(Editor’s note: The following is the first of a three-part series about LifeWise Academy, a released time religious instruction program that students in grades 1-6 at Ayersville Local Schools can participate in during school hours, off campus, with parental permission. The program, which is privately funded, is part of the ministry of Stand for Truth.)

As is often the case in life, a conversation can be the spark to effect change.

That was the case for Phil Nofziger, a long-time public educator/administrator in the Defiance six-county area, who in retirement has found a new challenge as director of LifeWise Academy in the Defiance area. LifeWise Academy is a released time religious instruction (RTRI) program for public school students that falls under the ministry of Stand for Truth, founded by Joel Penton of Van Wert, a member of the 2002 Ohio State National Championship football team.

Several months ago, Nofziger didn’t know anything about LifeWise Academy, or that he would take on this new role, but that changed when he and his wife, Robin, had a conversation with a friend after attending church at King’s Cross in Defiance.

“Honestly I knew nothing about released time religious instruction prior to last fall, but a fellow church member told Robin and me about her friend in Van Wert, whose children were receiving Bible instruction during the school day, off school grounds,” stated Nofziger. “Robin saw a video online about the program, and she said to me, ‘If it’s happening in Van Wert, why can’t it happen here?’

“Being a public educator for 37 years, 29 of those being a principal, my first thoughts were, ‘Public schools can’t do something like that,’” continued Nofziger. “Shortly thereafter, Robin and I were introduced to Joel Penton, who has made LifeWise Academy a division of his ministry, Stand for Truth. That’s when we learned that Van Wert has been doing RTRI for the past eight years on their own through a ministry called Cross Over the Hill.”

Nofziger learned that RTRI has been legal for more than 100 years, and that in 2014, Ohio House Bill 171 was signed into law, allowing high school students to earn academic credit for weekday religious education classes. RTRI is legal for the following three reasons: students can only take part in the program with parental permission; it is entirely privately funded; and it takes place off school property, even though it takes place during school hours.

After much leg work, and help from several churches in the Defiance area and the Defiance Dream Center, LifeWise Academy classes began today for students in grades 1-6 in Ayersville Local Schools, whose parents gave their kids permission to be part of the program. The classes, led by instructor Kristen Leaders, took place in a mobile unit on the property of Scott Seigman, who lives right next to Ayersville Local Schools.

“School boards have to approve that released time religious instruction can happen (in their district), and about 60% in Ohio have done that,” said Nofziger. “We knew that Ayersville had passed that policy, so we thought we would approach representatives there about the program. Joel had a meeting with administrators prior to last Christmas, and after Christmas I got involved in the process, the district had a schedule in place (for RTRI).

“We didn’t have a place off campus, but it’s been inspiring to see God at work,” continued Nofziger. “I stopped into the Dream Center to speak to Bill Lammers, and I happened to hear a gentlemen talk about creating a mobile-type unit that would open up into a classroom, which is exactly what we needed. To make a long story short, with the help of the Dream Center we have a modular unit on the basketball pad of Scott Seigman’s property.”

Rusty Bush, project manager of the Defiance Dream Center, and a crew from the workforce development program of the Dream Center, have been working to complete the project in time for instruction to begin. In addition, Matt Spangler, owner of Servant Builders, has been working on the project.

“To have a safe place for kids to go to learn about Jesus, just off the Ayersville campus ... it gives me goosebumps,” said Nofziger. “What I love about this program is that its vision is to reach unchurched youth with the gospel. According to statistics, 8 in 10 youth in America don’t attend church, but 9 in 10 attend public school. The non-denominational program reaches those kids who don’t know Jesus, because it uses the Bible to teach them about him.”

To help fund the program, Penton held a fundraising event in Columbus to get it off the ground, with Nofziger and others presenting information about it to churches around the Defiance area. At the local level, Nofziger and others have asked individuals at the churches to give $20 on a monthly basis to help pay for the pilot program at Ayersville. The goal is to add more schools to the LifeWise Academy roster in the near future.

“In addition to individuals, we’re working on getting local business people and individuals involved to help us reach as many students as we can,” said Nofziger. “Anyone interested in partnering with us can reach me at 419-576-6446, or at prnofziger@gmail.com. I can’t stress enough that this program is non-denominational, and that I’m willing to present information at any local church that is interested in having me.”

With LifeWise Academy underway on the local level, Penton is working to bring the program to other schools across the state. His vision is to see RTRI at as many as school as possible all across the nation.

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