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Pastor-less churches among Yucatan seminary’s challenges

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–“I prayed to God,” the tearful Mexican dentist said, “and asked for a plan because we have no experience starting seminaries.”
The dentist, Hiram Duran, is the volunteer president of Peninsular Baptist Seminary in the Yucatan peninsula town of Merida.
Duran continued, “God gave life to the words because he is faithful. We were asking only for a plan on paper with ink; he sent you to us.”
Duran was speaking to John Babler, assistant professor of social work and ministry-based evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, and four Southwestern students devoting a spring break to the fledgling seminary and other Baptist efforts on the Yucatan peninsula.
Peninsular Baptist Seminary, one of three seminaries in Merida, targets ministers and laypeople who cannot afford study at the others.
“At least 71 of the 80 national Baptist churches we work with on the Yucatan peninsula do not have pastors,” explained Shelby Boyd, a self-supporting Southern Baptist missionary based in Castor, La. “There is no stronger statement for the need of an affordable seminary where ministers can be trained.”
Also evidencing the need: “An evangelistic team could go door-to-door in a pueblo and see enough converts to start a church immediately — the people are that receptive,” Boyd said. “The challenge is to organize these Christians into a functioning church after the missionary presence is gone. They rally around strong leadership.”
Mostly churches are led by “encargadas” (men in charge). Encargadas often arise out of a cluster of Christians converted during a village evangelistic campaign, such as a showing of the “Jesus” film. They provide temporary direction, but many do not wish to be pastor, Boyd said.
Peninsular seminary is in just its second semester of existence, attracting 75 students, many of whom travel into Merida by bus or train. Classes are offered for 16 weeks in three-hour blocks either on Thursday or Saturday.
There is no charge beyond the cost of books. The seminary has four volunteer professors who serve in other capacities of ministry or have full-time secular jobs.
In addition to offering counsel about the Mexican seminary’s expansion, Babler and the Southwestern students served as guest lecturers.
Babler entertained a barrage of theological inquiry, with questions delving into beliefs that Peter is considered the first pope and the Catholic church the only true church; the role of a Christian mother in her non-Christian daughter’s celebration of her 15th birthday, a significant day in Latin culture; and whether the Latino belief that anyone can be demon-possessed includes Christians.
As he answered each question with Scripture, Babler encouraged the Mexican students to study in order to teach people how to seek God and his righteousness (Matt. 6:33). “It is easier to apply a textbook or a popular book with five easy steps in dealing with problems,” Babler said. “Yet we must know the Word and use prayer as the source of our answers to the questions of our people.”
Jason Kerr, master of divinity student from Shelby, N.C., noted the seminarians’ intensity. “These people, some without a formal education were dealing with issues that many people studying for ministry never think about,” he said.
Each Southwestern student also presented a topic: Chris Kjelland, Coon Valley, Wis., the integrity of bivocational ministry; Mark Houghton, Keystone Heights, Fla., God’s control in troubled times; and Kerr and his wife, Cindy, of Mocksville, N.C., also a master of divinity student, servant leadership.
The Southwesterners also visited small pueblos that pepper the countryside surrounding Merida, preaching or giving testimony in worship services.
The Region Peninsular Baptist Convention, based in Merida and comprised of 80 churches and missions, also sponsored a convention-wide youth meeting/joint worship service. Kjelland, Houghton and the Kerrs taught the youth on the four areas of the disciple’s cross: prayer, Bible study, the church and evangelism. Babler preached on servant leadership from John 13.
Boyd coordinates fund-raising efforts for everything from construction costs to seminary funds on behalf of Yucatan Baptist work and arranges for numerous American church and college/seminary groups to do volunteer work in the area.
Priorities change daily in the Yucatan Baptist work, but consistent needs include the development of the seminary, pastoral leadership training and construction of roofs and bathrooms in many established churches, Boyd said.
Information about the Yucatan work can be obtained by calling Arnold Norsworthy of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s missions division or Phyllis Robilee of the convention’s volunteer department at (318) 448-3402.