NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Sixteen men incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola were listed among the 126 candidates for graduation Dec. 19 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
The 16 comprised the first group to graduate from New Orleans Seminary’s extension center in Angola, one of NOBTS’ 14 extension center campuses across the Southeast. Started in 1995 at the invitation of Warden Burl Cain after hundreds of prisoners had completed the “Experiencing God” Bible study and wanted more education to prepare themselves for ministry — whether inside the prison fence or out — the Angola extension center now has a capacity of 50 students, with many more on a waiting list. Currently nearly 20 congregations are functioning inside the prison.
Since none of the men could be present for the commencement service on the main campus to receive their associate in pastoral ministries degrees, a separate graduation service will be held for them Jan. 8, with NOBTS President Chuck Kelley presiding. Several administrators and professors will attend as well.
As the names of the prisoners were read during the Dec. 19 service, Kelley asked the congregation “to rejoice and celebrate that God is never through with any human life. He always has the power to change and transform a life and make any life useful and productive.”
Another unprecedented moment occurred as graduates left the platform after receiving a diploma case: each received a leather New American Standard Bible valued at $100, presented by Ed Bailey, representative from the Lockman Foundation. Kelley declared the gifts, given to December graduates at all six of the Southern Baptist seminaries, “a wonderful act of kindness from a Christian publisher.”
In his sermon, Kelley said he had some important news for the graduates: “The churches you are going out to serve are not going to be exactly perfect.”
Referring to the second chapter of Philippians, the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, Kelley said not all churches will have major problems such as the church Paul ministered to in Corinth. However, “the beginnings of fault lines that divide congregations” may be present, such as the situation Paul wrote about in Philippians.
In helping the Philippian Christians “deal with problems in the beginning as they crop up,” Paul addressed situations applicable to many modern churches, Kelley said, as 85 percent of all churches in the United States are plateaued or declining, with 70 percent of all Southern Baptist churches plateaued or declining.
“They’ll have a strong budget, they will be missions-minded, they will believe the Bible and know it is the Word of God,” but like the congregation in Philippi, churches “not experiencing the outpouring of God resulting in growth are likely to be wrestling with some internal problems,” Kelley said.
The key to ministering in those types of situations, Kelley said, is to remember, as Paul reminded the Philippians, “the pattern is Jesus,” and to have “the same kind of mind and attitude in their approach to one another that Jesus had.”
“You and I are called to live the model of Jesus,” in his humility and in his faithfulness, Kelley said.
Just as Jesus humbled himself, when in the Roman world humility was not a virtue, “we must humble ourselves, or we will be humbled,” he said.
“We are not called to have an ideal life. We are called to be faithful servants of God.”
While life is tough and ministry is a challenge, “we must always remember our story does not end with a cross, and your ministry does not end with a conflict. Our story is only partially told until the day we step into glory.”
Candidates for the Dec. 19 graduation included 26 receiving associate degrees, 19 receiving baccalaureate degrees, one receiving the master of music degree, 12 receiving master of arts in Christian education degree, 56 receiving master of divinity degrees and 12 receiving doctoral degrees.