Giving Your Gifts
Calvin Watkins Sr. never imagined that his church in North Carolina would grow from 60 to 600 members in just three years. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. It all started in 1982, when Watkins founded a ministry training program called “University of Saints” to help lay people recognize and dedicate their talents to God.
The program became a monumental success in Watkins’ church. Word quickly spread and today, the University of Saints empowers lay people to realize their talents all across the world. Watkins currently serves as the Southwest Region Conference president, and the program is now being implemented in both English and Spanish across the Conference’s five-state territory.
“I don’t train people to be Bible workers,” says Watkins. “I train them how to be themselves. Everyone has something that God can use. I want you to be yourself and to discover what your talent is.”
Watkins recalls one woman telling him she never imagined that her talent could be used for God. She created delicate flowers out of toilet paper. Every day, she carefully dyed and rolled toilet paper into flowers for the sick and hurting. People in the neighborhood knew and loved her. After attending the University of Saints, she started to dedicate her flowers to God.
Although she never led a Bible study, that woman taught many people about God’s love, connecting with them through her floral creations.
In the Southwest Region Conference territory, which encompases Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, there are currently between 400 and 600 University of Saints participants. Watkins also took the program to South Africa, the Caribbean Islands, and other foreign locations. For the first time, the training is being offered in Spanish and, in the near future, the courses will also be offered online.
“I think we, as a church, spend more time on preaching than on teaching our members,” says Watkins. “That must change. A sharper blade cuts better than a dull blade.”
Or, in the case of one participant, a fish hook is more effective than a formal Bible study. One man loved to fish. He loved it so much that he started a fishing club. Every week, a group of 12 men met early in the morning to fish and fellowship.
When this man realized that his talent for fishing could be used for God, evangelism became exciting and fun. This man got to know the members of his fishing club well, praying for them and ministering to them. Eight of the 12 members chose to be baptized.
The purpose of the University of Saints is to motivate, train, inspire and equip people in the Body of Christ. To join the University, people need only have a willing spirit and a desire to serve God. The cost is $7 a semester, but if that’s too much, it’s possible to apply for a scholarship. Courses are designed to help people realize God’s guidance in their lives.
“I help people to discover who they are,”says Watkins. “I don’t teach people how to discover their gifts. The only way to discover one’s gifts is by going out and trying things. The more you know about yourself, the more God is able to use you.”
The program includes practical training and classwork, spread out over two years. Participants take part in an evangelistic series, as well as knock on a certain number of doors. In class, they learn valuable skills that are applicable to everyday life. One of the classes is about overcoming fear. Another class teaches how to stand up and talk in front of people, and yet another class teaches people how to respond to difficult questions.
A typical day in the University of Saints starts at 9:30 a.m. on a Sabbath morning. Participants spend the entire day in 30 to 40 minute class sessions. Even the church service is educational. In culmination of the program, participants become “certified disciples” and a graduation service is held at camp meeting.
“This will help you in all areas of your life,” says Watkins. “You learn how to meet and talk to people, how to negotiate. There are so many ways it will help you.”
One young woman, a nurse, found a special niche for ministry in her work after attending the University of Saints. On her floor at the hospital, she adopted the responsibility of comforting people after a death took place. One problem: Hospital rules forbid her, as an employee, to talk about God. That didn’t stop her from partnering with Watkins to provide spiritual care. When a death occured, the woman would contact Watkins.
Nothing forbade a non-employee from offering services of prayer and spiritual comfort, so Watkins became the unofficial chaplain in that secular hospital. In this way, the woman became a bridge for people to receive God’s comfort.
“Ellen White says that the highest of all sciences is the science of soul winning,” cites Watkins. “If soul winning is a science, then it’s something you have to study. It’s something you have to continue to learn more about.”
Even people who feel confident in their ministry skills may learn something by participating in the University of Saints. Conference and Union workers often attend the meetings along with lay workers.
There are over 1,000 graduates from the University of Saints. Thanks to those 1,000 graduates, over 8,000 people have been baptized. Even small churches can make a monumental impact. Watkins’ small church in North Carolina grew from 60 to 600 members. As more church members learn to use their talents for God, even more people will continue to accept God’s salvation.
“I believe that you have a unique set of gifts that God has given to you,” says Watkins. “There is someone out there that will only respond to you. Nobody else. There’s something you have that God needs, and that’s why God brought you to this church.”
Find out more about the University of Saints at MySouthwestRegion.org.
By Makala James. Calvin Watkins Sr., is the president of the Southwest Region Conference. He lives with his wife, Ruth, in Cedar Hill, Texas.
Photography by Vanston Archbold