LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Two fathers experienced something exceedingly rare Dec. 7 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: They completed seminary with their sons.
Tom Elliff and his son Jon each received doctor of ministry degrees, while Jeff Girdler and his son Tim both completed master of divinity degrees. The Elliffs and the Girdlers were among the 204 students in Southern Seminary’s 200th graduating class, a record number of graduates for a December commencement.
For Tom Elliff, completing a doctorate meant going back to school more than 35 years after receiving his master of divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas. The senior Elliff has hardly been idle in the years in between; he served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention and spent many years as pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla. Presently, he is senior vice president of spiritual nurture and church relations for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“It has been an absolute thrill,” Tom Elliff said. “When Jon and I first began to talk about this, I had no idea how much fun we were going to have. To go through the process together over these last several years, to compare notes with each other, to gig each other from time to time, has been enjoyable.
“For him to have just gotten out of school a few years earlier and for me to have been out of school for 35 years has been quite interesting. I had to reacquaint myself with some of my disciplines.”
Jon Elliff completed his M.Div. at Southern Seminary in 2002. He served for a time on his father’s church staff in Del City but today is pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church in Bartlesville, Okla., near Tulsa. The Elliffs began working toward their doctor of ministry degrees simultaneously in early 2004.
“It certainly is an honor and it is a blessing, and seeing as how he paid for two-thirds of it, I am really appreciative of my dad,” said Jon Elliff, laughing.
“Seriously, it has been great and has been enjoyable. I don’t know if we could have done it own our own. He would call me and tell me he had chapters three and four done on his project and I would have to call him back the next week and say, ‘Well, I’ve got chapters two, three, four and five done.’ We really spurred each other on, which made this very enjoyable.”
Jeff Girdler and his son Tim began Southern’s master of divinity program in the fall of 2000. Jeff took classes through an extension center in Columbia, Md., and Tim moved to Louisville.
“When we got close to being finished, we planned it,” Tim Girdler said. “We wanted to make sure we did it together.”
Both Girdlers are musicians. Jeff, retired from the Navy, spent 30 years in the Navy band. Jeff lives in Maryland and is a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where he leads a Bible study and teaches the senior men’s Sunday School class. He also works as an administrator of a school for recording engineers.
Tim, who is most visibly known on Southern’s campus as a trumpet player for the chapel orchestra, serves as music minister at Hilldale Baptist Church near Louisville.
“We’ve done orchestra concerts together and we have done a lot of stuff musically together, but this is by far the coolest thing we’ve done together,” Tim Girdler said.
Jeff said graduating from the seminary represents something of a capstone on a close-knit relationship with his son.
“Tim is my only son, and we have always been buddies,” Jeff Girdler said. “Walking together today is just the crowning achievement.”
Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.