The Supernatural History of AMES International School of Ministry
By Pastors Vince and Laura Rizzo
A Brief Personal and Ministry History:
My wife, Laura, and I met in 1983 where she was singing at a local Christian coffeehouse. During that year we lost touch with each other but our paths again crossed in 1985. We discovered that we were both in active ministry and our friendship turned into a courtship and then in God’s timing, we fell in love and were married.
For many years, the Lord trained us and developed our Christian character by opening doors of opportunity to serve in various ministries. We served in almost every position of the church either in a paid position or as a volunteer and worked with many churches doing feeding programs and working with the homeless as well as Christian discipleship programs. This served to be the testing grounds of our lives as we experienced many trials and tribulations, rejection and poverty, but the joy in our hearts never faded because we had fallen completely in love with God and were willing to do whatever it took to do our best for Him.
Jump forward twelve years and in 1997 we received two requests to return home to Fort Myers as my father was intending to retire from the homeless mission that we had helped him establish in 1985 and my mother-in-law was showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease and wanted us to come home to care for her.
This just happened to be perfect timing as the door had just closed in Ocala, Florida where we served as senior pastors of a church with a men’s and women’s rehab program whose headquarters was in Tampa. The parent organization had closed because of corrupt practices which left us horrified, disappointed, hurt, and frustrated and out of our jobs.
Fort Myers being the only open door before us, here we were for the third time and doing what we’ve done for years – working with the homeless in a homeless mission. After about a year and a half, the Lord spoke to me to begin looking for a property to begin a men’s discipleship program at a local facility as about 95% of our clientele at the mission were men fighting addictions. This was not in my heart at all but I had learned to listen to the Lord intently when He spoke. As I began to go look at properties, I asked for some wise counsel from a local realtor who I had met while volunteering at the Kairos Retreat Weekends at the Charlotte County Correctional Facility which is a retreat for prisoners.
During one of these retreats he approached me to tell me that every morning when he woke up the first thing he would think of was Vince Rizzo Ministries and that he sensed from the Lord that he was supposed to help me.
In the past, when situations like this would arise, we would just relax, trust God and watch to see what He would do. So many people make promises they never make good on that we learned not to anticipate, become anxious or worry about any financial matters, which is what trust is and this leaves the matter in God’s hands.
Our Ministry Super-Sized!!
As a result of what the Lord put on the heart of this realtor, in June of 1999 we found ourselves with the key and a map to a $2,000,000 property with a 14-unit motel and a 45 seat restaurant on eight acres in North Fort Myers, Florida, situated on the main highway into town. This realtor had purchased it and was paying $7,000 per month with the end result of donating the property to us for this men’s program that God had spoken to me about.
This is a picture of the 14 room hotel we had donated to us.
This is a picture of the restaurant that we turned into a dining facility.
Be Careful When Someone Gives You Something Free:
Excited beyond belief is an understatement of our rejoicing when this happened, however we soon found out that this 40 year old motel was what we called “the money pit”. Upgrading the property to code was a financial feat. Besides taking on this challenge, our overhead rose from $2,000 to $5,000 per month which was a complete impossibility with regard to our financial situation and we found ourselves in the middle of a zoning battle between Lee County and the surrounding upscale residential housing developments who were almost violently opposed to having our type of ministry in their “backyard” so to speak.
The public zoning issue was actually God ordained as it provided incredible free advertising and generated funding as we were constantly being interviewed on several local television stations and written about in many newspapers and magazines. This also enabled us to help many people in our area as they learned about us and also informed the public when it came to networking with other area agencies.
We also had to face the fact that sometimes when God blesses a ministry, it causes people and other organizations to be offended. We fought spiritual battles we never thought we would and people rose up against us publically that hurt us deeply but we were mature enough to realize that it was all a test. For that reason we prayed for our enemies, we showed love to those who hated us without a cause (even family members) and we forgave those who publically defamed our name.
Then came the day when we won the zoning battle after 27 long months. We then hosted an open house and a grand opening celebration for 250 people. For one year we operated the facility watching as God performed miracle after miracle in upgrading it and providing all our operational needs while men entered our program through the court system, from the streets and from the local jail.
During this time I began attending a local bible school at a church that sponsored me for five days a week for six months. Once I graduated, they invited me to be an alumni instructor teaching international pastors on the subject of living by faith which has been the foundation and cornerstone of our ministry. Between attending school, operating two locations (the Center for the Men’s Discipleship Program and operating the homeless mission simultaneously), we worked seven days a week for almost three years.
At The Top It Began to Fall
By this time, we were becoming a household name. We had been in the news on a constant basis, were invited to and attended hundreds of local events, were members of at least 20 local organizations, hundreds came for tours of our facility including a bus tour, we were listed in the journals and manuals of most local charitable agencies, we worked in conjunction with various local agencies on various projects, 60 volunteers from area churches worked with us and 50 area churches either hosted events with us, sent us more volunteers or took us on to support as their yearly charitable organization.
