When Dr. Eric Zeller came to what was then The Master’s College in 1997, his plans included little more than completing the school’s institute program. He expected to take a host of Bible classes and leave after one academic year.
That’s because Zeller loved computers. He’d learned to write HTML as the internet was beginning to boom and had already been hired as a teenager by a large software company. He intended to climb the ranks, but as a new Christian, he also wanted to deepen his faith. Hence his pitstop at TMC.
God had other plans, though. Zeller ultimately stayed at TMC, fell in love with missions, attended The Master’s Seminary, and went on to become president of the first-ever evangelical seminary on the Arabian Peninsula.
“The Lord was pulling me in the direction of being in some kind of full-time ministry,” says Zeller, who has served as president of Gulf Theological Seminary in Dubai since 2020. “I didn’t know what that looked like, but I wanted to stay at TMC and explore what that meant.”
Classes and dorm life during Zeller’s first year at TMC impacted him tremendously, he says. For the first time in his life, he was surrounded by people serious about their faith and “doing something” with that faith. One conversation in particular that year changed the trajectory of Zeller’s future.
A friend, Matt Gilbert, mentioned that he was leading a short-term missions trip to Italy in the summer, and he needed more men to go.
Gilbert, who now serves as a board member at the University, urged Zeller, saying, “Today is the last day to sign up. I need you to go to King Hall right now to fill out the paperwork.” Zeller had no summer plans, so he agreed. “Why not?” he thought. “That sounds fun.”
In reality, the trip was much more than that. Zeller’s mindset shifted dramatically as he worked with church planters in a small Italian village. “Seeing these normal people give their lives to spread the gospel opened my eyes to see, ‘Maybe this is something I should think about doing,’” Zeller says.
In the end, Zeller decided to stay at TMC and enroll in the biblical languages program. He also attended the school’s Israel Bible Extension Program (IBEX), where he met a young woman, Heather Nall, who shared his newfound desire for missions. They fell in love, got married shortly after graduation, and now have five children — Caroline, the oldest, is studying business at TMU.
After Eric graduated from TMC in 2000 and The Master’s Seminary in 2003, the Zellers moved to Texas, where Eric served as an associate pastor at a newly planted church. In the long term, however, Eric and Heather (’01) wanted to be involved in theological education overseas, training pastors and church planters to preach the gospel in their native context.
That opportunity came first in 2013 in Delhi, India — where Zeller helped establish a seminary program — and then in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two years later.
Zeller says the UAE is uniquely positioned for gospel fruitfulness, in part, because the country largely consists of temporary expats. In other words, many men in the UAE could be trained in the Scriptures before they return to their homes across the world to faithfully teach God’s Word.
To that end, in connection with Redeemer Church of Dubai, Zeller helped launch what was originally called “Gulf Training Center” in 2016. He taught courses on exegesis, hermeneutics, and the New Testament and led the growing ministry team. As news of the fledgling training center spread, the number of students quickly increased. “It basically doubled every year for the first four or five years,” Zeller says. “We’re up around 150 now.”
In 2020 the training center took on a new name: Gulf Theological Seminary, and the board of directors asked Zeller to serve as the first president.
The seminary’s mission, however, remained the same: “to equip pastors, church planters, and lay leaders to multiply faithful churches in the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Africa.” So far, the school has trained men — many of whom were brand new Christians — from the Philippines, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, the Netherlands, Croatia, and Canada, among other countries. “As we see the hunger that students have for the Word, and the incredible variety of countries they’re going back to, we really feel like God is doing something here,” Zeller says.
The going hasn’t always been smooth. “There are a lot of challenges in running an organization like this,” Zeller says. “I think the challenge really is living with perseverance and encouragement, being hopeful and trusting that God is doing something through days that don’t feel productive. I have to remind myself to look back at these last 10 years and the ways the Lord has worked.”
Ultimately, Zeller believes this is just the beginning.
“I think the next decade is going to be 20 times more fruitful than the last decade,” Zeller says. “We can’t wait to see what the Lord is going to do.”
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