CLAYTON, Mo. - 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. His 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 nontraditional learning setting, Ellefson, 47, is a nontraditional 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 was confirmed there at 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.
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.
"I came from a good family, not a broken home,'' said Ellefson, 47. "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 music ministry at the church and called it MEGA Life. Last year, Bjorgaard asked Ellefson to enroll in Concordia's Specific Ministry Program. After two years at Concordia, Ellefson will be eligible for ordination.
"Most people want to become a rock star,'' Bjorgaard said. "David's a rock star who wants to become a pastor.''
Megadeth remains and the band will begin a tour with Motorhead next week in New Jersey. Ellefson will tend to his studies during down time on the tour.
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.
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.''