The sky was the limit until 9/11 occurred. Within six months all the support we received to operate the men’s center on the eight acres completely dried up as it was being sent to the victims of 9/11. Several other local ministries who had no government funding went out of business as their funding too went to the victims of 9/11.
As a result, we lost the eight acre property and resigned ourselves to just running the homeless mission as we still had our volunteers working with us from various local churches who supported us. To some degree this was a relief as our workload was cut in half and we finally had some time off.
The Domino Effect
Then the unthinkable occurred when the owner sold the building housing our mission and the new landlord refused to renew our lease. Apparently that was the turning point to our remaining supporters as now we found ourselves out of a building with no funding and we were forced to go back to work as we could not find another building within our budget.
We were devastated, bewildered, heartbroken and grief-stricken. After six long, hard years of serving our community, feeding just under 12,000 people per year out of a 700 square foot storefront unit with no kitchen and housing men in a free, one year program on a $2,000,000 property, we were out of our jobs, out of our minds with grief and out of answers. Christmas 2002 we held our last homeless church service and served the last meal at our mission. And beyond that our credit died with it as finances failed to pay the last two months we operated the mission. We thought of many alternatives but if God did not come to our rescue there was no reason to continue with it.
Some of the regulars that attended the mission we ran.
We had a packed house most every night.
We were so packed we had to bring the tables outside.
When it was all over Laura came face to face with herself. She is eight years older than I am and she realized that she had fallen in love with ministry more than with God. This realization caused her even greater grief because it is very hard for ministers to separate the love of ministry from the love of God. They seem like one in the same but they are not. Also is the dilemma of losing one’s identity in one’s occupation. Being in ministry for 19 years when we lost our ministry, she realized that she defined her life by her occupation. To Laura it was beyond death as she never had children and to serve those in need had become a fervent passion.
A deep part of both of us died.
At that point we just believed God to deliver us as He had done for countless previous months and years. He had ALWAYS brought the money in but we were learning to go with God when God moved to something new. The Israelites had to move when the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night moved in the wilderness and even as Elijah (First Kings 17) was sent in the wilderness to wait for the ravens to feed him and to drink from the Brook Cherith, this too dried up in time and he was to move on from there.
It Had Fallen to the Lowest Point
Our problem was that we kept waiting too long. We kept waiting on God to the point that we both found ourselves at the end of everything. We had not only lost our ministry, but in six months we had no money for anything. We lost phone service, my driver’s license, auto tag and car insurance expired and we could not afford to renew them, we could not afford propane gas for our heat or cooking in our little mobile home during the winter (and Florida winters do get into the 30’s and 40’s during January to March), we were six months behind in our lot rent, we were falling behind in our bills and we had no money for food.
We had reached rock bottom and were actually down to our last meal. As we prayed the Lord gave Laura the verse in John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it produces much grain.” Weeping and sorrow had become a way of life so a verse regarding death and dying didn’t mean much at the time. We were already both dying a slow, agonizing death. Death to ourselves, our desires, our wants and all we had been trained for through the years – everything that we were was being dissolved.
Then God sent us a dear friend who bought us groceries, took us out to dinner, paid a few of our bills and gave us some gas money. That was a miracle in itself because when you run a homeless mission and a men’s rehab-type program, you don’t tell anyone where you live and we only lived less than a mile from our mission. This was the only lady who knew where we lived and we hadn’t seen her in months!!
Then we had to face the future of going back to take whatever jobs we could to survive. Because of the many enemies who had surfaced during the past, we did not feel at liberty to work in the social services industry any longer. The fall of everything had so shocked us that anything in ministry seemed out of the question too as the despair had broken and suffocated our spirits. This was a very dark season.
Laura went back to working as a secretary and I went back to working pest control and I went back to a place called the Money Corner many times as they have a process that “stretches” your paycheck as I was not making enough to pay the current bills and what was left from the past even though I was working 50 to 70 hours per week.
Months later I was going to work out at the gym as I had signed a contract I had to fulfill. While I was in the shower, (God always seems to speak to me in the shower), I felt that the Lord said that He was going to make up the loss of our ministry to me.
God’s Preparation for the Future:
One night I decided to try to further my biblical education and was online looking for a free or low cost online bible college. I did a search in Google for FREE BIBLE COLLEGE and found a school called The Online Bible College (OBC) out of New Castle, Australia. I started taking courses with them and loved it.
Then one night I began chatting with the Online Chat Support Staff and the President of OBC, Dr. David Collins, just happened to be online answering questions. We seemed to hit it off right from the start. As it turned out, this was a real divine appointment and within a few weeks I was running their Helpdesk for over 20,000 students worldwide and was asked to be on their Operations Ministry Team. I had many conversations with Dr. Collins as he was a real innovator when it comes to online education and I had the privilege of being mentored by him personally for about a year.
I then took a job working for BellSouth Internet as a Tech Support Agent learning many ways of dealing with customers online and was a top agent for three months over 300 employees. I ended up being the Supervisor of the Click to Chat Department and it seemed that the Lord was preparing me for the future so I worked at Bellsouth by day and for OBC by night.
