NEW ORLEANS (BP)—New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is facing a critical moment in its history, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said in his annual State of the Seminary address to students, faculty and staff April 14. While it can be uncomfortable at times, Kelley said NOBTS is prepared to embrace change to continue its God-given task.
Kelley titled his address “A Rubicon Moment” — a reference to crucial time in the history of the Roman Empire. Under Roman law, generals were forbidden to cross the Rubicon River with armed troops. To do so was considered a capital offense. However, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army as he headed toward Rome in 49 B.C. For Julius Caesar, who was intent on ruling the empire, the Rubicon River was a “point of no return.”
“Crossing the Rubicon was irrevocable. It was either become the emperor or die,” Kelley said. “[Crossing the Rubicon] has become an idiom in our language, a commonly accepted phrase for very big decisions with great consequences.
“Here we are at a moment of profound significance for New Orleans Seminary and for our future,” Kelley said. “The seminary experience is being redefined for the 21st century.”
Kelley identified four areas of sweeping change facing the seminary: the decreasing role of geography; the relationship of people to information; the rise of social media; and the cafeteria approach to ministerial training. These changing dynamics, Kelley said, will redefine how NOBTS trains ministers for the local church and missionaries for the ends of the earth.
“We are embracing this reality, understanding that we are redefining NOBTS and how we approach our task,” Kelley said.
The role of geography in higher education is decreasing in significance, Kelley said. Today, 55 percent of NOBTS students attend extension centers across the Southeast. The remaining 45 percent attend the main campus. Increasing numbers of main campus students commute more than an hour to take classes. More students are taking advantage of Internet training as well.
“The role of geography has not been eliminated, but it is greatly diminished,” Kelley said. “There are far more options available.”
The second key factor in the new education paradigm — how people access information — is reflected by the rise of Google, Kelley said.
“Google has changed the relationship of people to information,” he said. “For the last 300 or 400 years, information has been collected on college, university and seminary campuses … . You went to the collected information to learn. Today the information is available anywhere you want, just Google it.”
Rather than primarily dispensing information, Kelley said educators will spend much more of their time helping students evaluate information.
The dramatic growth and acceptance of how Facebook is changing the way people relate to one another, Kelley said, demonstrates that social media increasingly will play an important role in education.
Perhaps the most important change facing NOBTS is a cafeteria approach to seminary training, Kelley said. In a cafeteria the customer picks and chooses the food he or she wants. Cafeterias reject the one-size-fits-all approach to food. Kelley stated that NOBTS will thrive in the midst of these sweeping changes by effectively delivering theological education in as many ways as possible — a cafeteria approach to seminary training.
“We will make some form of theological education available to every God-called man or woman on the face of the earth,” Kelley said. “Do you realize this is the first time in human history that a seminary could have that as its goal and mission?”
Reaching this goal will require flexible scheduling and multiple delivery systems, Kelley said, adding that, most of all, the training options must be kept affordable.
Training will be focused on developing effective, fruitful ministers of the Gospel for ministry in local churches and on the mission field, Kelley said, and certificate and degree plans will emphasize biblical literacy, Christian worldview development, vibrant Christ-centered spirituality and relationship skills.
NOBTS was not caught off-guard by the sweeping changes, Kelley said. In fact, another Rubicon moment, Hurricane Katrina, offered a preview of the future. The seminary was forced to deliver ministerial training in unique ways following the 2005 storm. Geography played less of a role in how information was delivered. Lessons learned through the Katrina experience, Kelley said, help position NOBTS to face the changing dynamics in theological education.
In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Kelley and the NOBTS administrative team faced what he describes as a “Ready. Fire. Aim” experience. The team met for strategic planning for the future in the midst of great uncertainty. “We had to make decisions before we had all the information,” Kelley said.
During that time, the administrators anticipated a time when fewer students would attend the main campus and more would choose extension center and online training options. They began the process of enhancing current points of access (extension center and online learning) and developing new ones (hybrid courses which use the Internet with a limited number of in-class meetings). At that time, Kelley began using the cafeteria motif to describe the seminary’s commitment to provide multiple delivery systems and multiple training/degree options.
What the team could not anticipate was the nationwide recession and the downturn in Cooperative Program giving within the Southern Baptist Convention. They also did not anticipate how quickly other schools would adopt similar educational philosophies and models.
Despite all these changes, Kelley said NOBTS will continue offering high-quality, traditional campus-based training in New Orleans. In addition to the comprehensive residential approach, NOBTS will continue offering extension center programs and Internet programs. The seminary is also developing more praxis-based mentoring programs and visitor learning opportunities which require intensive, short-term training opportunities.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.