CLAYTON — Concordia Seminary in suburban St. Louis gets an eclectic mix of students in a program allowing them to train for the ministry online — electricians, farmers, entrepreneurs — and even a founder of one of the best-known thrash metal bands.
David Ellefson plays bass for Megadeth. He also is an online student in the Specific Ministry Program at Concordia Seminary operated by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Ellefson's studies illustrate why distance learning programs at seminaries have a growing popularity nationwide, allowing students to attend divinity schools without uprooting their lives.
Even in a non-traditional learning setting, Ellefson is a non-traditional student given his band has recorded albums with titles such as "Killing Is My Business ... And Business Is Good!"
The curious mix of rock and religion has been part of Ellefson's life since childhood. Growing up in Minnesota, his family drove from their farm to Our Savior's Lutheran Church each Sunday. Ellefson, now 47, was confirmed there at age 16.
A few years later, in the summer of 1983, Ellefson moved to Los Angeles and within a week of his arrival had formed Megadeth, named for the unit of measurement equal to the death of 1 million people by nuclear explosion. Soon, he was playing bass on stage with other metal bands such as Metallica and Slayer.
The rock star lifestyle caught up with Ellefson by the time he was 25. He entered a 12-step recovery program and was reintroduced to his faith. And he embraced it.
Ellefson moved to Arizona, married and had children. He joined Shepherd of the Desert Lutheran Church, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"I came from a good family, not a broken home," Ellefson, 47, said. "That became a model for me, and I saw church at the center of it."
Shepherd of the Desert pastor Jon Bjorgaard asked Ellefson to start a contemporary worship service. Ellefson began to write songs using lyrics from the Old Testament.
"For a Christmas service, I remixed some classics, not quite in a Megadeth fashion, but in a pretty heavy rock fashion," Ellefson said.
He started a new music ministry at the church and called it MEGA Life. It became so popular that Shepherd of the Desert bought a new space for the ministry.
Last year, Bjorgaard asked Ellefson and MEGA Life director Jeremy DaPena to enroll in Concordia's Specific Ministry Program.
"Most people want to become a rock star," Bjorgaard said. "David's a rock star who wants to become a pastor."
After two years at Concordia, Ellefson will be eligible for ordination.
More than 100 students are enrolled in the distance learning program, director David Wollenburg said. The program is open only to those who have been sponsored by someone already working in the ministry.
Classes include Lutheran distinctions, preaching I & II, introduction to worship and scripture and faith. Students range in age from 35 to the late 60s.
Eliza Brown of the Association of Theological Schools said the trend of distance learning at divinity schools "is definitely growing," though there is some debate about its merits.
"Some feel you can't be adequately formed as a church leader unless you're engaged in a residential program that has serious face-to-face formation components," she said. Still, 124 seminaries accredited by the organization offer some form of distance education.
Megadeth remains, and the band will begin a new tour with Motorhead next week in New Jersey. Ellefson will tend to his studies during down time on the tour bus. He knows it won't be easy.
Classes begin each Monday, though homework is posted a few days earlier. On Tuesday nights, Ellefson and eight other students sit in online for a two-hour live session with a professor teaching from a Concordia classroom. Once a week he meets with Bjorgaard to discuss the week's work. And late in the week, he uploads homework for the professor to grade.
He has learned to keep his faith and his onstage persona separate. As for songwriting, he now tries to "stay away from darker themes."
"Some people want to morph things together into one, but I have a hand in both worlds," he said. "I love praise and worship music, and I love heavy metal."