Ministries, Cogan, 68, says Okitkun is a prime example of those ASKOM is designed to reach.

“Jimmy would not have been able to leave the village and come study theology,” Cogan says. “He learned lessons in those classes and put the lessons into practice on Sunday.”

The Alaska Ministry Network launched AKSOM in 2009. Today, the school holds classes the first Saturday of each month at a facility in Eagle River, about 15 miles northeast of Anchorage — the state’s largest city.

All sessions are taught by credentialed AG ministers. Pupils follow one of three tracks: certification, licensing, or ordination. Nearly 70 are enrolled this year, but 89 percent of those applying for credentials have taken AKSOM classes.

“We have pastors and spouses in villages who are there because they took classes,” says Cogan, a longtime educator who credits divine guidance with leading him to the state in 2004. “This provides an avenue for them to develop ministerial and Bible knowledge.”

U.L. Johnson, 55, is grateful for the training he received that enabled him to answer the call to ministry he sensed as a teenager. Though Point Hope Assembly of God had dwindled to a handful when Johnson started as pastor in 2012, today around 40 attend each Sunday. Its multiple evening youth activities average 120 per week.

Johnson, who will be ordained in April at the Alaska Ministry Network conference, says the leading lesson AKSOM taught him has been to rely fully on God. Johnson felt sure he would fail one class because of his struggles to master the material. But he says during the test the Holy Spirit brought everything back to mind and he earned an A.

“It was the hand of God,” Johnson says. “I began to trust in Him and focus on what He had me to do. The school is a wonderful thing and is very important to our region and our state because we’re so spread out.”

For Cogan, the school’s most rewarding aspect is the way it helps the gospel to be taught widely.

“There’s great personal satisfaction from seeing men and women pastoring in villages who wouldn’t be there if we didn’t have this program,” the director says. “I could go out there and teach and spend my whole life working to develop trust. Because they live there, they already have it.”

IMAGE - Pastor Jimmy Okitkun (left) is accustomed to getting around Alaska by whatever means necessary.


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