I thoroughly enjoyed working for OBC however they began to experience some transitional issues and I lost all contact with Dr. Collins. At that point I decided to leave OBC when I received a call from a supporter of our past ministry who said that she knew a man in a nearby city that was running an online university called Ames Christian University. She thought that we had a lot in common and that we should meet.
The Birth of Ames Bible College:
We finally met the President of ACU after about six months and decided to partner together to start a new online school to operate under the covering of the university. The plan was to create a biblically based online school to enable students to study in a self-paced environment in a low cost program. This challenge allowed my creative abilities and entrepreneurial tendencies, coupled with my past experience to kick into high gear as I developed and founded the college under the university.
Day by day we fine tuned the Ames Bible College website. It was a whole new experience for us running an online school and it was exciting to use the new skills that I had acquired over the last few years. Also Laura’s profession as an administrative assistant and her accounting skills were very valuable to upstart a new business venture.
During this time Laura and I both were taking the ABC courses and both graduated to Ames Christian University and then received our Bachelor of Biblical Studies degrees.
Within the first year of ABC we had around 3,000 students which not only thrilled us but surprised the President. This success was partly due to implementing key ingredients such as the $20.00 administrative fees, the domain name – “free bible college.com”, a variety of discounts and registering various subscription payments which are automatically withdrawn from students’ accounts on a regular basis.
At this point in time, we were again contacted by Dr. David Collins and he had requested that we again work with him. We were thrilled to hear from him however we truly felt that we were doing the will of God in working under ACU and declined his invitation.
Ames Christian University Changes Hands:
One day the President of ACU, Todd Wieland, and I went to lunch and we happened to meet up with the Dean of a college where I was a former instructor. We chatted briefly and when the Dean left, President Wieland voiced that he was searching for a group with a physical school to take over ACU. I was rather shocked as this was our parent organization and if another group assumed leadership I did not know where that would leave us. That night I talked it over with Laura and after praying about it, we decided to approach him about considering us to be trained to take over the leadership of ACU.
Upon hearing our proposal, he pondered the idea and said he would pray about it over the weekend. On Monday he called us and agreed to train us over the next six months and after that he would totally turn the university over to us in January 2005.
One year later we were contact by the Online Bible College when Dr. David Collins passed away in 2006. Our sorrow regarding this was almost overwhelming and we have kept in touch with his parents who are now running the ministry and they asked me to be on their Ministry Team of which I was honored to accept.
The Lord is the Rewarder of those who Diligently Seek Him:
When we first started with Ames Bible College, we were living in a 1969 mobile home. It was like brand new inside but it was more like living outside – we froze in the winter and fried in the summer and every time it rained during the yearly rainy season, we never knew if it would be blown off the planet during one of the various hurricanes that hit Florida frequently. God protected us and grew us until we could afford to move into a small, one bedroom apartment and then He grew us a little more and we moved into a small, two bedroom apartment.
When we took over ACU in 2005, this was when God impressed upon us to step out in faith and to leave our jobs and trust Him to meet our needs. Looking at it logically that would not have been a good move as realistically we could not survive off of the amount that we made from ABC but that is how God trains us and what faith is. Gradually we grew and grew and the Lord was faithful in His promise to make up the loss of our ministry to me. In fact we grew so much that we decided to change Ames Bible College (ABC) to Ames International School of Ministry (AISOM) as we had really gone international.
In the three years that we have had ACU and the five years that we have had AISOM we have never had to go to Money Corner again to pay our bills and the schools have grown to over 24,000 students worldwide as of this writing in December of 2008.
Then by divine appointment I received my Masters and Doctorate Degree through Therapon University.
And then the Lord opened the door for us to lease a beautiful brand new home. For over 23 years of marriage my wife had always wanted a nice home yet she sacrificed it for the ministry. In various ministry positions, we lived in everything from a very old school bus and had to bathe in a mountain stream for three months, to living in a leaky camper, to being caretakers in a palm tree swamp and suffered many such hardships along the way but through it all God developed the fruits of the Spirit in us as we were faithful to God because we loved Him so deeply. Yet, the desire for a real home never went away.
As for me, I love the Internet and have always loved working on computers and God has truly given us both the desires of our hearts.
I have always heard that the Lord closes one door to open another but I didn’t know if He would put us back into ministry ever again. After all that we have gone through what’s so amazing to us is that we are reaching so many more people with the gospel of Christ and preparing them for ministry instead of reaching a few at our homeless mission and men’s discipleship center.
Remember the verse the Lord gave Laura?? —-John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it produces much grain.” Laura has asked the Lord for a hundredfold return when it comes to bringing people to Christ and I believe the Lord gave us AISOM and ACU for just such a purpose.
He tells us not to despise small beginnings because it is one of the many ways that He brings us to the place of completely relying on Him and He is able to show Himself strong. As our faith grows by trusting Him, He grows us by gradually expanding our borders and developing our Christian character.
It has been an incredible journey that has bloomed into a ministry that is reaching 150 to 200 new students per week, is reaching into over 150 nations and is reaching into thousands of hearts to change them for the Glory of God!!