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NOBTS: Kelley recounts God’s providence

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, celebrated the school’s heritage of providence and prayer in his annual state of the seminary address.

Ninety-three years after its founding, Kelley said, the seminary remains “in the grip of God.”

In 1917, Southern Baptists decided to create a seminary in New Orleans, one of the nation’s most non-Baptist cities. Kelley called the history of the seminary the story of “the little seminary that could.”

Now one of the largest seminaries in the world, Kelley said NOBTS has seen God’s providence in weathering epidemics, economic upheaval and epic storms, including the worst natural disaster in American history, in training men and women for ministry.

Kelley identified five principles at the heart of the seminary’s success story.

— The seminary has survived and thrived because, Kelley said, “It was willing to embrace the unconventional — to be willing to see this region that is so utterly un-Baptist as not a threat or a difficulty but as an opportunity to do something great for the Kingdom of God.”

The seminary also embraced and applied new technologies on an unprecedented scale to deliver theological education to students both on the main campus and at extension centers throughout the Southeast and even in maximum-security prisons.

“We have learned that if we are going to do the work of the Kingdom of God, we can’t simply do it in the conventional traditional ways,” Kelley said. “Though there’s nothing wrong with those ways, they became conventional for a reason — they worked. We must also be committed to pushing the edge of the envelope, to get out of the box, to do those things that are opportunities for something new, rather than what has been done in the past.”

— The seminary places an emphasis on what Kelley called “the nuts and bolts of practical ministry,” as well as the more academic aspects of theological education, including sound biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, theology, church history and polity.

“We have decided at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary that we are going to embrace both those aspects of ministry — what you know and what you are able to do,” Kelley said in his April address. “We want to embrace the reality of the local church and the necessity of excellent scholarship. What we have discovered is you don’t have to sacrifice one to have the other.”

Kelley cited the school’s commitment to faculty who are not only world-class scholars but are accomplished servants of the local church.

— The seminary is committed to extending its reach beyond the traditional campus setting through a network of extension centers and online learning. While education at the main New Orleans campus remains the seminary’s “gold standard,” Kelley said, the school understands that because of life circumstances, alternatives are needed to deliver quality theological education – “and we are determined to make those tools available as widely as we can to as many people as we can.”

— Throughout its history, hard lessons learned through cataclysmic events — from epidemics to economic travail to hurricanes — forged the present-day seminary. The seminary nearly closed its doors in the wake of the Great Depression. Kelley recounted how students and faculty, upon returning from their churches on Sunday nights, would bring donated food to feed the seminary family.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina punched New Orleans and the seminary with unprecedented power, leaving 70 percent of the Crescent City underwater.

“Through the years, God has taught this school of providence and prayer to roll with the punches,” Kelley said.

— A fifth lesson is that despite all that it has accomplished, the seminary’s work is never done. “The lesson we had to learn is that sunrises are more important than sunsets. New Orleans seminary has always tried to keep its vision on the sunrise, knowing there was always something more to do for the Kingdom of God.”

Key decisions have shaped the seminary, Kelley said.

Bucking a trend in higher education toward adjunct faculty, for example, NOBTS has built a residential faculty, Kelley said. Although the New Orleans campus is at the heart of what the entire seminary does, he added that there are faculty who are involved in day-to-day ministry who also serve in teaching roles at NOBTS.

The seminary’s enrollment continues to grow, which has brought challenges, especially in Katrina’s wake, Kelley said. The seminary lost 92 apartments. Sixteen new two-bedroom apartments were to be ready by June. Additional units are expected to be completed by the fall. Kelley asked the audience to pray for more apartments. By year’s end, he said the seminary expects to have 3,600 students.

Turning to economics, in what Kelley called a “miracle of God,” the seminary’s endowment appears to have weathered the recession. While other institutions have lost as much as 30 percent of their endowments, Kelley said it appears that the NOBTS endowment will emerge intact, barring any strange events.

More money for scholarships is expected in the 2010-11 academic year. The seminary has received a gift of $800,000 for music scholarships, the most in school history. The seminary also has received $2 million for an endowed chair in evangelism and church health. Another gift will allow the seminary to endow a chair in pastoral leadership.

“There was a day when if you had told me what we were going to look like today, I would have had a hard time believing you. God had to convince me,” Kelley said of the status of the NOBTS today and the waterlogged post-Katrina campus of nearly five years ago.

“But the journey from there to here is a reflection, not of my leadership as president, not of the people who give money and the people who work here. It’s a reflection of how strong God’s grip is on His people and His purposes, Kelley said. “… [T]hat’s the same God who has that same grip on you, and on your life.”
Paul F. South writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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