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Rhonda Kelley, pioneer in women’s ministry, remembered as a ‘good and faithful servant’

Rhonda Kelley (NOBTS photo)

Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 19 with funeral and memorial service information.

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Rhonda Kelley, wife of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary president emeritus Chuck Kelley and a pioneer in women’s ministry, passed away Feb. 17 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72.  

Author, speaker and a mentor to many, Kelley was known for her vibrant spirit and dedication in serving women in the local church, in the seminary classroom, and at the state and denominational level.  

“Rhonda loved God’s Word and encouraged others to do the same,” said Tara Dew, wife of NOBTS President Jamie Dew and adjunct professor of ministry to women. “Her life and legacy continue to impact many women through the scholarships and endowments in her name and the books she authored.” 

Kelley’s passion for women’s ministry fueled the start of a new and innovative program at NOBTS — the women’s ministry certificate program — that brought together theological grounding and pragmatic training for women. Launched in 1997, the program was the first of its kind among the six Southern Baptist seminaries. 

Through the years, the NOBTS women’s ministry program expanded to include women’s ministry specializations and training at every academic level as women serve women in lay ministry, on church staffs, in academia, and other avenues of ministry.         

“Along with the entire NOBTS and Leavell College family, we mourn the loss of our eighth first lady,” Jamie Dew said. “Dr. Rhonda Kelley served with grace, dignity, and compassion for over 23 years at our wonderful school. Her love for her husband and her Savior were a source of encouragement to us all. This is indeed, a very sad day for all of us, but we rejoice in the full assurance that we have in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, standing confident that we will see her again in glory.” 

During Chuck Kelley’s 23-year tenure as president, Rhonda directed the women’s ministry certificate program, taught as an adjunct professor, spoke on international and national platforms, hosted the “Word for Women” television broadcast, authored or co-authored numerous books and contributed to countless publications.    

As a writer and editor, Rhonda Kelley’s contribution as managing editor of the bestselling “Woman’s Study Bible,” published in 1995 by Thomas Nelson, helped produce a work that to date has sold more than two million copies.  

Kelley served also as managing editor for “The Study Bible for Women,” published by Holman Bible Publishers in 2015, as well as managing editor for the companion titles “Women’s Evangelical Commentary” for the Old Testament and the New Testament.  

At NOBTS, the Dr. Rhonda Kelley Ph.D. Fellowship in Women’s Leadership, established in 2019 in Kelley’s honor, encourages academic excellence and service among women students. 

At the denominational level, Kelley received the Willie Turner Dawson Award for Christian character and denominational service at the Ministers’ Wives Luncheon at the 2005 Southern Baptist annual meeting.  

At the Dawson Award presentation, Chuck Kelley’s written tribute to his wife included a look back to the day he penned the dedication of his doctoral dissertation to her.  

“I think it was that moment when I realized more clearly than I had ever realized it before, what an extraordinary woman God gave me for a wife,” Chuck Kelley wrote in the Dawson award program. Praising her faithfulness to the Lord and to him, he added, “God … had given me not only an incredible wife, but also a woman of greatness.” 

‘She helped me to climb’

Elizabeth Luter, wife of Fred Luter, pastor of New Orleans’ Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, spoke with gratitude for Kelley’s support and expertise during some pivotal moments in her life.  

“Rhonda pulled me through three of the greatest experiences of my life,” Luter said, stressing that in each situation she had felt “like a fish out of water” until Kelley came to her aid. 

Luter said Kelley’s encouragement and guidance were invaluable: as Luter helped plan a Beth Moore conference at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church years ago; when Luter served as the 2001 vice president of the Ministers’ Wives conference, the “on-the ground” planning person; and during Luter’s year as Ministers’ Wives conference president in 2018.  

Luter pointed to the Christian classic “Hind’s Feet on High Places” by Hannah Hurnand to express her appreciation for Kelley’s support and friendship.  

“She was always there to help me,” Luter said. “From ‘hind’s feet on high places,’ the Lord has used her at every step to help me to climb.”   

‘A good and faithful servant’

Kelley’s vision for a program to help women serve women took root in 1992 when then-president Ed Young Sr. appointed her to a task force examining women’s roles in the SBC. After serving with Lifeway’s Women’s Leadership Forum, 1996, Kelley was convinced the time had come to tap into women’s potential for leadership and learning. The timing fit with the seminary’s launch of a new educational model, the certificate program.  

Chris Adams, retired Lifeway Women’s Ministry Specialist, friend and partner in women’s ministry who worked with Kelley from the beginning to shape the program, said Kelley’s legacy was one of “undivided faith and optimism.”   

“I am only one of thousands of women’s ministry leaders that has been changed through her love for Jesus and for equipping women,” Adams said. “Her personal friendship and prayers have encouraged my own faith and leadership journey, and I am forever grateful for her life that connected to mine. Her legacy is that she loved Jesus and she loved others well.” 

At NOBTS, an early touch point for the program began with Jo Ann Leavell, wife of the seminary’s seventh president, Landrum Leavell, when free classes were offered to student wives supporting them in the role of the minister’s wife. From there, the women’s ministry program took root. 

“For 23 years, Dr. Rhonda was a faithful teacher and encourager to our female students. She especially loved investing in the student spouses that were being trained alongside their husbands in ministry,” Tara Dew said. “Following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Mrs. Jo Ann Leavell, Dr. Rhonda expanded and taught many classes to the ministry wives over the years.”  

Kelley served many years as First Baptist New Orleans’ women’s ministry director and filled various leadership roles for the Louisiana Baptist State Convention. At the denominational level, Kelley served on the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Women’s Ministry Network, the Seminary Women’s Network, Lifeway’s Bible Study for Life advisory board and the Leadership Training Consultant Ministry Grid, president for a term of the Southern Baptist Convention Minister’s Wives, and other roles.  

Among the books Kelley authored or co-authored are “Life Lessons for Women of the Bible,” “The Devotional Book for Women,” “Divine Discipline,” “Raising Moms,” and numerous Bible studies and guides for Christian living. 

“My friend Rhonda never thought of herself as a special woman of God,” Adams said. “She just lived her life as an example of what a follower of Christ is supposed to do.”  

Prior to Kelley’s commitment to helping women answer God’s call to ministry and service, she devoted her life to helping those with speech issues and disabilities through her 15-year service as the Director of Speech Pathology at Ochsner Medical in New Orleans. A graduate of Baylor University, Kelley received a Doctorate in Speech Pathology at the University of New Orleans. 

New Orleans, and in particular, the NOBTS campus, was Kelley’s home.  

Kelley moved to the NOBTS campus as a child when her father Bob Harrington, once known as the Chaplain of Bourbon Street, came as a student. She returned to the NOBTS campus as a student wife after she and Chuck Kelley married June 21, 1974, and stayed as Chuck Kelley joined the faculty in 1983 and then as president in 1996. She served as associate director to the couple’s non-profit evangelical organization, Innovative Evangelism.  

After the president’s home became the Kelleys’ home, it served as a focal point on campus for hospitality as Kelley hosted gatherings for faculty wives, wedding showers and special events for women on campus, and welcomed convention leaders and guests from around the world.  

“I praise the Lord for Dr. Rhonda’s faithfulness and impact at NOBTS, in the SBC, and for God’s Kingdom,” Tara Dew said. “She was a good and faithful servant of her Savior.”

A funeral service for Kelley will be held 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, at First Baptist Church in Fairhope, Alabama. Visitation will begin at 9:30 a.m.

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary will host a memorial service for Kelley Monday, Feb. 26, at 2 p.m.

    About the Author

  • Marilyn Stewart