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New Orleans Seminary part of effort to train Cuba church leaders

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–When they started traveling to Cuba in 2001 to train Cuban Baptist leaders, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary professors Michael Sharp and Tim Searcy had no idea their trips would lead to a formal partnership between the seminary and their Cuban counterpart, Western Cuba Baptist Seminary.

Both Sharp, a music professor, and Searcy, a Christian education professor, are former missionaries who speak fluent Spanish. They have continued going to Cuba to lead these intensive training sessions. Sharp has made a return trip each year.

Other Spanish-speaking faculty members at New Orleans Seminary, such as Ed and Kathy Steele and Bill Warren, also began going to the island nation to assist Cuban Baptists. Several other professors have taught through interpreters. Faculty members from NOBTS have made over a dozen trips to Cuba during the past five years.

From humble beginnings, this informal partnership between New Orleans Seminary and Cuban Baptists has grown into an official partnership which includes Western Cuba Baptist Seminary, New Orleans Seminary, the Florida Baptist Convention and the International Mission Board. New Orleans Seminary will take a key role in training house church leaders in worship ministries and Christian education. New Orleans Seminary trustees have given their whole-hearted support to the plan.

Sharp said he is “excited” about the partnership.

“As faculty and students from our institution have opportunity to get involved in the work God is doing there, we not only have the opportunity to minister beyond our borders, but we too are strengthened and encouraged in our faith by our association with the believers in Cuba,” he said.

Despite the circumstances Cuban Baptists face every day, a church planting movement has taken hold. According to Sharp and others who have visited, new house churches are starting all across Cuba. Cuban Baptists, he said, “depend more heavily on God’s resources” as they seek to share the love of Jesus.

“Our Cuban brothers have a great vision for God’s work and God is at work in their land,” Sharp said. “Each time I have the opportunity to be with them and worship with them, my soul has been stirred by what God is doing in and through them.”

The Western Cuba Baptist Seminary has been offering pastoral training courses for many years. However, their curriculum does not include music and Christian education courses. With the explosion of thousands of new house churches, officials at the school sought out New Orleans Seminary for help in training leaders in these areas.

Professors from New Orleans Seminary’s music and Christian education departments will train a select group of Cuban Baptist leaders in worship leadership and basic discipleship skills. These Cuban leaders will in turn go throughout the island of Cuba to train lay leaders in the house churches.

New Orleans Seminary will offer two-year cycles in which 30 core Christian education courses and 30 core worship leadership courses are offered to the trainers. Most of the intensive courses will be taught in Cuba by New Orleans professors who speak Spanish. Others will be taught through an interpreter. Due to the nature of the training, the course work will not be accredited.

“This was a natural tie in for us,” said Mark Stephens, director of theological education and distance learning for the Florida Baptist Convention. “Since we have a partnership with New Orleans Seminary as a state convention and we have a partnership with Cuba, it was just natural for us to help with Western Cuba Baptist Seminary.”

The Florida Baptist Convention has a goal of sharing the Gospel throughout Latin America and is already actively involved in ministry to Cuba, officials with the convention say. The convention will provide financial support to assist the partnership between New Orleans Seminary and the Cuban seminary.

Officials from the International Mission Board represented Western Cuba Baptist Seminary in partnership meetings and facilitated the partnership agreement. The IMB will continue to assist in travel and logistics for the partnership.

In addition to the ongoing partnership work, officials at Western Cuba Baptist Seminary asked New Orleans Seminary to conduct a curriculum review of their current training programs. Earlier this year Jimmy Dukes, associate provost at New Orleans Seminary, and Stephens traveled to Cuba to review their training process. Dukes applauded the quality of the program at the seminary.

“I was very impressed with the strong curriculum,” Dukes said. “The program is very deep in academic content and in biblical, theological and practical ministry applications. The desire of the seminary leaders was to make sure they were not leaving out anything.”

Dukes said he offered the seminary a few suggestions for improvement. Officials at the school began implementing those changes immediately.

“With the leadership they have and their commitment to excellence, the future looks bright for an even stronger program,” Dukes said.

Stephens was equally impressed with the Cuban seminary’s students and leaders.

“The way the Spirit of God is moving in those students is unbelievable,” he said. “[The seminary administrators] are doing more with less than anyone I have ever seen. Their graduates are top notch.”