Why Doctoral Dissertations Matter: Pastor, Student Shares About Life-Changing & Ministry-Shaping Research

by Kelsey Madas

March 29, 2018

Casey Cleveland (’18) is the lead pastor of The Avenue Church in Delray Beach, Florida. On top of his ministry as a pastor, he’s also a husband, father of four children – and a graduate student in the throes of his dissertation research. As a doctoral candidate in our Doctor of Ministry program with a concentration in strategic leadership, he spends a lot of time thinking about the church, its strengths, weaknesses and how to expand its reach.

While he now pastors a church he helped to plant, church planting wasn’t something he was initially interested in – at all. But God had different plans for Cleveland. He first served in Florida at a church well-known for its love of church planting. “When I first came to work for Spanish River Church, I specifically told them I was not going to plant a church,” he said. “And then four years later, I was off planting The Avenue Church through their support.”

So what changed? “I came to Delray Beach and began to develop relationships with real people who needed to experience the real love of Jesus,” Cleveland explained. “That changed everything.” Many consider Delray Beach to be the recovery capital of America, due in part to the high concentration of drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities in the area. Seeing the need, Cleveland knew that God had a special plan and purpose for bringing him there. “It became the launching pad for a whole new move of God that eventually became our church,” he said.

Cleveland’s experience with the recovering addicts in Delray Beach provided the perfect case study for his dissertation research – and a chance to prove the worth of the church in supporting those on the long road to sobriety and recovery. “My research was a phenomenological study of how The Avenue Church helped to support sustained sobriety within the recovery community,” he explained. “We learned four important things about people experiencing sustained sobriety at The Avenue Church that were important to their sobriety: first, they had a place to belong before they believed. Second, they were equipped and enabled to experience Jesus in their brokenness. Third, they needed a safe place to be weak. And fourth, they experienced healing in a mixed community.”

Cleveland shared about one such man who experienced that kind healing and support in the Florida church. “When Shane came to our church over 4 years ago, he was recently clean from a heroin addiction and living in a half-way house,” he explained. “Shane is now deeply in love with Jesus. He leads a group of other recovering addicts in their discipleship journey and is a key leader and culture shaper at The Avenue. So what happened to him? It was Jesus and his local church! God gave Shane a place to belong and be equipped – all in the context of a safe and diverse family.”

Because of our seminary and graduate school’s blended delivery of courses, Cleveland is able to continue pastoring in Florida while earning his doctorate. He says the data on recovery he’s uncovered in his dissertation research has shaped his ministry and the church’s mission as a whole. “These unique findings really make us who we are,” he explained. “And as such, it can help us in the future remain true to who God has called us, as the church, to be.” He also noted that his education at Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate school pushed him to achieve more than he thought was possible. “The most impactful part of my education at LBC was what I experienced at the edge of my capabilities: the very real presence of Jesus and his grace to flourish,” said Cleveland. “Becoming an official learner once again was refreshingly humbling and exciting at the same time.”

As Cleveland reflects back on when he first arrived in Delray Beach to begin ministry, he notes how God has worked – both in lives of his congregation and in his own heart. “Here is the beautiful thing: we thought our impact might be significant for this community,” he explained, “But it has really been the recovery community who has impacted the church. Jesus has used the marriage of the two worlds to bring about something we love dearly and now call our church family.”

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